recent, Science, Sex

Memes, Genes, and Sex Differences—An Interview with Dr. Steve Stewart-Williams

Dr. Steve Stewart-Williams is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Nottingham, researching the evolution of altruism and human sex differences. The philosophical implications of evolutionary theory was the focus of his first book, Darwin, God and the Meaning of Life. The following is an interview with Stewart-Williams about his new book, The Ape that Understood the Universe.

Logan Chipkin: Your book begins with an alien’s perspective on modern humanity. This alien has apparently never encountered typical human behavior. How did you come up with this idea, and how did you subsequently decide which aspects of humanity to include in the alien’s report?

Steve Stewart-Williams: Like you say, I kick off the book by looking at human beings through the eyes of an alien scientist: a hyper-intelligent alien scientist from a species that doesn’t have males and females, doesn’t fall in love, doesn’t have families, and doesn’t have music or art or reality TV or anything else like that. And I ask: What would such a being make of us?

Steve Stewart-Williams (Pic: Twitter)

The short answer is that the alien would be deeply puzzled by our species and would have a ton of questions about us. Why are men and women so different from each other—but not as different as male and female peacocks or gorillas? Why are we so grossed out by the idea of incest? Why do we fall in love, and why do we get jealous if the person we’re in love with gets involved with someone else? Why do we tend to feed, love, and look after our own kids rather than the next-door-neighbor’s kids? Why are we so often so kind and cooperative? And how did a mere ape come to understand, however dimly, this vast universe of which it’s a part? These are all things that would perplex our alien scientist, but which we don’t normally think too much about because we’re so used to being human and so used to the things that humans do.

I’ve always enjoyed the alien’s-eye view when it’s come up in books and movies, and I’ve always found it a useful way to look at things from a different angle: to make the familiar strange, as William James put it. And somewhere along the line, it occurred to me that I could use the alien’s perspective to introduce the themes of the book. That’s what I do in the first chapter. The remainder of the book is my attempt to answer the questions raised by the puzzled alien. The key to answering them, in my view, is Charles Darwin.

LC: In the book, you distinguish between two classes of evolutionary hypotheses that explain human activity: those that explain human behavior (evolutionary psychology), and those that explain human culture (cultural evolutionary theory). Each field has received pushback from various ideological opponents. If there is some unifying aspect of evolutionary thinking that provokes resistance, what do you think it is?

SSW: Good question. The fields have a lot in common, but differ in important ways. Evolutionary psychology applies evolutionary principles to the mind and behavior; it’s all about natural selection operating on genes. Cultural evolutionary theory applies evolutionary principles to culture; it’s all about natural selection operating on cultural variants, or what Richard Dawkins called memes.

Like you say, both fields have received plenty of pushback. And the first thing I’d want to say about that is: good! Every field gets pushback and that’s exactly how it should be. It’s how we know whether or not a field has value, and how we refine it and make it better. Of course, criticisms of any field are of mixed quality: Some are good and some are bad—just like the ideas of the field itself. Overall, though, pushback is good (even if it’s not particularly pleasant to be on the receiving end of it).

But do evolutionary psychology and cultural evolutionary theory get pushback over-and-above the normal pushback that any field gets if it’s not simply ignored? Have they become punching bags in some circles, attracting more than their fair share of unfair and uninformed criticism?

For cultural evolutionary theory, I tend to think not. But for evolutionary psychology, the answer is almost certainly yes. There are several reasons for that, in my view. One is that, in some ways, the message coming out of evolutionary psychology is a little bleak, or at least seems so at first glance. A lot of people assume that, if something is a product of natural selection, it’s unchangeable and thus we’re stuck with it—and although that’s not necessarily the case, it does often mean that we can’t change it easily. A more specific concern is with the idea that there are evolved psychological sex differences. Many people hate that idea, perhaps because it might seem to work counter to the goals of the women’s liberation movement. I don’t think it actually does do that; we can treat women respectfully and fairly even if men and women aren’t identical on average. Still, those kinds of concerns mean that some people have a very low threshold for dismissing the field.

That said, let me just add that it’s important to deal with criticisms of the field fairly and squarely, and not just reject them based on speculations about the motives of the critics. At the end of the book, I have two appendixes that attempt to do just that. One is called “How to Win an Argument with a Blank Slater”; the other is called “How to Win an Argument with an Anti-Memeticist.” In each case, I try to deal with some of the more common arguments against evolutionary psychology and cultural evolutionary theory respectively, but without just dismissing them on the grounds that the critics are politically biased or whatever.

And I should also add that there are plenty of perfectly reasonable criticisms of both fields. I’m happy to admit, for instance, that some hypotheses in evolutionary psychology are pretty silly—especially those that aren’t tethered to well-established theories in evolutionary biology or to well-supported observations of other animals. I list some of the less-convincing evolutionary psychological hypotheses in the book.

LC: You provide the reader with many evolutionary thinking tools early in the book. Which do you think is the most important for laypeople to understand?

SSW: The single most important idea, without a doubt, is the concept of natural selection. It’s such a simple idea, but it sheds so much light on so many questions that have plagued human minds since human minds first evolved—including the question of how we and all other life came to exist on this planet.

When people think about natural selection, they tend to think about how it produces adaptations, like eyes and wings, and ultimately new species. What I focus on in the book, though, is how natural selection also applies to the human mind and human culture.

To see how, first consider how we use natural selection to explain anatomical features in other animals. Take the lion’s fangs, for instance. Why did these fearsome appendages evolve? Simple: They help the lion to capture and devour its prey. Lions with sharper, more fearsome fangs did better and had more offspring than other lions, and thus sharper, more fearsome fangs became more and more common over the generations. They were selected, in other words.

Or consider the fast legs of the gazelle. Why did they evolve? Again, it’s no great mystery: Fast legs help the gazelle to escape the clutches of hungry lions and other predators. Gazelles with faster legs lived longer and had more offspring, and thus faster legs become more and more common.

What evolutionary psychology does is it takes this explanatory framework and applies it to the mind and behavior. So, for example, why do people have the emotion of fear? Simple: Fear motivates us to escape or avoid danger and harmto run away from the lion or avoid wandering too near to the edge of the cliff. Why do we have sexual desire? Simple again: Sexual desire motivates us to engage in certain activities that, for most of our evolutionary history (i.e., before we invented birth control), reliably resulted in the production of offspring. Why do we have parental love? To motivate us to protect and look after our offspring so that, one day, eventually, they can start the whole process again. And so on.

These examples are all fairly uncontroversial. As I explain in the book, though, natural selection sheds light as well on various aspects of human nature that are controversial, and that many people would rather chalk up to learning, socialization, and culture. This includes various sex differences, a range of mate preferences, and our tendency to favor relatives over unrelated individuals.

And on top of all that, a kind of natural selection operates in the realm of culture itself. To cut a long story short, selection in the realm of culture crafts cultural products whose ultimate function is to pass themselves on and keep themselves alive in the culture. Often, they do this by helping us or the groups to which we belong. Sometimes, though, cultural products keep themselves alive in the culture without benefiting us or our groups, or even while actively harming us.

LC: You make a point in the book that many people probably have not considered: “…people in the future may see our current efforts to ‘cure’ sex differences as equally cruel and equally pointless—as today’s equivalent of forcing lefties to write with their right hands, or of forbidding a son to play with dolls for fear it will make him gay.” Why do you think that such moral arguments for nonintervention are rarely expressed in the public discourse?

SSW: I think the main reason is that people assume that differences between the sexes are largely a product of sexist socialization and discrimination against women and girls. From that perspective, intervening just seems like the right thing to do. And just to be clear, I agree that we should give every member of both sexes every opportunity, and try to eliminate discrimination against girls and women wherever it still lurks (as well as eliminating any discrimination against boys and men).

Where I differ from some people is that I don’t think that sexism and discrimination are the whole story when it comes to sex differences—there’s a substantial innate contribution as well. And that means that, even if we were to completely eliminate sexism and discrimination, there’d still be differences between the sexes—differences just as ingrained and as resistant to change as handedness or sexual orientation.

If people were to fully appreciate this, the whole question of what to do about sex differences—and indeed, whether to do anything at all—would look very different. For people who deny that sex differences are substantially innate, any gaps between the sexes constitute direct evidence of discrimination and sexist socialization. And that means intervention is a moral must. But if they knew that many gaps have deep biological roots, they might be less gung ho about eliminating them. After all, if certain sex differences turn out not to be products of sexist parenting or unjust patriarchal norms, then maybe they’re not so terrible after all.

Of course, if the differences cause harm, we’d certainly want to eradicate them, regardless of whether or not they have an evolutionary origin. Men’s propensity for violence has an evolutionary origin, for instance, but it’s still worth fighting that. However, for sex differences that don’t cause anyone any harm, what’s the problem? Why not just let people be themselves, rather than making them miserable by trying to change their basic nature?

LC: In the section of the book in which you explore the concept of “memes,” you provide an amusing, meme-oriented take on the evolution of the scientific method. How can the meme’s-eye view aid the layperson in understanding the society around us?

SSW: I’m a big fan of the meme’s-eye view of cultural evolution. It’s very like the gene’s-eye view of evolution, but applied to memes rather than genes. The gene’s-eye view states that genes are selected to the extent that they have effects on their owners that help to keep them in the gene pool: building sharper fangs or faster legs, for instance, or a tendency to care for one’s offspring. The meme’s-eye view says that memes are selected to the extent that they have effects on the people who encounter them that keep the memes alive in the culture: tunes that get stuck in our heads, for instance, or ideas that motivate us to talk about them, spread them, or impose them on other people.

Critics often assume that the meme’s-eye view implies that culture is just a gigantic collection of memetic viruses, which spread themselves by working against our interests. I don’t think that’s right, though. Most of the time, the memes that do best in a culture are those that are good for us or good for the groups we belong to. In other words, most of the time, the meme approach is no different than approaches that emphasize the adaptive value and usefulness of culture: dual inheritance theory, cultural group selection, and the like. The reason I like the meme approach is that it also provides an explanation for aspects of culture that are not good for us or our groups: things like earworms and smoking and the belief that one should sacrifice oneself for one’s faith. The meme’s-eye view highlights the fact that, in the final analysis, memes are selected to the extent that they’re good for themselves, not for us (although they often are good for us). As such, memetics provides an overarching account of the process of cultural evolution—one that incorporates the other theories but also goes beyond them.

The one arena where things work a bit differently is the one you mentioned: science. In the normal course of events, memes are often not selected for accuracy; they’re selected because they’re catchy or memorable or just generally appealing. But science is set up in such a way that—ideally, at least—it favors accurate memes over less accurate but catchy ones. With the scientific enterprise, what we’ve done is set up an arena in which certain types of memes—scientific theories—compete against each other, and the ones that best explain the facts are the ones that we preserve and propagate. In effect, through the invention of science, our species discovered a way to selectively breed memes for greater and greater accuracy, just as we selectively bred dogs to be friendlier and fruit to be sweeter. It’s through this process that we’ve become an ape that can understand the universe, at least to some degree.

LC: You spend some time rebutting the criticism of evolutionary explanations that say they are “just-so stories.” In general, what makes evolutionary explanations of human psychology better than their sociocultural competitors?

SSW: Well, the only thing that makes any explanation any good is that it’s true! So, there are plenty of evolutionary explanations that I think are worse than their sociocultural competitors, just because the sociocultural explanations are more accurate. In my view, for example, cultural explanations of religion are more accurate than evolutionary ones. The evolutionary explanations overextend the adaptationist mode of explanation—a mistake the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould dubbed panadaptationism.

At the same time, though, evolutionary explanations are often better than explanations that chalk everything up to sociocultural factors, for the simple reason that—in these cases—the evolutionary explanations are more accurate. This is true, for instance, when it comes to sex differences in interest in casual sex, sex differences in aggression, certain mate preferences, incest aversion, and kin favoritism. Various lines of evidence suggest that these things have an evolutionary origin: They’re found across cultures; they’re resistant to social influence; they’ve been linked to prenatal hormonal exposure; and they’re found in many other species—species that are subject to similar Darwinian selective pressures as humans. Culture may help to color these tendencies, channel them, magnify or minimize them. But their ultimate origins lie in our evolutionary past.

LC: The publication of your book corresponds to a time of a seeming resurgence of science denial. Was this what prompted you to write The Ape That Understood the Universe now, or was the timing coincidental?

SSW: It wasn’t deliberate; it was just good timing—or bad timing, depending on your point of view. I began work on the book in 2013, shortly before I started noticing this latest resurgence of science denial—and in particular, the denial of the reality of sex differences. In many ways, this is just a resurgence of 1970s-era gender silliness. It’s quite frustrating, though, because just as I thought we were finally putting these ideas behind us, we’ve been sucked straight back into the morass. And although it’s not new, it does seem to have come back with a vengeance.

Actually, I should add that, although much of it is not new, some aspects are. In particular, the denial that male and female are even valid concepts, and the claim that sex is a spectrum rather than a binary, is quite a novel departure. And it’s quite amazing and frightening how willing so many people are to go along with something so utterly radical and discrepant with common sense, let alone with biological science. So, let me say a little about sex and gender.

According to biologists, sex is ultimately about the kind of sex cells an individual produces. Individuals with the body type that produces the smaller sex cells (sperm) are male; those with the body type that produces the larger sex cells (eggs) are female. Humans only produce two types of sex cells, and thus there are only two sexes in our species.

Now, that doesn’t mean that everyone fits tidily into the male or female categories. Most people do, but a small number don’t; they’re intersex. Intersex people are not easily categorized as male or female in terms of their chromosomes, their anatomy, their brain anatomy, or their sense of themselves as men or women. This doesn’t change the fact, though, that there are only two sexes in our species; intersex isn’t a third sex, because intersex people don’t produce a third type of gamete. Two sexes is what selection favoured.

Of course, there’s a lot of psychological variation within both sexes. Does that imply that sex is a spectrum, rather than a binary? No. Masculinity and femininity are spectrums, but sex is not. And no one ever thought that all men are equally masculine or that all women are equally feminine. We’ve always known that men and women differ in terms of how masculine and feminine they are. It’s strange that people now want to say that this variation implies that actually only the most stereotypically masculine men are fully men, and only the most stereotypically feminine women are fully women, and that everyone else lies somewhere in between. The whole idea involves quite extreme stereotyping about what it means to be a man or a woman! It seems much more sensible to me to say that there are two sexes in our species, that the vast majority of people are easily categorised as one or the other, and that people belonging to each sex vary greatly in terms of both masculinity and femininity (although there are also average differences between the sexes in these traits—differences that are partially innate).

We can accept all of this while fully supporting the rights of transgender people and respecting their dignity as human beings.

 

You can learn more about Steve Stewart-Williams, his research, and his books at https://www.stevestewartwilliams.com. His new book, The Ape that Understood the Universe, is out now in Kindle, eBook, and hardcover format. The audiobook version will be released soon, and the paperback edition is expected to be published in Fall 2019.  You can follow him on Twitter @SteveStuWill

Logan Chipkin is a freelance writer and PhD candidate studying evolutionary theory, with a BA in physics from the University of Pennsylvania. His writing focuses on science, philosophy, economics, and culture. You can follow him on Twitter @ChipkinLogan

70 Comments

  1. AJ says

    A good interview and Dr. Williams who seems very sensible.

    Ideas that are widely and passionately held despite being at odds with general experience, commons sense and extensive scientific evidence are both interesting and by implication frightening.

    Dr. Williams brings up the idea of sex as a non-binary and a believe that male and female are not valid concepts as examples of beliefs against both common sense and scientific evidence.

    Blank slatism the idea that male and female differences are solely the result of cultural influences predates this, is far more widespread and had large and in at least some cases detrimental effects on policy. Belief in blank slatism is despite there being a vast scientific literaturefrom mor ethan one field that shows it is nonsense, and it is contrary to everyday experience, common sense and is in any case logically inconsistent and contradictory.

    What is it about this ‘bad’ meme which means it propogates successfully despite being transparently false?

    • I’m glad you liked the interview! Are you asking about blank slates in particular, or bad memes in general?

      • AJ says

        I am not really interested in bad memes in general although and I think we would in any case need to define what a bad meme is to have that discussion. I am interested in is how memes which consists of information which is clearly false based on widespread everyday experience and overwhelming scientific evidence nevertheless are successful and propogate and replicate widely.

        I chose the idea of blank slate as an example but the idea that sex in humans is not a binary is another.

        There is just so much everyday evidence that men and women differ from birth in attitude and interests, plus our knowledge of other animals, plus a cultural heritage that includes the knowledge of difference. In addition to that there is our knowledge of physical differences between men and women, menstruation, pregnancy etc which must inevitable have some affect on our minds and then there is the science.

        I am fascinated by the conditions that allow such a ‘bad meme’ to propogate despite our shared experience and the evidence. You can imagine in a totalitarian society how it comes about like Big Brithers chocolate ration which is ‘increased’ to a smaller amount. How does it happen in a free society?

    • Heike says

      Values. Humans who are predisposed to be Leftist have only two values: justice and harm reduction. Since justice will always lose to harm reduction, they really have only one value. Thus they go through life looking at things in black and white. See: Johnathan Haidt’s convincing evidence. The rest of humanity also value these two, but add three more values: loyalty, respect and sanctity. To Leftists, those sincerely held values can look a lot like, in Dr. Haidt’s words, “xenophobia, authoritarianism and Puritanism.”

      It is the conviction of the Left that science must never be used to validate any other values but their own. Whenever this occurs, the science must be shouted down or silenced. See: deplatforming, censorship, and many other articles here on Quillette dealing with reputable scientists who have been punished for daring to violate the Left’s single value. Since blank slatism provides a welcome relief from confronting hard, cold reality, it must be embraced and its detractors penalized.

  2. Peter from Oz says

    I have a question? What rights do transgender people have that are different to the rights that any people have? Surely if we support the rights of all, then we do much better than singling out any class of person,
    In my view we owe trans people courtesy, but that does not merely mean that we give in their whims. No, a trans man is not a man and a trans woman is not a woman. A person who undergone a complete sex change can be treated as being the opposite to their natal sex. But those who only mute their sexual characteristics and add a few of the characteristics can only be trans men or women. They retain their natal sex, but wish to be a different gender. That’s fine. Society should treat a tans man as a man in matters where gender is in question and as a woman in matters where sex is in question. Thus, doctors can’t treat a trans man as if he is biologically male. A trans man doesn’ Need a prostate check.
    A person who is trans is in effect a separate category. Gay marriage will always have to carry the descriptor “gay” to distinguish it from real marriage. Similarly, a person who wants to change gender will always be regarded as tans man or a trans woman.
    Let’s be honest, no one other than a trans person truly believes that a transgender man is a man or a transgender woman is a woman. We are prepared out of courtesy or cowardice to treat these people kindly and carry on with the pretence that you can somehow separate gender from sex. But it really is not a good thing, because by appeasing the trans we merely get more and more confused people claiming to be trans because it’s a trendy thing to do. We then expose more people to the real physical and mental health issues that playing around with their hormones can cause.

    • Ray Andrews says

      @Peter from Oz

      “We are prepared out of courtesy or cowardice to treat these people kindly”

      Exactly. One can retain a grip on reality and still make every practicable effort to be polite. If you are a criminal and you have a penis, sorry, but you are not being put in a cell with a real woman irrespective of your feelings as to your gender. OTHO if you walk down the street in a dress and high heels and wear a long wig and seem not to be simply making trouble as many trannies seem to be, I’m not going to be going out of my way to disturb your efforts to present as a female. How did politeness become an obligation to yield to fantasy?

      • Daniel V says

        @Ray Because even asking for what is essentially politeness gets made into a huge deal. Like with the pronoun laws where I live. All it’s really doing is limiting people from misgendering someone to their face intentionally. Yet it was blown up with a slippery slope argument that it’s the first step to Gulags.

        • Stephanie says

          Daniel, it is not the government’s place to legislate courtesy, certainly not in contradiction with reality. We already have a Vancouver man fined thousands of dollars for “misgendering” someone. If he doesn’t pay, he’ll be sent to prison. Gulaged, if you will.

          • Daniel V says

            Stephanie the reality is slurs and harrasement have a negative psychological effect on a person. People ought to know that referring to a tans woman as a man repeatedly and intentionally is going to hurt them psychologically. It’s just a fact. Getting over these things or an adage about sticks and stones isn’t a reality.

            Who was the man charged and fined? I haven’t heard of any tribunals around the gender provisions with the exception of the case involving a father being told he can’t misgender his trans son. A case where we have no public access to specific except to know that multiple doctors and professionals supported the transition.

          • Denny Sinnoh says

            I remember in the 1970s when Tommy Chong of the comedy team Chech and Chong would often “misgender”.

            His act was that he was always stoned on marijuana and his brain was fried from all the drugs.

            He would always call everyone “man” regardless of if they were male or female. It was always “Hey man …” or “wow man …” even talking to female teachers or nuns.

            He wasn’t being sexist or transphobic, he was just high man.

          • Ray Andrews says

            @Daniel V

            “the case involving a father being told he can’t misgender his trans son”

            Actually he’s truth-gendering his psychologically disturbed child. The court is telling the man what he must speak, does that not bother you even a little? It is the fashion these days to start poisoning and slicing up children when they are hardly out of elementary school, we do this while deploring the FGM practiced in other cultures, strangely enough.

            “slurs and harrasement have a negative psychological effect on a person”

            Yes, but there are no end of slurs aren’t there? Is the government going to fine people for being rude? In this case the ‘slur’ is telling the truth. If someone thinks they are Napoleon, can I be ordered to agree? What else is the government going to order us to say?

        • Owntown Darts Scene says

          “All it’s really doing is limiting people from misgendering someone to their face intentionally.”

          Surely people are normally addressed by the unisex second person pronoun “to their face”, at least in English? That being the case, it would appear such laws are concerned with something else.

          • Daniel V says

            Owntown Darts Scene – Yes exactly right! Hence why the law isn’t really about policing normal interactions. It’s about making illegal intentional discrimination and harrasement against people that identify as trans. Intentionally misgendering a trans person is a surefire way to hurt them.

        • Peter from Oz says

          Daniel
          The fact is that it trans women who make the demands and who act in a disgusting manner to anyone who disagrees with them. You in fact say that trans women activists are acting with toxic masculinity.

        • Ron Arts says

          @Daniel In an answer below you say: “People ought to know that referring to a tans woman as a man repeatedly and intentionally is going to hurt them psychologically.”. The solution should not be legally preventing people from doing that, but to make trans people stronger.

          I am female. Suppose my sister repeatedly uses male pronouns on me. I don’t care, but if she does it repeatedly I may be mad. A normal mentally healthy transwoman (and especially if “transwomen are women”) should be able to respond the same way. If she doesn’t, we don’t need laws, she needs mental care.

          If she does it for years, completely undermining my self worth, and resulting in serious mental problems that should be punishable as mental abuse yes. But that already is.

          • Daniel V says

            @Ron Suppose you are a female, you also identify as female, and your coworkers use a male pronoun with you repeatedly because you appear? Should someone have to deal with that? Or what about just having jokes made about looking manly?

            Your invoking the sticks and stone argument that excuses bullying and in fact holds it up as being something beneficial. Which also implies when someone commits suicide they were just too weak and it’s just natural selection weeding out the weak.

        • Ray Andrews says

          @Daniel V

          I wish it were simply a question of politeness. I defer to @Stephanie below.

          • doug deeper says

            @Daniel V,

            The argument you make that laws should be made to protect trans people from verbal indiscretions is simply not practical or human communication would come to a standstill.

            And why should we make “psychological hurt” illegal only for trans people?

            I was always very young looking, and at 24 I ran my own very large business. People came in and asked to speak to my father. I hated that and was hurt – actually I kind of got a kick out of it, but say I was really hurt. Should such behavior be outlawed?

            I do remember a situation when I was actually hurt by a seasoned sales woman who told me I would be “eaten alive” in business. That stung for years, should she be in jail?

            Another time a judge in small claims court insulted me totally unjustifiably. That hurt for years.

            I got back at all of them by becoming very successful. The rudeness of these individuals may have even fueled my future success.

            (AND, I was NOT a healthy person having a severe case of OCD leading to depression, social phobias, and some Turrets Syndrome.)

            Once we outlaw insulting people intentionally or otherwise, whomever they are, we are dead as a speaking society.

        • Doug F says

          Following your logic, if my feelings are hurt by someone calling me a Nazi for some belief I hold unrelated to Nazism, then that should be illegal. The whole idea is ludicrous because there is no objective measurement of hurt feelings.

          As a libertarian I don’t give a wit with who someone sleeps with or if they like to dress like the opposite sex and don’t think the government should play any role there. As a generally considerate person I do not go out of my way to offend people different than me. That is a whole lot different than making laws against offending people, or to assume I am evil because I don’t want to glorify certain life choices.

    • Theodore A Hoppe says

      One argument that has been presented is that the body forms in the first trimester and that the brain forms in the second trimester which can lead to a mismatching, such as a male body and a female brain. And while I am willing to accept this at face value it doesn’t explain the need to reconstruct the body to match the brain. The alternative, getting the brain to match the body, is almost not discussed. Why?

      • Asenath Waite says

        @Theodore A Hoppe

        Scientific evidence does not support the concept of there being distinctly structured male and female brains (only average differences with considerable overlap), nor does it indicate that the brains of transgender-identifying individuals tend to structurally resemble the average characteristics of the brains of the opposite sex. So you should not take the idea that transgender people have mismatched brains and bodies at face value, as it is a fundamentally flawed concept.

        • Theodore A Hoppe says

          “There’s a new wave of female neuroscientists that are finding important differences between female and male brains in neuron connectivity, in brain structure, in brain activity.”

          Ingalhalikar, M., Smith, A., et al. (2014). “Sex differences in the structural connectome of the human brain”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
          https://www.ted.com/talks/karissa_sanbonmatsu_the_biology_of_gender_from_dna_to_the_brain/footnotes?language=en

        • You might find the book ‘Brain Rules’ by John Medina quite enlightening. He spends at least one chapter discussing sex-based differences in brains and in behaviors. II find his PhD and years of research to be reason to at least consider his opinions.

      • Stephanie says

        Theodore, the head and brain grow much faster than the body in the first trimester. In the second trimester, the body grows faster to catch up. At no time are both not developing together. I’ve heard this argument made before and it’s mysticism.

  3. Jochen Schmidt says

    Great interview!

    Alas … one lapse. Dr. Steve Stewart-Williams states:

    “For people who deny that sex differences are substantially innate, any gaps between the sexes constitute direct evidence of discrimination and sexist socialization. And that means intervention is a moral must.”

    This is not quite correct. There are many “gaps between the sexes” to the disadvantage of men, but “people who deny that sex differences are substantially innate” do not detect any “evidence of discrimination and sexist socialization”. For instance:

    Men have a considerably shorter life expectancy than women
    Men commit much more often suicide than women
    Only half as many men as women have reproduced.
    Men pay much more taxes than women

    Nobody is prepared to concede that “gaps” like these “constitute direct evidence of discrimination and sexist socialization”.

    • E. Olson says

      JS – evolutionary psychology says would suggest that natural selection has favored women who only want the good stuff, and consequently women who live short lives, successfully commit suicide, pay more in taxes, (or want to work in dirty dangerous professions) have consequently been bred out of existence.

    • Doug F says

      Or the fact that at 5’8″ I am statistically just as unlikely as a women to become a CEO. I guess I should start a not-tall victim-hood group? Sheesh.

      Life will never be fair – some people will be smarter, some taller, some more attractive… An attempt to try and level life’s playing field is impossible and by its nature is divisive. Focusing on why life isn’t fair encourages people to decide that nothing is their fault and therefore to not take personal responsibility for their lives. It is a recipe for social collapse.

  4. Jack B. Nimble says

    “…..According to biologists, sex is ultimately about the kind of sex cells an individual produces. Individuals with the body type that produces the smaller sex cells (sperm) are male; those with the body type that produces the larger sex cells (eggs) are female. Humans only produce two types of sex cells, and thus there are only two sexes in our species…..”

    SSW really messed up here, by conflating sex cell differences (anisogamy) with adult sex phenotype differences (gonochorism).

    Anisogamy (large eggs and small sperm) is found in virtually all animal species; isogamy (gamete types are similar in size) occurs widely in algae and fungi but is unknown in ‘higher’ animal species.

    Gonochorism (separate male and female sex phenotypes) is independent of anisogamy. Many invertebrate species–like many molluscs and worms–are anisogamous but are hermaphroditic, NOT gonochoristic.

    At least in humans, this focus on gonads and gametes is misleading, because the most powerful sex organ in the human body is the BRAIN, not the gonads.

    • K. Dershem says

      Jack – I take your point, but in my view SSW’s underlying point is sound. The human species reproduces sexually, and there are two different kinds of sex cells that combine to produce zygotes. Biologically, it seems reasonable to define “males” as human individuals who produce sperm and “females” as human individuals who produce eggs since the fundamental purpose of sexual differences is reproduction. The existence of intersex people complicates that clear distinction, but it doesn’t nullify it — any more than dusk obviates the distinction between night and day. It’s true that sex (the activity) serves many other purposes in human society besides reproduction, especially since the invention of reliable birth control, and it’s also true that gender is a complex social construct that builds on sexual identity and can sometimes subvert it. I fully support the right of transgender individuals to identify with a gender that differs from their biological sex, but on a fundamental level transmen are still biologically female and transwomen are still biologically male. I think that rights movements are more likely to succeed when they accept scientific truths instead of denying them for ideological reasons.

    • Asenath Waite says

      @Jack B Nimble

      Powerful in what sense? The gametes are directly relevant to sexual reproduction. The brain is only needed to get the gametes together.

      • Jack B. Nimble says

        @Asenath Waite

        And a chicken is just an egg’s way of making another egg. Or maybe a chicken is just an egg’s way of crossing the road???

        Your gonadocentric view of sex is what’s wrong with most of today’s popular writing on human sexual reproduction, sex phenotypes, sex hormones, sex roles and gender identity.

        You and K. Dershem conflate ‘biological’ with ‘evolutionary’, and you ignore the expanding literature on molecular analyses of sex and gender expression in humans, in favor of a naive Darwinism. Link: https://www.the-scientist.com/features/are-the-brains-of-transgender-people-different-from-those-of-cisgender-people-30027

        • Asenath Waite says

          @Jack

          You’re making this way too complicated, and I’m unsure what point you’re trying to make. Are you saying that there are more than two human sexes? Is it something about transgender people? I’ve read lots of primary scientific literature on transgender brain structure, and it doesn’t show that their brains resemble those of the opposite sex, if that is your point.

          • K. Dershem says

            I’m also confused about what Jack is arguing. Differences in brain structures seems like a red herring; “molecular analyses of sex and gender expression” might be relevant to the points SSM made, but I can’t be sure since I have no idea what that means. A Google search didn’t help since it only returned one result: Jack’s comment.

          • Jack B. Nimble says

            @A. W.

            If one plots the frequency of human primary and secondary sexual characters in univariate or multivariate space, the distribution is definitely bimodal. But it is quite a leap from those humped-shaped data to argue that sex is strictly binary in humans. ‘Binary’ thinking is a holdover from Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics that sees all males as having the same essence or nature that is distinct from that of all females. This view is emphatically NOT modern or biological and has several problems, chief of which is that it relegates intersexes and other intermediate phenotypes to the category of [at best] uninteresting exceptions or [at worst] freaks of nature.

            The binary view is ultimately metaphysical, and non-religious conservatives who embrace this thinking are adopting a theological/teleological view of human nature: “Male and female created he them.” Genesis 5:2. In reality, the only thing that all males have in common is the letter “M” on their birth certificate or driver license, and analogously for females.

            Here’s what I said on this topic last year on TheAmericanConservative, before I was banned for life:

            Jack B. Nimble says:
            February 21, 2018 at 8:05 am

            Mr. Dreher groused: ‘……..Just like that, the paper of record substitutes a gender-ideology category for actual biological science. This is a big deal. This is damned Orwellian…..’

            OK, time for another spin on the gender-go-round. In his brief post, Mr. Dreher makes one substantive point: male/female binarity or dimorphism is a biological fact–an idea so apparently common-sensical and confirmed that Mr. Dreher didn’t feel the need to supply any evidence or links.

            The reality is quite different. To keep things brief, I’ll just point to one of Mr. Dreher’s erstwhile scientific heroes: AD Dreger (1998). Hermaphrodites and the medical invention of sex. Harvard U Press. Dreger’s work can supply an entree to the enormous literature on gender and sexuality in humans. Or just use the Google.

            People thinking about gender in a scientific context need to keep these points in mind:

            Most of the relevant literature is medical/psychological rather than biological/genetic. So the focus tends to be on treatment rather than on causes. This is important.

            There are no national databases or accepted surveys of sexual behavior/gender identity in the US comparable to, say, the US Census survey. So ‘scientific’ statements about the frequency of gender non-conformity, etc. are at best informed guesses. There is not even a national record-keeping system in the US for frequency of genital abnormalities at birth. In fact, can you imagine the ‘stink’ that conservatives like Douthat would raise if questions about sexual behavior and gender identity were added to the Census?

            That brings up my next point, which is that the stigmatization of non-binary expressions sexuality [a major project of religious conservatives] discourages funding agencies from supporting this kind of research, which discourages scientists from devoting their research careers to this area. Stigmatization also makes it difficult to collect valid frequency data about sexual behavior and gender identity, even from randomized and anonymized surveys.

            Final point–there is still a lot we don’t know about human sexuality and its varieties. The appropriate response to this uncertainty is to keep an open mind and to support well-designed research projects on human gender and sex that aim to fill in the knowledge gaps. Molecular tools already exist for studying brain function in typical and non-typical humans [e.g., https://science.sciencemag.org/content/359/6376/693 ], and these could be applied to gender and sex behavior variants. The main technological roadblock is the invasive sampling required. The main political roadblock to this type of research is…… obvious.

            Bottom Line: if you will follow the link above to sciencemag, you will discover what I meant by ‘molecular analyses of sex and gender expression.’

          • Asenath Waite says

            @Jack

            There’s no reply link for your below comment so am replying to a different one. Anyway, that’s using a lot of words for you to say that since secondary sex characteristics differ among individuals, there are more than two human sexes. That’s just silly.

            I’ve noticed a common tactic to argue for illogical points of view is to use a ton of linguistic smoke and mirrors. If your point makes no sense, better make it as unclear as possible. That basically accounts for the entire content of gender studies (etc.) journals, into one of which your comment here would fit nicely.

          • Jack B. Nimble says

            @A. W.

            What is silly is your claim that I said ‘….that since secondary sex characteristics differ among individuals, there are more than two human sexes………’ Did you even read my comments and links before jumping to the keyboard?

            From medical, legal and cultural perspectives there may be more than two genders [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Third_gender ].

            From a functional/anatomical standpoint there are two human sexes: persons with ovaries and persons with testes. But there are also individuals with sex chromosome abnormalities who have neither ovaries nor testes–how should we classify those?

            Bottom Line: your simplistic thinking is a poor fit to the complexity of human development.

          • Asenath Waite says

            @Jack

            There are infinite genders (which makes the classification meaningless) but only two sexes. Persons with sex chromosome abnormalities should be classified as persons with sex chromosome abnormalities. Bottom line: Your comments are invariably a waste of time.

    • Doug F says

      “At least in humans, this focus on gonads and gametes is misleading, because the most powerful sex organ in the human body is the BRAIN, not the gonads.”

      Did you have a reference for this bold statement?

      There are objective ways to measure male vs. female, and those differences really are why we have made the distinction. You seem to suggest that it should be replaced by a subjective measure. Why?

  5. E. Olson says

    A very interesting interview, and I hope the book is popular as it seems to based on solid evidence rather than wishful thinking. I did find one line particularly interesting, especially given the perspective of the book:

    “Of course, if the differences cause harm, we’d certainly want to eradicate them, regardless of whether or not they have an evolutionary origin. Men’s propensity for violence has an evolutionary origin, for instance, but it’s still worth fighting that.”

    First, wouldn’t an alien species landing on earth with the intent of colonizing (a likely reason for inter-planetary exploration) prefer to have man’s propensity for violence to be eradicated – i.e. prefer the natives to surrender the planet rather than fight?

    Second, the propensity for violence is almost certainly a manifestation of hormonal driven competitiveness, which likely has its evolutionary basis as a means of attracting more desirable female mates, but has the added manifestation/benefit of spurring innovation (nothing spurs innovation better than war) and competitive wealth building, which both have benefits for mankind. Thus if we could somehow curb the violence of man, would we also be reducing mating activity, innovation, and economic growth?

    Third, don’t women also engage in violence at fairly high levels (especially when non-physical forms of “violence” are considered), so is the biggest difference between genders simply that men have the physical power advantage to make their punches and kicks more devastating than women can achieve?

    • Ray Andrews says

      @E. Olson

      “(especially when non-physical forms of “violence” are considered)”

      If words are violence then females are far and away the more violent gender.

    • Stephanie says

      Yes, wouldn’t it be preferable to teach boys to channel those violent impulses into something productive, rather than attempting to eradicate them? Firearm use, martial arts, sport, archery… There are plenty of healthy outlets that are of value to society, and depriving men of them bodes poorly for a society, making it ripe for takeover.

    • Harland says

      If women didn’t reward violent, dominant men with sex, the trait would have disappeared from our species long ago.

      But unfortunately women LOVE dangerous, unpredictable men. Fortunately, a solution presents itself. We need a society-wide program to tell women that they should be ashamed unless they are attracted to caring, nurturing men who would never think of being dominant towards them.
      Persuade women to give up the crack pipe of violent men and the problem will take care of itself soon afterwards.

      • E. Olson says

        Harland – lets not try to shift blame to women. EVERYONE knows that toxic masculinity is at fault for all the world’s problems, and that women are purely innocent victims who need a good strong man to protect them from toxic masculinity.

  6. I made it about halfway through Ape before deciding it wasn’t worth continuing. But, like Charles Murray and others, his ideas which others find so triggering just don’t seem that interesting to me.

    While we are more than the sum of our cultural upbringing, we are also not predestined by our biology. Scientists may be just coming to terms with this, but theologians named this quality of man over 3000 years ago: “free will”.

  7. Fran says

    Cultural memes that increase reproductive success have and advantage. In this context, it is clear that Catholicism and Islam, both of which consider women to be primarily breeding machines, are currently running ahead in the evolution stakes. One could say that all the ‘equity’ supporters are an evolutionary dead end.

  8. Craig Willms says

    @bdvillanueva
    Be careful there… I started a free will thread on a different article and it didn’t go well for me. Who’da thought there was so much support for determinism among the blank slaters.

  9. Leif says

    In an otherwise intelligent interview, Dr. Williams makes a few loades statements.
    One stands out.

    “The reason I like the meme approach is that it also provides an explanation for aspects of culture that are not good for us or our groups: things like earworms and smoking and the belief that one should sacrifice oneself for one’s faith.”

    Here, Dr. Williams believes it is evident that memes are responsible for the examples he names
    and that the examples are bad. Doesn’t this demand supporting evidence?

    What is wrong with a jingle that teaches children to brush their teeth?
    Was it bad for Finnish troops to sing ‘Finlandia’ during the Winter War?

    Tobacco addiction, of course, is physiological–
    but is a meme responsible for making smoking ‘James Dean’ cool,
    or could the matter somehow be more complicated?

    Does Dr. Williams believe that martyrdom is bad in itself,
    or does he believe only religious martyrdom is bad?
    Has Dr. Williams considered that martyrdom might be preferable to violence?
    How would he have advised Ghandi, Kaj Munk, or Jesus?

    We’re not saying that memes don’t explain these things– they might.
    But this is far from obvious.
    Dr. Williams should find better examples or a better reason to like memes.

  10. Daniel V says

    The biggest hurdle to what is being talked about here being accepted more broadly is people moving past an Either Or perspective to a Both And perspective. It’s not an easy hurdle to jump either as culture and possibly genetics (intelligence) influence if it will emerge in an individual.

    It’s that type of thinking that leads to contradictory positions like the one described in the article where activists advocating for no gender are actually also arguing male and female are objective roles. It’s why people think accepting an evolutionary explanation means accepting biological detirminism.

    It’s also a cultural meme that is particularly prevelent in American society. So much so that even the American political systems is restricted to a binary.

    And what really gets people excited about the IDW, and Queillette even, is people talking about things from a Both And perspective. Peterson is hailed as some genius regarding religion for the simple fact he views it as bad and good at the same time. It’s no coincidence that this site is run by Australians and includes many Canadians as well. As a Canadian I would say the Either Or way of looking at things is more an exception than a rule. Despite the fact American cultural influence is pushing us away from that.

    • Andrew Roddy says

      Are you suggesting that forums like these somehow champion/accommodate non-binary thinking? If so, then (and I am not saying this solely to prove your point)I strongly tend to the opposite view.

  11. Jim Gorman says

    I’ll throw my two cents in. Why do some animals herd together? Why do some animals use harems? Why are some animals monogamous and mate for life? Why do some animals prefer certain prey from the beginning? How do some birds know how to ride air currents? These aren’t “cultural” or necessarily taught, they just seem to be innate, that is instinct.

    How is instinct developed. It would seem to me that genes have quite a bit to say about how brains are wired to create these innate instincts. Humankind would not be immune to this. While we may have evolved from the point where instincts control our behavior, there has to be some influence.

  12. S.Cheung says

    Fantastic and well-edited interview. And Dr. Stewart-Williams demonstrates an impressive and robust clarity of thought.

    –“The reason I like the meme approach is that it also provides an explanation for aspects of culture that are not good for us or our groups: things like earworms and smoking and the belief that one should sacrifice oneself for one’s faith. The meme’s-eye view highlights the fact that, in the final analysis, memes are selected to the extent that they’re good for themselves, not for us (although they often are good for us).”–

    I am a bit unclear on his explanation of the cultural evolutionary theory, where he says that memes propagate within the in-group, not necessarily for the benefit of the ingroup (although that is often the neutral byproduct), but rather simply for its (the meme’s) own preservation. He seems to distinguish it from viruses, which would have been my first comparator. So I would first ask, if it is not necessarily beneficial, then shouldn’t such preserved memes actually be at least neutral (ie. not helpful nor harmful…such as human evolutionary remnants like the appendix, most of the time)? Because if such memes were actively harmful, how would it derive evolutionary pressure to enable self-preservation?

    So with his examples, an earworm might be a nuisance, but it’s not actively harmful, and the theory holds. And I certainly agree that religion’s purpose is to propagate itself, and is indifferent to the individual. But smoking is a biochemical addiction on an individual level as much as it is a cultural phenomenon on a societal level….had been decreasing for a generation…but seems to be making a bit of a comeback with Gen Z and Gen alpha (often in the form of vaping). How would the balance of evolutionary psychology (selective pressure on an individual basis to choose against smoking) work against any meme-factor of smoking on a societal level…and if the tendency had been diminishing for years, what would drive a resurgence, all coming within the confines of a mere speck as far as evolutionary timelines are concerned?

    All that said, science and the advent of testable memes is an earworm I can definitely go for.

    • K. Dershem says

      I’ve always found the idea of memes to be interesting but I think it breaks down if it’s applied too literally. The analogy with genes and natural selection has clear limits. Despite the admirable efforts of scholars like Susan Blackmore, I doubt that “mimetics” will ever be an empirical science.

    • D.B. Cooper says

      @S.Cheung

      I am a bit unclear on his explanation of the cultural evolutionary theory, where he says that memes propagate within the in-group, not necessarily for the benefit of the ingroup (although that is often the neutral byproduct), but rather simply for its (the meme’s) own preservation…

      So I would first ask, if it is not necessarily beneficial, then shouldn’t such preserved memes actually be at least neutral (ie. not helpful nor harmful…such as human evolutionary remnants like the appendix, most of the time)? Because if such memes were actively harmful, how would it derive evolutionary pressure to enable self-preservation?

      Great question! I should mention that I happen to share your reservations concerning the etiology of a cultural transmission mechanism that “selects” memes for their own sake (not ours). The uncertainty, as you point out, appears to turn on the author’s [SSW] claim that the meme approach to cultural evolution is “very [much] like” a gene’s-eye view of evolution; which I take to mean the processes (culture & genes) are uniquely similar in both form and function.

      SSW provides a brief summary of natural selection (genes) as a point of reference in his treatment of the meme approach. In stated terms, SSW contends that genes are selected – via the interaction between random genetic variations of a given population and the environment (pressures) – on the basis of their ability to confer a comparative advantage in the competition for resources (as a measure of the differential survival & reproduction of genotypes as a result of relative phenotypic differences); while the cultural evolutionary of memes are “selected to the extent that they have effects on the people who encounter them that keep the memes alive in the culture…[such as] ideas that motivate us to talk about them, spread them, or impose them on other people.” [emphasis mine]

      SSW goes on to state that “memes are selected to the extent that they’re good for themselves, not for us…” [emphasis mine]. What’s more, the author claims to favor the meme approach over other biocultural processes – dual inheritance theory [DIT] & cultural group selection [CGS], for example – due to its ability to explanation for cultural facets that are not good for us or our group; which I take to mean maladaptive cultural practices.

      It stands to reason; SSW believes the coevolutionary processes “guiding” DIT and CGS are either incapable of providing explanations for maladaptive cultural practices (due to the mechanism processes themselves), or believes their explanatory power is insufficient to explain the transmission of known maladaptive practices. Of course, this is mere speculation at best. I should also note the author does say memetics provides an overarching account of cultural evolution that incorporates both the DIT and CGS in its approach.

      As a comparative mechanism, it’s difficult to describe this sentiment as controversial at least on the face of it. There can be little doubt that culture interacts with genes (and the environment) in a multitude of ways, many of which, I suspect, are not well understood. Whether SSW’s description of meme’s selection process is objectively true, is another matter. In summary, the author makes the following claim – as stated in (1) below – which, when viewed against what is otherwise erudite commentary, appears uncharacteristically immoderate, incautious, and ultimately unconvincing.

      (1) The meme’s-eye view of cultural evolution is very similar to the gene’s-eye view of evolution with the exception being the latter selects advantageous genotypes for their ability to enhance biological fitness, while the former selects cultural memes to the extent that they have effects on the people who encounter them that keep the memes alive in the culture.

      The most obvious problem with this is that in order to claim a near equivalency in selection processes of genes (genotypes) and memes (replication through imitation), you would necessarily have to characterize memes as a discrete cultural unit capable of replication, i.e., not terribly dissimilar from a Mendelian inheritance model. Characterizing memes as discrete units creates an injunction that relies on a protean concept of memes themselves. Namely as mere concepts or representations, not as a definable unit that is theoretically distinguishable within the culture.

      In what sense could you legitimately claim that cultural phenomenon such as ideas, colloquialisms, clothes, or hair styles exist not along a continuum, but as well define units of cultural transmission similar to single genes. The theoretical utility of postulating such states in order to explain the memetic’s replication process may (and by my estimation ‘does’) in fact necessitate treating cultural transmission as uniquely definable units, but this is to presume what you need to demonstrate – an invocation, conceding the beauty and goodness of mechanistic explanations with a sinister aptness. Parsimony it is not. To call it greedy reductionism would itself be reductive.

      The problem here is two-fold. First, it’s not at all obvious that cultural transmission necessarily occurs via discrete informational units; in fact, there’s good evidence to suggest it necessarily doesn’t. Second, while it’s possible, likely even, that replication constitutes a sufficient process by which the imaginary cultural units are transmitted or inherited, it is almost certainly not a necessary one.

      Other processes that are likely to account for the transmission of cultural practices include, but are not limited to, imprinting, operative conditioning, observation, imitation, and didactic instruction to name a few. It’s also worth noting the possibility of cultural practices (norms & preferences) being transmitted within the course of a single human generation, over multiple generations, or even between groups rather than individuals.

  13. Andrew Roddy says

    I can’t imagine why an alien scientist shoud be stuck on the idea of a primate developing a level of awareness and understanding of the universe. That it might characterise said primate as a ‘mere ape’ surely belongs squarely in the realm of anthropomorphic projection.

    I enjoyed this clear and lucid interview although, like some others here, I found the assertion that dying for your religion was self evidently a bad thing and it might have begged the question if he feels the same way about dying for your family, country or in a fight against tyranny.

  14. Fickle Pickle says

    It some sense it could be said that the USA is (or was) the leading edge vector of the human experiment on this planet.
    What then would an alien have to say about the evolutionary potential of the human race if it closely examined the behavior of the human-like creature that now haunts the White House?

    • Harland says

      Trump Derangement Syndrome on full display. Complete with dehumanization.

      Dehumanization is the psychological process of demonizing the enemy, making them seem less than human and hence not worthy of humane treatment. This can lead to increased violence, human rights violations, war crimes, and genocide. In laboratory studies, people who are portrayed as lacking human qualities have been found to be treated in a particularly harsh and violent manner.

  15. Echo Alpha Kilo says

    Genes + Memes = Benes, human benes!

    B = brain; E=extremities, hands; N= natural urges – genitalia; E= extremities, feet.

  16. Lightning Rose says

    Evolutionary psychology developed in order to survive. Any behavior that does not further the flourishing and survival of a given species fades out fast. I don’t know if this “misgendered” moment we’re having is Nature’s check on a burgeoning population that has outgrown war, or merely the result of hormonal disorders from eating too much phytoestrogen in processed soy.

    But by definition few of these “gender-queer” specimens will be reproducing, and even if they do by artificial means, the odds are 97% that their offspring will be cis-gendered and heterosexual.
    So I think this social-contagion phenomenon of our age will quickly become self-limiting and by 2030 will be looked back on as quaint as communes and LSD.

    Which needs to happen before it drives the normals barmy. Never has so much ink been spilled over so few.

  17. James Blonde says

    How come If you are a white person and you dress up in “black face” and then walk around in public pretending to be black… that behavior is considered offensive, black people will get mad at you, you will be fired from your job…

    But if you are a man and you dress up like a woman and then walk around in public pretending to be female…; not only are you tolerated by female people; but any person who refuses to play along with your minstrel routine is considered “hateful” and can potentially lose their job…?

  18. I like hypothetical aliens too, but I don’t think it’s possible that an alien species could develop interplanetary space travel technology, without having first developed a deep understanding of natural selection on their own planets. I feel like everything that they would observe here would be very natural. It may not be the exact path that brought them here, but I think the principles would be immediately obvious to any advanced intelligent species.

  19. jimhaz says

    The people I am concerned about are the young people who might be using a change in gender identity based on fleeing from difficulties they may be facing. eg, this masculinity and these circumstances are too hard for me, maybe I’ll make myself more female to attempt to avoid those problems. I can think of two analogies to consider – teens who purposefully get pregnant so that they ‘have something to live for’ and whatever was going on in Michael Jacksons head.

    I’m willing to let trans people be trans people, but I’m not willing for academia, business and government to promote gender fluidity.

    Do we really need business jumping on this social bandwagon.
    https://youtu.be/m4OEtRa10DA

  20. Scott M says

    Started reading this last night. As someone that both reads and writes sci-fi (far more of the former than the latter, more’s the pity), the vibe from the first chapter is that the author desperately wants to be Douglas Adams. Combine that with a glaring lack of depth on his alien character (things are referred to as unique which, given the alien’s supposed pedigree, cannot be), and I had trouble enjoying the lark on which he’s asking us to travel along. Given that I tend to be agnostic when it comes to evolutionary psychology, but I’m fascinated by the opportunity that it presents in terms of refuting various identity claims, specifically those between human males and females.

    • Scott M says

      That minced last sentence is what happens when you take a phone call while banging out a comment 🙂 Supposed to have been: “Given that I tend to be agnostic when it comes to evolutionary psychology, I’m still fascinated by the opportunity that it presents in terms of refuting various identity claims, specifically those between human males and females.” – ugh…

  21. augustine says

    The first part of this interview presented some unfortunate obstacles to further reading. In particular, the various references as to why traits or behaviors evolve are problematic. Big teeth on a lion or fear instinct in humans are only “why” questions in the sense that “natural selection” is always the answer. In a normal or conventional sense, “why” questions imply purpose and even goals, and we all know evolution has nothing to do with those.

    I think the main reason is that people assume that differences between the sexes are largely a product of sexist socialization and discrimination against women and girls.

    This is an amazing statement. It appears to be based solely on modern or post-modern memes that are entertained in some cultural venues, and only in some societies. Why would an intelligent scientist suggest that these memes are believed by the general population or even universally?

    As for violence in men, the respondent makes the claim that this is harmful, without any qualification. Violence can be defensive or offensive and most of us would like to see a lot less of the latter, but they go hand-in-hand, don’t they? Someone attacks, and another defends (usually a man or men in both cases), both using violence. Saying “violence [in men] is a problem” point blank exhibits a distressing bias and refusal or reluctance to treat the subject with discernment.

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  23. Doug F says

    Got caught up in the comments and forgot to respond to the original.

    I will read the book – it sounds well thought out and interesting. I am not sure I see social memes as analogous to biological evolution; maybe more of a virus – some of which are benign and others that are not.

    Having said that I see evolution drivers throughout society.

    Government bureaucracies (and bureaucracies in general) work this way. They are started for various reasons, but once started, unless consciously managed, they grow because they are good a growing and not as a result of any desired results.

    Competing societal concepts define of our history. Societies survive and grow because they can protect themselves and have some way to spread (ideas, warfare, absorption, etc.). So again, societies survive and grow because they are better than competing strategies at surviving and growing in competition with other societies. Many idealist societal concepts fail horribly in this test – they are unable to compete.

    Note that societies only react to the individual in terms of how they help them compete. History, and the present, are full of successful societies that treat individuals terribly. While democracy has been successful, but it is inherently unstable. A democracy can vote itself into a tyranny but cannot vote itself back out.

    Western culture has linked its success to individual success, and therefore individuals reach a standard of living that surpasses other models. The American model leans more towards individual rights, and added many checks and balances to try and dampen the inherent instabilities. Some of those checks and balances have been significantly degraded (esp. viewing the constitution from a relative view).

    Our world is still full of competing societies. Some are growing very quickly and Western culture is in retreat from any comparative analysis. But so many individuals living well in this 400 year experiment don’t connect the structure to the success. So we fight over what pronouns should be used for a tiny group of individuals, while small fires burn and grow throughout our Rome.

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