Dr. Andy

Reflections on medicine and biology among other things

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Just so stories

This op-ed in the New York Times attributes men’s relative dominance of areas ranging from Scrabble to auto racing to evolution which has selected for the drive to excel.

I am a strong believer in evolution, but I am very skeptical of the urge to attribute every aspect of human behavior to natural selection and evolution. We have to be very careful when we seek to explain human behavior in biological terms to avoid “just so” stories in which evolution has selected for whatever trait e are trying to explain, conveniently absolving society and culture of any role. Are racial differences in achievement genetic, as some have argued, or cultural. If racial differences are not genetic, why should gender ones be?

I am very leery of ascribing human behaviors (male promiscuity, female’s doing the majority of work in the household, etc) to evolution, because it too often serves to reinforce whatever bias one starts out with, and it doesn’t look for more cultural explanations for behaviors. Many men are not promiscuous or don’t seek to dominate. Where do they fit in these evolutionary explanations?

Are men really selected to excel or is this more cultural? Since we can’t do experiments it is hard to know. Clearly, the strongest people in the world will be overwhelmingly men as they have greater muscle mass. While some women will be stronger than many men, the strongest will be men.

In other fields like mathematics, physics and Scrabble I’m not so sure. Perhaps men have more mathematical aptitude at the highest levels, but culture certainly plays a role. Until we understand a lot more about how the brain works, I think these questions will be unanswerable.

I do recommend Stefan Fatsis’ Word Freak, which is a great book about his foray into the world of top-level Scrabble play. I hate Scrabble (interminably slow) but loved this book. I find it hard to view the top Scrabble players he portrays as evolutionary success stories, since most live at home with their parents and don’t seem to have great reproductive success. Maybe the explanation for most Scrabble champions being male is just that odd males are more accepted in society than odd females.


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