Debunking: The Caveman Mystique by Martha McCaughey

Debunking: The Caveman Mystique by Martha McCaughey
September 30th, 2010
by Fred Hsu

This is a diary I kept as I read yet another book an acquaintance who taught social science once recommended. The first book was dealt with in Debunking: Sex at Dawn by Rayn and Jetha. As with the first book, I rather enjoy summarizing and debunking this second book, The Caveman Mystique by Martha McCaughey.

It’s just a habit. Attempting to summarize a book allows me to organize ideas I read. If I can accurately and succinctly convey the essence of the material (emphasis on accuracy more than on brevity), I think I can be said to actually understand the material, whether I subscribe to author’s views.

Like my review of Sex At Dawn, I want to post my feedback on each chapter as I read them. My views on the book may change as I read on. But I want to preserve my first impression in writing, at every chapter end.


I am very happy I bought this book, based on an acquaintance’s  incessant pleading. This book (remember, am only talking about the Introduction) is very well written, both in style and in organization. It proves again that one should not judge a book by random feedback (or lack thereof) one finds online, before reading it. When I was deciding between buying this one or Sex At Dawn, because of popular praise, and inaccurate description of the latter book by fans, I bought Sex At Dawn, thinking that it was more academic, more science-based.

Boy, was I wrong. The Introduction of this book alone makes me respect the author’s intellectual prowess. I can clearly see a roadmap for the entire book. I know what this book is not about. I know what the author is arguing. I know the main points. The author shows she knows at least the basic discourse of evolutionary biology and how it is applied to human behavior. The author references real sources from both sides of the debate, showing she has done her background work.

The only one thing I do not yet know is how the author proposes to solve the dilemma, the central piece of her book. More on this at the end of this mail. Here is my take of what the author wrote:

1. This book is not about disproving the validity evolutionary theories as applied to human behavior. That is a task for biologists.

2. Evolutionary Psychology (E.P.) as referred to in this book is concentrated on evolutionary theories applied to male sexual and aggressive behavior, not other aspects (such as altruism, reciprocity, self-awareness, etc. – these are my own examples)

3. Author isn’t making a scientific judgment on existing E.P. theories, but cautions that we should never assume by default, that E.P. theories solve any problem, when evidences are lacking.

4. Author argues that the dissemination of E.P. theories (termed Caveman Mystique in this book) via popular medium (e.g. magazines, tv shows, etc) *effects* changes in male behavior, specifically males who suffer from decreased social status in recent decades due to economic changes and feminist movements.

5. Author argues that Caveman Mystique gives these suffering males (usually of low education) an excuse to live up to their caveman-time expectations. That is, they can justify acting sexually aggressive toward women and being promiscuous in general.

6. Author does not subscribe to archrivalry between E.P. and sociology, unlike many professionals in these two field are prone to. Author does not condone her sociology colleagues’ labeling biologist as genetic deterministic; such labels oversimplify complex views. Author understands why E.P. scientists cringe when author mentions esteemed E.P.-ist together with how their research are reported in Men’s Health magazine. Author understands E.P.-ists’ inability to control how popular media do with their scientific ideas.

7. Author’s main goal is to study the *effects* of popularization of E.P. on said male population.

Personally, I see no problems with #1 and #2.

I think the author may not have studied evolutionary biology enough to understand that *there are* abundant evidences to support most #3. But I take author’s point on *caution*.

I think not even biologists will disagree with #4 and #5. And I think all reasonable folks from both fields will actually agree with #6 as well. No one is an extremist. We all know it’s not all-nature vs all-nurture.

I think the main different between EP and author, is in how one responds to the problem as stated in #5. I can’t pretend to represent all scientists, but my own answer to that dilemma is to increase public education in science. The author’s answer to this question is ___(blank)__. Perhaps subsequent chapters will tell us what the author proposes to do. I can think of some:

A1. increase public education in science
A2. stop making more evolutionary psychology discoveries
A3. (actually I can’t think of more right now)

My thoughts so far

So far, I largely (almost completely) agree with what she writes. And that really puzzles me. The examples of the two camps she cites is almost a caricature of the conversations I have had in the past with social science people.

Her *moderate* position, and her recounting of the two extremes from the two camps reminds me of many NPR personalities. They try to bring fair and balanced reporting from all sides, but cannot help injecting a few of their own liberal comments (to my delight) once in a while. As I read, I can’t help projecting McCaughey’s writing in a certain NPR personality’s voice in my mind.

Chapter 1: Sperm wars, sex wars, and science wars

In Introduction, McCaughey uses evolutionary psychology and HBE (Human Behavior and Evolution) interchangeably. Unless explicitly annotated otherwise, EP and HBE refer in her book to the subset concerned with male sexual and aggressive behavior.

This chapter explores the effects of changing economic landscape on the segment of male population most affected by the shift in technology. It explores how these males find comfort in the HBE discoveries. It ventures a possible solution to the dilemma stated in Introduction. I think McCaughey’s idea sounds wrong and unworkable in its crude form in this chapter. Perhaps more details are forthcoming. I will discuss this more in Science Wars

on occasional sniping

As I mentioned before, McCaughey can’t help the occasional sniping, despite her presumed reconciler’s position. For instance, on p26 she wrote:

“HBE theorists offered heir ideas in part to help society address and remedy the violence and other problems so many have been blaming on men.”

I do not think this is a fair representation. I think this is just another incorrect *perception* from the standpoint of a sociologist. Very few scientists pretend to address social problems. They are just trying to *understand* nature. As McCaughey herself pointed out elsewhere in this book, scientist routinely protest that they have no control on how the media takes their research and spin them and reinterpret them in whatever ways they want, with unwarranted, miscredited social context.

Take Pinker for instance, he is not in the business of running a speech correction clinic or family conflict consoling center. Pinker simply studies how the human mind works. And he gets attacked for applying evolutionary psychology to society which he does not do. Now, look at De Waal, the darling of Sex At Dawn. Here is one who actually does apply research results from animal behavior studies to result human conflicts in our society. But what he does is fine in the eyes of the sociologists because his direction is aligned with what the sociologists think *ought to be*. (Pinker does science. De Waal’s ethics application from bonobo observations really isn’t. But that is a tangential discussion)

Another theme is the repeated insinuation that HBE is *only* based on reasoning, and not evidences. For instance:

(p29) “Evolutionary theorists *reason* (emphasis mine) that men’s great number of sperm makes them perpetually sexually interested and carefree. Choosy females, were therefore, a limiting resource for which men competed against one another.”

These theories (on animal behavior in general, not human specifically) are backed by half a century of research and experiments. One only needs to take up biology books to learn what evidences are available. Now, no biologist will say animal behavior completely applies to human. We have overgrown brains, and our culture begins to play a larger role in human behavior. So, biologists take a multi-faceted approach to human behavior.

Sperm Wars

This retells the evolutionary biology’s take on animal and human sexual behavior. Author uses Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA) throughout this chapter to capture what many call the caveman or hunter-gatherer environment. Author demonstrated very good understanding HBE principles. Here are some very good quotes I agree with:

(p28) “Natural Selection works on phenotypes…, but the evolutionary change is transmitted by surviving genes… Natural selection favors the genes, encased in people, that increase their own numbers in succeeding generations.”

(p28) “Adaptations have nothing to do with morality and, as HBE theorists acknowledge, may be seen as thoroughly corrupt from various political or religious standpoints.”

(p28) “In the absence of technology allowing otherwise (i.e., in the EEA), reproduction is “cheap” for men and “costly” for women.”

(p29) “Clearly, applying evolutionary theory to human behavior is far more speculative than, say, finding information about successful adaptations demonstrated in the fossil record or uncovering relationships between species in DNA comparisons.” (Fred: but not so speculative that we don’t have evidences – this is already covered by me earlier)

Sex Wars

This details debates amongst different camps of feminists, and scientists. Here we find quote about “burying heads in sand”, “men as dogs”, “what exists”, “what ought to exist”, etc.

Science Wars

I imagine this is the main thesis of this book. McCaughey now turns to the current interactions between sociologists and scientists, and what she envisions for the future.

This section starts with a recount of the famous (or infamous depending on your side) Sokal’s Hoax. It’s funny for me to read about this incident in this book, because it has never occurred to me to associate this to evolutionary biology, until now. The thing is, not one year goes by in my office without someone bringing up the Sokal’s Hoax and everyone spending the whole Friday afternoon talking and laughing about it. It had almost always centered around postmodernism and deconstructionism which are fields that I (and ironically most colleagues) profess to be ignorant on.

I commend McCaughey on recounting this tale objectively, analyzing reactions from both sides. But I think McCaughey misunderstood the point of this hoax, thus proposes her thesis which sounds completely ridiculous in light of Sokal, and appears to be a contradiction of her earlier statement in Introduction that she was (and sociologists) should not be in the business of validating scientific claims. Here is a quote:

(p36) “The main question asked during the Sokal hoax was whether or not non-scientists should have a scientist review their work in order to be more careful in their claim making. But the science wars also raise the related question: Should scientists have as much authority as they do to comment on cultural issues?”

McCaughey (here and elsewhere in this section) sees the Sokal’s Hoax as an attempt of scientists to inject themselves into sociology studies. McCaughey interprets the hoax as scientists saying that they want to be the last link in a sociology review process. This, I think, is a complete misunderstanding of the purpose of this hoax.

The hoax is an attempt by scientists to illustrate how ridiculous it was for sociologists to want to inject themselves into the review process of scientific claims and publications. Scientists are NOT trying to lodge themselves in the sociology review. They are trying to REMOVE sociologists from scientific reviews and claims.

When one understand this, McCaughey’s suggestion sounds really funny (at least to me):

(p39) “I am suggesting that scientists’ claims about gender, sexuality, violence, and culture – about which they have had little, if any scholarly training – be modified by scholars who have legitimate authority on these matters. In insist that feminist scholars have something important to say about human bodies, and by extension the scientific claims that explain our bodies. Thus my critique of science is less my encroachment into “their” territory than it is a critique of their encroachment into mine.”

This suggestion is exactly what triggered the Sokal’s Hoax.

other minor details

There are other phrases in this chapter that cause me to cringe. For instance:

(p39) “Gays and lesbians challenge scientific constructions of homosexuality as abnormal. Some embracing the “queer” label, have challenged the scientific division of people into the categories homosexual and heterosexual.”

I think often activists appeal to reader’s emotions and inner sense of social justice, by creating a false dichotomy. I’ve said this many times. No scientists sets out to divide the world into a normal group and an abnormal group. There is only the familiar bell curve (the normal distribution). Colloquially, we may refer to individual within certain standard deviations as “normal”. The outliers are simply, outliers. Here, amongst the outliers one would find the dumbest and the smartest people on Earth. Why activists want to lump the most stupid with the most brilliant into one group called abnormal is beyond me. I also do not understand why they choose not to see gays and lesbians as in the company of the brightest people.

That homosexuality is not the norm is beyond dispute. I don’t understand the fuss.

About Xinhai Dude 辛亥生

The name Xinhai Dude 辛亥生 is a pun in Chinese, as it means both “he who was born in Xinhai” as well as “he who studies Xinhai”. I had an ambitious plan to write something about the great Xinhai Revolution of 1911, thus my blog But after an initial flurry of activities the initiative petered out. One day I will still carry it through. But for now, this website has turned into a conglomerate of my work on various topics of interest to me, including travel pictures, RC model airplane flying, ice skating, classical music composition, science fiction short stories, evolution and atheism.
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