Why My Wife Won’t Ask for Directions


An urban legend says that men won’t ask for directions; I have no idea whether or not the legend is true. But, according to a book review in Natural History magazine, sociobiologists have a fanciful explanation:

…women back then [in our hunter-gatherer past] strongly preferred sexual partners who didn’t get lost in the hunt. If sons inherited the spatial abilities of their fathers, and women persisted in this preference, not getting lost would increase–until somehow, now, men prefer not to appear lost (Deborah M. Gordon, “Dad’s Not Lost,” Natural History, July/August 2004, pp. 52-55).

The book under review is Richard C. Francis, Why Men Won’t Ask for Directions: The Seductions of Sociobiology, Princeton, 2003. I have not (yet?) read the book, so I rely on Gordon’s review. Apparently, Francis finds many sociobiological explanations unconvincing and posits instead alternative physical mechanisms that can account for the observed behavior without reference to sociobiological principles. The book ought to sell well, since most of the behaviors that Francis describes are sexual.

I am not a biologist, but I suspect that, if I were one, I’d be a sociobiologist, or at least sympathetic to that school. That does not mean, as Gordon seems to think, that I’d fall for any unprovable just-so story that purported to explain any behavior that I thought might be adaptive. Indeed, she criticizes Francis for tentatively accepting any adaptive explanations, even when they are “plausible.” Evidently, Gordon will accept no adaptive explanation whatsoever.

My concern here, however, is her last paragraphs:

It is hard to explain why–in spite of so much intellectual energy devoted to demonstrating the mistakes of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology–the scientific rebuttals have had so little effect. Simplistic evolutionary explanations seem to crop up like a pernicious fungus around every new discovery in behavioral science. Does the persistence of adaptive accounts of human behavior merely reflect a collective fondness for explanations that are easy to understand, and comfortable because they justify the status quo?

Francis offers a different reason for the current addiction to adaptive explanations. He suggests that the need for “why” answers is analogous to paranoia, to a delusional belief in the operation of an external force. Just as the paranoid thinks someone is always out there, trying to hurt him, so evolutionary psychologists think something is out there, making everything happen for a reason. That belief comes close to religious faith, and in biology Francis traces this belief back to William Paley, the nineteenth-century theologian who argued, against Darwin, that God, rather than evolution, created species. Perhaps, Francis suggests, evolutionary psychology is best understood as religious faith dressed up as science.

In short, biologists who do not see eye to eye with Gordon (or perhaps Francis) are not competent scientists but addicts, paranoiacs, or religious fanatics. The argument is condescending and insulting. People Gordon disagrees with are not mistaken, but nuts. (Never mind that Paley lived mostly in the eighteenth century and died a half-century before Darwin published On the Origin of Species.)

What is most striking about the argument is its noticeable similarity to the sociobiological arguments that Gordon rejects categorically. Gordon presents not a shred of evidence, such as a clinical diagnosis of even a single sociobiologist, to prove that they are delusional. She gives instead what is very close to an adaptive explanation (people must think that way for a reason), but she accepts that explanation uncritically. Given the rest of her article, you’d expect her to scoff at such nonsense.

Worse, those who truly have a religious motivation for challenging evolution have been calling evolution a secular religion for years; it’s good politics to do so. By characterizing sociobiology as a secular religion, Gordon offers succor to this anti-science crowd: it is only a short step from “Sociobiology is a religion; Gordon and Francis say so” to “Evolution is a religion; Gordon and Francis say so.”

Creationists and neocreationists have long exploited minor disagreements among biologists in order to counterfeit a crisis in the field. What damage will they do with statements like Gordon’s? If Francis really called sociobiology a delusion, then Gordon should have taken him to task and called the characterization irresponsible, not praised him for it. Sociobiology may be partly or wholly wrong, but well trained scientists accept it. Are they all deluded? I feel as if I am reading an article by the Discovery Institute, wherein scientists are said to persist in their addiction to physical naturalism no matter how many times the DI repeats that it is wrong–the rebuttals have had so little effect.

But what about my wife, with whom I began this piece? She is a brilliant navigator; she is female; and she hates to ask for directions. Why? She is confident of her own abilities, and she loves problem solving. Now, let’s see: Why do people love to solve problems?


The biggest argument I can think of against detractors of sociobiology is that they seem to be proposing that evolution created the brain and then essentially left it alone. That seems to contradict everything else we know about evolution - whenever it can make a beneficial change, it does so. Why would the brain be exempt from this process? People are fine when you point out that bees or cats have basic natural instincts, but despise the suggestion that humans might as well. If anyone is stumbling over religious beliefs, it’s the people who continue to wish for the white mutability of the human spirit that Pinker refutes in “The Blank Slate”.

There’s a whole bunch of stuff around nature v. nurture, biology v. culture and evolution v. cultural change which has not yet been adequately integrated.

On some level, culture takes over for genes once it becomes suitably expressive. If someone can invent a new way to make food and then teach it to others, that process operates on a whole different timescale than evolution. Culture allows favorable adaptations to be traded and shared among a population much faster than waiting for genes to spread throughout a population.

Now perhaps I’m just a few steps from accepting, in principle, some basic tenets of Sociobiology. I’m not sure I accept everything that’s been promulgated under that label.

I’m not even sure how to define sociobiology, but I seem to know it when I see it :-).

Sociologists, Anthropologists, and other social scientists tend to dislike sociobiology for a number of reasons. Some (IMO) for the right reasons, others (IMO) for the wrong reasons. The wrong reasons often stem from a misunderstanding or lack of knowledge of biology and scientific reasoning, and overreliance on “social constructionism” and a tendency to think that every biological explanation for behavior is tainted with racism and sexism. Sometimes the latter is true, but there are an awful lot of people out there who seem to offer sociobiological explanations for behavior who are not only not racists and sexists, but have genuine non-racist and non-sexist views. Some of these people even wind up on the “left” of the political spectrum. But all that said, there is a fear (and I think not totally illegitimate) that if our behavior is explained by biology, then any attempt at social reform is just doomed to failure. These are the “wrong” reasons to dislike sociobiology,even if they are perfectly rational and understandable as ethical and political arguments against sociobiology.

There are however better arguments, and in my own recent research, still very much in the formative stage, I have been trying to conceptualize how evolutionary theory and biology can help political economy/economic sociology/economic anthropology out of some conundrums. Some of my thoughts thus far aren’t totally original, I fear.

Anyway, ranting and disclaimers aside, let me offer a perspective as a social scientist who is deeply interested in biology and evolutionary theory as to what I think are the right reasons to dislike sociobiology, and why, frankly, I sometimes do think it is a secular religion.

Let’s take the basic genotype-phenotype distinction and think about genes coding for simple traits (to keep the analogy at its simplest). Even for very simple traits of course, the environment can help shape phenotype. So even a direct link from genotype to phenotype for simple traits is problematic.

Now lets move to higher levels of complexity. Some behaviors might be dependent in some aspect on genes. Some studies suggest that all humans make similar eye rolls when picking up children. Perhaps this is a “behavior” that is coded for in some way by the genes. The evolutionary pathway to this behavior seems to be plausible.

But what about more complex behaviors such as human mate selection? Is human mate selection about passing on “selfish genes”? Could genes really have agency? Even Dawkins admits “selfish genes” are a metaphor to describe evolutionary outcomes. The problem is that when we get to a certain level with the genus homo (I’ll avoid the lumper splitter problems for now), mind begins to emerge and act as a means of shaping behavior in a cognitive fashion. Put a group of people together and they create an ordered system of adaptation based on material provisioning and ordered systems of symbolic interaction. Though it is probably bad form to use the word in the presence of sociobiologists, this is culture. Once culture emerges, the pressure of selection on a purely environmental level ceases.

So, in the real world we have multiple genes coding for multiple possible outcomes in phenotypic expression, being shaped by the environment. Any behavior is highly mediated by culture, and culture in turn shapes the environment. Clifford Geertz suggested that in fact mind/evolution is an interactive process. Once you have “mind”, mind acts on physical evolution and physical evolution acts on mind. There is no mind without culture and the ability of an acultured person to exist is impossible.

So what gets selected for in “culture” when it comes to mate selection? Who does the selecting? Under what set of rules? Soem groups may practice exogamy-others endogamy. Some may develop matirlineages and horticulture, others patrilineages and pastoralism. Marriages may be made to cement kinship alliances and kinship rules do not always follow biological rules. In some cases, individuals may have some choice in selection and reproduction, in others they have none or little choice.

To use a rough analogy we can think of a kite flying in the air. We can think of the genotype as the kiteholder, the string the link from genotype to kite and the wind that blows the kite as the rough equivalent of environment and culture. Sometimes, in spite of all of this, the string may be very tight and the connection between genotype, phenotype and behavior very strong and not very amenable to cultural and environmental pressures. At other times, the kite seems to move all on its own, far away from the genotype, and with enough time, makes the genotype move.

Sociobiologists always seem to offer reductionist explanations, suggest one way causation and frankly, totally ignore culture-in either its material or symbolic aspects. It often comes wrapped in some cutesy grand narrative that doesn’t hold a lot of water when carefully examined.

Is it a “secular religion”: well, not quite. But it is a bit more than annoying since it comes wrapped in a message of pseudo-positivism and its advocates rarely, if ever, take the time to think through modern philosophy of science debates.

I think the latter are the good reasons to be at best, suspicious of sociobiology, and the fact that in turn, socibiology seems to want to smuggle in a political agenda that would cement current cultural arrangements and preclude critical analysis of current cultural arrangements only makes it more galling. And of course, its racist and sexist roots don’t help.

As I said, that sociobiology might offer unpalatable political conclusions is not a priori reason to reject it. There are other, bettter reasons. But it is a reason to look critically at it and ask some really hard questions.

I’d say the real problem here is trying to condemn people as “delusional” et al, when all that’s really necessary is to say that they are wrong, and give counterarguments to their claim.

It is the nature of science that many, even most, hypotheses, get squelched long before they make it to “theory” status. That’s not a fault in science, it’s a virtue! To be topical about it, the evolution of scientific theory is accelerated by fecund production of new hypotheses, combined with harsh selection among all standing hypotheses.

As far as the utility of biological explanations of behavior, I’m perfectly happy to see new ideas coming out. I’m also happy to judge them first for compatibility with the scientific canon, second for testability, and third for the results of experiments which actually do test them – which is increasingly practical!

In this vein, I would like to recommend a book I am currently reading, which I find quite relevant to the discussion of human instinct and behavior, despite the fact that it doesn’t directly deal with humans:

The Domestic Dog; its evolution, behavior, and interactions with people, edited by James Serpell, from Cambridge University Press, published 1995. ISBN 0-521-42537-9.

While I’m still working my way through this volume (it is not pop-science fluff), I’ve generally been impressed by the authors’ conservative interpretations of their findings, and willingness to consider multiple explanations of their evidence. Disclaimer: I’m also pleased by how much of the stuff I’ve seen here seems to support my own ideas about human instinct, and the evolution of instinct in general.

Of course, I think you pretty much stated the problem. What i have seen of Sociobiology is statement of assumptions as conclusions, rather than as really testable hypotheses. It advances some novel ideas, but IMO (and I am willing to stand corrected) doesn’t really consider alternative hypotheses. As a result, its proponents have a tendency to come off as dogmatic.

Chip: I have a sudden vision: Dr. Manners’ Guide to Scientific Etiquette. Does anyone know of any work to that effect?

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This page contains a single entry by Matt Young published on July 21, 2004 11:10 AM.

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