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?