Richard Francis

Why Men Won’t Ask for Directions

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Dr. Richard Francis
Author, Why Men Won’t Ask for Directions: The Seductions of Sociobiology

Well, the success of the evolutionary theory to explain the adaptation of organisms by selection remains a cornerstone of modern biology.  So successful has this approach been that it has even been extended to explain the selective advantage of many behaviors.  This field of sociobiology has experienced enormous growth during the past few decades, but it may be inquiry with limitations.

Well, joining us today to discuss these issues of sociobiology is Dr. Richard Francis.  Dr. Francis received his Ph.D. in Neurobiology and Behavior from Stony Brook University, and was a recipient of the National Science Research Award from NIH.  He was a postdoctoral fellow at both Stanford and U.C. Berkeley.  And, he is the author of the new book, “Why Men Won’t Ask for Directions: The Seductions of Sociobiology”.

Charles Lee (CL) talks with Dr. Richard Francis (RF) about his book “Why Men Won’t Ask for Directions: The Seductions of Sociobiology”

CL: Dr. Francis, thank you very much for joining us today.

RF: My pleasure.

Richard FrancisCL: Well, it’s certainly a pleasure to have you on the program, and you’ve written a very fascinating book, “Why Men Won’t Ask for Directions:  The Seductions of Sociobiology”.  So, perhaps you might first explain what is sociobiology?

RF: Sociobiology is an attempt to extent the evolutionary approach developed by Darwin to social behaviors in animals and humans, which is fine.  Unfortunately, they have a very narrow conception of what an evolutionary explanation is.  In particular, they focus almost exclusively on natural selection, so they are often referred to as adaptationists.  So, much of this book is a critique of adaptationism in general, and sociobiology and evolutionary psychology in particular.

CL: So, it’s trying to extend evolutionary theory to psychology and behavior.

RF: Yes, which is fine, as long as it’s not done in a simplistic and distorted way, which is what I think sociobiology does.

CL: Perhaps you can give a few examples of the types of questions that sociobiology has been trying to address that may not necessarily be within its purview.

RF: Well, one of the more topical ones recently concerns rape.  There’s been a book by Randy Thornhill and Palmer, which proposes an adaptive explanation of rape in humans and which is not very compelling.  Basically, their explanation is that rape is an adaptive strategy for people of low socio-economic backgrounds who can’t find mates in the more traditional ways.  The data for it is weak.  It’s basically what Gould has referred to as a just-so story, but it’s one with potentially adverse consequences.  I don’t think evolutionary biology has much to contribute to this issue.  I think it’s more an issue for the social sciences, and I just think that a little humility is appropriate here from evolutionary biologists.

CL: You talk a lot in your book about these types of theories related to sex.  In particular, why are there sexes at all?

RF: I do have a chapter on why we have sexual reproduction as opposed to asexual reproduction.  And, there I explore the adaptationist’s explanation for why there is so much sex when there are good evolutionary reasons why you wouldn’t expect it.  In particular, you wouldn’t expect so much sex among vertebrates, where it is almost ubiquitous.  This is a case where I introduce the “how” biology to understand the distribution of sexual behavior.  Basically, there are constraints on vertebrates, such that even if it were adaptive to go back to an asexual mode of reproduction, it’s impossible to get there.

CL: So, once we’ve traveled down the road, there’s no turning back.

RF: Yes.

CL: A lot of the book is a critique between the “why” approach to biology and the “how” approach to biology.  Would you elaborate on that?

RF: Yes, that’s important.  Ernst Myer who is a very famous evolutionary biologist, developed this dichotomy between what he called “how” biology and “why” biology.  “Why” biology was the purview of evolutionary biologists.  “How” biology was everything else: genetics, development, physiology, etc.  And then, he developed this two-tiered approach to biological explanation.  “How” biology supplied the proximate explanation, whereas “Why” biology supplied the ultimate explanation, a term which is problematic in and of itself.  He also asserted that you could do the “Why” biology without any of the “How” biology considerations.  I think that is what has become problematic in a lot of sociobiology.  If they had a better “how” biology grounding, they would be more tethered than they are now.

CL: So, it is trying to search for explanations without looking for a mechanism.

RF: Right.  It’s a mechanism-less search.  In fact, it’s basically a teleological approach, which ironically they inherited from creationists like William Paley and natural theology in general.

CL: Why is it that these types of questions and approaches are so seductive?

RF: Well, we’re all born natural teleologists.  We want to explain nature in some way analogous to the actions of an agent that is analogous to ourselves.  It also has great heuristic value in certain settings.  The problem is that it has this kudzu-like property, referring to that southeastern scourge that takes over everything.   So, it takes over your mental landscape to the point where you can’t consider alternative perspectives.  As a heuristic, teleology is fine, but when it becomes taken as a literalist approach, it becomes problematic.

CL: So, in current biology, we’ve replaced a “god” explanation with a “nature” explanation.

RF: Exactly.  Daniel Dennett is a case and point.  He’s basically replaced a “designing god” with a “designing mother nature”.  But, it’s done over time.  I like to call it “designed on the installment plan”.  This intuition is common to both Dennett and Paley that nature reflects some designed process.  And, that’s what I reject.

CL: What do you think are some of the more egregious examples of this in sociobiology?

RF: One of the chapters I devote with special reference to evolutionary psychology is the alleged sex difference in spatial cognition.  And actually, that’s sort of what the title refers to.  Let me give you their explanation first.  It goes back to some Pleistocene conditions in which men were out hunting and women were at home gathering.  Men because they ranged farther had to develop some innate Euclidean sense and navigational skills, which the women didn’t require.  And then, evolutionary psychologists have added a new twist.  The better navigators were also sexually more attractive to their mates.  So, in essence, to ask for directions is like taking off your shirt to reveal a sunken chest.  It would turn off the females.

The problems with this beyond its sort of surface silliness are three.  One is most basically the data are not very good at showing robust sex differences in spatial cognition between males and females.  Throughout history there has been a number of tests.  In fact, every test of spatial cognition that has been devised has initially shown a sex difference.  And, every one of those results has eventually been debunked, with one exception, and that is the most recent test, which is three-dimensional mental rotation.  So even if we accept that there is a sex difference in three-dimensional mental rotations, then there is the problem of what is its cause.  Evolutionary psychologists assume that it’s biological, that there are hormones involved, that testosterone somehow makes men better spatial navigators.  But, the evidence for that is extremely weak.  In fact, I spent much of the time writing this book having to read that kind of literature.  Whereas there’s ample evidence that social-cultural factors play an enormous role in this.  And also this spatial cognition story extends to sex differences in mathematics.  For example, the sex differences are most pronounced in the United States, even in the Western world.  In some cross-cultural studies, they’ve shown that in African-Americans and Hispanics that females are superior in mathematics, and in Asian-Americans it has been found that the sex difference is quite small.  And, then there’s evidence that these sex differences are disappearing over time, which you would expect given the new educational opportunities available to females.  And, this does not accord well with a biological explanation, much less an evolutionary explanation.

Finally, just from the purely evolutionary explanation, it makes no adaptive sense.  Because if in fact males were selected for this extra spatial cognition and females weren’t, we would still expect both their male and female children to have this enhanced cognition, unless there is a disadvantage for enhanced spatial cognition in females, which there is no reason to believe there is.  So, traits in which there are selective advantages to one sex and not the other are called sexually antagonisitic.  So, evolutionary psychologists have to prove that spatial cognition is a sexually antagonistic trait.  A good example of a sexually antagonistic trait is a penis.  It’s good for a male to have, not good for a female.  Now, nipples, on the other hand, are not a sexually antagonistic trait.  So, a selection for nipples in females has resulted in a correlated response in males.  I suggest that the same would be the case with spatial cognition.

CL: I see. There’s no real reason for women to not have this spatial sense.

RF: No.  What’s the down side?

CL: Right.  How then should biologists be approaching these types of questions?

RF: Well, when it comes to social behaviors in humans, like I indicated before, they should approach it with some humility.  And, right now, evolutionary psychology is very dismissive of the social sciences.  I say there’s no reason to be dismissive of the social sciences, there should not be this antagonism. With respect to biology in particular, there has to be an increased empahsis in mechanisms to ameliorate the teleological tendencies of the “why” biology approach.

CL: Well, we are running a little bit out of time, but I am curious how did you become interested in this whole issue of sociobiology and its limitations?

RF: Oh, it’s from the time I was in graduate school.  I became disenchanted with this sort of explanatory style.  And, my interest in sex differences and sexual phenomena has been the focus of my research over the years.  So, I combine those two here.

CL: Maybe as a final note, in what fields do you think the greatest advances will come in terms of trying to understand behavior?

RF: Well, I certainly think biology will certainly make a big contribution, neurobiology will make a contribution, and evolutionary biology rightly construed will make a contribution.  One of the problems with evolutionary psychology is that it’s going to discredit any evolutionary approach because it’s so obviously defective.  And, the social sciences are obviously going to play an important role:  anthropology, sociology, and psychology.

CL: So, a combination of all of these.

RF: Exactly.  There’s not going to be any simplistic explanations for complex human behaviors.

CL: Indeed.  I think we are out of time, but I just want to thank you for joining us on the program and for a fascinating discussion.

RF: Thank you.

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