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Further Reading

COLUMN: Deprogram with Denyse O'Leary

Lucy Speaks

Evolutionary Psychology Is Now Taking Your Questions

by Denyse O'Leary

When Britain's Guardian newspaper first introduced its "evolutionary" agony aunt (advice columnist in America) in 2009—to honor 150 years of the culture birthed with Charles Darwin's 1859 book, On the Origin of Species—I thought, "Aha! a send-up, to be sure." I was wrong, but in fairness, when the evolutionary psychologist speaks, even an expert can't always tell.

No spoof. The Guardian burbled proudly about Carole Jahme, author of Beauty and the Beasts: Woman, Ape and Evolution and winner of the Wellcome Trust Award for Communication of Science to the Public. For the 2009 Darwin bicentennial celebrations, Jahme, who holds an M.A. in evolutionary psychology, put together a comedy show titled Carole Jahme is Sexually Selected, which was described as a combination of Charles Darwin and Charlie Chaplin.

The Guardian touts her column as "shin[ing] the cold light of evolutionary psychology" on readers' problems, thus apparently offering welcome relief from the "Aw, just dump the dweeb!" froth churned out by glossier rags and mags.

What the Cold Light Reveals

Jahme's responses to her readers' questions, classified by The Guardian as "science news," are based mostly on what current literature says about the behavior of apes and monkeys and on speculations about the behavior of prehistoric humans. With what result? Let's look at four recent columns:

September 12, 2010: "Feeling Motherly, aged 30," writes to say, "I really want a baby . . . but my husband is not so sure. Will my husband's paternal instincts kick in once the baby has arrived?"

Maybe, Jahme says, informing "Motherly" that her husband's current indifference is just his "inner gorilla," a fact she explains with illustrations from the lives of gorillas and much speculation about the lives ancient humans. Paradoxically, Jahme's response is tightly culture-bound while at the same time it ignores the millennia of human societies that simply expected a man to "do his duty" in such matters and get used to it.

August 13, 2010: "Anonymous Male" confides, "My girlfriend is anything but submissive, yet she only achieves orgasm when she's tied up." He claims to have no complaint about her sexual tastes, but he is uncertain about their "evolutionary benefit."

Jahme responds with a long disquisition on female orgasms, but she then says something quite sensible, for once:

If I were you, instead of asking, "why does my girlfriend enjoy being tied up?", I might question, when those handcuffs come out, whether it's really me she wants. Or is she just feeling horny and in need of a male to animate her reductive, prelapsarian fantasy?

Good question! After all, it's not clear, despite his disclaimer, that "Anonymous" truly doesn't mind his girlfriend's tastes. For one thing, he manages to "out" her by giving just enough information that she, whom he notes is a fellow Guardian reader, will recognize herself. (Even if Jahme wisely airbrushed the actual information provided, the writer's intent seems pretty clear.)

July 26, 2010: "Sarah" admits, "My boyfriend thinks I talk too much." Jahme replies to this problem by citing research that shows that females are "selected for group co-operation," and then announces: "All of this research indicates that you, Sarah, and your ancestors have evolved to be chatty, babbling females." She suggests that Sarah channel her chattiness toward her girlfriends, phoning and texting them when they're not available to chat with in person, and that she might also try "purging" her "excited thoughts by writing them down." In these ways Sarah can deal with her intractable, gene-driven problem without annoying her boyfriend.

One strategy Jahme doesn't mentioned is "Listen more." Few fail to be impressed with people who actually listen to them. Even that poor boyfriend might actually like to be heard now and then.

And so it goes. When "I'm just a jealous guy" (July 6, 2010) asks Jahme for "insights into jealousy from a Darwinian perspective," he learns that sexual jealousy is "not peculiar to humans" (who guessed?), but then, genuinely stumped, Jahme resorts to moralizing, as we all do perhaps, at times.

More Wispy than Cold

Having now read nearly twenty of Jahme's columns, I would say that the "evolution" stuff is uninformative and unconvincing, obviously shoehorned in for effect. The reader may initially come away with the impression of having learned something from her replies, but on reflection realize that he has in fact learned nothing of consequence. Indeed, that may be the best that can be said for evolutionary psychology's storming of the bastions of counseling: It probably won't distract a serious reader from looking elsewhere for sober analyses and solutions.

Few troubled people care much about apes' and monkeys' behavior. Conversely, many of them are also unimpressed when a counselor tactfully explains that other people have suffered similarly, and worse. There is a rough logic to the brooder's view: It's my pain and I'll cry if I want to. That's an unfortunate attitude, because the exercise of compassion will often go a great way to relieving someone's pain—but that's a story for another day.

Overall, the light of evolutionary psychology is not so much cold as wispy—dim and foggy, powered by irrelevancies from the jungle or imaginings about lost worlds. Yet, in the present moment of our culture—when there is lots of knowledge and so little wisdom—it phosphoresces so very alluringly: People who have no other light may welcome the swamp candle, come what may.

Carole Jahme's columns can be viewed at http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/series/ask-carole.


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