Caveman Mystique

McCaughey, Martha. (2008). The caveman mystique: Pop- Darwinism and the debates over sex, violence, and science. New York and London: Routledge.

Today, the debate over the theory of evolution is often posed in the media as a culture war. On one side, stand the conservative creationists and on the other side stand the liberal proponents of 'real science' or evolution. However, feminist biological anthropologist Martha McCaughey in her book the Caveman mystique: Pop- Darwinism and the debates over sex, violence, and science (New York: Routledge 2008) demonstrates that far from being unassailable fact, Darwinism can be misinterpreted to the degree that it has little scientific veracity at all. Pseudo or pop culture Darwinism has often been used to advocate a very conservative ideology that validates rather than questions social norms about race and gender.

The most notable example of this phenomenon is Social Darwinism, which suggests a 'struggle for the fittest' determines what races would survive and which will be dominated by other races. Darwinism has also been used to justify pre-existing gender norms through the 'caveman mystique' which perpetuates the notion that evolution proves that men are innately aggressive, because natural selection determines that such men will survive and propagate their offspring -- even through violent sexual means. This theory also suggests that women are chosen by aggressive men, not because they are strong but because they are sensual and passive. Evolutionary selection demonstrates that women must be valued based upon their hip to waist ratio rather than their IQ, and there is nothing any of us can do about this.

McCaughey, by placing Darwinism in its historical context, shows how evolutionary theory can be twisted to 'prove' any prejudice the individual might possess. For example, Darwinism, far from being marginalized during the Victorian era, was often been used to justify social, economic, and political inequalities, even Christianity's domination of non-Christian races. "The social, ethical, and political implications of Darwinism made it incredibly popular by the late 1800s....between 1860 and 1914...every Darwinian became a social theorist" to justify his or her prejudice of choice (McCaughey, 2008, p. 46). Eugenics fell out of favor after the abuses of the Nazis were revealed during World War II, but until then even American, feminist liberals like birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, used Darwinism to justify certain social practices, such as the reduction of unwanted and genetically inferior children (McCaughey, 2008, p. 47).

This type of Darwinism is sloppy science, because it begins with common assumptions, such as the fact that men are violent and sexual, women are passive and merely want husbands, and that 'our' society is better than the societies it has conquered because might makes right. It uses the bare bones of evolutionary theory to justify its conclusions after the fact, just like the social inequities of the races were justified by die-hard Social Darwinists. In 20th century, post-sexual revolutionary America the idea of the sexualized caveman was far "more appealing (or simply more likely) than the monogamous marriage model," and thus "a Darwinian theory of innate male promiscuity to rationalize the revolt against the role of breadwinner" was born (McCaughey, 2008, p. 27). Evolutionary scholars started explaining rape, sexual harassment, and male sexual promiscuity all through the justification of male's innate need to propagate and spread their offspring, while women who nurtured their young innately sought protection from stronger males, not to be strong themselves (McCaughey, 2008, p. 128). Men thus have a low biologically programmed need for making an investment in an individual child and are hard-wired to seek affection amongst many women.

It is all too easy to come up with a persuasive argument about how something could have been adaptive" at one time, long ago (McCaughey, 2008, p. 118). Over and over again, throughout the text McCaughey shows the self-fulfilling prophesy of pop Darwinism, and demonstrates that science is not pure objectivism, but is filtered through the lens of the human brain. McCaughey is far from anti-science, but she is against the distortion of science, and the easy and reductive understanding of scientific ideals. Even casual readers will be fascinated by how she reveals the central place science has in popular culture in America. It is easy to assume that science must have a superior validity to political opinion or emotional discourse about religion, but science used in a reductive fashion is just as, if not more inaccurate and dangerous.

Reading the book, it is easy to think of how often science is used to justify racial and gender-based prejudices. Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, explains male insensitivity as natural and a general cultural resistance to marrying early (for financial as well as social reasons) is seen as an inevitable product of the male ego. Teenage irresponsibility is explained as a fluke of the teenage development cycle and even the obesity epidemic is attributed to genetic causes. Yes, there may be some justification in some of the science, but complex behavior, like romantic relationships, childhood development, and addictive habits can seldom be reduced to an easy cause-and-effect analysis, as counseled by the popular culture, which speaks in the language of headlines, not scientifically valid studies. Pseudo-pop science confirms our prejudices in the language of the 'expert,' like a commercial with a dentist confirms that two out of every three dentists prefer Crest. If the Nightly News suggests that male infidelity is inevitable because men are 'cavemen' beneath the veneer of civilization, we feel we must believe it, despite the fact that the history of science' yields examples of scientists conducting "skull-size measurements comparing blacks unfavorably to whites" and "measurements of the putatively extra-large genitalia of lesbians, and has produced scientific "textbook descriptions of aggressive [cartoon] sperm competing" to win over a passive egg (McCaughey, 2008, p.39).

McCaughey's tone is occasionally humorous, occasionally chiding, but ultimately empowering. She says: "we can" and "we must -- critique the power of scientific discourse," and avoid the assumption that because science 'says so,' it must be right, a dogma just as inflexible as that of a religion -- "evolutionary theorists would insist that culture is biology" just as monolithically as faith-based believers say that religion explains biology (McCaughey, 2008, p. 20; 29). We must dare to ask: "[M]ight evolutionary scholars have ideological biases? And might feminist scholars have some academic authority on matters of sexuality and gender?" (McCaughey, 2008, p. 34). This type of approach, when confronted with science is far better for us to adopt as a society than one which merely accepts scientific assumptions as holy writ, whether confronting literature regarding gender, race, or even research about medical technologies and treatments. Trust of medicine and science is a sociological phenomenon, not the result of cultural progress.

Discussions of biology often reflect social injustices couched in the language of science: When we use biology to discuss women, it is typically prescriptive: science tells women what to do: they must breastfeed their babies, go back home after having a child so as not to endanger their children and tread on eggshells around the egos of their husbands when asking them to do the vacuuming, as the biology of cavemen is unalterable. The language of biology is employed to discuss men in a descriptive fashion, to tell women why men do what they do, not to change the essence of their pure, male nature (McCaughey, 2008, pp. 61-62). This encourages men not to take responsibility for their actions.

Interestingly, the one exception to this cultural construct of the unalterable nature of the male character is found in the way that the culture treats black and Latino male aggression, which is couched in the language of a 'problem,' and criminality, as opposed to the naturalness of generalized male aggression and rape, which females and society as a…