Saturday, June 27, 2009

And Hell Just Iced Over!

I'm still looking for the jaw I dropped when I read the latest David Brooks column in the New York Times, because Brooks has always been the go-to-boy on arguments that men and women are hard-wired a certain way, and he does start with that:

In 2000, Geoffrey Miller, a leading evolutionary psychologist, published a book called "The Mating Mind," in which he argued that the process of sexual selection among early human groups hardwired many of the behaviors we see in humans today. Some of the traits are physical. Men generally prefer women with a 0.7 waist-to-hip ratio (that's a 24-inch waist and 36-inch hips, for those of you reading this at the gym). Women generally prefer men who are taller and slightly older.

Some of these traits are more subtle. Men, Miller argues, tip better in restaurants, because they've been programmed to show how much surplus wealth they have. The average American adult knows 60,000 words, far more than we need. We have all those words because we like to mate with people who caress us with language.

Urgh. Gag. And so on, using only a handful of the necessary words. What utter rubbish, sigh, all of it. And wholly divided from the context.

But then (and here's where my jaw disappeared), Brooks continues:

But individuals aren't formed before they enter society. Individuals are created by social interaction. Our identities are formed by the particular rhythms of maternal attunement, by the shared webs of ideas, symbols and actions that vibrate through us second by second. Shopping isn't merely a way to broadcast permanent, inborn traits. For some people, it's also an activity of trying things on in the never-ending process of creating and discovering who they are.

The allure of evolutionary psychology is that it organizes all behavior into one eternal theory, impervious to the serendipity of time and place. But there's no escaping context. That's worth remembering next time somebody tells you we are hardwired to do this or that.

Well, yes. And men just might tip more because they have more money, on average, for example. But I must give credit where credit's due. Just as soon as I find my jaw.