Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Games That Academics Play

One of the U.'s psychology professor has parlayed tales of evolutionary psychology (the academic drinking game formerly known as sociobiology) in various editorial pages and elsewhere for some time now. He has even wrote a book of literary criticism, though admittedly the profession of critic has few standards for either plausibility of methodology or tenability of evidence: it's pretty much a game you can play if you show up. (This among other things explains Michael Medved.) I enjoy factoids about animal behavior as much as anyone, and learning about other species' naughty bits is indeed fun.

But tell me, is there anything illuminating about this smug analysis about Eliot Spitzer's downfall? What, precisely, does the professor add to the social truism that men with power are attracted to--and attract to them--temptations ranging from infidelity to exposing how much you "throw like a girl" in Fenway? Exactly how do the mating habits do swans help illuminate this particular politician's preference for high-priced call girls, rather than cigars and interns? Barash does nt say how non-monogamous swans are: could it be that a swans do swan around sometimes* but also experience the same rituals of shaming and repentance as humans? He mentions the contention that most cultures were polygamous before the rise of Western society. Never mind that this claim is anthropology, not biology; exactly how non-monogamous were these cultures? Was it something everyone did, or was it a sign of power restricted to the few? You can't exactly say, either, that the West has eradicated monogamy, because parts of it are always backsliding and/or making exceptions. (This is not even to start a discussion about, well, what is this thing you call the "west"?) A recent example of polygamy, conveniently located way out west in the US, is an exemplary instance of patriarchy, up to and including abuse of young women and the ostracizing of young men who question the leader. This is classic pack behavior, but it is also classic cult behavior, so to call it "natural" or in the language here, a matter of "evolutionary fitness" begs questions rather than explains anything.

(1) That "swan" can be used as a verb to mean "vainly strut around" suggests loyalty is not the only thing that is connoted by them.