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The Toxic Assumptions of Evolutionary Psychology about Men

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Editor’s note: We are delighted to present a preview adapted from Nancy Pearcey’s forthcoming book The Toxic War on Masculinity. The book will be published on June 27, but you can pre-order now! For earlier preview posts from the same chapter, see here and here.

The impact of Darwinism went even deeper, however. His purely naturalistic theory held that natural forces had the power to create everything that exists — that God was not necessary to explain the world in any way. And if God was not needed to do any creating, then he was out of a job. The idea of God might still be helpful for some people — but only for those who need that kind of emotional crutch. Christianity was reduced to the status of subjective feelings. 

How did this affect people’s view of the relation between men and women? In the 19th century, women were thought to possess a greater sensitivity to morality and religion. Transcendent moral and spiritual truths were said to be transmitted primarily through the home. But Darwinian naturalism undermined confidence in the very existence of a spiritual realm. As a result, the home was recast as the center of an archaic religion and an outmoded piety. Christianity was derided as old-fashioned and repressive. 

Historian Glenna Matthews describes how the impact of Darwinism continues even in our own day: 

Men and women living in a modern secular society are under a handicap in dealing with transcendent values. Darwinism helped create a secular and materialist outlook. As a consequence, reflective people now lack a vocabulary for talking about love, nurture, or the social importance of home without sounding sentimental and faintly ridiculous.

Darwinism thus gave impetus to the male revolt against the home and family — in fact, against any “transcendent values” that would call men to a higher ideal, to a biblical standard of behavior. 

“Taming” Men

Jumping ahead to our own day, Social Darwinism continues to be highly influential. It has re-emerged under the label of evolutionary psychology. For example, economist George Gilder in his book Sexual Suicide (1973) argues that evolution has produced men who are naturally uncivilized: 

Men are, by nature, violent, sexually predatory, and irresponsible: Men lust, but they know not what for; they wander, and lose track of the goal; they fight and compete, but they forget the prize; they spread seed, but spurn the seasons of growth; they chase power and glory, but miss the meaning of life.

Who must civilize these raging beasts? You guessed it: women. According to Gilder, an unmarried man is “poor and neurotic. He is disposed to criminality, drugs, and violence. He is irresponsible about his debts, alcoholic, accident prone, and venereally diseased.” It is women’s job to domesticate these unruly males: “Women transform male lust into love; channel male wanderlust into jobs, homes, and families; . . . change hunters into fathers; divert male will to power into a drive to create.” 

If you’ve read earlier chapters, you recognize this as an exaggerated version of the Victorian stereotype: women=good, men=bad. And it is extremely derogatory to men. In Gilder’s view, “the woman’s morality is the ultimate basis for all morality” — and men must learn it from women: “The success or failure of civilized society depends on how well the women can transmit these values to the men. . . . The community is largely what she is and what she demands in men.” 

But does God really call on women to “demand” that men live up to “the woman’s morality”? Or does he call men to live up to God’s moral standard? 

Gilder goes on: “The woman’s place is in the home, and she does her best when she can get the man there too, inducing him to submit most human activity to the domestic values of civilization.” But what if a woman cannot “get” the man to stay home? What if she cannot induce him to “submit” to domesticity? History is replete with unfaithful men and abandoned wives and children.

Gilder’s fundamental mistake is to assume that it’s up to women to take the initiative in marriage and family. By contrast, Scripture calls on men to take the initiative. As Genesis says, “a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife” (2:24). It’s the man who must have the impetus to separate from his family and childhood home and take up the challenge of starting a new family. It’s not the woman who is commanded to entice a man into marriage or to demand his faithfulness. 

Gilder’s second mistake is to think men’s intrinsic nature is the urge to escape. In order to have a wife and family, he writes, a man must sacrifice “his most profound yearning, his bent for the hunt and the chase, the motorbike and the open road, the male group escape to a primal mode of predatory and immediate gratification.” 

But is it really men’s “most profound yearning” to escape? To be “predatory”? To indulge in “immediate gratification”? Is that really how God created men? 

Gilder is letting men off the hook. He is giving them a pass on moral responsibility. Men are allowed to be selfish, lustful, irresponsible, and violent — and then women are tasked with taming that behavior. But if men were really as uncivilized as Gilder portrays them, what woman would have the power to control them? What woman would want to? 

Gilder thinks the Darwinian script for masculinity reflects men’s intrinsic nature. But it does not. In Genesis, we learn that God created the first human couple to be in relationship. That’s the software. Both men and women are wired for marriage. That does not mean all people should marry, but it does mean that men do not have to sacrifice their essential identity in order to marry and raise a family. What they have to sacrifice is their sin and self-centeredness — just as we all do. 

Did Women Create Marriage?

The toxic assumption of evolutionary psychology — that men are uncivilized beasts who need women to tame them — is widely held by other influential thinkers. Political scientist Charles Murray at the American Enterprise Institute writes, “Young males are essentially barbarians for whom marriage . . . is an indispensable civilizing force.”

Sociologist David Popenoe, co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, writes, “Men are not biologically attuned to being committed fathers. Left culturally unregulated, men’s sexual behaviour can be promiscuous, their paternity casual, their commitment to families weak.” Note the assumption that men are not created to be faithful husbands and fathers. But that is a dangerous message, fostering male irresponsibility. It tells men that marriage and family run counter to their authentic nature. 

Columnist William Raspberry wrote an article actually titled “Women Taming Men.” His claim is that crime and drugs among African-American men are not a result of men’s own sin and self-indulgence. They are the fault of African-American women. Why? Because men are naturally prone to irresponsibility and it is women’s job to civilize them. 

Raspberry quotes a reader who wrote to him saying, “As long as women continue to have relationships with, and continue to bear the children of, men who do not marry them, men will continue to be absent fathers.” Raspberry agrees, writing, 

Women . . . are the civilizers of the society. Sex being hers to grant or withhold, she has withheld it in exchange for commitment. And why shouldn’t she? The consequences — pregnancy and childbirth — are infinitely more serious for her than for her free-roaming sexual partner. His sexual drive became the leverage by which she domesticated him and tied him to the family. Women created marriage and made family possible.

In this scenario, God did not create marriage. Women did. And God did not create men to be naturally oriented toward marital faithfulness. They are naturally “free-roaming.” The assumption is that marriage is a cultural construction created by women and imposed on men. 

Raspberry is calling on women to police the behavior of men. But why would a man submit to moral rules that are said to be women’s rules? More importantly, does Scripture say it is women’s task to tame men? Or does it challenge men to be moral and spiritual leaders in the home and in society? 

The theory that marriage is imposed by women is an incredibly damaging message to send to men. But it is also very convenient for them. When they misbehave, they can blame women for failing to civilize them. (“The woman whom you gave to be with me” — it’s her fault. Genesis 3:12 ESV.) 

For example, former radio talk show host Laura Schlessinger (known as Dr. Laura) scolded women, saying, “Men would not do half of what they do if women didn’t let them.” She added, “That a man is going to do bad things is a fact. That you keep a man who does bad things in your life is your fault.” Notice the unquestioned assumption that a man will “do bad things” as if that’s just his male nature — and that it’s the woman’s job not to “let” him. 

These commentators offer a view of men that is as dark and cynical as that of the most radical feminist. For example, the feminist professor Camille Paglia wrote an essay titled “Rape and Modern Sex War,” in which she claims, 

Hunt, pursuit, and capture are biologically programmed into male sexuality. Generation after generation of men must be educated, refined, and ethically persuaded away from their tendency toward anarchy and brutishness. . . . Masculinity is aggressive, unstable, combustible.

Tell men often enough that they are naturally irresponsible brutes, captive to ancient caveman urges, and they will start acting like it. They will start treating marriage as an imposition that works against their true nature, a trap that constrains their free spirit. The result is exactly what we see today: too many young men refusing to grow up, avoiding the responsibilities of job and family. The phrase “failure to launch” describes a tragic reality. Marriage rates in the United States are at their lowest rates ever. Negative definitions of masculinity have negative consequences. 

Are Men “Flesh-Obsessed Pigs”?

Several other versions of evolutionary psychology are circulating today that all send the same message — that men are naturally crude and irresponsible. One popular version speculates that it is to the male’s evolutionary advantage to spread his sperm around as far and wide as possible to maximize his chances of getting his genes into the next generation; therefore, evolution has hardwired men to be sexually promiscuous. A cover story in Time Magazine was subtitled “Infidelity: It May Be in Our Genes.” The author, an evolutionary psychologist, claims that “lifelong monogamous devotion just isn’t natural.”

In The New Yorker, Steven Pinker of Harvard expands on the same theory, writing, “A prehistoric man who slept with fifty women could have sired fifty children, and would have been more likely to leave descendants.” The man’s descendants would also have “inherited his tastes” for promiscuity. 

But the idea that men are genetically hardwired for infidelity does not make sense scientifically. Human infants are so fragile that they need extraordinarily long and consistent care. Infants conceived by a man who abandons them quickly to move on to his next sexual conquest would have a much lower chance of survival. And of course, if they do not survive, then the male’s genes will not get into the next generation. For reproductive success, evolution should select for faithful husbands and devoted fathers.

Evolution does not give men a pseudoscientific excuse for sexual promiscuity. 

Yet evolutionary psychology tends to be only loosely tied to any scientific data. As the saying goes, behavior leaves no fossils. As a result, theories can be freely invented — and often are. Journalist Robert Wright, in his bestselling book The Moral Animal, claims that “human males are by nature oppressive, possessive, flesh-obsessed pigs.” He concludes, “Giving them advice on successful marriage is like offering Vikings a free booklet titled ‘How Not to Pillage.’”

What an insulting message to men. And if men really were akin to pillaging Vikings, women would have neither the power nor the desire to restrain them. 

It is far too easy for evolutionary psychologists to come up with Just-So stories — narratives with no solid empirical evidence. Several years ago, a book came out titled A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion.The authors, Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer (a biologist and an anthropologist), make the inflammatory claim that rape is not a pathology, biologically speaking. Instead, it is an evolutionary adaptation for maximizing reproductive success. In other words, if candy and flowers don’t do the trick, some men may resort to coercion to fulfill the reproductive imperative. The book calls rape “a natural, biological phenomenon that is a product of the human evolutionary heritage,” just like “the leopard’s spots and the giraffe’s elongated neck.” 

Thornhill and Palmer conclude that all men are violent, rapacious predators who will flare out whenever “the necessary environmental factors are present” — and not surprisingly, those factors are “sometimes present in all societies studied to date.”

The authors insist that they are not justifying or endorsing rape; they are just presenting the biological facts. Yet given their evolutionary premise, it follows logically that any trait that has survived must have some survival value — otherwise it would have been weeded out by natural selection. In other words, by sheer logic, the authors were forced to find some positive benefit even in the crime of rape. When Thornhill was interviewed on National Public Radio, he stated repeatedly, “That’s not a debatable matter.” As Christian psychologist Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen explains, 

Once you have reduced all behavioral tendencies to inexorable genetic mechanisms, then humans are no more responsible for their behavior than my local ATM machine is when it fails to give me the money I’m trying to withdraw from my account. You cannot get ethics from mechanics, so the obvious evolutionary default setting is simply that might makes right. 

The appeal of evolutionary psychology is that it claims to be scientific. It claims to ground concepts of masculinity in science. But its scientific underpinnings are being radically questioned. The discovery of DNA has revealed that at the heart of every living cell is coded information. A single cell of the human body contains as much information as the Encyclopedia Britannica — all thirty volumes of it — three or four times over. As a result, the question of the origin of life has been recast as the origin of biological information. And in all of human experience, information is the product of a mind. Natural forces do not create messages. 

It is reasonable to conclude that life is likewise the product of a mind, an intelligent agent. 

As Darwinism is discredited scientifically, we should also challenge the way it has shaped the secular code for masculinity. We should refuse to accept an evolutionary script telling us that men are, at the core, brutish and barbarian — that they are “flesh-obsessed pigs.” From a biblical perspective, we should certainly acknowledge that men are sinful beings, and that throughout human history, many have committed rape and violence. But that is not how God created them. And because it is not in their intrinsic nature, they are not locked into it. God’s forgiveness and sanctifying power can transform any man to live according to the godly ideal of the Good Man. 

The biblical view of manhood offers men far greater dignity than any secular view. We should be confident in arguing for it in the public square.