The World’s Fair is pleased to offer the following discussion about The Caveman Mystique: Pop-Darwinism and the Debates Over Sex, Violence, and Science (Routledge, 2007), with its author Martha McCaughey. McCaughey is a Professor of Sociology and the Director of Women’s Studies at Appalachian State University.
Professor McCaughey’s work fits at the intersections of gender, sexuality, science, technology, social movements, and the media. I first met her during her tenure at Virginia Tech, where she distinguished herself as a leading feminist scholar in science studies, an atypically approachable and congenial intellectual, and a thought-provoking member of the faculty of Science and Technology Studies. Her first book, Real Knockouts: The Physical Feminism of Women’s Self-Defense–” An examination of women’s self-defense culture and its relationship to feminism”–was published by NYU Press in 1997. After a few edited volumes (about which see here), her most recent book is The Caveman Mystique, under discussion here. One summary of the book (this one) puts it this way: “The watered-down evolutionary psychology prevalent in pop culture enables some men to rationalize sexist double standards about relationships.” The publisher notes that it “offers a fresh understanding of science, science popularization, and the impact of science on men’s identities making a convincing case for deconstructing, rather than defending, the caveman.” The book is a compelling contribution to discussions about the production of gender identities and the consequences of pop Darwinism’s insinuation into public discourse. What is more, its academic rigor doesn’t preclude McCaughey from offering an accessible story and engaging read. The book is both subtle in its theoretical grounding and direct in its explanation of how biological theories make their way into pop culture.
This is the sixteenth in our series of “Author Meets Bloggers” posts, where we talk to authors about their new work. (See them all here.) What follows is part one of a three-part conversation about The Caveman Mystique. As ever, we encourage all questions and comments.
THE WORLD’S FAIR: We have the cursory blurbs above, but I suppose the standard starting question is, what’s this really about? Scientific, evolutionary explanations of why men behave badly?
MARTHA McCAUGHEY: The book is about the emergence of evolutionary theory applied to human male sexuality, and the popular spread of some version of that theory.
WF: What’s your argument?
MM: I argue that a pop-Darwinian account of men’s boorishness is popular now for specific, sociological reasons relating to the economic downsizing American men have experienced and to the authority enjoyed by “scientific” explanations of who we are. I also suggest that the caveman identity is lived out as a real biological truth, corporealized into men’s everyday attitudes, gestures, beliefs, etc. The caveman is an embodied ethos. I suggest that a different view of science would help allow us to question the reliance of scientific explanations of men’s sexuality, and so encourage readers to take a historical and cultural approach to understanding gender and identity.
WF: Whom did you imagine reading The Caveman Mystique as you wrote it?
MM: Well, I knew that both feminist scholars of gender and sexuality and scholars in the field of science studies interested in gender and/or the body would read it. And I figured some evolutionary psychologists might read it. But the group I imagined as my audience when I wrote it–and the group I really hope my book speaks to–is regular guys. I wanted regular guys to question where they got their sense of who they are and, further, to question the authority they gave science in helping determine who they are.
WF: How does that work in the book?
MM: One way I do that is to show that the popularized Darwinian discourse about men is a watered down, distorted version of evolutionary science. But I also wanted them to recognize that science itself is not certain. Evolutionary psychology’s claims about men’s sexual desires remain speculative.
WF: You explain the sociological reasons (social science) for that Caveman discourse, and yet some people argue that evolution (evolutionary science) explains a man’s reluctance to commit to one woman.
MM: Yes, there are many cultural shifts for which sociological explanations are just as valid as evolutionary ones. My book encourages men to see their lives in cultural and historical perspective, so that they don’t swallow whole evolutionary explanations of their behaviors and desires.
WF: Could you point to a specific example you draw on to make that case?
MM: One example is men’s tendency to prefer pretty women over rich women (which stands in sharp contrast to women’s tendency to prefer rich men over poor-but-pretty men). Evolutionary psychologists and their enthusiasts often see this as a perfect example of evolution’s effect on our sexual psychologies. After all, ancestral men, with their many expendable sperm, who inseminated as many fertile women as possible (and prettiness is correlated with fertility) would have had more reproductive success. Ancestral women, with their few large eggs and high level of parental investment in offspring, who mated with good providers would have had more reproductive success. Yet sociologists can argue that women today on average have fewer resources than men and so for socioeconomic reasons can’t “afford” to prefer prettiness over resources the way men can.
WF: And did you have difficulty choosing from the range of possible cases? Or were there a few that really stood out?
MM: Rape, sexual harassment, and men’s mate preferences are commonly discussed and ones that I discuss in The Caveman Mystique. There is also a set of cultural expectations of men one commonly finds–being strong, being mechanical, and even wanting and liking certain things such as sports and beer, and, I would add, sex with women–which exemplify the embodied ethos of manhood. That ethos is now being fueled by the popular narrative of the caveman.
WF: So acting like a “caveman” is being a rugged, aggressive guy who belches in between beers and leers. You argue that the caveman discourse offers guys a biological marker of manhood. But why do they need or want such a biological marker of manhood today?
MM: The feminist philosopher Sandra Lee Bartky made an argument about women’s changing status impacting women’s bodily comportment, saying that modern Western women began to restrict and constrict their bodies more as they gained institutional and social freedoms. Bartky said that old forms of patriarchal domination have eroded or changed and that new forms of sexist inequality have sometimes taken their place. For example, women are no longer expected to be chaste or modest, or to restrict their sphere of activity to the home; but now normative femininity is centered on a woman’s body (rather than its duties and obligations). So women, who now have more formal freedoms, are now expected to restrict themselves in a tightly controlled, carefully managed feminine bodily comportment–to compensate for their increased freedoms. As for men, I would suggest, appropriating Bartky, that we now see men finding their freedom and power in a bodily comportment just the opposite of Bartky’s modern feminine woman: Men are boozing and belching their way to a lack of restrictions–to combat the increased restrictions they find in life and law.
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