World's Fair

Pt. I | Pt. 2 | Pt. 3

Part 2 with Martha McCaughey, discussing her book The Caveman Mystique, follows below. All entries in the author-meets-blogger series can be found here.

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WF: How do you see the relationship between the academic fields of gender studies and science studies? And how has that relationship changed in the past two decades? I’m asking for a few reasons, but one of them is that I remember from graduate studies that many of the most persuasive accounts of the politics of science and technology came from feminist scholars.

MM: It’s a big question, so I’ll offer but a start to an answer. When Donna Haraway wrote her now well-known essay “Manifesto for Cyborgs” (Socialist Review [1985]: 80:65-108) she was trying to get feminists to take science and technology more seriously. (See the interview with her published a few years later in Socialist Review, “Overhauling the Meaning Machines: An Interview with Donna Haraway,” by Marcy Darnovsky, Socialist Review [1991]: 91/2: 21:2: 65-84.) It took a long time for some gender scholars to heed Haraway’s warning that while new technologies were going to be the source of new forms of oppression and inequality, they might also be the source of liberation such that we can’t afford a simple position of anti-technology. Some of the more compelling accounts of the politics of science and technology have come from feminist scholars in the field. There are still many feminists outside STS debating issues outside of the arena of STS–and that’s fine. Now there are fewer STS scholars who ignore the insights of the feminist scholars who have been working in STS.

WF: Is this work still as vibrant as it was, say, in the ’80s?

MM: Again, a larger question than I can answer fully here. That work has certainly been developed and spread by a large number of scholars. While there are some great attempts to incorporate feminist scholarship in STS programs, I think there are still too few courses taught in women’s and gender studies about science and technology–although the number has increased since ten years ago, when I attempted, unsuccessfully, to interest a women’s studies book publisher in a textbook on gender and technology. I might add that the number of textbooks on the subject has increased (and none of them was written by me).

WF: On gender relations more basically–how much of this evo-pysch is Western? How do they explain gender relations in non-western cultures?

MM: Evolutionary psychologists love to show that the sexual psychologies that they believe are rooted in evolution are cross-cultural. Of course, showing that the sexual desires and behavior patterns are cross-cultural helps establish that those desires and patterns might have evolutionary roots. But as Stephen Jay Gould pointed out many years ago, and which I reiterate in my book, noting that a behavior is cross-cultural, giving a plausible evolutionary explanation for that behavior, and finding that non-human animals also do it does not prove that the behavior is rooted in evolution or is an adaptation. After all, equally plausible non-evolutionary explanations might exist that would explain a behavior, or a sex difference in mating preferences. There could also be a sociological explanation for why something is cross-cultural. David Buss’s cross-cultural study of mating preferences indicates that more often men are more likely to prefer good looks in a mate, while women are more likely than men to prefer resources in a mate. But there are still so many similarities between men and women in a given location, and so many differences between men (and between women) across nations that very little of the difference can even be attributed to biological sex.

WF: Is it not just Western culture that promotes this cavemen mystique, but, even more narrowly, a youth culture defined by bars, alcohol, dancing, reality TV, and Red Bull?

MM: Certainly the caveman ethos seems to appeal to young men. The popular understanding of men’s sexuality as naturally vigorous and irrepressibly heterosexual helps fuel a culture that sociologist Michael Kimmel calls “guyland” in his book by that name. (See Michael Kimmel, Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, 2008, HarperCollins.) “Guyland” is a social space in addition to a life stage, in which young single men act rough, gruff, sexually aggressive, anti-gay, and do lewd, rude-dude things–resenting anything intellectual, politically correct, or smacking of either responsibility or women’s authority. According to Kimmel, the five main markers of adulthood–leaving home, completing one’s education, starting work, getting married, and becoming a parent–no longer happen all at once and so have left young men without a clear social marker of manhood. In this context, the caveman discourse offers guys a biological marker of manhood.

WF: And what about the reception of your book? I asked before about whom you imagined reading it, but should also ask how those who’ve read it have interpreted it.

MM: I think sociologists who have thus far commented on it have seen my book as fair-minded. But the two evolutionary psychologists who together wrote a review of my book in Evolutionary Psychology did not like it one bit. Their review is online at this link.

Of course, I did write a reply to it, which is online here.

Pt. I | Pt. 2 | Pt. 3