The Caveman Mystique: Pop Darwinism and the Masculine Excuse, with author Martha McCaughey

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.


Pt. I | Pt. 2 | Pt. 3


I: Michael Egan on Barry Commoner, science, and environmentalism
II: Cyrus Mody on nanotechnology, ethics, and policy
III: Saul Halfon on population , demography, and women's empowerment
IV: Kevin Marsh on wilderness, forestry policy, and environmental politics
V: David Hess on Alternative Pathways in Science and Industry
VI: Lizzie Grossman on e-trash and global environmental policy
VII: Shobita Parthasarathy on genetics and the politics of Science and Technology
VIII: Aaron Sachs on Humboldt and the explorer-origins of environmentalism
IX: Jan Golinski on British Enlightenment culture and the Weather
X: Kelly Joyce on MRI and Visual Knowledge
XI: D. Graham Burnett on whether whales are fish and who says so
XII: Michelle Murphy on Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty
XIII: Gregg Mitman on How Allergies Shape Lives and Landscapes
XIV: Keith Warner on agroecology, STS, and social power
XV: Chris Henke on science, government, and Californian land management


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I just attended a performance of "Defending the Caveman", and was pleasantly surprised at the even-handedness of the show. They posit that neither side is right, neither is wrong, we're just different.

Men and women ARE different, an if we can laugh at those differences, they are far less imposing and disturbing than if we result to calling each other names.

(Imagine a book whose author states, "I argue that a pop-Darwinian account of women's bitchiness is popular now...")

By Ted Pabst (not verified) on 05 May 2009 #permalink


We're just different! Separate but equal, er, I mean, different but equal!!!!

Ted, d00d, who's calling anyone names here? McCaughey is trying to rescue you from your need to cling ever more tightly to normative masculinity as defined by pop evopsych pseudo-science, and there you are, saying no no no no no I WANNA be a caveman! 'cause patriarchy ROCKS!

a) Back in the '90s I happened across a copy of Maxim (a US men's mag most of whose readers reportedly live with their parents) and was surprised to read an "answers" column which tried to explain a reasonable question in terms of evolution. Their version failed utterly on multiple points, including absurd sexism, but I felt a partial inclination to applaud the attempt. Looks like I missed a few data points...

b) Not knowing more about her work than what's given here, if I could ask Prof. McCaughey just one question, it would be:

What other effects of "pop Darwinism" do you see occurring now?

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 05 May 2009 #permalink

I detest pop-darwinism and the excesses of evolutionary psychology as much as the next person but I am suspicious of people who have a philosophical horse in the race (e.g. concepts of feminism that depend on gender being wholly a social construct) who claim that, while all other animals have sex specific behaviours adapted to their particular life history strategies, humans conveniently do not. Obviously much of gender is socially constructed and even inherited tendencies and differences can, and should, be moderated or even suppressed (just like some of our eating tendencies). I understand the fear that social progress will be undermined by application of the naturalistic fallacy, however, I don't think that anyone's cause is helped in the long term by adhering strictly to a narrow position that is probably false. After all that I haven't read the book, so I'm not sure about the particulars of McCaughey's views, but I would be interested in doing so if I ever get around to it.

A critical review of Martha McCaughey's Caveman Mystique is published in Evolutionary Psychology journal:

Professor McCaughy is ideologically biased. She dismisses or ignores a large and ever-growing body of empirical literature supported by cross-cultural data that provide evidence for evolutionary hypotheses of human sexual behavior. Furthermore, Professor McCaughy is concerned with popular media's presentation of Evolutionary theories, however, she does not cite empirical evidence that evolutionary theories of sexual behavior are invoked or presented by the media more often than non-evolutionary theories, and neither does she provide a clear recommendation for how to limit or prevent media presentation and misrepresentation of scientific work.

I encourage the readers to read the published review in addition to this interview.

By Farnaz Kaighobadi (not verified) on 05 May 2009 #permalink

"however, she does not cite empirical evidence that evolutionary theories of sexual behavior are invoked or presented by the media more often than non-evolutionary theories,"

I don't see what is special about the relative frequency of pop Darwinian vs other explanation. Why would it need to be >1?

Imagine a book whose author states, "I argue that a pop-Darwinian account of women's bitchiness is popular now..."

Funnily enough, that isn't hard to imagine at all. Popular media portrayals of evolutionary psychology frequently seek to explain why women are clingy, why women play mind games, why women are catty, why women are gold-diggers, why women love their children more than their husbands, and any number of other "bitchy" qualities.

The argument of the reviewed book is that men are not by nature unclean, unfaithful, insensitive or violent. It argues that these negative qualities are imbued by societal mores about what constitutes a Real Man. The book is not asserting that men are inherently "cavemen"--its pointing out the many ways that our culture tells men that they should be cavemen.

Farnaz, your link gives a 404 error.

Farnaz Kaighobadi: Prof. McCaughey makes note of that review in the second part of the interview. She also there provides a link to her reply. For convenience, I also offer that link here: McCaughey Reply to EP Review. (I also fixed the link from Farnaz's comment, Vodalus, it should work now.) Ben

MattK - I didn't see McCaughey make the claim anywhere in the interview that "gender is wholly a social construct."

I hesitate to say this, but I am interested in Farnaz's response to McCaughey's reply to his review of her book. By that, I mean an honest to goodness engagement with her closing remark:

"Why isnât Dawkins, and why arenât Kaighobadi and Shackelford, willing to point out the stupidity of their proponents? The popularizers of evolutionary theories of human behavior are themselves often flippant and disrespectful of science. Naïve but enthusiastic appropriations of evolutionary claims about male sexuality, and their consequences, should concern or at least interest evolutionary scholars."

I have found that some evolutionary psychology ideas are just too simplistic to fully explain human behavior. It seems intuitive that when men prefer to mate with multiple fertile partners and women prefer to mate with partners who can support their offspring, that would be the most successful way. But that theory takes into account only one benefit for each sex. Men would gain some evolutionary benefit if they chose women who could provide well for the child. Also, women would gain some benefit by choosing a young and fertile man, since sperm quality declines with age. There are many other factors to take into account too. Obviously men and women would have to compromise between these various benefits, and it's plausible that priorities would skew differently for the sexes, but the biological rules just aren't so rigid. Also, one of our best survival advantages is our ability to adapt to society and not be ruled completely by our biological instincts.

She dismisses or ignores a large and ever-growing body of empirical literature supported by cross-cultural data that provide evidence for evolutionary hypotheses of human sexual behavior.

Which cross-cultural data, for example?

Evo-Psych is the most annoying thing on earth- when somebody is biased then it's those stupid so-called scientists you whore themselves out for the mainstream media's money. Nothing is a more powerful incentive to lie than money- scientific conviction flies right out of the window if some can show their sorry asses on TV.

By kurukurushoujo (not verified) on 15 May 2009 #permalink

You know what would help a lot? If the learned professor would stop trying to impress his constipated sociologist friends and learn to speak in direct language without all the liberal arts bullshit that no one in the real world practices. That's what would help a lot. It might actually serve to expose the vacuity of his male bashing.

suck it, Pierce. P.S. nice blog - hate women much? And, the sociologist in question is a she not a he.

I discovered what I was searching for. great post, thanks

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