During a Twitter discussion about the widely-cited study showing that men profess to be most attracted to 20- and 21-year olds well into their fifties while women prefer men approximately their own age throughout their lives, the inevitable happened: someone trotted out the “evolutionary” “fact” that of course men prefer younger women, given that they’re at their reproductive peak. Weirdly, though, my interlocutor’s own stated range for this peak was 14-24, and yet most men I know would find the idea of having sex with a 14-year-old repulsive. He also didn’t have any explanation for why women would prefer men their own age, rather than always prefering the presumably more resource-rich older men at all ages. And never mind the fact that stereotypically rail-thin “hot” physiques for women actively militate against reproduction. No, no — it was evolution that did it! It’s not changeable! We must bravely and grimly accept the cruel biological reality that coincidentally supports an ugly and much-contested aspect of existing power structures.
This exchange led me to declare a universal policy of rejecting out of hand any “evolutionary” explanation for contemporary behavior and social structures. This claim has been much misunderstood, as though I was denying any influence of biology at all. I don’t deny such an influence, but I do deny that we can know where social construction ends and the supposedly “hard-wired” biological impulse begins. We know from every day experience that even the most urgent biological impulses can be put off more or less indefinitely. In the battle between social norms and the need to urinate, for instance, social norms win essentially every time for healthy adults. All the evidence of human history seems to indicate that we evolved to be hugely pliable to social construction.
Obviously I’d be willing to accept an evolutionary explanation for a purely involuntary human response such as the gag reflex or the physical symptoms of stress and anxiety. But any feature of human society that is the subject of considerable debate and struggle — that’s on us. And here we can count debates not only over sex and reproduction, but over eating habits. Saying we evolved to eat meat doesn’t answer anything. If we can call that into question and debate it, we’re responsible for deciding, individually and collectively, how to proceed.
The attempt to reduce some actual-existing position within that debate to a sheer biological fact is always a more or less transparent and conscious attempt to shut down that debate or at least tilt it in favor of one particular outcome. As Schmitt says (and I often remind us), the claim to be taking a non-political position is actually a particularly forceful political move.