Lame Evolutionary-Psychology Arguments Hurt Men, Too

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Photo: Mike Coppola/Getty Images

Tucker Max — famous for writing about his drunken exploits, which often include seducing as many women as possible in as sleazy a manner as possible — has a new book out, called Mate: Become the Man Women Want. Unlike his previous work, this one has a patina of scientific legitimacy to it: Max co-authored it with Dr. Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of New Mexico. 

Evo psych, which at its core seeks to explain human behavior in terms of evolutionary impulse, is an important field that can offer insights, but it’s also frequently hijacked and over-extrapolated from and misunderstood, as well as employed toward ill ends by people looking to justify “traditional” gender roles and power structures and by others simply trying to garner clicks from oversimplified story lines about sex. For every careful, cautious explanation of how evo psych can explain some aspect of modern life and behavior, there are a dozen trashy, pseudoscientific ones.

It wouldn’t be shocking, given Max’s self-acknowledged tendency to not treat women like full-blown human beings, if he embraced the “dark side” of evo psych, and reviewing Mate in Bookforum, that’s what Heather Havrilesky says he does. Her review is an entertaining read and a helpful example of how evo psych gets twisted toward misogynistic ends, but it’s the last two paragraphs that stick out to me the most: 

[A]s difficult as it is not to feel real pity for the author—and for anyone who would take his sad, empty, man-version of The Rules seriously—the truth is that his view of masculinity is so soulless as to be downright dangerous. By reducing half the world’s population to a blind army of pussy slayers, Max runs the risk of robbing impressionable men of their own rich complexity, their deepest-felt passions, their very humanity. The stories our culture tells us about men and what makes them tick aren’t just reductive and brutish and unfair; they’re wrong, and they teach men, time and again, to reduce their own complicated desires and need to connect with other humans to something loosely resembling a hunger for hot wings and a pair of “epic tits” (to translate them into Maxian terms).

Men—all men—are more complex and more luminous, even in their most desperate, Hooters-happy-hour hours, than poor, damaged Max seems to recognize. Instead of emptily mimicking the puffery of easily threatened alpha males, men should be encouraged to honor and cultivate their richest potential. But for those Tucker Max clones who genuinely await instruction from their deeply insulting, callous leader, an even more accurate title might be Mate: Let’s Hope They Don’t.

Sure, Havrilesky is writing about Max’s book in particular, but I’d argue this is an underappreciated aspect of the damage done by the cheap, click-y version of evolutionary psychology on the whole. In much the same way it often casts women as inferior to men when it comes to surviving and thriving in the modern world (like Amy Alkon arguing, in supremely silly fashion, that women aren’t suited to climb corporate ladders because they “want everyone to be equal,” because evolution), it’s important not to lose site of what it says about men as well: that we’re brutes, basically, captive to our ancient caveman urges and incapable of treating women as true co-equals.

This is a handy way to approach life if you’re Tucker Max and trying to make a lot of money by selling books about “slaying pussy” to adolescent males, emotional and actual, but for the rest of us it’s a depressing, inaccurate worldview that strips everyone of their full humanity.