summer/fall 2007 no. 9
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summer/fall 2007 no. 9
Redefining Darwin: Another Popular Distortion of Evolutionary Theory
A review of Redefining Seduction: Women Initiating Sex, Courtship, Partnership, Peace
by Donna Sheehan and Paul Reffell; 2006, independently published; Lulu.
by Rosemarie Sokol
In the mid-1990s, two women took a pre-feminist approach towards dating and mating that was surprisingly well received – landing The Rules™ on the national bestseller list, and into popular American culture. Shamoon and Fein (1995) proclaimed that by following these simple, albeit oppressive, rules to dating, any woman could bag a mate in due time. Some of these rules included avoiding the phone in an effort to play hard to get, and letting the man take the lead.
After such socially regressive rules, Redefining Seduction, the author-proclaimed "evolutionary documentary for women," seems a breath of relief for women residing in the United States. Contrary to the Rules of the mid-1990s, from this approach women are informed that they can take the driver's seat, be flirtatious and assertive, and still win that prized mate. The advice in this book stems from a different set of rules — the rules of Darwinian sexual selection.
However, hiding behind this approach are a few common mistakes that lay people make when applying evolutionary theory to everyday behavior. The first is the original sin of evolution — committing the naturalistic fallacy. The second is to ignore the harsh reality behind sexual selection — all mates are not created equal.
While, as a woman, I appreciate the advice for women to break out of their subordinate shells and stop changing themselves to fit into a man’s world (more about this below), as an evolutionary scientist, I must tackle the scientific issues that provide the impetus for this book.
The Naturalistic Fallacy
"His [Darwin’s] theory of Sexual Selection proposed that the traits displayed by the males existed only because generations of females desired them during the mating process. In short, females’ mating choices had determined the evolution of their species." (Sheehan & Reffell, 2006, pp. 7-8).
"We want women to know that they have the power to change our species for the better or the worse; it’s all up to them. Only they can help men redefine ‘progress'." (Sheehan & Reffell, 2006, p. i)
Sheehan and Reffell (2006) begin their tale of seduction by giving a very brief introduction to Darwin’s theory of Sexual Selection (i.e., the quote above). With this theory, Darwin (1871) could explain the persistence of traits within a population that seem to detract from fitness by hindering the survival of the bearer. For example, the brilliant plumage of some species of male birds leaves them not only an easy target for predators, but sometimes slows down the individual during escape, such as the weighty and bright tale of the peacock. However, these survival-hindering plumages are also quite attractive to females, the choosiest member of most animal species, who in turn mate most often with the males with the brightest plumage. Thus the trait that hinders survival increases reproductive opportunities, and is therefore subject to selection pressures.
After having been convinced of some of Geoffrey Miller's theories in The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature, the authors claim that since women are the choosiest sex when it comes to mating, they have therefore shaped the evolution of the human species and can do so for future generations. However, sexual selection operates differently than natural selection. Sexually selected traits appear among the males of a species, not the females. Therefore a sexually selected trait cannot be the sole driving force behind the evolution of a species. Returning to the example of peacocks, peahens in comparison appear bland. Peahens have been responsible for choosing the brightest peacocks with whom to mate, but this has not shaped all of the traits that characterize the species. Thus women may have the ability to shape the future of particular traits among men, but not women.
The authors argue that this is enough, however. Major wars are historically male affairs, so perhaps we could select for more gentle men who are less likely to start wars. However, the claim that since sexual selection occurs, it should be used to help progress the species is a value-laden approach often preferred by the Good Morning Americas of the nation. However, evolutionary theorists do not often hold such opinions. David Buss (2005) believes that all humans are endowed with the trait to murder, but this does not mean that he believes that murderers should be exonerated because they just could not stop themselves from acting on this trait. Likewise, that women have pre-historically been the choosier members of our species does not imply that this is good or bad — and should not automatically be capitalized upon without thought.
As an illustration, let’s play out an example of female choice in the modern United States. Humans do not have brilliant plumage as the result of sexual selection, but an example the authors give of a human sexually selected trait is the tendency for men to desire fast cars. As they relay, the fast cars may hinder survival via accidents, but they attract women who see a fast car as an indication of resources. However, fast cars are relatively poor on gas mileage and hefty on emissions, and as we all know from the daily news, we are facing the threat of global warming, which is exacerbated by carbon emissions from cars. Should we follow the advice of the authors, women should play up their role as the choosy sex, which includes the previous selection for fast cars, which will ultimately destroy our environment. Is this progress? Who should be in charge of evaluating the acts that will lead to progress?
Finally, humans are not the product of genes alone — we have rich cultural and historical influences that have shaped us along with natural, sexual, and artificial selection. Therefore, by returning to "nature’s way" à la sexual selection, we are ignoring the rich multitude of influences that stand to shape humans. If we take just one approach, we are likely to ignore other possible outcomes.
While the authors envision "…intuitive skills [that] were a product of evolution that could hold the key to ending the gender wars and changing patriarchy to partnership" (Sheehan & Reffell, 2006, p. 7), they have ignored the dangers of equating selection with progress. While an understanding of natural and sexual selection may teach us about ourselves, the theories cannot be used to promote attributes of the human species without potential danger. After all, this line of thinking left us with the Eugenics movement of the late 19th century (Galton, 1907, original publication 1883).
All mates are not created equal
Sheehan and Reffell (2006) base their new rules of female seduction on the theory of sexual selection, advocating that women improve the choices they make when dating. The idea is simple — follow their rules for seducing and pairing with men, and the future generations of women will benefit by being exposed to an egalitarian-minded society. The first step towards improved seduction is recognizing the "Male Mask," the outer shell boys construct in adolescence to protect themselves from rejection. This mask translates to suppressed emotional expression and hidden insecurities.
To overcome this Male Mask, women have to show that they are able to be in control, so that men can shed that rigid exterior. Women should become self-assured and confident, approaching men with ease. The Male Mask hides the fact that men are scared silly of women. As there is no empirical research on this Male Mask, to my knowledge, one can only counter-speculate as to this manifestation. If we are to begin with the assumption that this mask is prevalent, we might also assume that some masks are more developed than others. But what if men are not willing to shed their masks?
While women may still be in the position to sexually select traits, we also live based on the norms of our culture. In the United States, this most often means practicing monogamy, at least serially. Unlike other animals in which the female is the choosiest sex, women do not get to pick from among a few choice men. Rather they are restricted based on the available men, who are not already serving as a woman’s mate. If not all men are willing to shed their masks then only some women will be successful in their attempts to redefine seduction. In dominance hierarchies, both male and female, the most dominant individual is able to choose first from among the mates. If not all men will shed their masks, as those who will get snatched up, some women will be left without mates, or with mates unwilling to shed their Males Masks. Thus all mates are not created equal.
Some women will be able to redefine selection, and others will be stuck with the same old war-hungry men.
Issues with the new “feminist” rules
The authors take issue with the Rules prescribed by Shamoon and Fein (1995). They are not alone — even Amazon.com (who stands to profit from sales) writes that the authors (Shamoon & Fein) "whose main credentials seem to be that they are married, lay out the rules to be followed for successfully snagging a dream hunk" (www.amazon.com editorial review of The Rules). Sheehan & Reffell critique this view of women as follows: "It is the norm for her to sit at home by the telephone (or obsessively check her email or cell), waiting for The Call" (2006, p. 4). In the 20th century, it is amazing that so many women felt their only chance to find a husband was to follow such rules.
To dispel the myths of The Rules, Sheehan and Reffell (2006) propose their own rules. In their effort, they describe alternative ways that a woman can basically change herself to fit with what men want. What have we gained? A reader learns that she need not avoid the phone — in fact, the authors say “call, call him again” (p. 62) — but women still should avoid talking about "You-and-Him," and by all means, avoid asking questions such as whether he enjoyed himself (p. 61). Instead, women must learn to be sneaky when removing the layers of the Male Mask.
What we've learned
As a self-help book, women could stand to listen to some of the advice Sheehan and Reffell offer in Redefining Seduction. This book is by far a step up from the rules of the mid-1990s. However, the new rules will not work if men do not also step up to the plate and accept their own needed changes in deconstructing the Male Mask and treating women as equal partners.
As a scientific application of sexual selection, this book is less reputable. The authors take pieces of Darwin’s theory, a quote from Geoffrey Miller (the modern sexual selection proponent) and combine it with a lot of common sense and over-generalizations about males and females in the United States. In fairness, the authors were not trying to present a data-heavy piece of writing — as evidenced by their term "Evolutionary Documentary," and half of the sources, which were written for popular audiences. The authors set out to write a manual to empower women in courting and partnering with men, and for some will prove a welcome addition to the self-help section.
Buss, D.M. (2005). The murderer next door: Why the mind is designed to kill. New York: The Penguin Press.
Darwin, C. (1871). The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex (2 volumes). London: John Murray. (Reprinted in 1981 by Princeton U. Press.)
Galton, F. (1907). Inquiries into human faculty and its development (2nd edition). London: Dent & Dutton (Everyman).
Shamoon, S. & Fein, E. (1995). The Rules ™: Time-tested secretes for capturing the heart of Mr. Right. New York: Warner Books.
Sheehan, D. & Reffell, P. (2006). Redefining seduction: Women initiating sex, courtship, partnership, peace. Independently published; Lulu (http://www.lulu.com).
Copyright © 2007 Entelechy: Mind & Culture. New Paltz, NY. All rights reserved.