Newswise — Martha McCaughey says not to blame a man's bad behavior on the caveman within. All too often, she says, pop-Darwinism " or evolutionary psychology related through popular culture "suggests that a man's sexual promiscuity and physical aggression can be traced to his stone-age ancestors.
"For all these things that men are criticized for doing, evolution claims that they are just cavemen inside and that it's something their male ancestors did. We need to get rid of those justifications and get men to take responsibility for their behavior instead of relying on these cultural narratives," she says.
McCaughey, a professor of interdisciplinary studies and director of women's studies at Appalachian State University, has written "The Caveman Mystique: Pop-Darwinism and the Debates Over Sex, Violence, and Science." The book, published by Routledge, looks at political, social, educational and other factors that mold a man's behavior. A review of the book is in the winter 2008 issue of "Ms. Magazine."
"Evolutionary science, as applied to humans, says that we are modern-day people with cave-day brains, despite the fact we now live in an environment radically different from our hunter and gather ancestors," McCaughey said. "I dispute a lot of that and caution my students and others not to unquestioningly accept what they read about evolution, and to recognize that these are speculative claims without hard scientific evidence."
It's a hard task, she admits, because popular writers put their own interpretation on these theories and readers often accept as scientific fact that the differences between men and women are solely rooted in evolutionary heritage. She also finds that her students—both male and female—think male aggression is rooted in evolution and therefore natural.
"I find a lot of my students have already been exposed to the evolutionary psychology viewpoint of male/female differences," she said. "I caution them to think more critically about how much weight they give these arguments."
McCaughey says that to truly understand men and their behavior, it's important to understand the emotional, economic, political and sociological changes that have occurred over time, and to also recognize how magazines, commercials, television programs and other forms of popular media often contribute to a skewed understanding of men and male behavior.
"Without a critical, historical view of how scientific stories have emerged to answer questions about men's sexual behaviors and feelings, evolution has become the paradigm through which many people understand men," she writes in the preface to her book.
For instance, some people might think a man's reluctance to commit to a monogamous relationship is solely based on his ancient ancestors' desires for many partners as a way of ensuring the continuation of his genes.
McCaughey theorizes that the nation's changing economy, wage stagnation and other factors contributed to a shift away from men marrying in their early 20s to marrying later in life.
"In the 1950s, men had jobs that allowed them to be successful breadwinners for their family," McCaughey said. "A man in his 20s today can't economically support a wife and children as the sole breadwinner the way many more men in the 1950s could. As a result, men are marrying later in life. This reluctance to commit to marriage is not because of the caveman brain or a man's promiscuity. It's tied to the economic and political changes that have occurred during the past decades."
McCaughey says when men and women better understand the social origins of ideas and the effects those ideas have on society and individuals' feelings and behaviors, they will view masculinity differently and dismiss the caveman stereotype.
"The fact is we don't really know what the facts are," she writes. "Evolutionary psychology paints a picture making us think all men are one way and all women another when there are considerable variations over time. The caveman mystique crushes men's potential by defining them as moral and physical drifters. I try to get people to realize there are other plausible explanations and encourage them to think in more creative ways about masculinity."
(Pronunciation guide: McCaughey is pronounced McCoy)
MEDIA CONTACTRegister for reporter access to contact details
The Caveman Mystique: Pop-Darwinism and the Debates Over Sex, Violence, and Science