What You’re Attracted to Isn’t “Socially Constructed”

In recent years, many individuals on the political left have been earnestly conveying the message that what a person is attracted to (i.e. mate preference) is entirely constructed by the environment. Their reasons for doing so seem sincere. Take for example, the oft-cited connection between the media’s portrayal of female standards of beauty and eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia. To postmodernists, since standards of attraction are seen as being environmentally produced, the media’s “stereotypical” portrayal of female beauty is also seen as being environmentally produced, sexist, and therefore, unjustifiable.

Postmodernism (see also Critical Theory and The Frankfurt School) combats this perceived bigotry by attempting to justify the need to enforce changes in the status quo. Most notably in recent news, many liberal arts students have attempted to deplatform speakers like Charles Murray, Christina Hoff Sommers, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali from speaking on their campuses. Limiting free speech has been just one way that postmodernism and people on the far-left have tried to control the environment. Reforms (sometimes mandatory ones) have been seen in pronoun usage, soft drink sizes, the media, children’s toys, social attitudes, etc.

Their idea is that since the environment (and not biology) affects our attitude, if you change the environment, you change the person, and thus, society is improved. By minimizing or ignoring the role that biology has on human nature, postmodernists can effectively blame all of the ills of the modern world on poorly designed laws, U.S. foreign policy, or Western cultural attitudes. Those who dissent from their view can be denounced as bigots and cast aside.

Fortunately, their hypothesis is a falsifiable one and can therefore be disproven. Here’s a quick thought experiment: change all of the images of male and female beauty in the media, movies, billboards, signs, clothing styles, etc., and for the postmodernist view to hold true, in a few generations you should be able to convince heterosexual women that a V-shaped torso on a slightly older guy with an abundance of resources is not attractive and show heterosexual men that a young woman with a low waist to hip ratio (WHR) and long hair isn’t attractive either. Good luck with that — because for this to be the outcome, there would have to literally be a “Ghost in the Machine.”

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As absurd as this may sound, this is exactly what many postmodernists seem to miraculously believe: if you could just exorcise the “sexist ghosts” and put egalitarian, secular ones back inside us, the machine would behave more morally.

As Harvard evolutionary psychologist, Steven Pinker pointed out in The Blank Slate; the idea of the Ghost in the Machine is connected to the doctrine of the “Noble Savage.” The doctrine of the Noble Savage is basically the false belief that at one time, our ancestors lived peacefully with one another whilst coexisting harmoniously with Mother Nature. Believers in the myth of the Noble Savage and the Ghost in the machine think that things like mate preferences, aggression, and sexual jealousy are mere Western constructs that didn’t emerge on the evolutionary timescale until “the big bad white males (cue in scary organ music) messed everything up with their capitalism.” Michael Shermer mockingly refers to this view of human nature as the Disneyfication of our past.

I implore the academic left: it’s time to get over the fear of evolutionary biology. If you want to get rid of racism and sexism you can’t do it by summoning apparitions.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not singling out the left. Again, as Steven Pinker has pointed out, the left and the right are actually strange bedfellows here. The right tends to believe evolution is an affront to their sense of morality because it challenges intelligent design. The left tends to believe evolution is an affront to their morals because it somehow justifies sexism, slavery, and genocide.

I have actually had students try to convince me that the reason why sexual dimorphism in gamete sizes exists in males and females is because of the patriarchal oppression that women experience. Although it should be blindingly obvious that this is an absurd notion, to many it is not.

I’m not saying that discrimination towards women doesn’t exist — it does. I am saying that the discrimination that women experience is not the reason why males produce about 500 billion sperm cells throughout their lifetimes at a rate of 1,500/second while females produce a finite number of eggs of which only about 400 are ovulated during the fertile years of her life.

I’m not saying that religious patriarchy isn’t a problem — it is. I am saying that patriarchy is not the reason why a male can ejaculate in a woman and run off and copulate minutes later with someone else while a female is obligated (in evolutionary terms) to bear the cost of 9 months of pregnancy during which she may have no other babies.

These are facts of physics, chemistry, and time — not sexism.

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Genghis Khan, the most prolific male in history, could father 1,000-2,000 children while the record holder for the most prolific woman (whose name is unknown) birthed only 69 children. Women get pregnant, men do not. This is how we evolved from the ash of stellar alchemy (Sagan’s phrase).

The “what you are attracted to is socially constructed” crowd are, like so many, fans of cherry picking their evidence. The majority of the evidence in Kingdom Animalia (which the social sciences often go to great lengths to willfully obfuscate) shows that the female invests more in the offspring and therefore is more discriminating and selective about sex.

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When binary gender theory and biology are introduced to them, they righteously shine their moral spotlight on the known outliers (i.e. the very few species where the male invests more than the female): the Mormon cricket, the poison-arrow frog, the pipefish seahorse, and that flat worm that gets pregnant after its penis falls off in a duel. Postmodernists bring up outliers in mate preferences as well. For example, in Peru and the Hadza of Tanzania, males tend to prefer heavier women and deviate from what evolutionary psychology would otherwise predict.

However interesting these outliers or anomalies may appear, they have been explained in terms of variations in ecology and food scarcity and in no way minimize what the vast majority of the data ostensibly shows.

What cannot be overlooked is the overwhelming preponderance of evidence that supports universality in mate preferences. In fact, just recently a study of nearly 10,000 men and women in 33 countries and 37 cultures found a consistent difference in sexual preference between males and females that would be predicted by evolutionary theory. The standards of beauty that both women and men are attracted to are not postmodernist ghosts inserted into a machine but rather, are evolved cues to virility and fertility, and hence, survival.

If a group of hominids existed where the male was not valued for physical prowess and the ability to provide resources and the female was not valued for her fertility, these hominids would have failed to become our ancestors. Physical traits like a V-shaped torso in men and low WHR in women are cues to the opposite sex that signal the likelihood of offspring survival. Just as it would have been an adaptive benefit to our ancestors to become disgusted by asymmetrical facial deformities in a potential partner, they would have also benefited from being able to detect the survival benefits that attractive physical traits in a partner would indicate. This may be uncomfortable for some to hear, but how this makes one feel in no way minimizes its veracity.

Postmodernists criticize evolutionary psychology claiming it justifies sexist stereotypes. But they are remiss for doing so: EP clearly posits that just because “what once was” does not mean it “ought to be” (only the dogma of religion and nationalism say that). The media may be responsible for perpetuating “stereotypes,” but it didn’t create them in the first place.

One of the most heated sources of contention between postmodernism and evolutionary psychology has been over whether or not females are “gold diggers,” as Kanye alluded to. In the literature, this is known as hypergamy. Evolutionary psychologists (Buss et al.) posit that this mate preference strategy evolved in women as a result of selective pressures to help ensure the survival of her offspring. Herein lies one of postmodernism’s strongest arguments against evolved mate preferences. According to this view, the reason women prefer wealthier males is because men have traditionally excluded women from decision-making power and access to resources. Postmodernists posit that the reason males do not value mates with resources (as much as women do in men) is because men already control most of the money any way (this is colloquially known today among postmodernist as male privilege and as the structural powerlessness hypothesis by evolutionary psychologists).

If the structural powerlessness hypothesis (which is sometimes called social role theory) were true (in other words, if the reason why females prefer males with more resources is because women are held in a position of deprivation) then females in more egalitarian societies should equally prefer men who make the same amount of money or less than they do. Since females in these cultures already have equal resources, if social role theory is correct, one would predict then that they would not need to “marry upward” as it is called. Not surprisingly, one does not see this in the data.

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Carefully controlled experiments using a range of methods with diverse populations (including the Bakweri from Cameroon, successful women in the U.S., wealthy women in Spain, college graduates, women in Serbia, and online ethnographies) have cast strong doubt on this hypothesis. In all of these multimodal investigations, the results have disproved social role theory. In each one of these studies women who had personal control of resources, and who had as much or more resources than men persisted in preferring males with more resources than themselves. A significant number of women who were very wealthy had an even stronger preference for wealthier men than average-earning women did. If the reason women prefer men who make more money is because of discrimination then groups of women who are not in a position of powerlessness should not discriminate against males with less resources — but they reliably do.

Not only does the evidence not support the structural powerlessness hypothesis, it completely contradicts it.

But we shouldn’t throw out the environmental explanation completely nor should we blindly herald a biologically deterministic view of human nature. The research in evolutionary psychology is quite vast and because so, it paints a rather complex picture that requires a nuanced approach. This is especially so when variations in ecology are taken into consideration. It seems as though we are biologically programmed to have a range of reactions in response to variations in ecology.

In societies and cultures where diseases and parasites are more prevalent, for example, males and females are more likely to have what some might call “stereotypical” mate preferences. The reason why is because in an unhealthy environment, seeking standards of beauty (like facial symmetry) would confer an advantage that would increase the likelihood of the health of offspring. So, in a distressed environment, if a woman could determine that a man had a disease, her offspring would have a better chance of surviving. As a result, physical features that were cues to virility and fertility became preferentially selected for. In many modern societies (like most Western ones) where there are fewer chances for infections, humans will often choose mates based on things like honesty, sense of humor, and common values. This is one reason why even though most women prefer hunky dudes and most men prefer slender young women, most women and most men don’t copulate with individuals who they most prefer.

After claiming hypergamy is just a sexist conspiracy, the final gasp of air from postmodernists to prove mate preferences are socially constructed comes in the form of defending the notion that gender is somehow only socially constructed. To some degree there is an obvious social component to it. However, primate toy preferences, ethological data involving the division of labor in other animals, and cross-cultural data show a strong degree of universality in gender inequality. Differences in gender norms and roles tend to be persistent across cultures and across vast tracts of time.

For example, replicated studies show that if one’s ancestors came from a culture that utilized the plough as a cultivating tool (compared to using hand held tools), one’s attitude regarding gender can be reliably predicted as being more “traditional”. If one’s ancestors lived in agrarian societies where large domesticated animals pulled huge pieces of metal across the earth they would not have wanted to have children nearby. If a group of hominids decided to have children nearby these potential hazards they would have likely failed to be an ancestor of ours. As one would predict, cultures that utilized this cultural innovation in the past predictably have gender norms today that would be described as “traditional” (where the women took care of children while the men worked).

In ecologies where hominids did not evolve around large domesticated animals pulling ploughs, young children could stay nearby while the adults dug the earth with their hands. These cultures, predictably, today have more egalitarian gender norms.

In a sense, social role theory is correct: there is an environmental component — just not the same one that social role theorists often emphasize. The environmental component is the ecology of the land where one’s ancestors ultimately migrated to after they left Africa — not a ghost.

Our physiology is an ancestral museum, a litany of evolutionary baggage that often does not cooperate well with our current cultural climate. What helped our ancestors survive in the past may not work so well today. Our propensity towards intergroup hatreds, our insatiable lust for fatty foods and fermented fruit, the fact that eleven year old girls ovulate, the desire to punish dissenters, reward punishers, and the ability to form coalitions to forcefully take resources from others have kept us alive this far. Will we as a collective species be able to develop the wisdom to understand that what has worked in the past may not work well today and may, in fact, be detrimental to our collective survival? Can we as a species move forward with our evolutionary impediments without self-destructing?

Appendix

Reza Ziai

Reza Ziai has a master's degree in psychology and is currently an adjunct lecturer at the City University of New York. He is also a writer and a free thinker. His interests include dissonance, music, and evolution.
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Reza Ziai

Reza Ziai has a master’s degree in psychology and is currently an adjunct lecturer at the City University of New York. He is also a writer and a free thinker. His interests include dissonance, music, and evolution.

21 thoughts on “What You’re Attracted to Isn’t “Socially Constructed”

  1. Nice piece. If the “environment constructs sexual desire” thesis were correct you could achieve total change in less that a signle generation. And it wouldnt matter if you subscribed to a blank slate extreme behaviourist model or a full genetic determinism one. You either reward those who display the desired charcateristics (i.e enough women mate with the sensitive unpushy guys that they claim should be the norm) or you reproduce with them (maxing out the gentic underpinnings of their behavior). The world is what we’ve made it, either way you look at it. And given that female choice is the key driver–the world is largely what women have made it.

  2. I don’t understand the desire to connect biological attraction to evolutionary psychology, when the argument is over the way things are. Evolutionary psychology makes greater and much harder the defend claims than simple biological observation. We can separate out- the way things are from how they got to how they are. Evolutionary psychology implicitly makes the way things are claim, but also has tacks the harder why question onto it.

  3. I really enjoyed your article.

    One important thing though:
    You wrote: “Postmodernism (see also Critical Theory and The Frankfurt School)”

    The original Frankfurt School (with Critical Theory being a product of theirs) wasn’t postmodernist at all, in fact, core members, such as Theodor Adorno, were one of the earliest and most eager critics of Heidegger (i.e. the father of postmodernism) and soon schismatized with the new postmodernist strings of the left (popularized during the late 60’s).

    So the Frankfurt School (at least as far as it’s original core members are concerned) is essentially anti-postmodernist.

    Although the language barrier created a lot of misunderstanding of the Frankfurt School in the non-germanophone world, it would be a true tragedy to replicate those misconceptions and associate them as some form of leaders of a movement they criticised so vehemently.

    A small anecdote:
    “But at the first lecture Adorno’s attempt to open up the lecture and invite questions whenever they arose degenerated into a disruption from which he quickly fled: after a student wrote on the blackboard “If Adorno is left in peace, capitalism will never cease,” three women students approached the lectern, bared their breasts and scattered flower petals over his head.”

    Have a nice day!

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