Sexual Selection Is a Zombie Idea
An evolutionary ecologist sets up the Darwinian story of male-female facial differences only to debunk them.
Sex is always of interest to most people, but Rob Brooks, an evolutionary ecologist at the University of New South Wales, is interested in evolutionary stories about sex. In The Conversation, he took on the question, “Why the masculine face?“. Looking into the genetic crystal ball, leafing through the Darwin handbook, he set out to tell mankind why men have masculine facial features. Trouble is, there are no clear answers (evolutionarily speaking). For every John Wayne there’s a Justin Bieber. Exceptions abound, and evolutionists disagree among themselves. What value, then, does evolutionary theory bring to this kind of question?
In their explanations, evolutionists focus on “reproductive success” – what processes result in not just more offspring, but more offspring carrying the genes for the trait supposedly selected by the opposite sex. Sexual selection becomes a subset of natural selection. Because selection is mindless and purposeless, their focus has the effect of discounting all the mental reasons for human mate choice, or worse, reducing even the mental reasons themselves to expressions of genes. This effectively turns people into zombies, pawns of evolutionary forces.
The reader should prepare to be surprised after Brooks waltzes through the typical evolutionary just-so story about why men are bigger and stronger (e.g., “For most of our evolutionary past, bigger men fended off rivals for female attention and out-competed other men to secure status and resources that made them useful contributors to a family,” an explanation that makes one wonder why there are so many short wimps today). Surprised we are, because when it comes to facial features, “there is much overlap between the sexes,” and even the obvious differences “come down to complex multivariate vectors.”
How does evolutionary theory score on prediction, one of the marks of a good scientific explanation?
So it would be reasonable to predict that lantern-jawed, Neanderthal-browed men at the far-masculine end of the facial distribution would be sought-after by women. But reality is far more varied and interesting.
“Interesting” can be taken as a euphemism for “troubling for evolutionists,” because that reasonable prediction doesn’t bear viable offspring. Some studies show that women prefer men with less masculine features. This leaves more questions than answers. Does geography or culture play a role? Do women prefer feminine features for husbands and fathers, but masculine features for one-night stands? What function does testosterone or DNA play in all this? How would Darwin sort this all out?
That’s where the surprise comes in. After relating a typical evolutionary attempt to link testosterone to male reproductive success, Brooks basically throws up his hands:
This is one of those ideas with prurient appeal, but patchy evidence. It’s morphing into what my UNSW colleague Angela Moles calls a ‘Zombie Idea’: compelling and considered self-evidently true by many, but not actually that well supported. Every link, from the attractiveness of masculine facial features to the immunosuppressive nature of testosterone to the claim that masculine-looking men have good immunity genes is contested. We don’t know how big the genetic benefits to children might be, much less whether they can offset the costs to a woman of mating with a highly masculine man.
The rest of the article offers only weak damage control to this confession of ignorance. The reader gets a promise of “new kinds of evidence” to support the story, but it doesn’t last under scientific scrutiny:
The extensive genetic variation in masculinity makes more plausible the idea that choosing to mate with a masculine man can result in more attractive offspring. But the genes that made a male face more masculine did not make it more attractive. Worse, these same genes made female faces more masculine and thus less attractive. Families that make manly-looking sons tend also to make masculine-looking daughters.
Overall, this paper deals a substantial blow to the idea that masculine men make good genetic sires. Of course, the genes that confer masculinity on both sons and daughters might have other positive effects, including but not limited to improved immunity. That remains to be assessed, hopefully with the same kind of quantitative genetic evidence.
Returning to his original question, “Why the manly face?”, Brooks admits that “the evidence that female mate choice drives that sexual selection is far from settled.” Maybe masculine traits are for other men, not for women, in order to intimidate rivals. But who knows? Darwin is at a loss for words. Brooks can affirm nothing scientifically: “Much about the variable preference for manliness and for bad boys remains to be explained. Much, I fear, might be inexplicable.” Indeed, so far, the only thing Brooks seemed confident evolution explains is the average size difference between men and women – but even in that trait, there is plenty of overlap.
We appreciate Brooks’ frankness about the nearness of evolutionary theory to “Zombie ideas,” but we want to follow the implications further. The whole promise of Darwin to the scientific community was supposed to be the offer of a mechanistic, non-theological explanation for any given biological trait. OK; so 154 years later, what does it explain face to face? Nothing! We are told, “Could be this, could be that, could be a combination, or might be inexplicable,” they waffle. “With more funding maybe someday we can figure it out.” This story is a prime example—out of hundreds in our pages on a wide variety of subjects over the last 13 years—of evolutionary theory exposing itself to be pretentious, self-contradictory, and vacuous. Darwinian theory provides no more value than off-the-cuff speculations offered up by any given layperson on the street, yet it is defended by Bill Nye types as “science.” If we don’t teach this to the kids, they will fall behind in “science.” Hey, Nye, put up or shut up! Look in the mirror and explain your face! (Incidentally, Rob Brooks is the Yoda-complex patient who shot his own feet 5/18/13 by claiming lying evolved, so how can we trust him now? If he tries again to fight our commentary, we can always accuse him of chest-pounding, 6/01/13, since true reason doesn’t exist in Darwin’s universe.)
Evolutionary theory is not just vacuous; it is pernicious. The evolutionary “explanation” has the effect of removing all responsibility and accountability from humans. Angela Moles’ term “zombie ideas” is apt in more than one sense. Evolution reduces humans to zombies, mindless pawns of phantom evolutionary “forces” that followed an aimless, unseen past and are going nowhere. David Klinghoffer asked a pertinent question on Evolution News & Views: “What if parents told our children, ‘Remember, you’re an animal. Act like it.” Actually, Darwin reduces humans to less than animals. It makes sexual relationships indistinguishable from random atomic interactions. This also has the effect of dissolving “reason” in Darwin acid, destroying its own pretensions to validity.
As we speak, a controversy is raging on TV news programs about what a conservative said about women who can’t control their libidos looking to Sugar Daddy (the government) to hand them their birth control pills. What he meant (or how he might have worded it better) are less important than the reaction: both sides are responding on the assumption that women deserve respect as thinking, responsible human beings! Think how un-evolutionary that reaction is. We all know in our consciences that we are not mere pawns of our libidos or the hormones that drive them. But from whence will Darwin derive responsibility?
Only the Biblical creation view is capable of explaining human sexual traits and behaviors. We have a dual nature: animal and divine. We reproduce with animal parts, but as spiritual beings created in the image of God, we are accountable for the use of our parts. Yes, there are sexual urges, but they were designed for a good thing: filling the earth with more beings who can love God. Yes, we have hormones, but we have control. Yes, there are male-female differences in faces and other traits, but they are marks of intelligent design by a loving God, who loves diversity, and gave men and women the traits that express different aspects of His own nature: strength and beauty, boldness and tenderness, intellect and compassion. No animal has the expressive capability of the human face. Animals come in male and female, too, but for us, masculinity and femininity take on a more profound meaning. The historical diversification “after our kind” has generated worldwide diversity in facial traits broad enough to give everyone a great deal of choice, according to their preferences. This is a liberating view! No longer pawns of useless, aimless processes that have no ultimate value, we can know who we are and what we are here for. If we taught that to students instead of the irresponsible sex Darwinism leads to, there would be fewer abortions, happier families, and more responsible citizens.