Now freed from the PR shackles that constrain the heralds of Hasbro, my longtime pal Jonathan Tweet has waded back into the evolutionary psychology debate he started a little over a year ago. As you may recall, Jonathan suggests that the obvious gender imbalance among hobby gamers arises from human evolutionary development. Men are wired to design and play games that stimulate our hunter-gatherer instincts, which explains why the staple games of our hobby appeal to very few women.
Over breakfast at Gamestorm ‘08, Jonathan toyed with the idea of stopping by a gender & gaming panel I was to appear at in order to drop his ev-psych bomb. I wish he’d made it to the panel. If he had, he would have heard many of the women participating in the discussion talk about the flack they faced from the boys when they first tried to get involved with RPGs. If you got hassled simply for trying to play, you don’t hear Jonathan’s evolutionary hypothesizing and hear an academically intriguing theory. Instead you once again hear the echoing voices of the boy’s club justifying its attempt to keep you and your darn girl cooties away from their crystalline twenty-siders.
Anyone flying the banner of evolutionary psychology has to be prepared to account for the ideological baggage it carries. As espoused by many of its early adherents, it reeked of Social Darwinism retooled for a new generation. It also attracted out-and-out race cranks like Philippe Rushton.
In the nature versus nurture debate, the modern left has always chosen to treat behavior as the result of social construction. If there is no innate human nature, we can change ourselves for the better by altering our social conditioning. The idea that we have certain responses hardwired into us, especially nasty atavisms of tribalism and violence, feels troublingly retrograde.
A left-liberal evolutionary psychology does exist, as found in the work of writers like Robert Wright. To recuperate the implications of evolutionary psychology, merely identifying the responses we pull from our primate kit bag isn’t enough. Here we identify and understand them into order to better overcome them. This is where I’d like to see Jonathan go if he continues to refine his take on gender and gaming.
In addition to being an ev psych popularizer, Wright also runs the Bloggingheads.TV site, which runs daily video podcasts in which pairs of pundits debate various topics of the day, mostly political. As part of his promotion for The Evolution of God, his upcoming book on the evolution of religious impulses (which is up both of Jonathan’s alleys), he’s been running a series called Percontations, in which scientists discuss the intersections between belief, behavior, and cognition.
The episode most directly touching on the issue of overcoming negative evolutionary programming is Beliefs, Aliefs, and Daydreams. It even concludes with a discussion of cognition as it applies to video games, complete with a mention of Ender’s Game.
Also germane to this discussion is Humanity’s Primate Heritage. Here the principles of ev psych are convincingly presented as basic common sense.
If, on the other hand, you’d like to hear Wright himself patiently reduced to babbling embarrassment by a critic of ev psych as we know it, check out his discussion with Joan Roughgarden, author of a book called The Genial Gene. She wants there to be good ev psych, but rejects much of what has been done in the field so far due to a lack of evidentiary rigor. Her toughest critique: ev psych relies heavily on the sex selection theory, which has always been shaky and is increasingly looking like it might be completely baseless.