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February 3, 2021+Glenn Geher
+Open Inquiry+Campus Policy+STEM

Politics, Evolution, and Gender: A Heterodox Firestorm and Lessons Learned

This piece is available in audio format on our podcast, "Heterodox Out Loud: the best of the HxA blog." Narration begins at 1:10.

It was February of 2008. Our campus’ interdisciplinary Evolutionary Studies (EvoS) program had just been launched and a younger, more naive version of myself, as director of the fledgling program, was excited about this new offering of our university, the State University of New York at New Paltz.

A foundational feature of the program, following the Binghamton EvoS model, was a speaker series with public lectures to be given by evolution-minded scholars from a broad array of areas. After discussions among our all-faculty executive board, we’d decided to invite Lionel Tiger, Charles Darwin Professor of Anthropology of Rutgers, as our first-ever speaker in the series. Dr. Tiger had achieved quite a bit in his career and his academic title alone suggested that he fit the bill for our series.

For his visit, he was slated to give a talk on the modern world from the perspective of Darwin. What would Darwin think of the state of the world? And would he have suggestions for the people in America in 2008? Seemed interesting and on-topic to me.

But then there was a bit of an issue. Being closely connected to faculty from a broad cross-section of campus, I got word that some faculty members were displeased with this choice of speaker. The immediate catalyst for this, apparently, was a Wall Street Journal opinion piece that Tiger had published calling for the closing of Women’s Studies programs. Our campus had, at the time, a strong interdisciplinary Women’s Studies program and some people warned me to “expect some trouble.”

It seemed like people wanted to launch some public actions against Dr. Tiger during his visit. As a young scholar looking to launch an exciting new academic program for our students and broader community, I was not pleased.

I thought on my feet and decided that maybe we could have a pre-talk event which was framed as more of an open-discussion with Lionel Tiger about issue surrounding gender, sex, and evolution. I figured that at such a small, informal gathering, people could have a meaningful back and forth with Dr. Tiger. And then we could go on to the big public lecture.

It turns out that I was naive at the time.

Dr. Tiger agreed to this pre-talk event, which was slated to be held in the intimate space of our honors program around a conference table. It was open to anyone who wanted to join. When we arrived at the Honors Center, it was clear that this was not going to be a small, intimate event. The small room was standing-room-only and even the hallway leading into the room was packed. Further, several faculty members were handing out what I would later find were anonymous “fact sheets” -- documents that had out-of-context quotes from Dr. Tiger’s long-standing career. Quotes which were all considered politically incorrect by then-modern standards. It was quite a setup.

Dr. Tiger spoke for about 15 minutes on the topic and then the question/answer period began. It was kind of a blood bath. People were all fired up. Every time he spoke, he was nearly shouted down. I had never seen anything like it.

Fortunately, since then the EvoS program has survived and even thrived. In fact, we are now about to start our 14th annual offering. But the Tiger event remains unforgettable. It was this event that really started my interest in the heterodox movement in the academy.

The controversy from this event was covered by regional media outlets, such as the Times Herald Record.

One particular reader’s comment on the article in the Times Herald Record really resonated with me. One of the things noted in the article was a then-recent book by Tiger titled The Decline of Males, which argued that modern societal structures, particularly in education, are biased in favor of girls over boys and that this is generating adverse societal effects. Here is the reader comment that really made me think:

I'm not sure what the true controversy here is but I do believe that schools have been skewed in favor of girls for years now and we do need to take a look at how we are educating boys---it can't be the right answer to accept that boys are more prone to ADD and we need to drug them up in order to educate them. I have not read the book (The Decline of Males; Tiger, 2000) but from the title I would bet this guy has some very valid points …… Colleges should not be afraid to discuss this because as a woman and the mother of both a male and a female I think it is an important issue.

When my research team met soon after this controversial event, I brought up this comment and we decided to follow up with a study on this issue. This comment, which is surely educated-sounding and thoughtful, was written by a layperson who was, concurrently, a parent of both a boy and a girl. Maybe, we thought, the rejection of the idea of an evolutionary basis to anything related to sex or gender is particularly likely among people who are (a) academics and (b) non-parents (as it turns out, there is empirical overlap between these categories as academics are less likely than are other professionals to have kids).

We designed a study to see if the belief that evolutionary forces play a role in shaping various kinds of phenomena is related to political orientation, status as an academic, and parental status. We had a sample of academics from around the US and a matched sample of non-academics. We asked participants to rate items from different categories in terms of the degree to which they believed that “nature” (proxy for evolutionary forces) accounted for them. The categories were as follows:

  • Behavioral differences between boys and girls
  • Behavioral differences between men and women
  • Behavioral differences between hens and roosters
  • Universals in human behavior that are not related to sex or gender
  • Behavioral differences between cats and dogs

Our findings were quite clear. Academics, people who identified as politically liberal, and non-parents significantly rejected the idea of evolved behavioral sex differences. This finding was true even when asked about hens and roosters. Further, scholars from the fields of Women’s Studies and Sociology were particularly likely to report that hens and roosters behaved differently from one another primarily due to “nurture.”

Is the academy politicized? The data from this study as well as from a more recent study from our lab suggest that the answer to this question is an unequivocal yes. This is deeply troubling not least because the point of the academy, to my mind, is to advance open inquiry in order to help us best understand the world and our place in it.


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