The Karo Batak are traditional farmers who live in small villages scattered along the highland plateau of North Sumatra, Indonesia. They lead tough, subsistence lives, wear brightly colored clothing, and are rarely exposed to Western media, and the men have a thing for women with big feet. This last detail may seem whimsically beside the point, but as anthropologist Geoff Kushnick of the University of Washington argued in the September 2013 issue of Human Nature, the Karo Batak preference for large-footed women doesn’t square with certain Darwinian notions about the traits men seek in their mates.
According to the glossier and more emphatic strains of the research enterprise called evolutionary psychology, men and women have evolved to consult very different internal checklists when choosing a romantic partner. Women are said to want a provider to help them raise their children, so they look for signs of status and wealth in a man—handiness of spear, bulginess of wallet. Men, by contrast, want a mate with a long reproductive career ahead of her, so they scan for hallmarks of youth and nubility: shiny hair, bee-stung lips, perky breasts. And because a woman’s feet tend to widen with every passing year and parturition, evolutionary psychologists posit that foot size should also figure into the male nubility monitor, and that men are likely wired to find dainty feet more appealing than their haggish, Sasquatch counterparts. Sure enough, a number of cross-cultural studies appeared to confirm the small-foot preference, lending a bit of scientific cachet to the old Fats Waller lyric “Don’t want you ’cause your feet’s too big.”
Yet as Geoff Kushnick discovered, Karo Batak men were refusing to sing along. When he showed 159 of them a set of five silhouettes of a woman in which all details remained the same except for the size of her feet, the men judged the one with the biggest feet as more attractive than the other four. In addition, the men actively disliked the image of the woman with the tiniest feet—the very picture that men in previous studies had, on average, deemed the most fetching. As it turned out, the Karo Batak were not alone in their predilections. When Kushnick revisited the cross-cultural preference surveys in detail, he found that while small feet prevailed in aggregate, there was considerable cultural variation: the less urban the population, and the less its exposure to Western media, the likelier its men were to appreciate images of women whose feet had been significantly enlarged.
The foot results echoed studies that had called into question another piece of evo- psycho dogma: the purportedly universal appeal of the wasp waist. Men everywhere were said to prefer women with small waists relative to the width of their hips over women with chunkier, boxier forms. After all, nothing cries “young female in the full flower of her estrogenic powers” better than an hourglass figure, right? But here, too, researchers found exceptions to the rule, benighted cultures in which the men claimed to like the thick-waisted women, and to find the cinched-in women with their “ideal” waist-to-hip ratios a bit sickly looking. Again, the contrarian men were from remote cultures with scant exposure to Western media, Beyoncé, and Spanx. Research like his, Geoff Kushnick wrote, “has implications for the concept of universality espoused in some versions of evolutionary psychology” and calls into question “the notion that one size fits all.” Perhaps, just perhaps, Kushnick bravely postulated, human mating preferences are “flexible,” responsive to local circumstances, rather than preordained by one’s chromosomal makeup. Hard as it might be for Westerners to fathom, men in subsistence societies just may favor the appearance of sturdiness and surefootedness over a head-to-toe package of “youth signifiers,” the lovely semiotics of Lolita en pointe.
I bring this up because Woman deals at length with some of the more complacently tendentious claims about male-female differences that have emerged from evolutionary psychology—that women are coy and fastidious while men are ardent and promiscuous, for example, or that women are just not as obsessed with power and achievement as men are, and, hey, that’s a good thing, especially if it means more homemade red velvet cupcakes for the school bake sale. Since Woman was first published, the application of Darwinian ideas to the study of human behavior has itself speciated into an array of different schools, some of them quite creative and sophisticated. The researchers call themselves evolutionary anthropologists, human behavioral ecologists, evolutionary developmental biologists, or simply scientists. They view humans as very smart animals with a long, messy past, and they are devoted to decoding the complex interplay between biology and biography, genes and culture, individual variability and hominid continuity. Many of these evolutionary scholars will express reservations in private about the subdiscipline of evolutionary psychology and its penchant for intellectual overreach, the ease with which its most ardent proponents will spin a highly preliminary finding into a grand saga about the deep evolutionary roots of male-female differences. Still, it can take courage to speak out against the proclamations of evolutionary psychology, which is why I characterize Kushnick’s questioning of the “one size fits all” model of human mating preferences as brave. When confronted by results that cast doubt on their core convictions, or by skeptics who question their interpretation of a given data set, evolutionary psychologists can be remarkably tetchy and thin-skinned. They will accuse their critics of ignorance, of not believing in evolution, of letting their political opinions cloud their scientific judgment, or all of the above. David Buss, a patriarch of the evo-psycho industry, has compared himself to Galileo defending truths as incontrovertible as heliocentricity against the forces of darkness. In 2012 Alice Eagly and Wendy Woods, respected psychologists steeped in Darwinian theory, published a lengthy and abundantly footnoted report entitled “Biosocial Construction of Sex Differences and Similarities in Behavior.” They discussed the considerable variability of psychological sex differences across cultures and throughout time, and they noted the challenge that such variation posed to “essentialist” beliefs about male and female nature. That elicited a predictable response in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, in which Barry Kuhle of the University of Scranton slapped down Eagly and Wood as “gender feminists” whose thinking “needs to evolve.” And their feets are probably too big, too.
The debate over evolutionary psychology is no mere parlor game. Many people have taken its more diaphanous and peremptory claims all too seriously, and some of those people wield influence. When Lawrence Summers, then the president of Harvard University, famously suggested in 2005 that the lack of women in the upper tiers of science might have less to do with sex discrimination or the difficulty of combining motherhood and career than with women’s innately inferior math skills and the relative weakness of their competitive drive, a number of critics observed that Summers’s position sounded suspiciously EP. By the gospel of EP, women are the sane and balanced ones, humanity’s multitaskers, so of course you’d expect to find them comfortably ensconced beneath the great middling bulge of the cognitive bell curve. Men, on the othe...