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Why Men Won't Ask for Directions: The Seductions of Sociobiology [Hardcover]

Richard C. Francis


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18 Jan 2004

Much of the evolutionary biology that has grabbed headlines in recent years has sprung from the efforts of sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists to explain sexual features and behavior--even differences between how men and women think--as evolutionary adaptations. They have looked to the forces of natural selection to explain everything from the mimicry of male mockingbirds to female orgasms among humans. In this controversial book, Richard Francis argues that the utility of this approach is greatly exaggerated. He proposes instead a powerful alternative rooted in the latest findings in evolutionary biology as well as research on the workings of our brains, genes, and hormones.

Exploring various sexual phenomena, Francis exposes fundamental defects in sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, which he traces to their misguided emphasis on "why" questions at the expense of "how" questions. Francis contends that this preoccupation with "why" questions (such as, "Why won't men ask for directions"?) results in a paranoiac mindset and distorted evolutionary explanations. His alternative framework entails a broader conception of what constitutes an evolutionary explanation, one in which both evolutionary history, as embodied in the tree of life, and developmental processes are brought to the foreground. This alternative framework is also better grounded in basic biology.

Deeply learned, consistently persuasive, and always engaging, this book is a welcome antidote to simplistic sociobiological exegeses of animal and human behavior.


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"In Why Men Won't Ask for Directions, Richard C. Francis suggests that physiological explanations of behavior--about how brains work--are often more informative than accounts of why the behavior evolved. . . . Francis is at his best when explaining physiological processes: his explanations are clear, straightforward, and step by step. . . . The descriptions Francis offers of animals and their behavior are vivid."--Deborah M. Gordon, Natural History

"An incisive and witty critique of the methodologies of sociobiology and its most current manifestation, evolutionary psychology. . . . Francis supports his engaging and well-reasoned arguments with examples from research. . . . [He] does not deny that adaptation can be a very powerful explanatory concept, as long as it is not used dogmatically. Instead, he offers increased options for a better understanding of behavior through considering organisms in their social, evolutionary, and neurobiological contexts."--Library Journal

From the Inside Flap

"Interesting, engagingly written, and important. Francis is rightfully attacking the theological/ideological basis of adaptationist thinking."--James L. Gould, Princeton University

"A synthesis of the latest advances in the behavior, physiology and ecology of sociosexual behaviors, Francis's book focuses primarily on animals, but also develops and critiques the history and present state of how this material has been applied (and misapplied) to the human condition. There are no books quite like this, and the general reader will be enlightened and enlivened."--David P. Crews, University of Texas


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IS an old joke that goes something like this: QUESTION: Why does it take millions of sperm to fertilize one egg? Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Amazon.com: 4.1 out of 5 stars  7 reviews
12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A truly fascinating book 2 May 2004
By Peter Godfrey-Smith - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This book does three things at once. One might not think it was possible to successfully combine all three in one book, but Francis does succeed. First, it contains a very accessible and lively introduction to recent biological work about sex and sex differences, especially in the vertebrates (animals with backbones, like us). Some of the details and anecdotes here are extremely surprising and strange -- in the animal kingdom sex *is* often strange. The book goes quite deeply into the biology here, but remains vivid and readable throughout.
Secondly, the book contains a fairly intense and sustained criticism of some of the current strategies and habits of thought that are applied to these questions in some parts of biology and psychology. Francis thinks that there is far too much emphasis on 'functional explanation,' on the search for the answer to 'why?' questions as opposed to 'how?' questions. Here the book is quite unorthodox and challenging. It is common to think that there is now, in biology, a harmonious division of labor between work on 'how?' questions (work on mechanisms), and work on functional explanations that seek to tell us 'why' the biological world works as it does. It is thought by many that ordinary Darwinism provides us with a straightforward integration of the two kinds of investigation. Francis, in contrast, thinks that many people allow the search for functional explanation to dominate their work. If we understood the 'how' better, we would see that many 'why' questions are transformed or even dissolved.
Thirdly, the book is in many ways a contribution to the philosophy of science. Francis thinks that we need to be much more suspicious of a set of ideas, concepts and strategies that have been embraced by many philosophers of science. Francis thinks that some parts of science have allowed themselves to depart from the materialist pattern of explanation that is appropriate for biology and related sciences. In particular, he thinks that the current enthusiasm for abstact informational and functional concepts is far more antagonistic to materialist and naturalistic projects than people realize.
On these more theoretical and philosophical issues, it is very hard to work out whether Francis is right. I tend to think that he goes too far. (Here I might add that I know the author and have discussed these issues with him, though my own work does not figure in the book.) But the book is extremely valuable as a challenge to some very popular ways of thinking in these areas.
So although the book can be read just as a lively, vivid introduction to the strange sex lives of animals closely related to us, it is also a very deep and careful piece of argumentation. Sometimes Francis is rather polemical in his style, and I can see why some readers (and reviewers) might find the tone a little combative in places. But to me, this makes the book all the more enjoyable to read. I recommend it to anyone interested in sex who also enjoys an intellectual workout.
32 of 43 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars An Intemperate and Unbalanced Critique 7 Mar 2004
By Herbert Gintis - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book is a testimonial to the fact that Sociobiology continues to go against the grain of many behavioral scientists, long after the ideological debates of the previous century have subsided, and at a time when a more measured approach to the contribution of this strain of biological and social theory is plainly available. The novelty of this book is that it counterposes sociobiology to developmental biology rather than its traditional foe, anti-biological approaches to human sociality. This counterposition is particularly curious, since many developmental biologists consider this the age of "evo-devo", where the synergistic interaction of evolutionary and developmental modeling are increasingly recognized. Despite Francis' concerted and repeated attempt to portray sociobiology and behavioral developmental biology as alternative approaches to understanding social behavior, I remain completely unconvinced.
Francis writing style and mode of reasoning are profoundly distasteful to me, though others might enjoy it. Francis relishes in contrasting ideas that are in principle mutually consistent and even reinforcing. He draws the intellectual landscape in stark black and white/good and evil, where I generally see the textured grays of creatively contrasting and equally plausible ideas just waiting for some insightful researcher to draw them together into a satisfying explanatory framework. For instance, he depicts the search for the evolutionary origins of social behavior as the "paranoic" search for "teleological explanations." Metaphors relating to psychological illness when speaking of "adaptationist theory" recur incessantly throughout this distinctly intemperate book. Evolutionary psychology, for instance, is flippantly referred to as "evo-psycho."
Even substantively, Francis' method of dealing approaches alternative to his own is, to my mind, shallow and distasteful. I was taught that when disagreeing with a theory, one must first present the theory in as strong and coherent manner as possible, and critique only the most shining and forceful of the theory's ostensible successes. Francis, by contrast, is a bottom-feeder who will launch his missiles against any random representative of the opposing school. Indeed, despite that fact that more than one-third of this book is devoted to notes, index, and bibliography, Francis rarely deigns to cite directly his opponent, rather being content to provide an broad description of the field in question. Typical is the argument relating to the title of book. I don't know of a serious sociobiological argument as to why men don't ask for directions. I don't even know if it's a true fact in search of an explanation. Francis, nevertheless, treats the issue as though it had some intrinsic scientific value.
Francis is smart enough, however, to recognize that he is no match for the greats of the field, so when George Williams, Ronald Fisher, John Maynard Smith, Edward Wilson, or Niko Tinbergen is mentioned, Francis abandons the derogatory bravado and accurately describes the eminently reasonable positions they have taken on the issue of the relationship between evolution and development, adaptation and developmental constraints, and the other topics treated in this book.
The stance taken by Francis is a shame, because there are
super-adaptationists that tend to consider just-so story as adequate explanations, and are loathe to deploy any non-adapationist argument.
Francis' chapter on the mimicking capacity, perhaps the best in the book, is a case in point. Francis defends the sensory exploitation hypothesis ably against the classical runaway selection and costly signaling approaches to modeling mate choice, and effectively defends the theory that the mockingbird's mimicking capacity is simply a by-product of their song-learning versatility. This versatility may itself have adaptive value, but the fact that many bird species that occupy ecological niches similar to that of the mockingbird lack its versatility calls this into question. Indeed, Francis presents a welcome argument to the effect that exotic animal characteristics are unlikely to be adaptation, or they would be more widely share among species share the exotic species' life style and ecological niche. The female hyena's hypertrophied clitoris, the elephant's trunk, hermaphroditism fish, the giraffe's neck, and the human brain may all be examples of characteristics that occurred despite, rather than because of, adaptationist dynamics.
Francis is insistent that sociobiology can only countenance causal forces from physiology and genetic constitution to social constitution, and not vice versa. He contrasts this view, which he calls "misguided materialism" with the developmental view that social organization can affect brain physiology in the short run and genetic structure in the long run. Presumably he never heard of the Baldwin Effect (the term does not appear in his index), despite its centarian age, or the gene-culture coevolutionary models of Cavalli-sforza and Feldman, Boyd and Richerson, and a host of related analyses that have populated the biology, anthropology, and even economics journals for the past quarter century.
Perhaps the most egregious chapter in the book is "Sex without SEX," in which he critiques the adaptationist theory of sexual reproduction. Sexual reproduction is not an adaptation in vertebrates. Rather, he argues, there is a developmental constraint against hermaphrodism, and adaptationists are too blind to see this shining truth. Francis' argument is shabby and incorrect. First, sexual reproduction is extremely costly and could not persist if it did not provide offsetting advantages. Second, as he notes, there are many hermaphrodite fish species, and lizard species as well, but they appear to be evolutionary dead ends. This could be because there are development constraints in vertebrates (there certainly are, in the form of gene imprinting, in mammals), but this remains to be determined. Third, there is no general non-adaptationist theory of sexual reproduction, to my knowledge. He certainly presents none.
Historically, developmentalists have been indifferent or hostile to evolutionary modeling because the do not see how such dynamic historical modelshelp them develop the structural and developmental mechanisms characteristic of living organisms. This stance is no longer fruitful. We now understand that evolutionary models do not prove anything. Rather, they suggest hypotheses to be explored and substantiated. Adaptationist arguments are essential because they suggest the function of homologous and analogous physiological structures. Charting the development of behaviorally-relevant characteristics, such as brain size and social organization, the structure of brains and vocal apparati, using the paleographic evidence, sheds critical light on the path to successfully modeling biological development from the level of cell to that of the complex animal or human society. We increasingly need researchers to explore the synergy between development and evolution. This ill-tempered book could have been written in that spirit, but it was not.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Some good deconstruction of Evolutionary Psychology; some strawman takedowns of evolutionary psychology; a thought-provoker 5 Sep 2006
By S. J. Snyder - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Francis takes an in-depth look at the difference between what he calls (riffing on John Maynard Smith) the difference between why-biology (or teleological explanations) and how-biology (or non goal-oriented changes). Riffing on Aristotle, this can be seen as the difference between final cause and proximate cause explanations. Or adaptationism, especially in a hard-core form, and neutralist stances.

The book is overall a mixed bag, almost infuriatingly so at times.

The last chapter, "Darwin's Temptress," is far and away the best. He goes after Evolutionary Psychology quite well, notably exposing weaknesses in the thinking of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett.

By the end of this chapter, I was almost ready to give the book a four-star rating. BUT, before the start of this chapter, I was quite ready to give it a two-star rank instead.

As noted in my review of David Buller's "Adapting Minds," I distinguish between Ev Psych the quasi-metaphysical theory of biosocial development and ev psych the more legitimate study of evolutionary origins and causes of human mental attributes and differences in their development.

Francis, in a challenging book with plenty of high points and low points alike, does not. Hence the three-star rating.

Let me look at the high points of the final chapter before pointing out what I see as the more notable errors of reasoning earlier on.

In discussing Dennett, Francis points out how he has shifted his embrace of "stancing" from seeing it as a viable bridge between folk psychology and more materialist approaches to study of the mind in his earlier books, to being more disingenuous about it later. By "Darwin's Dangerous Idea," Francis says "his stance stance had become disingenuous ... let[ting] him claim allegiance to the materialist natural scientists, without actually having to act like one." I think there's a fair amount of insight there.

Francis also notes that the algorithmic view of the mind (whether fully modular or not) championed by Dennett (and Tooby/Cosmides, et al) is clearly a top-down, design-driven version. I had always disagreed with this algorithmic idea; I now understand why.

He faults both Dennett and Dawkins for being such hard-core adaptationists that their support for design as the explain-all almost goes full circle back to Bishop Paley and his untenable watchmaker analogies.

Dawkins gets faulted in other ways. Most notable of these is defending Paley's emphasis on design to the point of dismissing Hume's CRUSHING destruction of the argument from design in general. Dawkins goes so far as to overlook Hume's contribution to antimetaphysical thought in general; Francis points out his claim that not until Darwin was it intellectually reasonable to be an atheist.

Having read much of Hume, I'd have to call Dawkins' claim pure rubbish.

But, somewhat unfortunately, 10 chapters in the book come before this one.

Here's a few problems.

First, on page 49, Francis clearly only allows teleological explanations in evolutionary biology to operate at one, overarching level. He doesn't say why teleology, or even quasi-teleology, couldn't operate at, say, the individual genus level.

Second, on page 50, he says how-biology can be seen as both a competing counterexplanation to why-biology and a complementary explanation, specifically re sex change among certain fish. But, especially as we get closer to his take on evolutionary psychology and its dealing with the human mind, his emphasis seems to be ENTIRELY on the competing rather than complementary half of that sentence.

While decrying that many evolutionary psychologists seem to have social or political axes to grind, he neglects that people as strongly opposed not just to Ev Psych, but a fair degree to ev psych as well, including perhaps people like himself, have their own axes to grind.

Along with this (and this book is three years old, but not THAT old) he seems dismissive of people such as feminist psychologist, philosophers, etc., who report sex-based human mental differences of a nature, both depth and breadth, along with the number of them, that they can't all be dismissed as socially conditioned.

A few more specific critiques.

Page 140ff, he claims that, in songbirds at least, ev psychers all seem to claim that the hippocampus' function is primarily about spatial memory. Well, I don't know about songbirds, but I've NEVER seen that claimed about the hippocampus in mammals.

Page 161. A sexually dimorphic trait need not be *antagonistic* against the sex that doesn't have it. Rather, it just needs *enough additional evolutionary pressure* in the sex that does have it. Since the body naturally switches off one copy of each chromosome pair in the non-sex chromosomes, it's easy to postulate that functioning control genes for the actual coding gene(s) for a sexual dimorphism, say antlers in males, could cause the male copy of the particular chromosome to always turn on in males and the female copy to always turn on in females. I'm not a geneticist, so I don't know HOW likely that is; but, from the point of logic, there's nothing to contraindicate it.

Page 168. It's a straw man to call Dennett a "reformed behavioralist ... a behavioralist with a computationalist veneer." Given that his academic study is in philosophy, not psychology, referring to him as ANY sort of behavioralist in trying to trace out the intellectual history of both Ev Psych and ev psych is less than enlightening. Given that this philosophy study, at the graduate level, took place in England with the analytic philosophy muse Gilbert Ryle, the computationalist label is certainly understandable, but it should be further seen as removing himself from the behavioralist fallout as it played out.

Page 168 footnote: Calling Dennett's "Darwin's Dangerous Idea" a "regrettable book" is ridiculous. Thought-provoking? Yes. Often wrong? Yes. Sometimes right? Also yes. Regrettable? Not a chance.

Page 169: Saying that Ev Psych (I'll do Francis the favor of assuming he's talking about my capitalized version) makes Jerry Fodor look like a "shrinking violet," and that he in turn did the same to Noam Chomsky is one of the more ax-grinding strawmen of the book.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars an important, early book... needs better editing... read it anyway! 17 July 2005
By James Neville - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I read this book because I am interested in explanations of differences and similarities in females and males that can be SUBSTANTIATED (repeatable experimental results and accurate predictions). This book talks about experimental results, observations, and explanations of sexual behavior and sexual change in fish, frogs, hyenas, baboons, and (somewhat) humans.

I gave this book 4 stars because I think it could have been further edited for clarity. Its strengths are that it cites lots of fascinating experimental results and shows where popular explanations for sex differences ARE and ARE NOT substantiated.

Its weakness is that it could have been better edited before release to a popular audience. My pet peeves were: straightening out the missequenced footnotes in Chapter 2 ("Orgasm"), and summarizing the author's key points in each chapter in ONE PLACE, versus repeating them in the middle of long discussions that are tortuous to follow.

The discussions include both EVIDENCE and DIFFERING INTERPRETATIONS and it's easy to get a bit lost on what the author is arguing FOR, factually, vs. FOR, explanation wise. It reminds me of listening to (or reading the book by) a brilliant professor who's going just a LEETLE fast for (me) the student.

NEVERTHELESS... It's GOOD STUFF. I think this is a critically important, early book in the emerging field of evolutionary developmental biology and I recommend reading it ANYWAY. It cites EVIDENCE and demonstrates critical thinking to counter/filter/evaluate sex difference evidence and interpretations now and in the future.

NOTE: An easier to follow book regarding how organisms evolve is "Endless Forms Most Beautiful" (reviewed separately), but this book doesn't address the sex evolution issues.

NOTE: An example of a book clearly explaining and summarizing competing scientific explanations vs. evidence is "Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe" (reviewed separately), but this book is about physics not biology.
6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Isn't Life Strange? 23 Jun 2004
By Jack Repcheck - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
(...)
The appeal of Richard Francis' book is simple - the author offers a much-needed corrective to today's popular writings about biology. Let me elaborate. Though evolutionary biology is but one of several vibrant sub-fields in the life sciences - the others include molecular biology, cell biology, biochemistry, immunology, microbiology, and developmental biology - it is far and away the most written about. Blessed with a group of fine scientists who can write for general readers, equally gifted journalists who are authoritative, and subject matter that lends itself to engrossing stories, evolutionary biology has become part of the intellectual landscape of the 21st century. Even the most casual reader/viewer of newspapers, magazines, and TV has heard about the power of evolution to explain all sorts of intriguing physical forms and behaviors in the animal kingdom, which includes us, human beings. By comparison, the latest discoveries and advances in, for instance, biochemistry and cell biology are almost certainly not known by anyone outside of those fields.
And no one can deny to amazing power of the forces of evolution. However, as often happens with ideas and theories that galvanize individuals across a broad spectrum (past examples include artificial intelligence, chaos theory, and now the genome), many get carried away and the idea is pushed to extreme limits where its application becomes misplaced and its results misleading. This has certainly happened with evolutionary biology, where in some circles adaptation by natural selection has been called upon to explain EVERY physical form, behavior, instinct, etc. Here is where Francis's book is important and provides needed balance. The overall theme of WHY MEN WON'T ASK FOR DIRECTIONS is that evolution explains a lot, but not everything. The second underlying theme is that the latest advances in Developmental Biology (the science that studies how fertilized eggs "develop" into mature organisms) can sometimes better explain behaviors, forms, and features that have either stymied evolutionists, or caused them to promote particularly strained theories.
What makes the book such an enjoyable read is Richard Francis's ability to pick irresistible animals as the focus of his discussions (my personal favorite is the "cleaner wrasse", which is a small fish that spends most of its time "cleaning" the gills of larger fish for food, with the permission of the larger fish, as it were). Each chapter begins with a dilemma that a behavior or form poses for scientists, it continues with ideas that evolutionists have proposed to explain the phenomenon in question, and then concludes with what Developmental Biology has to say about the puzzle. Francis has a bit of an attitude to him (plus he is funny in print, which is a rare talent), but I think that adds to the book -- many of the scientists, social scientists, and writers who embrace the vision of strict adaptationism are so strident in their own writings that Francis is merely giving them a taste of their own medicine.
Francis shows, in one colorful and imaginative chapter after another, that evolution is at work, but it is only able to work with what it is given, and what it is given is the result of developmental biology, the union of egg and sperm and the development of the embryo. For example, Francis addresses the interesting phenomenon of sex change in a chapter entitled, Transgendered.. Incredibly, sex change is widespread among fishes, and it turns out that it should be among certain birds and mammals, too - at least according to evolutionary theory. Given their behavior, Gorillas, elephant seals and peacocks, for example, should be female-to-male sex changers. Francis demonstrates that the reason sex change is so common in fishes, but absent in mammals such as elephant seals, is due to fundamental differences in sexual development in these two groups. In another chapter entitled Alternative Lifestyles, Francis shows how these same differences in sexual development explain why alternative male reproductive tactics are so much more common in fishes than in mammals.
In the chapter entitled, A Textbook Case of Penis Envy, Francis brings developmental considerations to the fore to explain the celebrated male-like phallus of female spotted hyenas. He carefully examines the multiple competing adaptationist explanations for the "masculinized" genitalia. He then introduces some developmental considerations, such as the fact that all hyena fetuses are exposed to high levels of androgens in the womb, to show that some of these hypotheses should be discarded outright, while others deserve further consideration. He concludes this chapter by demonstrating how developmental factors might have interacted with ecological factors in the evolution of this extraordinary trait.
By raising the specter of Developmental Biology, Richard Francis does not weaken the power of Evolutionary Biology. Rather, he enriches it. WHY MEN WON'T ASK FOR DIRECTIONS is a powerful, fact-filled narrative that should be read by everyone who enjoys nature and the life sciences.
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