It doesn’t make sense that we would have an inborn urge to have babies that is a separate thing from the urge to have sex—sex seems to be nature’s way to convince most of us, at least, to breed.
What Amanda is saying is that the evolutionary imperative to reproduce doesn’t really exist — that it is social construct.
I once heard a female professor of mathematics talk about an encounter she had with a senior colleague soon after taking her first faculty job. He told her that he didn’t think she belonged there because he knew for a fact that women weren’t good at math. Coming from a math professor, of all people, the reasoning is mind-boggling — surely he understood the basics of probability distributions. It could be true that on average women are less capable mathematicians than men and also true that this particular woman was more capable than most men, including a certain professor standing in the hall making an ass of himself at that very moment.
That’s the basic problem with believing that you’re smarter than a whole class of other people — it tends to make you stupid. That anecdote is my favorite example (and it’s just an anecdote, so take it with a grain of salt — I have no reason to doubt the woman who told it but I don’t have a lot of faith in my own memory). It’s been on my mind because of the exchanges last week between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Andrew Sullivan about race and IQ. I have a second-favorite example, too, and unlike the first one it’s documented in fantastic detail. It’s been sitting on my hard disk for a long time, part of a collection of half-written blog posts that just gets more impressive every year. I guess now’s the time, finally.
The presumed fool in this story is also a woman, and the operating assumption is that she’s a scientific ignoramus. Not because she’s a woman, of course, but because she’s a feminist, which is a much better reason. Specifically — not that it really matters, because they all think alike — it’s Amanda Marcotte, prima donna of Pandagon. Feminists hold science in contempt and don’t even believe in reality, and you don’t need to know any science to see what a scientific ignoramus a person like that is.
Her opposite number is Jeff Goldstein, the guru who for 10 gleeful years has been serving glistening gobs of Protein Wisdom from a can. Just like Newt, he sounds like a smart person is supposed to sound, only you don’t have to be dumb to think that, just easily impressed. Like David Thompson, for instance, who’s our unreliable narrator, or something.
A lot of the story is a pretty typical episode of the echo chamber follies, just with an especially united front of willful ignorance. Goldstein ratchets the pretense up with a load of his patented intellectual spam. Meanwhile, Thompson takes the knee-jerk assumptions about who’s smarter up a notch, commenting that Goldstein “probably [has] quite a few IQ points” on Marcotte. So guess which one has a clue about basic evolutionary biology?
Once upon a time almost 3 years ago, Amanda Marcotte wrote a blog post about Nadya Suleman (“Octo-Mom”). She starts it by quoting a blogger who had assumed that “the desire to have children is a very normal, biological urge” and had then speculated that the urge had gone haywire in Suleman’s case. That’s not a biological urge, Marcotte counters — it’s socially constructed.
For David Thompson, this is just the kind of entertaining nonsense he’s come to expect.
Note that Ms Marcotte is quite insistent on this point. The inclination to reproduce simply is a cultural construct, and a dubious one at that. Why humans should apparently be unique in this regard, untouched by biology, isn’t entirely clear. Presumably, human beings - specifically human men - have constructed elaborate patterns of behaviour to mimic almost exactly biological inclinations that are felt as real, by men and women, but which don’t in fact exist.
When it’s the commenters’ turn to get their licks in, Thompson’s message is boiled down to its lowest-common-denominator essentials: Marcotte is an agenda-driven fool and her ideas are pure rubbish.
So when birds and bees feel the urge to have baby birds and baby bees, it’s biology. But when humans feel the urge, it’s a cultural construct. [posted by carbon based lifeform]
This is stupidity so high and rarefied that it leaves one gasping for breath. It is on exactly the same level as stating that the urge to find food is a cultural construct. [David Gillies]
Isn’t she self-nominating for a Darwin Award? [georgesdelaotour]
No, there’s nothing to think about. This woman is a notorious idiot, nothing she says is interesting or sensible or intellectually provocative, she’s the most predictable form of brainless, ideological zealot. [Amos (my emphasis, though, because what could be more perfect?)]
Unfortunately, if we ‘educate’ vast numbers of people beyond the level of their intelligence, we will get dross like that spouted by Marcotte and Freethinker. [paul ilc]
Ignorance can be a lot of fun in the right atmosphere, and Thompson is good at cultivating it. The idea that it’s biology when bees feel the urge to have baby bees is above and beyond, though — seems like “carbon based lifeform” may have watched “Bee Movie” and “Bugs Life” a few too many times. Exactly one person gets the basic biology right, but his mild comment that he’s “not sure there is a ‘reproductive instinct’” doesn’t seem to have left any impression . Thompson may have had some doubts. He seems to be fishing around when he drops in a comment to say that Marcotte “seems to be claiming that the species’ inclination to reproduce (or become pregnant, or to parent or whatever) is real only as a malleable social construct.” And if he’s wrong, he suggests, it’s because of Marcotte’s “knotty and erratic thinking.” Bullshit! Her description of the biological inclination is just fine — there’s nothing knotty or even social-contracty about it.
As far as I know, there’s no evidence whatsoever for the popular theory that women are born with the urge to breed that’s as real as the sexual urge. It doesn’t make sense that we would have an inborn urge to have babies that is a separate thing from the urge to have sex—sex seems to be nature’s way to convince most of us, at least, to breed. Reliable contraception was only invented, relative to human history, about yesterday. We don’t evolve so quickly that a natural urge to procreate would have to evolve to keep us alive in response to our newfound ability to separate sex and procreation.
It’s actually Thompson who is imagining that humans are un-biological. Marcotte is insisting that the human reproductive drive is biological, i.e., the same as in every other animal. Unlike Thompson & Co., she understands that the only way to get an inborn, biological urge is to evolve it. The only way to evolve an “urge to have babies” is if that urge translates into the act of mating. But all that’s needed to get animals to mate is an urge to mate, and for hundreds of millions of years that’s done the job. Lady rabbits don’t sidle over to their partner, feeling somehow incomplete, and say in bunny body language, “Oh honey, I wanna have a baaaaybeee!” The call of the wild is “let’s get it on!” There’s absolutely no evidence that humans have evolved a different urge. What we’ve evolved is the ability to manage the urge, because we can make the conscious connection between sex and babies.
Marcotte’s piece has shortcomings, of course. Sex is not the only innate urge involved in human reproduction — unlike guppies, humans can’t just squirt the little suckers out, we have to raise ‘em up, too. And I agree with the general impression that she writes dogmatically about social constructs. It’s as if they were hashed out by a bunch of guys in a smoke-filled room and handed down to posterity. As far as science goes, though, it’s not ignorance or contempt that stands out but matter-of-fact acceptance and the way it’s juxtaposed with uncritical articles of feminist faith — that’s how it looks to me, anyway. 
Thompson and his merry band of wankers are fixated on a dumb feminist, though, so they’ve airbrushed out any detail that might make you, like, stop and think “hmmm, maybe she’s right about that.” They’re left with a pin-up that makes them feel real smart, and when she says “social construct” and “patriarchy” it’s just… soooo… hhhhhotttt! Any sign that she has a brain would obviously spoil the fun.
It’s an awfully pathetic and mean-spirited way to get your ego stroked, but it’s not all scorn and derision in Thompson’s clubhouse. Down in the comments, he takes a moment to look up to someone he admires.
James S: Does Marcotte actually respond to criticism?
Thompson: [F]rom what I’ve seen,… if it’s realistic criticism and challenges her recurring assumptions (of which there are so many) then it’s very rarely engaged, and not well. If you browse the, er, exchanges of views between Marcotte and Jeff at Protein Wisdom, you’ll see that Jeff generally makes a point of engaging with criticism and specifics, sometimes at great length. Sadly, this favour isn’t returned. As I said, a visit to Pandagon is not unlike stumbling into some kind of church. It’s a gathering of the faithful.
James S: Wow. Anyone who proves her wrong is a sexist, racist hater.
Thompson: In fairness, there are probably quite a few IQ points between Jeff and Amanda, but the point remains that one of them engages with criticism in a serious (if sometimes mocking) way, while the other does not. Instead, she denounces unbelievers. Actually, it can be fun to watch Jeff fence with his more substantial critics. The exchanges with Professor Ric Caric leap to mind. … In many ways he’s like a smarter Marcotte and uses similar tactics but with, ahem, Academic Gravitas™. [emphasis added]
The really fascinating part of that, for me, is the way he sets Caric up as “a smarter Marcotte.” Any fool can look at the right-thinking people and the wrong-thinking people and figure out who’s smarter. But when you have two equally benighted individuals, what do you do? There are a couple of knee-jerk heuristics Thompson might have used, but maybe it’s a little more subtle and more personal than that. If the smarter one is “more substantial,” and if by “substantial” you mean that he produces a lot of text that lets our hero cut a dashing figure as he thrusts and parries, then the nod definitely goes to Caric.
From what I’ve seen, anyway, Goldstein thoroughly enjoyed his encounters with Caric. In July 2007, Caric presented a laundry list of all the deplorable things he’d found on PW and all of its connections to other deplorable sites, people, and ideas. Goldstein had no trouble answering and dismissing the individual points, and overall he was delighted with Caric’s disapproval, delighted to return it. A few days later, Caric was back with a conventional homily on racism, framed with a few sarcastic jabs at Goldstein. It was a perfect opportunity for Goldstein to play literary critic and expound his own iconoclastic philosophy of race. To be accused of bigotry by an certified Professor of Mindless Diversity is mother’s milk to Goldstein.
Maybe there have been exchanges like that between Marcotte and Goldstein. They’re natural adversaries, for sure, and in a tribalistic way they could be really useful to each other. What I found, though, is a one-liner Marcotte posted about a month after those exchanges with Caric:
The perfect person to deny that many conservative men act out of a sense of anxious masculinity is a guy who pulls his dick out 25 times a day to make sure it’s still there.
So you can see why “Academic Gravitas™” makes for a “smarter Marcotte” — unlike the real thing, it never draws blood. And it’s not like Goldstein is above this kind of thing. He’s happy to respond in kind in Marcotte’s comments and then with his own post. More recently he put Scott Eric Kaufman down as “an intellectual vagina” who’d birthed an “Asian gal’s ping pong ball.” It’s an amazing genital-racial metaphor, especially when you consider that the ping pong ball — some guy who sent Goldstein an obnoxious email — is presumed black.
Anyway, Caric is just a guy with a blog, like the rest of us peons. Goldstein and Marcotte are big-time bloggers, and there are good reasons for that — they’re both fluent, productive writers who project a strong personality, though their styles are worlds apart. Marcotte is general-interest magazine kind of writer — Newsweek, not The New Yorker. Aside from a bit of feminist lingo, maybe, and niche topics like skepticism, anyone who can follow The Daily Show can drop in on Pandagon and get what Marcotte is writing about. Goldstein demands more time and effort. His writing is a performance, it directs attention to the writer, and it’s full of arcane material that pulls you into his world. His style puts him in the center of a circle of readers who are focussed on his very conspicuous erudition, among other things. The impression of intelligence isn’t necessarily false, and if for some reason you had to guess his IQ and compare it to Marcotte’s, that’s probably the thing to go with. But the comparison is a lot more interesting than that. You can get a sense from their styles of the general character of the two writers, with the political slant and subject matter factored out — Marcotte is upfront, accessible, and unguarded while Goldstein is showy, manipulative, and entrenched.
Goldstein is a very gifted writer, though, no doubt about it. When he’s not being self-consciously intellectual, he’s a superb hard-hitting, mad-as-hell editorialist. He also has an impressive ability to generate baroque highbrow text that’s also impassioned and readable, and he can get a lot of verbal mileage out of a small idea.
Because for Limbaugh’s signs to acquire the meaning the Obama camp wants viewers to take away from their presentation, those signs must be entirely severed from their original intent. And it is only at that point - when the interpretative process is left up to the intentions of a receiver who has naught but the signifiers to go on, thanks to the dishonest and intentional removal of all the indexes to original intent that occur inside the signified context of the utterer (eg., metatextual clues signaling irony or parody; think of lines being lifted from Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” and being used by Obama to suggest that Swift “wants to exterminated the poor of Ireland”), that one can argue that Limbaugh’s piece “means” what the Obama camp suggests it means.
I think Marcotte would just write something like this (the part in bold corresponds to the passage above): The two lines were sarcastic when Limbaugh said them, but there’s nothing to clue you in about that in Obama’s ad — the ad makes it seem like Limbaugh was being serious (and then she’d add something like, Good Work! Maybe Obama’s finally grown some ovaries!).
In the post I just quoted, Goldstein uses eight dense paragraphs to explain that deceptive out-of-context quoting is a “crass rhetorical trick.” That’s what it takes, I guess, to show how this commonplace principle of intellectual integrity is actually a profound manifestation of intentionalism. The bottom line, anyway, is that “once one understands intentionalism, one realizes that there is nothing else:”
we either appeal to the intent of the author in order to “interpret,” or we privilege our own intent, which is what happens when we refuse to allow the original signs to act as anything more than signifiers upon which we then graft our own meaning.
Goldstein takes this idea of intentionalism very seriously, as you can see. It’s one of his signature causes. He takes it personally, too. Look what happened when Scott Eric Kaufman wrote that Goldstein had “fully embraced” the theory of Ayers ghostwriting for Obama, when in fact he had only used the theory as a hypothetical in a “rather academic exhortation on the various beings of agency.” It was a gross misrepresentation of his intentions, and Kaufman did it knowing full well that “those predisposed to read his political hackery are similarly predisposed to avoid confronting primary texts.” Goldstein threw an epic temper tantrum, and who can blame him?
So naturally, when Goldstein criticized Marcotte’s “octo-mom” post he was careful to privilege her intent. After all, it’s a matter of basic critical integrity, as applicable to a loathsome enemy like Marcotte as to a friend like Rush. And after about 43 seconds of careful study, he realized that the primary, topical purpose of the article is to dismiss the notion that there’s a biological urge to have babies, first of all because it’s a myth, and second of all because it puts the onus of reproduction on women and their inchoate yearnings (he couldn’t help chuckling at the thought of a feminist trying to win an argument by invoking science).
Ha! Goldstein already knows all about social construct theorists and don’t need to bother with no stinkin’ text! And anyway, Marcotte’s post was predigested for him by his warmup act, Darleen Click, who realized that “no where would [Amanda] state something so positively about homosexuality or transgenderism… no, those aren’t subject to change at all, no social construct there. Heh.” (it’s so very taxing, you see, for Darleen to have Amanda all up in her head not stating things). When Goldstein stepped in with some thoughts about “Ms Marcotte’s (predictable) position,” he congratulated Click for the “nice gotcha moment.” “Social construct theorists like Amanda are often trapped by inconsistencies in their own arguments,” he notes, and then uses some big, bonecrushing words to trap her between one (predictable) position he misrepresents and another that he imagines. If there’s one thing those folks really love it’s a gotcha moment, and lack of evidence is no reason to miss out on the fun. Comments she left under her post suggest that Marcotte has a somewhat more subtle position on homosexuality — she writes that it’s still “real” even though “[it] has an environmental component” — but there’s no way Goldstein could have known about that. As far as the claims Marcotte really did make, Goldstein’s language is impressive but vague. He’s kind enough to clarify in the comments, though, and then he’s clearly wrong. 
Anyway, the important thing is the ultimate intentions of Marcotte and her social constructivist red army, which are “to seize political control by seizing control of how ‘meaning’ is determined.” It’s “a clear indication that the institutionalization of ‘response’ theoretics has progressed to the point where we must, indeed, either fight back or else become subsumed by interest groups bent on controlling ‘meaning’ by purely rhetorical force.” Goldstein is a formidable rhetorical warrior. Nobody is working harder to keep the world safe from the insidious spread of pernicious literary theoretics than he is.
He’s also an intellectual fraud, a billowing gasbag of pedantry, hypocrisy, and self-pity, and the perfect poster boy for the puffed-up but ultimately hollow cult of superior intelligence. I wouldn’t be at all surprised or bothered to find out that his IQ is quite high — it would just be more evidence of how little the number tells you about the quality of the product.
^ It’s not just because he gets the fundamental biological fact right that Rich Rostrum’s comment stands out. There’s also a tone of actual curiosity, as if there might be something of interest other than the partisan implications.
I’m not sure there is a “reproductive instinct”. There are instincts and drives to engage in behaviors which lead to reproduction, and to care for young, but the process is too long and indirect to be reflected in a “drive”. Animals mate and produce young - but do they _know_ that mating leads to offspring? I don’t think so.
As far as I know, only humans are capable of performing actions in conscious expectation of results that will not occur for a long time (such as planting seeds to grow food to be eaten several months in the future). I don’t see how such awareness could drive the development of an “instinct”, though it can certainly combine with the desire to care for children. Note that people will make very strong efforts to obtain adoptive children, even when those children are of a different race and thus not possibly the adopter’s genetic offspring.
It’s not that case, by the way, that every other comment is the kind of pure strident stupidity that I excerpted in the post. As usual with comment threads, there are lots of tangents. I see the redoubtable Amac in there — a person who’s quite capable of calling out nonsense, but here he’s one of the tangents. There are also a couple of smart comments at the end that came in months later and weren’t part of the discussion/celebration.
^ The most polemical parts of Marcotte’s piece, to my mind, are when she makes these cultural constructs sound like conspiracies, writing things like, “culturally constructed differences… exist to demean and oppress women” and “the mythological ‘biological clock’” is essentially “an effort to Other women” (my emphasis).
It may or may not matter that she doesn’t include parenting with biology, and that’s the basic problem — who knows? Parenting is a very complex, long-term, and subtle thing, especially compared to sex, and I don’t see how the urges that guide us to raise our offspring (and guide our offspring to make sure they’re raised) could be so precisely targeted that they don’t have spillover effects. The fact that people choose to adopt and it works out is pretty good evidence of that. And when it comes to possible differences in the reproduction-related urges of the two sexes, the mammaries loom large.
In spite of what Thompson and all the rest of them think, it’s clear from Marcotte’s blogging that she has an active interest in science and she’s fairly well informed. She identifies herself as a skeptic, too, so she regularly argues for evidence-based ideas and against faith-based ideas, and does it fairly well from what I’ve seen. I have the feeling, though, that the conspiratorial patriarchy is represents a faith-based core of feminist ideology that she hasn’t (or at least hadn’t) managed to confront. The process of social construction is surely more organic and more interesting than that. That’s how it seems to me, anyway, based on the diverse social systems of non-human primates and the work of feminist biologists like Sarah Hrdy.
One symptom of Marcotte’s polemical thinking is indifference or intolerance of the inconvenient experience of other women. This was extreme in the wake of Marcotte’s notoriously vehement comments about the Duke lacrosse case. She was apparently unwilling to tolerate even respectful disagreement from other feminists, including one from Duke. The local perspective in a situation like that is more than just another opinion, and a commentator working from a distance needs to be open to it. It’s not the last word, but it’s the voice of experience and it usually complicates the picture. Marcotte, it seems, preferred to keep it simple.
In the much less charged context of her “octo-mom” post, Marcotte is of course much more understanding. She acknowledges that some women experience a strong urge to have children and she wants to reassure them that she believes their feelings are “real.” Nonetheless, the way Marcotte sees it, these women have internalized a system that’s designed to demean and oppress them. It seems kind of patronizing, doesn’t it? This is a realm where a whole lot can be guessed but very little is known. There is no evidence-based explanation for the feelings those women have. The truly skeptical approach to the situation is to respect the unknown. The polemical approach is to collapse it down to a line of defense.
Deconstructing — and so re-conceptualizing — the “social construct” that Amanda suggests was built up by patriarchal forces to trick women into thinking the desire to procreate and “mother” is a biological imperative is, to her way of thinking, good. Re-conceptualizing the “social construct” that tricks homosexuals or the transgendered into thinking that their behavior is biologically driven, on the other hand, is reductive, evil, and Christianist.
In short, she wants to have it both ways — and she wants this precisely because it puts her in charge of deciding for everyone else what is right and what is wrong, socially speaking.
He does manage to identify a desire to “mother” as one the things that Marcotte is writing off as a social construct. I don’t see why the word is quoted, though — a desire to mother seems like a pretty good guess about where that urge to have a baby comes from. It’s probably just verbal filigree (thus the quotes), since it goes with a “desire to procreate,” which is another version of the pseudoscientific thing that doesn’t exist.
Responding to a reader, he summarizes his take on Marcotte’s position more clearly, and he manages to be more clearly and totally wrong, both about evolution and Marcotte. The puppeteering is shameless, too. In the post, it’s the fabricating of her supposed position on homosexuality and “she wants to have it both ways — and she wants this precisely because….” Then in the comment it’s, “when pressured, it becomes obvious that Amanda would change her tune….” It become even more obvious that Goldstein is spouting pure bullshit.
What Amanda is saying is that the evolutionary imperative to reproduce doesn’t really exist — that it is social construct. It is REAL, she concedes, but real as a SOCIAL CONSTRUCT, and so adaptable to change by human will alone. In a sense, this is true: we can often constrain our biological insticts by way of agreed upon social contracts, and so create social constructs to militate against biological norms.
But that’s not what Amanda means. Instead, she is arguing that there are no biological imperatives, only social constructs that act AS IF they were biological imperatives.
This is nonsense, and as both Darleen and I (and others) noted, when pressured, it becomes obvious that Amanda would change her tune with respect to other biological imperatives as it suits her political needs.