science and the media

Gossip columns need to not dabble in science. Recently published an article about older men lusting after younger women. The article is completely wrong, and it is important to understand why.

The article asks the question, “Is it natural for older guys to lust after younger women?” and comes back with an answer of “no”. The article makes trite arguments that show a clear misunderstanding of how biological traits function. It drops comments like “No one thinks babies were the first thing on the mind of Jason Statham when he started dating a 23-year-old Victoria’s Secret model.” Comments like that are good for a laugh, but they betray a complete ignorance of the real evolutionary theory behind sexual attraction and sexual preferences. Then the article quotes two books that “debunk” the science supporting evolutionary theories of sexual preferences. Two books that were written by a professor of women’s studies and a professor of gender psychology, respectively. Now I should tell you: I respect women’s studies and I respect gender psychology. But neither field involves training in evolution, biology, genetics, or neurochemistry. These critiques can provide insights into sociological motivations and implications of scientific research, but they cannot “debunk” the science.

Can we be honest for a moment here? Can we just cut through the pretense, for a second?

What this article is really trying to say is this: old men lusting after younger women is gross. It’s gross and it’s inappropriate. And since some of these old, gross guys out there use the argument, “I can’t help it! It’s biological!” the author of this article thinks he is at war with science. The logic of the article is simple: I think it’s wrong for older men to hit on younger women, therefore it must not be natural or biological.

It’s bad science motivated by a bad argument. The fact of the matter is, there is plenty of scientific evidence that a sexual attraction to younger mates is biological. But (and this is important) the mere fact that it’s biological doesn’t in any way mean that it’s ok.

The author of this article wants to debunk the creepy old man who says, “Hey, it’s ok that I leer at a 16 year old because it’s biological!” But the author gets it wrong. He does it by denying the science. What he should be doing is denying the argument.

This is the argument he should be using: Not everything that is biological is ok. Not everything that is “inborn” is desirable. Not everything that is “evolved” is good.

The fact of the matter is, we have a lot of natural, biological, evolved tendencies that are terrible and counter-productive. We have evolved to love eating salt and fat. We have an innate biological tendency to want to eat as much salt and fat as we can get our hands on. Looking back in our evolutionary history, this made sense: tribal primitive humans saw less fat in a week than we get out of one bag of potato chips. The human body needs some salt and fat, so when these things were scarce we needed to consume it whenever we found it.

But all that has changed. If we do the inborn, biological, natural thing now, we will kill ourselves with cardiovascular disease. And so: what is “natural” is not “right.” What is “biological” is not helpful or good. Instead, it is something we need to actively work against for our own good.

And in today’s modern civilized society, the same argument could be made for 60-year-olds lusting after teens. It’s psychologically harmful, it’s socially undesirable, it’s ultimately unstable. All of those are good arguments. They are correct arguments.

And they are strong enough. If you lie about science because you think it will make your sociological arguments stronger, you end up hurting both your social cause and the progress of science at the same time.



POST SCRIPTUM: Just in case anyone cares, I use this exact same argument to villify people who claim (falsely) that science has “proved” that being gay is genetic and “therefore” being gay is ok. The fact of the matter is: science hasn’t “proved” a genetic link to homosexuality yet, and homosexuality is ok regardless of whether it’s genetic or not.