Friday, July 2, 2010

Two Thrift Store Allegories

It has become commonplace, the idea that only men were hunters and only women were gatherers millions of years ago. Most importantly, the "fact" of unambiguous gender roles for those millions of years explains, by way of evolutionary psychology, all gendered behaviour today. (I have written about this before, from a different perspective.)

And I say "Horsepuckie." I also say that I love a good metaphor; it can achieve greatness in explaining even seeming opposites, especially when it is developed to full allegorical glory.

So first, we have the allegory of the thrift store gatherer. She (she has to be female according to the evolutionary psychology people)  is driven by evolutionary imperatives to shop, to browse and select the best goods for the best price. She wanders through the store, looking for the best deals, much as she has been window-shopping for the best shops. She gathers her soon-to-be purchases, just as a female in Paleolithic times gathered nuts and berries, with a discerning eye for value.

Doesn't that sound nice? The good female shopper gathering goods according to her gendered, evolutionary role.

So now let's try the allegory of the hunter in the thrift store. She (stepping outside her usual prescriptive role) is hunting for treasure, that genuine Prada bag for $5, the one hanging in the midst of the other less desirable bags. Before every sortie to the store, she plans her attack, her route, and her strategy. She knows that other hunters are looking for the same prey, so she uses special tactics to camouflage her approach. She cuts off access to several bags, including her intended prey, which gives her time to assess the situation. Assured that the prey is genuine, she isolates it from the rest and finalizes the purchase.

Sounds nice, as well. The hunter searching for prey, isolating it, and going in for the kill.

That's the trouble with so many of the assumptions of evolutionary psychology. We mostly don't really know the difference between an evolutionary imperative and a damn good story that simply illustrates the status quo, especially in matters of gender.


Judie said...

Chris, I have been watching the thrift store mavens on t.v. lately. There is a special name for them--they are called "hoarders."

ChrisJ said...


Good point - but are they hunting hoarders or gathering hoarders?

corfubob said...

We Simpletons need our labels Chris, but we don't need other people's labels, that they tie on to avoid having to deal with uncertainty.

Pre gunpowder the strongest ones went out to wrestle with animals, and I bet that in any given community, females were among them - having only to prove their strength.

Females always had to apply their strength (energy) to bearing the next generation, and tough babes who got trampled by wild beasts did not transmit their genes.

Surely it's that simple. Even if that's not what you were talking about. Another great post anyway.

ChrisJ said...

Hi Bob,

I don't think it is that simple; for sure there were gendered roles, but in pre-agrarian times, they were much more fluid than we think - at least that's what many anthroplolgists believe.

My main complaint, though, is how some evolutionary psychologists extrapolate so fancifully, often not taking obvious factors into account.