Archive for April, 2008

Writer’s General Warning: The following entry may cause your head to implode from an overload of information. Head implosion is not necessarily guaranteed, but the writer wishes to warn his readers that the act of writing the entry certainly had this effect on him, and that he assumes no responsibility for any further head implosion that this entry may cause.


I find, sometimes, that it’s difficult to respond to something that someone says about a given subject, because it requires a level of knowledge that I do not, at the time, possess. Take for example, one of Jonathan Tweet’s recent blog entries, which was written in response to a discussion panel on the subject of “Why Does Gaming Appeal Mostly to Guys?” Here is what he has to say about the subject.

“Roleplaying, as currently construed, appeals disproportionately to guys because it’s mostly about the things that men evolved to enjoy: hunting and warfare. It’s about a group assembling to undertake (imaginary) risks for glory and dominance. It’s the same reason that team sports, such as basketball, are more male, whereas women compete to be judged beautiful and worthy (ice skating, gymnastics). TCGs are even more male-oriented than RPGs as they’re about direct conflict with little to no story or personality. When I was in Finland 5 years ago, the TCG players were typified as guys without girlfriends. LARPing has more female appeal because it’s more about personalities, relationships, clothing, and make-up. Finally, the quality of gamer men is a factor. A Finnish gamer I met said she got into gaming as a way to meet good-looking guys. The US gaming scene has less to offer along those lines.”

After some debate between Tweet and myself over whether or not men have evolved to enjoy hunting and warfare (or conversely, that women evolved to enjoy ice-skating and clothing), Tweet eventually made the comment that my “sharp questions, contrary evidence, and other challenges merely demonstrate that you and I come to this issue with very different premises, including, it would seem, what evolutionary psychology implies in the first place… at least one of us has a badly skewed idea of what evolutionary psychology means, and I won’t blame you if you think it’s me.”

Because of this, I have decided to try and get a better sense of what the premises of evolutionary psychology actually are (as well as sociobiology, and other scientific fields related to the subject). In so doing, I want to determine if the premises of evolutionary psychology are generally accepted by the scientific community, to determine if they betray any preconceived biases in regards to evolution, and finally, after having done this, to determine if either Tweet’s or my conclusions are skewed, and to see if they agree with anything evolutionary psychology has to say about women.


Unfortunately, trying to get even a rudimentary sense of evolutionary psychology is an enormous task, one that I don’t think I was entirely prepared for when I started to write this entry. I have, therefore, decided to break this discussion up into at least two entries (possibly more).

In this first entry, I will discuss one of the fundamental elements of evolutionary psychology: The Baldwin Effect. Though this discussion has very little to do with women and gaming, I intend to show that the hypothesis itself is a highly disputed one that calls into question the very premise of evolutionary psychology. In future entries, I hope to tie the subject of women and gaming more concisely into this discussion. Hopefully, though, my readers can appreciate the process I’ve taken to try and understand the subject better, and will be patient enough to stick with me as I explore this subject further.

The Baldwin Effect: The Foundation of Evolutionary Psychology

The term “Baldwin effect” was first coined by a researcher named George Gaylord Simpson, and refers to a hypothesis simultaneously proposed by three researchers, Lloyd Morgan, H.F. Osborn, and of course J.M Baldwin himself, in the year 1896 . The hypothesis itself is presented as a challenge to the theory that natural selection is a blind process, and that the behaviors and movements of an organism play no role in the evolutionary process. Baldwin’s own treatise on the subject of the Baldwin Effect had the following steps.

1. Over the course of their life-cycles, organisms learn to adapt random movements and behaviors into habits that allow them to better interact within their environment. These habits might include learning how to walk, how to interact socially, how to acquire food, etc. Some are acquired through learning, some through imitation, some through reactions to environmental stimulus, some through reasoning, and so on. These habits, which are acquired over an organism’s life-cycle, are what Baldwin calls “ontogenetic adaptations.”

2. Ontogenetic adaptations further adapt instincts that have already been inherited. So for example, birds are born with a natural instinct to vocalize. However, they are not born with a natural instinct to produce the various calls used by their species in the wild. As a result, they must ontogenetically adapt their natural instinct to vocalize by acquiring a working knowledge of their species’ bird calls.

3. The more ontogenetically adapted an organism is, the more likely that it will be able to respond to environmental challenges, thus enhancing its life expectancy. For example, a lion who is unable to take down prey, will likely have a shorter life expectancy than a lion that is proficient at taking down prey, because it is not as well ontogenetically adapted.

4. Because of their increased life expectancy, organisms that are more ontogenetically adapted have a greater probability of leaving offspring.

5. In some species, ontogenetic adaptations are made more effective by social heritability. In other words, by imitating the ontogenetic adaptations of others within their species and/or social network, organisms are able to acquire ontogenetic adaptations at a much more rapid pace. For example, learning to hunt from one’s parents is an example of an ontogenetic adaptation acquired through social heritability.

6. If a socially inherited, ontogenetic adaptation is maintained long enough within a population, a corresponding, genetically inherited adaptation may eventually arise. When this happens, the ontogenetic adaptation can become a congenital instinct, or an instinct acquired at birth. For example, a dog’s herding instinct may be an example of an ontogenetic adaptation that has since been translated into a congenital instinct.

7. Newly evolved congenital instincts provide a platform for further ontogenetic adaptation. For example, the development of the Broca’s area of the brain in humans- the area of the brain responsible for controlling the motor functions needed for producing human speech- has further enhanced our ontogenetically adapted ability to use language.

These steps are part of a cyclical process that Baldwin, and others, have referred to as “organic selection,” and they form the very basis of evolutionary psychology. According to proponents, an organism “selects” the ontogenetic adaptations that are most beneficial to its survival, and then waits (in a manner of speaking) until a corresponding, genetically inherited adaptation comes along. It’s like a kind of “mind-directed” natural selection, where ontogenetic adaptations give an  organism a certain amount of “breathing space” to survive until genetic adaptations can come in to take their place.1

Critics of the Baldwin Effect

If the process of organic selection sounds vaguely Lamarckian, it should come as no surprise. Baldwin proposes the idea of organic selection as a way to bring Lamarck’s theories of evolution into agreement with the prevailing theory of natural selection. And like Lamarckism, the Baldwin effect is not without its critics. Indeed, many have questioned whether or not ontogenetically acquired adaptations might ever be replaced by genetically acquired ones, since ontogenetic adaptations are more flexible in regards to meeting the challenges of a changing environment than genetically acquired ones. Also, there is nothing to suggest that ontogenetic adaptations are a necessary stage in the process of evolution. An organism may develop genetic traits that allow it to respond to a change in the environment without ever needing to develop an intermediary, ontogenetic adaptation. In addition, the Baldwin Effect assumes that in response to an environmental challenge, an organism first gets smarter, through ontogenetic adaptation, and then gets dumber again, once a genetic adaptation takes its place. Finally, the Baldwin effect presupposes a rapid, long term environmental change in an organism’s environment in order for it to occur. Since such changes rarely occur in nature, it is considered by most researchers to be a special case scenario, that likely accounts for very little in the normal process of natural selection.2

Waddington and Canalization

In spite of the criticism, there have been some verifiable examples of the Baldwin effect demonstrated in a laboratory setting. In 1942, for example, a researcher named Conrad H. Waddington published a paper called “Canalization of Development and the Inheritance of Acquired Characters.” It was in this paper that Waddington first proposed the theory that organisms have the ability to (as he put it), “respond to external stimulus by  some developmental reaction… [that] must itself be under genetic control.” In other words, organisms have the ability to alter existing genetic traits in order to respond to environmental stimuli. To demonstrate this effect, Waddington refers to his experiments with fruit flies. By applying moderate electrical shocks to a few generations, Waddington was able to observe a change in the cross vein structure of the fruit flies’ wings that, over the course of a few generations, eventually became inherited as a genetic trait inherited by generations who had never been exposed to the initial stimulus.3

Waddington’s experiments were the first to demonstrate a form of the Baldwin Effect; where organisms, responding to environmental stimuli, are able to produce phenotypes that are eventually expressed as genetic traits. Nevertheless, while Waddington’s experiments reliably demonstrate an example of the Baldwin effect, they also call into serious question the validity of Baldwin’s initial hypothesis. For example, Waddington’s experiments demonstrate fairly conclusively that the inherited changes are the result of a rearrangement of already existing genetic traits that are simply not expressed, rather than the acquisition of new genetic traits that coincide with ontogenetic (or in this case phenotypic) adaptations. Also, the fact that Waddington’s experiments demonstrate only that an organism is able to produce phenotypes that are later expressed as genetic traits, still leaves the subject of whether or not an organism can translate learned behaviors into genetic traits open to debate.

Hinton and Nowlan’s Model

In 1987, Geoffrey Hinton and Steven Nowlan created a computer model, known today as the Hinton and Nowlan Model, designed to simulate the Bowlan Effect. In this computer model, the researchers assigned 20 genes to computer generated organisms, each with an allele labeled 0, and 1. In order to survive, the computer organisms would have to correctly express all alleles as 1’s. With a population of 1,000, and with the program giving each organism a set of randomly generated alleles, it was determined that a fit individual would arise about once in 1,000 generations. Unfortunately, because of the effect of sexual reproduction, the optimum genotype of 20 1’s would be lost upon mating, and so the relevant genotype would never evolve.  On the other hand, if a learning mechanism was introduced, where an organism could learn an ontogenetic trait that would allow it to survive, it could then reliably pass that trait onto the next generation, thus allowing the correct genotype to appear in as few as twenty generations.

The problem with the Hinton and Nowlan model is that it is extremely abstract. For starters, the “learned traits” that the researchers ascribe to the computer generated organisms could easily be the result of a rearrangement of already existing genetic traits, similar to the ones discovered in Waddington’s fruit flies. As a result, Hinton and Nowlan’s computer model fails to show that the Baldwin effect is necessarily a mechanism independent of natural selection, and therefore fails to show that behavior has any effect on genetically inherited traits.4

Deacon’s Mechanism

Terrence Deacon, a vocal proponent of evolutionary psychology, suggests a third mechanism, separate from Baldwin’s and Waddington’s, that may be able to successfully reproduce the Baldwin Effect. According to this mechanism, ontogenetic adaptations within a species, and not the environment, provide the selection pressure necessary to induce the Baldwin effect. In this case, if an ontogenetic trait proves to be an advantage to certain members of a population, and the behavior becomes common amongst a given population, then the individuals who are unable to acquire the newly learned trait, will ultimately be less likely to survive to produce offspring. Under these circumstances, any newly acquired genotypes that either improve an organism’s cognitive ability to acquire the skill, or which lower the demand on the organism’s cognitive abilities, or both, will make it more likely that a particular individual will survive to produce offspring. Finally, as individuals become more and more proficient at acquiring the skill, individuals with greater proficiency will have an evolutionary advantage over others, and the process will begin again.

Unfortunately, an intriguing idea without evidence is exactly that, and while Deacon expounds upon a number of ideas, including the idea that the early primate habit of sharing of meat, led to the acquisition of language, and the creation of the first marriage-like contracts*-  he fails to relate any of his ideas back to this earlier described mechanism.5 As a result, there is no data available to verify his earlier claim.


The Baldwin Effect, in many ways, serves as the foundation for the field of evolutionary psychology, and yet it remains a hypothesis that is still highly disputed. This leaves me feeling skeptical of any argument that relies on the claims of evolutionary psychology, at least until its most basic tenets can be better substantiated.

*I can’t say for certain that Deacon’s argument is flawed here (not having had an opportunity to do much reading on the subject). However, the premise of the argument is based on the theory that primates use meat as a kind of currency for sexual favors; a supposition that appears to be refuted by recent studies involving Ngogo chimpanzees, which show that hunting patterns are in no way affected by the presence of female chimpanzees who are in oestrus.6 Even if this weren’t the case, however, the underlying message of Deacon’s argument is essentially that prosititution, and the systematic exploitation and devaluing of women, is the result of genetic inheritance. In other words, men simply can’t help themselves when it comes to exploiting women sexually, because it’s simply part of their genetic makeup. I’ll leave you to decide what you think of such an argument.

1. Depew, David “Baldwin and His Many Effects.” Evolution and Learning, p. 6-8. Weber, Bruce, and David Depew. Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2003.

2. Godfrey-Smith, Peter “Baldwin Skepticism and Baldwin Boosterism.” Evolution and Learning, p. 58-59. Weber, Bruce, and David Depew. Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2003.

3. Scharloo, Willem “Canalization: Genetic and Developmental Aspects.” Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, Vol. 22, (1991), p. 65-93.

4. Downes, Stephen M. “Baldwin Effects and the Expansion of Explanatory Repertoire.” Evolution and Learning, Weber, Bruce, and David Depew. Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2003.

5. Mitani, John C. and David P. Watts “Why Do Chimpanzess Hunt and Share Meat.” Animal Behavior, Vol. 61, No. 5, (2001), p. 915-924.

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Project Girl Wonder has put up an article with information about Sexual Assault Awareness Month. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend that you check it out.

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Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to watch a documentary, called Killing Us Softly 3. This documentary, created and narrated by Jean Kilbourne, is the third in a series of films dedicated to discussing how women are portrayed in advertising and media, how advertisements affect the way society views women, and also how women view themselves.

Player's Handbook 4E

Soon after I saw the film, Wizards of the Coast came out with  a new image for the cover of the upcoming, Fourth Edition Player’s Handbook. Immediately, the image reminded me of the film, and I began remembering lines from the movie that spoke to this image. I therefore want to dedicate this entry to talking about the image on the cover of the Fourth Edition Player’s Handbook, and how it relates to Jean Kilbourne’s film.

Before I get into discussing the image itself, I want to talk a little about why I think it matters how a woman is portrayed on the cover of something like the Fourth Edition Player’s Handbook. After all, it’s only one image on the cover of a single book. However, while the image may be only one example of how men and women are portrayed, it is not the only example. Rather, it is part of a larger, systemic concern that affects all areas of media, and advertising, including other products and images produced by Wizards of the Coast. It is important to keep this in mind, for while this entry primarily focuses on the artwork on the cover of the Fourth Edition Player’s Handbook, the concepts discussed here can be applied to many other images, both in Dungeons & Dragons and in the mass media in general.

The first thing I want to discuss is the purpose of the image on the cover of the Player’s Handbook, and what it does to achieve that. First, the purpose of the image, first and foremost, is to sell a product. In this case, the product is not just the Player’s Handbook, but also other roleplaying products, such as additional core rulebooks, supplements, miniatures, dice, etc.; all of which are products used to play the game. However, the image does much more than just sell products. It also sells concepts of fantasy adventure- of magical creatures descending into worlds of darkness, armed only with a bit of magic and steel to defend themselves. It sells a hobby (possibly a lifestyle), that is centered around fantasy gaming, where both men and women gather together to participate in a shared, roleplaying experience. Finally, it sells an idea of what kinds of characters normal gamers should aspire to play; how they should act, dress, and feel. In short, the image on the cover does exactly what Kilbourne says all advertising does: “Advertising tells us who we are and who we should be.”

So what does the image on the cover of the Player’s Handbook tell us about women? One of the things that it tells us is that one of the most important aspects about a woman is how she looks. As Kilbourne states “the first thing the advertisers do is surround us with the image of ideal, female beauty, so we all learn how important it is for a woman to be beautiful.” In this case, the female sorcerer is quite beautiful, according to American standards. She is tall, large breasted, tan skinned, dark haired, and has pronounced cheekbones; a perfect image of the all-American beauty. In fact, it is striking how much the image of the female sorcerer on the cover of the Fourth Edition Player’s Handbook resembles the image of the all-American beauty depicted on the cover of the September 1994 issue of Mirabella Magazine. This image, created by photographer Hiro, is not a picture of a model, but rather a compilation of features taken from six models used to create a single image. In other words, the image of the all-American beauty is an image of a woman that doesn’t actually exist.

Remaining on the subject of ideal beauty for a moment, Kilbourne states that “a body type that statistically 5% of American women have is the only one we ever see as desirable or acceptable… the models are very tall, genetically thin, although they often starve themselves anyway, broad shouldered, and usually small breasted, so when the models have large breasts, almost always they’ve had implants.” So like the image on the cover of Mirabella magazine, the tall, thin, large breasted image of the female sorcerer on the front cover of the Fourth Edition Player’s Handbook is also an image of a woman who doesn’t exist. Yet as Kilbourne points out, this image is “the only one that we ever see” as a representation of feminine beauty. We see it on the cover of the Player’s Handbook, we see it on the cover of Mirabella magazine, in fact, we see it in media and advertising virtually everywhere in our society.

 Fat Barbie

As part of this image of ideal beauty, one of the attributes that is largely focused on is breasts. In fact, Kilbourne points out that breasts are used in media and advertising to sell ‘absolutely everything,’ the Fourth Edition Player’s Handbook being no exception. Here, the female sorcerer has quite large breasts, the size of which are further enhanced by the leather bodice she is wearing. This focus on breast size enhancement actually ties into another cultural message frequently conveyed in media and advertising. Kilbourne states that, in American culture “[Women] are told to wear uplifting bras such as the Wonder Bra,” in order to further enhance the overall appearance of a woman’s breast size. In other words, our culture’s obsession with breasts and breast size, has caused women to always feel uncomfortable about their breasts, and to believe that there breasts are never okay the way they are.

“Nowadays,” Kilbourne continues, “[women] are supposed to have plastic surgery… Most women who have had breast implants,” Kilbourne explains, “lose sensation in their breasts, so their breasts become an object of someone else’s pleasure, rather than pleasurable in themselves. The woman literally moves from being a subject to an object.” Granted, the female sorcerer may not have had plastic surgery, but the fact that her breasts have been artificially enhanced to appear larger still conveys the message that a woman’s breasts are objects that exist primarily for either the visual or physical pleasure of someone else, and it’s this objectification of women’s bodies that is perhaps the most chilling part of Jean Kilbourne’s documentary on media and advertising. “For one thing,” she states “[objectification of women] creates the climate in which there is widespread and increasing violence against women,” and while she is careful to point out that advertisements are not the direct cause of violence against women, she does state that they are “part of a cultural climate in which women are seen as things, as objects, and certainly turning a human being into a thing is almost always the first step towards justifying violence against that person. We see this with racism, we see it with homophobia; it’s always the same process. We think of the person as less than human and violence becomes inevitable.” So while the objectification of the female sorcerer’s body may not directly contribute to the escalation of violence towards women, it nevertheless contributes to the cultural message that women are simply objects, existing for the physical, or visual pleasure of others. Because of this, “the violence and abuse [that is directed towards women] is partly the chilling, but logical, result of this kind of objectification.”

Now this is not to say that gender stereotypes only affect women. As Kilbourne states, “a much more serious problem for men is that masculinity is so often linked with violence, with brutality, with ruthlessness.” We certainly see how this masculine-labeled quality is conveyed in the portrayal of the male dragonborn. Here, the character is portrayed as an aggressive, fearsome, and inhuman warrior, with all of the emphasis placed on his ability to engage in physical violence. Meanwhile, there is no emphasis place on other qualities, such as compassion, nurturance, empathy, or sensitivity; qualities that are typically labeled as feminine. In Kilbourne’s opinion, this polarization of masculine and feminine-labeled qualities “causes men to devalue not only women, but also all those qualities that get labeled feminine by the culture.” So while women may be victims of gender stereotypes, by labeling violence as a masculine quality, it creates a cultural environment in which not only women, but also men become the victims of violence.

There are many other issues addressed by Kilbourne in her documentary, many of which are not necessarily issues inherent in this image, but which are certainly conveyed through other images created for Dungeons & Dragons and other forms of mass media. For example, Kilbourne states that “often violence, hostility, and dominance is presented as erotic, as attractive, as appealing in ads.” While many people on the Astrid’s Parlor messageboards have noted that the male dragonborn is standing in a position that suggests he might injure the female sorcerer if he actually swings his sword, it doesn’t necessarily suggest (though it could certainly be argued) that the artist is trying to portray violence towards women as sexy, or erotic. On the other hand, the image on the back of the Forgotten Realms supplement, Champions of Valor- where a female fighter lies in a submissive, prostrate position, her lower torso slashed and nearly fully exposed- certainly contains elements that eroticize violence and hostility towards women.

Kilbourne also states that “women are acceptable only if [they’re] young, thin, white, beautiful, carefully groomed and polished, and any deviation from that ideal is met with a lot of contempt and hostility.” While the absence of dark-skinned, and/or older women from the cover of the Fourth Edition Player’s Handbook isn’t necessarily an example of such contempt, there are certainly examples of artwork that do carry this message. For example, the character from Heroes of Horror, known only as Grandmother, is an older female character, whose desire to cannibalize young children, makes her thoroughly repugnant and unsympathetic.


Meanwhile, the female drow, whose dark skin is the only trait that deviates from the media’s concept of ideal beauty, are nearly always portrayed as vicious, insane, power hungry women who have nothing but the most bitter hatred for their male counterparts. In fact, the portrayal of the drow speaks to another concept expressed by Kilbourne which is that “women of color… are often literally shown as animals, dressed in leopard skins, and animal prints.” While the drow may not be dressed in animal skins, their close association, and identification with the spider certainly conveys the same, chilling message- which is that women of color are “not fully human.”

Now of course, this isn’t to say that there are no images of strong, or sympathetic women portrayed in roleplaying games, or even that the artist who created the artwork for the cover of the Player’s Handbook hasn’t created artwork that is sensitive to women. In fact, this artist is responsible for some of the most woman-sensitive, awe-inspiring artwork ever produced for the game. For example, the female rogue portrayed in the cover artwork for the campaign supplement, Sharn: City of Towers, is a wonderful example of a strong, capable, female character, who exhibits virtually none of the negative traits typically attributed to women by the mass media.

Meanwhile, an image on the cover of one of the recent Pathfinder issues portrays a beautiful, strong, black woman, dressed in sensible armor, to be used as a player character. So while there are certainly problems with much of the artwork produced for the game, there are also examples of artwork being produced, both by this artist, and by others, which suggest a growing awareness of and sensitivity towards how women are portrayed in the mass media.

Nevertheless, while these images are certainly commendable, laudible examples of how women can, and should be portrayed by the roleplaying industry and the mass media, there are still many changes which can and should be made to the way women are portrayed. As Kilbourne states, “the changes have to be profound and global, and what they will depend upon, more than anything is an aware, active, educated public, that thinks of itself primarily as citizens, rather than primarily as consumers.” The more that we demand these kinds of positive images of women, and refuse to purchase products that contain degrading images of women, the more likely that the media will change.

“We need to get involved,” Kilbourne concludes, “in whatever way moves us to change not just the ads, but these attitudes that run so deep in our culture and that affect each one of us so deeply, whether we’re conscious of it or not.” I was moved to blog about these issues and how they relate to Dungeons & Dragons. How will you be moved to get involved?

Incidentally, if you are interested in viewing the film yourself, you can do so here.

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