The Other Threat to Evolutionary Biology: Evolutionary Psychology

While I wasn’t put out by this article by ScienceBlogling Chris Mooney as others were, it did make me think about how evolutionary biologists are viewed. One of the things I’ve seen floating around the internets, and this is seems to be ‘bipartisan’, is the equating of evolutionary biology with evolutionary psychology.

I’ve always been puzzled by this since many evolutionary biologists are skeptical about evolutionary psychology. If you went to a Society for the Study of Evolution meeting, many biologists, if not cautious or skeptical about evolutionary psychology, would be downright dismissive.

What’s troubling is that the arguments boil down to something like this op-ed piece (by way of Amanda):

If you were an evolutionary biologist you might argue that unfettered sex is entirely natural to men. One might at least agree that hogamous higamous, man seems to be a bit polygamous.

One colleague, a male evolutionary biologist, characterized to me evolutionary psychology as “the discipline which justifies middle-aged professors sleeping with their younger graduate students.” A bit harsh, but there does seem to be a lot of extrapolation and speculation in the absence of experimental rigor (although humans are awful experimental organisms). Fortunately, I don’t have to write an entire rebuttal because one of Amanda’s commenters did so (boldface mine):

As a biologist, I do enjoy and giggle happily at the idea that what we do is more rational and constrained by reality than the kind of theorizing that goes on in psychology. And to a certain extent, this may be true, although most psychologists do (to be fair) have less concrete material to work with than most biologists.

So it makes me sad to point out that evolutionary psychology is a spin-off from a branch of biology called sociobiology which is… pretty much evo psych, only originally involving biologists and more inclusive of traits outside of behavior. So, really, it appears that any group of scientists are perfectly capable of finding a way to reinforce their beliefs and/or superstitions through allegedly scientific means.

The annoying thing is, evo psych is potentially useful, so it’s really frustrating that its principle application appears to be putting a pseudo-scientific facade on social norms and gender roles that are really not organic at all. After all, there is clearly some evolutionary history behind human behavior, e.g. why we are social instead of solitary, why we need sleep, etc. Where evo psych goes wrong is:

1. The insistence that there must be some selective pressure behind every behavior, making emergent behaviors rare (I happen to think that MOST of our culture and social norms are emergent… which is why I’m not an evolutionary psychologist), and
2. Pretending that we know….about early human social structure during the period in which our social behavior is supposed to have evolved. This of course means that the bulk of evo psych claims are just-so stories using whatever presumptive notions about early human social structure that we wish to have. Which, curiously, is usually oddly reminiscent of 1950’s America.

The sad part is that a lot of bright scientific minds buy into this nonsense. Even smart people will happily embrace questionable hypotheses (and here’s the other problem with evo psych – not very testable) if they confirm their preexisting biases, especially about something so powerful as social norms and conditioning.

The point about emergent behaviors is really important, otherwise you really have to twist yourself into a pretzel trying to explain why Raoul Wallenberg spent his time rescuing Jews from the Nazis, as opposed to inseminating prostitutes. I would add one other point which is that there is the assumption that the fitness effects of a given behavior (e.g., adultery) remain constant through time and environments (societies). I’m not sure that’s the case–I’m pretty sure that isn’t so.

I really don’t think evolutionary biology wants to get tagged as the ‘science that justifies adultery’, especially when many evolutionary biologists don’t think that it does. Thankfully, some people who aren’t biologists recognize this:

She even insults science further by calling these evo psych claims “evolutionary biologists”–in reality, biologists aren’t actually signed onto the idea that men are born to fuck around while women are born to stay at home not being fucked by the men fucking around with apparently each other, since all the women are tied to the hearth by nature. This confers a biological advantage because men can make babies together. Not that gender essentialists who pretend they have the forces of science behind them ever feel completely comfortable admitting the widespread existence of homosexuality.

Just something to consider.

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18 Responses to The Other Threat to Evolutionary Biology: Evolutionary Psychology

  1. fontinalis says:

    While this is a truly spot on assessment — and a needed counter balance to the continued proliferation of “just so” stories, the genre of spurious propositions that rely mostly on our oh-so-reliable intuitions to take seed — I think there’s also the risk of falling into a pattern of a priori dismissal of the field. Despite what it might do for science’s public image, should we not be prepared to follow any evidence-based conclusion? For example, some of the recent work with children and identical twins is strongly suggestive of innate characteristics that are — at least on the average for a population — perhaps less than appealing to our sense of justice.
    Granted, culture is almost certainly the primary drivers of many behaviors, but who is going to tease out the ones that have deeper roots if not the folks at least looking into evo psych? Should we be leaving this all within the purview of Cultural Anthropologists? Sociologists? Perhaps that is appropriate, but if it is, it shouldn’t be because we’re worried about being the ill-fated messenger delivering unpleasant news.
    I for one am prepared to welcome our adulterous overloads — if that’s what we turn out to be.

  2. Ethylene says:

    This is much too quick a way with EP.
    “The insistence that there must be some selective pressure behind every behavior, making emergent behaviors rare”
    No. EP holds that the mind is a set of information-processing mental organs or algorithms that generate behaviours. Behaviours themselves are not the object of selection. Hence counter-productive behaviours generated by a “stone-age mind” living in the 21st century, like people stuffing themselves with fatty and sugary food.
    “Pretending that we know….about early human social structure during the period in which our social behavior is supposed to have evolved.”
    We do know about hunter-gatherer tribes, we can find cross-cultural parallels, we can find human traits that fit with those of the other primates (eg. men’s testes size indicates moderate polyandry).
    Don’t you think there is an interesting evolutionary perspective on love for one’s babies, sexual attraction, jealousy, etc etc? Why do we have these feelings?
    Is is a “just-so story” to say that we feel jealousy towards our mates because proto-humans who felt none failed to reproduce so successfully?
    How is the EP of the human mind any worse of than the evolutionary theory of any other organ? We see related minds and behaviours in the primates, we can find correlations between social life and behaviour in them, we can identify mental adaptations by their functional and universal character, can look at hunter-gatherer tribes to see how ancestral humans might have lived.

  3. Ethylene says:

    @ fontinalis
    EP agrees that culture is important. However, it goes beyond that by asking, why? how?
    Why is the mind such as to create and respond to culture in the ways it does?
    That is the remit of EP.
    It’s not that some behaviours are cultural and some evolved. It’s that the mind is evolved to be cultural. With our evolved mind, there would be no culture.
    E.g. why is there such a massive market in pornography, and why is 99.9% of it aimed at men?
    That’s a question about culture, but the answer surely involves talking about male and female sexual psychology.
    Or not?

  4. Ethylene says:

    Sorry to post three times in a row, but just reading the original post again, and it so annoys me that people should condemn something before giving it a chance. Like the (foul-mouthed) claim that EP believes in:
    “the idea that men are born to fuck around while women are born to stay at home not being fucked by the men fucking around with apparently each other, since all the women are tied to the hearth by nature”.
    Maybe the person writing this should read a book like “The Evolution of Desire” in order to get a clue. There is such strong prejudice against evolutionary psychology that people decide they know what it says without even trying to educate themselves about it.
    That book argues that women also “f*** around” but that they do so, as a group, for a different balance of reasons than men do: more like quality of partner, or access to resources, and less like for the sake of mere variety.
    That book came out in 1994 so the commenter has had 14 years to clue up, and still people prefer to spread misrepresentations than read the damn stuff.

  5. fontinalis says:

    I certainly did not mean to imply the either biology or culture could fully explain any particular behavior. It’s almost certainly the the combination of both, in varying degrees, that ultimately dictate the final manifestation. I guess that’s what I meant in saying “primary drivers” of many behaviors. Given that we’re talking about emergent properties here, I was merely trying to stress that much of social behavior is at least rooted in biology, and that we shouldn’t shy away from the subject for fear of being labeled as guilty by association, mostly by those who subscribe to the “noble savage” view of humanity.
    I could be wrong on this, but it seems as if the original post is reacting to the admitted excesses of early sociobiology (what Dennett calls greedy reductionism) rather than the current work in evo psych.

  6. jerry says:

    Let me ask a different question. If I understand what you are saying, most EB think EP is completely bullshit. A few months ago I used google to determine that there were many many many schools offering Ph.Ds in EP and by looking at various stats, I decided that every year they must have tens, or hundreds of Ph.D graduates in EP and a total population of thousands of Ph.D EP. Ph.Ds in what most EBs and many other people and certainly almost all modern feminists think is completely bullshit. Even more odd, from what I could tell, a significant number of Ph.D EP are actually women, and so I assume we have the bizarre situation of Ph.D EP feminists!?
    How did such a situation arise in academia?
    How is it possible for our self-correcting, need tenure, academia to be giving degrees in a field which is complete bullshit?
    And what does that say about other fields in academia? Are we confident that EP is the only bullshit field? What other fields are lurking out there with Ph.Ds that are completely bullshit too?
    How come tenured academics didn’t speak up?

  7. iolight says:

    Assuming what you are saying is true — that there are a lot of PhDs in EP graduating each year — my next question would be, from where? There are obviously highly-regarded institutions and less well-regarded universities out there. Maybe more people get PhDs in EP because it’s easier, that is, more of a bullshit topic than EB. (I don’t mean EP is necessarily 100% bullshit; there may be reasonable and rigorous EP programs out there.)
    As to the persistence of EP programs: speaking as the chemist daughter of a tenured psychologist, I’ve learned there is quite a bit of tension in general between the hard sciences and social sciences. For instance in competition for resources, even well-established social sciences are constantly on the defensive. It’s quite possible that non-EP social scientists are reluctant to attack EPs out of a misguided solidarity.
    Finally, just because a woman is a woman, it doesn’t mean she’s a feminist (sadly).

  8. gundisalvus says:

    Feminism is a metaphysical doctrine as much as, say, marxism. If there is something based on just-so stories it’s this kind of 19th and 20th century social doctrines, thinking people are sort of angels without wings or demony creatures with a chance to apply for angelhood, or perfectly rational walking blank slates.
    EP researchers at least start on the right path, WE ARE APES, and it seems they bother to look at what the other apes are doing to see if anything rings a bell and sheds light on our own human-ape ways.
    So, to think that it’s sad that not every woman is a feminist, is what really is sad.
    Seems off-topic, but, this is a good example of the mindset of some EP detractors. And of well established bullshit that becomes nearly invisibly true after recited a thousand times.
    And about the male polygamy business, if there were scientific evidence men are actually, without any cultural bias, more prone to cheating than women, then at least it would be good to know it, so that we can deal with it in whatever way we deem appropriate, instead of just burying our collective heads in the sand.

  9. j says:

    I agree that much more of what gets published as EP is bullshit than would be acceptable to most evoluationary biologists. But it’s light years ahead of the rest of psychology, which has for more things that would make an evolutionary biologist cringe. Many researchers in the rest of psychology don’t even see human psychology as being connected to biology at all, and would never understand techniques or lines of thinking that are common across the rest of biology or, frankly, science.
    So why focus on the fact that universities hand out phd’s for studying EP, and not get upset that universities hand out phds for research psychology at all? But, of course, this is a ridiculous line of thinking. Universities shouldn’t shut down all of research into as important a topic as human psychology just because nobody is carrying it out with as high a level as rigor as is normal in biological research. They should push it to become more rigorous.
    And that’s the part I find ironic about this attitude. EP was precisely attempting to be a push in that direction. Read some of the classic EP texts, like Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology. They go on and on about trying to integrate the study of human psychology with the study of biology. Now, maybe some of the people who publish under the EP banner do bad science, but to chide the entire idea of trying to make psychology more scientific because some people do it poorly? Why?

  10. Jay says:

    “As a biologist, I do enjoy and giggle happily at the idea that what we do is more rational and constrained by reality than the kind of theorizing that goes on in psychology”
    Do you also giggle at the fact that what you do is easier? Biology has two things going for it that Psychology does not have, natural selection and DNA. Psychologists and Cognitive Scientists are still trying to piece together a working theory of the mind and it takes a little creativity dumb-ass. It is the height of arrogance to suggest that Biologists are more ‘rational’ than people like E.O. Wilson or Robert Trivers (look these people up) simply because Evolutionary Psychology can be hit or miss. What a stupid fucking article. If you’re an academic, you should be ashamed to have your name on this.

  11. Mike says:

    Pretty sad to see inaccuracies about EP expressed by those, who if they invested a bit of time actually reading the EP literature, would know better. And, to hear evolutionary biologists committing the naturalistic fallacy (if its is natural it must be good) is a tad shocking.

  12. Joshua says:

    Although the thought is floating in some of the posts here I believe it is worth stating explicitly: EP is descriptive, not prescriptive. The answer to why humans behave this way or that way is not the same as the answer to how a human should behave. Two separate questions.

  13. jt says:

    EP has serious problems. It’s sort of today’s pop psychology.
    Take a look, for instance, at this post:
    Ten Politically Incorrect Truths About Human Nature
    I’ll just stop at the first “truth” (as I got neither time nor patience to write about the rest):
    “1) Men like blond bombshells (…)”
    Yeah, ok, so far so good – in fact, I like all sorts of “bombshells”. I like the blond, the chocolate, and the spices.
    “Men prefer young women in part because they tend to be healthier than older women.(…)
    Women’s desire to look like Barbie—young with small waist, large breasts, long blond hair, and blue eyes—is a direct, realistic, and sensible response to the desire of men to mate with women who look like her. (…)
    “Men also have a universal preference for women with a low waist-to-hip ratio. ”
    Hilarious. Your ob/gyn would say to you that women with bigger hips give birth more easily to babies. Women with narrow hips have to resort to C-sections more often. The human birth canal is notoriously defective and troublesome. Barbie would have serious trouble giving birth.
    “Blond hair is unique in that it changes dramatically with age. Typically, young girls with light blond hair become women with brown hair. Thus, men who prefer to mate with blond women are unconsciously attempting to mate with younger (and hence, on average, healthier and more fecund) women. It is no coincidence that blond hair evolved in Scandinavia and northern Europe, probably as an alternative means for women to advertise their youth, as their bodies were concealed under heavy clothing.”
    Oh….So that’s why we like blondes! Right. The only problem with your Evo theory is that you just left out of it a gigantic portion of mankind that does not have blond hair at a young age – such as Asians or Africans.
    Etc. The list of utter nonsense and cultural biases goes on. Check out the item why
    “Most suicide bombers are Muslim”
    and have a good laugh.

  14. mirc says:


  15. Kars Haber says:

    Why is the mind such as to create and respond to culture in the ways it does?
    That is the remit of EP.

  16. D says:

    The mind does not create culture. Culture is an emergent property of the conglomeration of many minds and their attached bodies—
    Or at least it sure appears to be to anyone besides you autistic fools. They should throw you science people through a lot more philosophy before they hand you a degree and let you wreak havoc on your fields.

  17. ocean546 says:

    Great article. I thoroughly agree.

  18. Time says:

    I agree completely. I get a lot of the same impressions reading evolutionary psychology articles. Seems to have pissed some people off though. I think EP has a lot of appeal to “rationalists” because it makes more “fuzzy headed” people uncomfortable by purporting to explain things like love and disprove political correctness. But they’re not actually rational, they’re people like Ethylene who try to sound rational while getting major things wrong (including spelling and grammar). And it goes without saying that EP appeals to certain people because its enforces gender stereotypes and sexism.

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