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.
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.