Some Thoughts on Evolutionary Psychology

Posted on January 17, 2011


Two of my favourite feminist blogs recently posted about evolutionary psychology, a science best defined by its (arguable) founders, Tooby and Cosmides, in a recent paper on the subject:

“Evolutionary psychologists view the human mind as a set of computational machines that were designed by natural selection to solve adaptive problems faced by our hunter±gatherer ancestors. They argue that this basic Darwinian insight, when properly applied, can be uniquely informative for anyone who seeks to discover and understand the design of the human mind …” (Cosmides, Leda and Tooby, John. Evolutionary Psychology: Theoretical Applications. Evolutionary Psychology Handbook, ed. Buss, D.M. New York: Wiley, 2003. p54)

Anytime you hear somebody mention how all cavemen were hunters and all cavewomen were gatherers and so that explains why all stockbrokers are men while women like shopping, you are hearing claims that are grounded in evolutionary psychology. The example I just quoted is admittedly one of the worst examples, but it is nevertheless no accident that both of the blogs that I am about to quote about this are feminist blogs, because from a feminist perspective, evolutionary psychology is problematic as fuck.

The Pervocracy‘s summary is both amusing and right on:

1. Get a little bit of data. A self-reported survey administered to fifteen undergrads (the portion of your 9AM class who returned the surveys) is more than enough.
2. Break that data down by sex. Make sure to never ever ever break it down by age, socioeconomic status, level of education, nationality, or any other way people could conceivably differ from each other.
(2b. Make sure that you treat gender as absolutely biologically fixed. Disregard the possibility of non-heterosexual subjects, or for bonus points, attempt to lump gay men in with straight women and vice versa.)
3. Search for differences and discard similarities. Ways in which men and women are alike could never be significant findings! For bonus points, design your study in a way that is incapable of finding similarities–only test one sex, or test two sexes in different ways without a control.
4. This is the creative step. A less brilliant researcher would find that, say, women have a higher pain tolerance than men (as tested by heat exposure to the skin), and publish a paper entitled “Gender and pain tolerance in heat exposure.” You are better than that! Because you know how to speculate wildly! Make up a completely ludicrous story that could have produced the results you found, and present it as your conclusion. Be sure that this story references “cavemen,” justifies stereotypical gender roles, and act like proof of your data constitutes proof of your story. In the example given above, your paper should be entitled “Women naturally adapted to cooking; cavewomen adapted to the heat of cooking fires while making their men a nice mastodon roast when the men were away doing important things.”
5. Release your findings to the popular press with an air of “This is the proclamation of Science and henceforth must be considered objective truth.” Promote the story you came up with as the headline and bury the boring ol’ actual data.
6. Get read by millions of grandparents, chatty neighbors, and suburban ER nurses who are spectacularly susceptible to the appeal to authority fallacy, and respond to all objections with “but that’s just your opinion, Holly, and this is Science.”

Using science, including evolution, to discover aspects of human behaviour, is not necessarily a bad idea. The problem outlined by Holly is the methodology. I have seen many assertions, mostly about gender relations, based on such flawed logic. Sometimes, the first three steps are omitted and the entire process of inquiry consists of wild speculation without any research to back it up. This kind of speculation wouldn’t be so terrible if it was just idle drunken banter, but nothing which follows anything resembling the aforementioned process should ever be granted the authority which comes from being labelled as a scientific fact.

The second take on the issue comes from Blag Hag, in a reply to an anti-evopsych post by misandrist blogger Twisty Faster:

“…it is completely unreasonable to insist that the brain is magically not under selective pressure like every other thing in nature.

Unless it doesn’t mesh with your philosophy, of course.

Sometimes I hate calling myself a feminist because of who it associates me with. For example, this latest example of feminist sciencephobia from Jill at I Blame The Patriarchy:

‘Evolutionary psychology rests on the shaky (often enpornulated) hypothesis that modern human social behaviors are actually species-preserving adaptations.’

No, it rests on the very strong hypothesis that the brain evolves like any other organ.”

Jen McCreight is, of course, correct. Our behaviours are, to a large degree, determined by what goes on in our brains, and it makes sense to assume that our brains are at least partially subject to evolutionary constraints. It therefore follows that there are probably behaviours which have evolutionary origins. The more relevant question is whether we can reasonably expect to properly identify them.

There are two main problems with evolutionary psychology as a science. The first is that, before any research can actually be done, it falls to the researchers to sort out which behaviours are instinctive, and which are culturally taught. This is particularly difficult given that the researchers are presumably subject to these same behaviours, and that they will have an economic incentive to assume the behaviour they are investigating is, indeed, evolved.

The second problem is that any science which seeks to understand human behaviour will be inevitably, inherently, inescapably political. Every imaginable political group has a notion of the natural order of things. Fiscal conservatives would likely say that we are genetically programmed to respond to material incentives. Egalitarians would say that community is a larger contributer to happiness. Anarchists would hold that we are happier in small, self-sustaining groups while the religious right would like to find natural basis for their elaborate system of sexual prohibitions. And so on and so on. Evolutionary psychologists will have to work really really hard to get over their pre-theoretical biases.

That being said, I am not a scientist and there is a good chance that there is something I am missing here. I doubt it, but maybe the peer-review process is actually an effective way to screen out cultural biases. Maybe political conflict will just result in more vigorous debate which strengthens the science. Given that we probably do have some behaviours-probably even some gendered behaviours-which are evolved, and that understanding these behaviours would be a good thing for both instrumental and self-evident reasons, I am reluctant to rule out the field entirely. If a human behaviour can be observed in a diverse range of cultural contexts (bonus points if it can also be found in non-human primates), has good neurological evidence of being caused by brain structure, and a rigorously conducted study shows a possible evolutionary origin, then maybe we can safely say that it is evolved. The key is to not be too hasty about it.

Science is actually rather good at not being hasty. The problem is that the rest of society really has trouble with this. Thus, even if evolutionary psychology is a rigorous discipline which takes cultural factors into account, we will still have a problem with popular evolutionary psychology.  The media tends to have trouble reporting accurately on all science, because good science takes a problem apart and slowly examines it in small pieces. The whole process is boring by design. Faced with the task of selling newspapers and advertising space, a journalist has an incentive to exaggerate and embellish the claims, leading to the following problem:

Applying this process, which we have all seen before, to evolutionary psychology, you have an easy way for honest scientific work like the study cited at Blag Hag to be converted into an entrenchment of the cultural status quo and a justification for bigotry.

So perhaps if its practitioners are really super careful to check their biases at the door and rule out cultural causes for behaviour, evolutionary psychology can be a viable science. But if you see a headline proclaiming that a “Controversial New Study which Flies in the Face of Political Correctness has Shed New Light on why we Behave the way we do”, then  you should probably be skeptical.


Posted in: Feminism, Science