Thursday, February 25, 2010

Is Evolutionary Psychology an Ideology?

I get increasingly worried about a tendency on some of blogs related to modern gender roles, dating and sexual dynamics to bash Evolutionary Psychology. We are talking about the dismissal of a whole academic discipline here. Worse than that, the arguments are not just mostly based on intuition and moral upheaval, but take on an anti-scientific slant in general.

Studying human behavior in a biological framework never had it easy. The first attempt at doing so was Darwin's controversial "The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex", in which he, fittingly, introduced the paradigm of sexual selection. You all know the reaction at the time.

Not unsurprisingly, then, it took almost a full century before someone attempted to study behavior inside the framework of biology. It was an Austrian scientist called Konrad Lorenz, who became most influential in demonstrating how evolution has not shaped body forms, but also behavior. Despite his huge successes in studying instinctive behavior, he was not an uncontroversial persona as he got accused of using his scientific authority for political purposes (I have blogged about this before). Lorenz was actually rather careful in making claims about human instinct (although he made some great points about cuteness). He had a disciple, who went on to extend Lorenz studies towards humans. He went all over the world and managed to collect a tremendous database of film about the gestures and lives of indigenous tribes that often just had gotten in contact with Westerners, but he is not well known outside of Germany.

Shamed twice, it took another quarter decade until someone dared to publicly advocate evolutionary roots of human behavior. E.O. Wilson, an ant specialist, writer and famed conversationist published a book called "Sociobiology", and in the wake of it become the "only scientist in modern times to be physically attacked for an idea" (a member of the International Committee Against Racism poured a pitcher of water over his head at a science conference in 1978 to protest the book). The controversy nixed "sociobiology", and the only way to continue these studies was to rename it. This is how Evolutionary Psychology was born.

What we are witnessing now is the next wave of the same old fight between scientists and the widespread refusal of accepting some of the harsh realities that stem from evolutionary theory, in particular where biology seems to set limitations to our intuitive idea of a "free mind" (see evolutionary theory and the political left). Accordingly, it is often among the humanities' part of campus where people joke that "Evolutionary psychology is the department where old professors come up with justification for having sex with their students."

So is Evolutionary Psychology an ideology, a movement even?

The short answer is: No.

The causation goes the other way round. Evolutionary Psychology does not cause anything, it explains what people measure, regardless whether they believe in evolution or not.

Evolutionary Psychology does not suggests any of the things I post on this blog such as:
- Women cheat at least as much as men, and are inherently promiscuous (and on average, more so than men)

- Women prefer sex with promiscuous men

- Men, however, prefer to commit to sexually inexperienced women (esp. so, intelligent men)
(Which, taken together, explains why we have the stud/slut standard in society and always will, no matter how much people try to fight it.)

These are truths in the sense of statistical facts. They stand whether or not one believes in Evolutionary Psychology. All the latter does is add explanatory power.

Now, this does not mean that Evolutionary Psychology is without problems. I have blogged about its danger of coming up with just-do stories before. There is also the problem of using EvoPsych explanations to justify behavior (it is called naturalistic fallacy in moral reasoning). But none of that invalidates Evolutionary Psychology as a scientific discipline. The potential for abuse does not take anything from the powerful insights we have gained thanks to this kind of research.

Whether you like the revelations that come in the wake of studying human nature or not, closing your eyes to these realities won't help. Mankind has often tried to suppress our primordial urges, and thousands, if not millions of people have paid a price for that. If we want to succeed in our common pursuit for happiness we will fare best by taking a good look at ourselves, including the spots that we deem less pretty than others, and start manufacturing a system that works given these constraints (especially now that we have lost a system that had worked rather well throughout centuries).
It is time to accept ourselves as what we are.


  1. Science is backed by evidence or fact. Evolutionary psychology in general make assumptions on reality based on evidence. I think people learn more about game through biology than anything. People are mammals with just larger brains for complex seduction/competition.

  2. Evolution is great. The problem is, people are abusing it, using it to argue for absolutely anything they want.

    For example: "Men have one penis instead of two because a 2nd penis would get in the way and hinder him from reproducing", but if we actually had two, then it would be, "Men have two penises instead of one because that gives them extra redundancy making them more likely to reproduce."

    When I was a weather forecaster, we mostly copied the automated models, but had to justify it with sciency-sounding words. If it's been storming and the models call for more, the magic science keywords are "continuity" and "extrapolation". If it's been storming and the models call for an end, the magic phrase is "The atmosphere has exhausted itself." We were making a mockery of the perfectly valid field of meteorology, in the same way people make a mockery of the perfectly valid field of evopsych, using mental gymnastics to use it to explain whatever they want.

  3. Evolution is great. The problem is, people are abusing it, using it to argue for absolutely anything they want.

    See my caveat on "just-so stories".

    Scientist are aware of the problem and the field guards heavily against post-hoc explanations that seem arbitrary or made up. It is not as helpless situation as it seems. You can test any of these hypothesis in various ways and see if it holds up. Ways to test these ideas include modeling, cladistics and even experiments.

    In a way, Game is such an experiment. I find it quite remarkable that many of the predictions from Evolutionary Psychology work out the way they do, despite common sense and intuition pointing into a different direction.

  4. Good post.

    Well said.

  5. So how did eugenics work out?

  6. I think you should read 'Darwinian Fairytales' by David C. Stove

  7. Evo psych as an ideology?

    Well, if it explains 99.99% of what is going on out there, and it does, then it is a pretty well thought of ideology I say.

    Devlin (and Buss) is to us what the red pill was to Neo.

    Sexual Utopia in Power and Sexual Economics are the starting points.

    To the ones who claim evo psych is bunk, then explain to me what is going on out there.

    Try. I have the time.

  8. As a guy who really likes evolutionary psych (and enjoy hugely Devlin), I have to admit that this field of science is in its infancy and does not have the soundness of more established fields.

    The problem is when everybody becomes an evo psych expert. For example, Roissy. You start explaining everything with pop evo psych, which is not much more sound than pop psych.

    In the 60s, everything was explained out of the science of that time, one of whose tenets was that the environment was everything. Hence, feminism. Now the pendulum is swinging back in the other direction and everything is genetic and hereditary.

    Evo psych tries to explain current behaviors out of the evolutive pressures of the Stone Age. The problem is we don't know exactly how was life in the Stone Age and most of these reasonings are IMAGINING how life was back then.

    On the other hand, it is not beyond discussion the concept of mankind evolving through historical times. Some scientists think that this is not true.

    This is not to say that evo psych must be rejected. I think it is a very promising field but it should be taken with a grain of salt. It is not the end-all and be-all of explaining human behavior.

    On the other hand, many people who attack evo psych don't do it out of scientific motives but have a hidden agenda, i.e, feminists.

  9. I agree with the above comment. Evolutionary psychologists are quite adept at generating plausible accounts of what may have happened, but like defense lawyers, they have a story for everything. I think the approach is fundamentally sound, however I often can't help but think many of the stories/hypotheses say more about our current society than our ancestors'. Hrdy claims Darwin gets it wrong on female promiscuity because he has his Victorian blinders on.

  10. I started reading "Darwininan Fairytales", and I will post a review when done.

    In the meantime, check out this short excerpt of the upcoming book "Sex at Dawn" on what Sex in Prehistory - How do we know?" from Christopher Ryan's blog at Psychology Today. Human testicle size is one of many ways to make inferences about prehistoric sex lives.

  11. I get increasingly worried about a tendency on some of blogs related to modern gender roles, dating and sexual dynamics to bash Evolutionary Psychology.

    Could that have anything to do with the way its proponents, such as this blog, make evopsych seem like total junk science and grade A bullshit? You have nobody to blame but yourselves.

  12. Could that have anything to do with the way its proponents, such as this blog, make evopsych seem like total junk science and grade A bullshit?
    Point taken in so far some individuals might be unable to tell apart the scientific facts we refer to from the more speculative parts.

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