Why Evolutionary Psychology Pisses You Off (And Why Maybe It Shouldn't)
If you want to irritate a lot of people at once, write an article about evolutionary psychology. Publishing such an article will invariably provoke a firestorm of denunciations and criticisms. Given the vehemence of these attacks, you couldn’t be blamed for thinking that the scientific basis for evolutionary psychology (or “evpsy” as it is sometimes abbreviated) was akin to tarot cards or bloodletting. Yet the basic premise of evpsy—that some aspects of the human brain and behavior were subject to evolutionary pressures—seems to be scientifically sound. So what is it about this subject that makes it a napalm bomb for the inciting of flame wars? Below, I offer five things about evolutionary psychology that piss off scientists, feminists, policy wonks, and the rest of us, and explain why maybe they shouldn't.
- It's obsessed with sex.
If you've been irritated by an evpsy piece lately, it probably has something to do with S-E-X. The media knows that stories about sexuality sell, and so is constantly pushing sex-centric evpsy articles of questionable scientific value. Take this recent example, discussing a study that supposedly explains why men fall asleep after sex. Hint: it's because they don't want to talk about commitment. No modern cultural issues posing as science there! Many evolutionary psychological studies reinforce modern gender stereotypes of men as horny, youth-fixated cads and women as sneaky, duplicitous gold-diggers, pissing off feminists and decent dudes while giving fodder to the worst of the pick-up artists. To be fair, sexual selection is obviously important to evolution, and it makes sense that those interested in this field would be interested in what makes us select certain mates. Studies of human sexuality can be quite interesting and well-done, such as a 2008 study noting that women were more attracted to men who played team sports than those who played solo or non-athletes, likely due to team sports' reinforcing pro-social behavior. Still, I personally would love to see more studies like this one or this one, dealing with some of the subtle (if less sexy) intricacies of why we are the way we are.
- It's bleak and deterministic.
Evolutionary psychology argues for a world in which our lives are governed by brain modules selected over millennia by evolution, so you can forget about free will. People tend to find it a bummer, as well as existentially threatening. As many evpsy critics argue, it also could also jeopardize public policy decisions intended to make us act better toward one another. If we’re all just “hardwired by evolution” to do the stupid stuff we do, like evpsy proponents suggest, then sociopolitical change is futile, right? Not exactly. For one, recent history has shown that, despite our nasty tendencies, overall we have become less prejudiced as a society. No, we don't have complete control over our own thoughts, but that doesn't mean we are doomed, tragic robots. Millennia of evolution have shaped us to be incredibly successful and adaptive organisms. Humans live on every continent, thriving in areas far beyond the African savanna from which we originally came. Just because our minds were shaped in the past doesn't mean that we're predestined, but instead that we are destined to succeed.
- It's just-so stories.
This insult comes straight out of Kipling, calling out evolutionary psychology for providing neat fables rather than hard science. Its hypotheses are untestable, inferred "just-so stories" whose only logic is internal. Since we can't go back in time and directly observe our hunter-gatherer ancestors, there is necessarily a creative element to evpsy reasoning. Still, I have to groan when I read about the infamous study "proving" that girls like pink because they need to be better at hunting for berries. The preference for pink as the color for girls was a twentieth century innovation, and it’s bad science like this makes evolutionary psychologists sound like caveman storytellers. This doesn’t mean that all of evpsy is not beyond rescue, however. Last year, an interdisciplinary group called for a reassessment of the principles of evolutionary psychology, proposing that it take advantage of breakthroughs in other areas of study and integrate with them so that it might gain "a rich source of hypotheses concerning the human mind, and could exploit novel methods from a variety of adjacent research fields." Evolutionary psychology may be about to undergo some radical changes for the better.
- It justifies bad behavior.
This combines #1 and #2 above, and adds in a touch more nasty. Because evolutionary psychology offers possible explanations for sexism, racism, homophobia, violence, and more, it can be seen as justifying or excusing bad behavior. Perhaps the ultimate expression of this has been made by Satoshi Kanazawa, who writes articles with titles like "Are All Women Essentially Prostitutes?", "Beautiful People Really ARE More Intelligent," or even "Why Are Black Women Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women?" The outrage he has provoked has led him to be denounced by his peers in the field. But apart from rogues like Kanazawa, evolutionary psychologists who delve into these darker issues are (in general) not trying to justify them, just to explain why they might occur. Explaining something is not the same as excusing it. Human nature probably exists, and it's certainly not all sunshine and rainbows. However, new research continually finds evidence that, as much as we might have a predisposition for prejudice and violence, we're also hardwired by evolution to be empathetic and altruistic beings. Humanity is complex, neither good nor evil, but we can strive to be good, and part of improving the world is not ignoring the bad.
- It's stuck.
Combined with recent advances in neuroscience, evolutionary psychology leaves us feeling almost as if we're nothing more than glorified monkeys, programmed by evolution. This threatens our ego big-time, since the ego wants to be in charge. However, research continually challenges some of the long-held ideas of evolutionary psychology, demonstrating that many adaptations are quite recent, and that our minds are still changing. We might be hardwired monkeys, but we are still in motion.
Evolution isn't just in the past. It's happening right now, as you read this in the modern environment. Instead of a harsh natural environment selecting for the most robust fighters or the sexiest mates, it’s our society that is putting on the pressure. In his recent book The Better Angels of Our Nature, evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker shows just how much violence, sexism, racism, and other forms of hate have declined over the ages, in part because our society no longer accepts certain impulses once considered natural and normal. We are developing into gentler beings, despite and because of our nature.
Evolutionary psychology could have a lot to teach us, especially if it can take advantage of new discoveries in neuroscience and evolutionary biology. It needs to grow in scope and tackle things outside of the small box of the "environment of evolutionary adaptedness," since it's become evident that humans didn't evolve entirely in one specific time and space. An updated, more rigorous, less sensational form evolutionary psychology has the potential to answer not only where we come from, but where we are going.