The Frontal Cortex

Judge Richard Posner has stepped into the tedious debate over innate cognitive differences between men and women. While I’m usually a fan of Posner’s contrarian streak, he indulges here in some terrible evolutionary psychology. He manages to justify a blatant inequality – women have lower average earnings than men – by constructing a silly, trite and untestable hypothesis about our “ancestral human environment”:

the mean performance of women in college and university is superior to that of the men, but the variance of male performance is greater and as a result there are more male geniuses. There is no reason why the difference in variance should result in higher average male earnings; that higher average is probably the result of women’s spending less time in the work force because of pregnancy and child care. Women’s greater proclivity for child care may well have a biological basis, as may the difference in variance that I mentioned. In the “ancestral environment”–the term that anthropologists use to describe the prehistoric period in which human beings reached approximately their current biological state–women who were “steady” would have tended to have the maximum number of children, while natural selection might favor variance in male abilities because variance would produce some outstanding men who would tend to reproduce more than other men (including the “steadies”) in the polygamous conditions of prehistoric society. If the explanation based on evolutionary biology is correct, women will continue to be “underrepresented” in high-achievement positions in many fields; why anyone should care is beyond me.

So we’re not supposed to care about female inequality because natural selection favored “steady” women several hundred thousand years ago? This is the pernicious danger of bad evolutionary psychology. By purporting to discover our evolved essence, evolutionary psychology in a sense justifies whatever that essence is. After all, it’s futile to resist the urges of biology, even if it leads to unfair treatment in the workplace.

Comments

  1. #1 Winawer
    July 18, 2006

    I don’t really care to go into the statements you quote from the judge, which are a quagmire in themselves. But as someone who has a professional interest in evolutionary psychology, I find your last two sentences quite disturbing.

    By purporting to discover our evolved essence, evolutionary psychology in a sense justifies whatever that essence is. After all, it’s futile to resist the urges of biology, even if it leads to unfair treatment in the workplace.

    The idea that humans don’t have some sort of an “evolved essence” is, simply enough, wrong. And the idea that evolutionary psychology would attempt to make statements about what “should” or “should not” be in our society because of our evolutionary heritage is even more incorrect. It is only by learning about what our heritage is and what our predispositions are that we can make informed choices about what we want our society to look like. The findings of a scientific field have no moral force in and of themselves, and few evolutionary psychologists that I’m aware of have ever made that mistake. (There have been some, but there are as many or more examples to be found in other fields as well. Eugenics, to name one, was invented a long time before evolutionary psychology existed).

    But perhaps I’m being uncharitable: perhaps your wording was poorly chosen, and you really meant to say that using evidence of our evolutionary past and present as a means to justify moral statements is an example of the naturalistic fallacy, and is therefore untenable. In that case, I only ask that you use the brush you’re painting with a little more carefully in the future.

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