Evolutionary Psychology suffers from a PR problem, which can be mostly blamed on ignorant (even if well-intentioned) members of the population who don’t know what they’re talking about.
Evolutionary psychology attempts to describe the evolution of the mind and of behavior and, well, everyone has a mind, and everyone can observe behavior. This makes people think that they are experts. Anybody who has ever had a child knows everything there is to know about child development. Anybody who has ever owned a dog becomes an expert on canine behavior. Study after study demonstrates the fact that humans have very little intuitive insight into the way our minds work (let alone the minds of other kinds of animals). Cognitive and perceptual illusions abound. People have plenty of intuitions, but they’re usually wrong.
Having completed some college-level coursework in psychology, many people think that they know enough about evolution, natural selection, brain, and behavior to derive conclusions about human nature. This leads to various iterations of the same tired old nonsense, like this gem:
Man is a herd animal. The man is on the edge of the herd. The women in the center. There are different skills for surviving in the different positions. The ability to count the lions is important on the edge. It’s not so important in the middle where other skills are important. The male has larger rewards for succeeding, but a bigger loser if he fails.
We can’t change this by penalizing the successful and subsidizing the failures.
It’s a hard reality but it’s the reality we evolved in and it dictates our behavior.
This is called a just-so story, which is an explanation for the evolution of a given trait that rests on nothing but its own internal logic. Of course, this is ridiculous. Any responsible scientist knows that you need actual data. Just-so stories could reasonably provide various alternative hypotheses, but without the data, they’re hypotheses and speculations. Hypotheses and speculations play an important role in the process of scientific discovery, but their role needs to be understood.
One such responsible scientist is Leda Cosmides, who said in an interview (emphasis added),
More to the point, every decent evolutionary explanation has testable predictions about the design of the trait. For example, the hypothesis that pregnancy sickness is a byproduct of prenatal hormones predicts different patterns of food aversions than the hypothesis that it is an adaptation that evolved to protect the fetus from pathogens and plant toxins in food at the point in embryogenesis when the fetus is most vulnerable – during the first trimester. Evolutionary hypotheses – whether generated to discover a new trait or to explain one that is already known – carry predictions about the nature of that trait.
But then there’s another important criticism of evolutionary psychology: that evolutionary psychologists conflate “is” with “ought,” and that they use principles of evolutionary psychology to perpetuate and maintain the status quo. They insist that evolutionary psychology is a tool used to maintain oppression against minorities or women, or to normalize things like rape, murder, or warfare.
My scibling Christina, of the Oscillator blog, recently described this problem quite well:
Science news stories about duck rape become hugely popular because we apologize for rape as a “natural” event caused by the male evolutionary need to spread their seed widely. Biases and prejudices become natural, women’s bodies are explained as in terms of men’s desires, in our culture, in our media, and too often in our science.
I don’t deny that this is a problem, but I think this is a problem related to the one I described above. Often, people who think they understand the mind by virtue of the fact that they have minds, don’t really know what they’re talking about. And so it is that evolutionary arguments are mis-used in our culture, in our media, and sometimes even in our science.
But I think this argument – the is/ought conflation – confuses evolutionary psychology with social darwinism. Responsible evolutionary psychologists go out of their way to avoid things like the naturalistic fallacy and the moralistic fallacy.
Speaking as an evolutionary psychologist myself, I don’t think that evolutionary psychologists – at least the responsible ones – are guilty of confusing “is” for “ought.” Instead, I think that the critics of evolutionary psychology confuse descriptions of phenomena with excuses for the perpetuation of those same phenomena. Studying the consequences of drug abuse does not imply approval of drug abuse. Studying the spread of some infectious disease does not suggest that the researcher thinks this is a good thing. Studying the way alcoholism in fathers affects child development is not tacit endorsement of alcoholism in fathers. Similarly: investigating the evolutionary bases for homicide or warfare in no way endorses the continued existence of those phenomena. One day, I will probably write about the evolutionary and developmental origins of racism. This does not mean that I think racism is a good thing. In fact, I think that by understanding the evolutionary origins of some of these societal problems, we will be better able to address them. If we wish to reduce the incidence of the transmission of the H1N1 swine flu, we need to understand how it works. Similarly, if we wish to reduce the incidence of hate crime, we likewise need to understand how racism works.
When human adults show complex, possibly culture-specific skills or behavior, they emerge from a set of psychological (and thus neural) mechanisms which have two properties:
(1) they evolved early in the timecourse of evolution and are shared with other animals, and,
(2) they emerge early in human development, and can be found in infants and children, as well as adults.
This allows very specific predictions to be made on the basis of hypotheses. We can ask if a given trait is unique to humans, or is shared with other animals. We can ask if the acquisition of a trait depends on uniquely human capabilities. We can ask what functional problem a given trait may have emerged to address. We can ask if there is developmental continuity – if certain traits have similar properties in infants, children, and adults. We can ask if these patterns persist in other cultures.
By subjecting evolutionary hypotheses to rigorous experimental investigation, such as by using a comparative, developmental, or cross-cultural approach, one can begin to understand the origins of a given trait or behavior. This makes it very easy to quickly dismiss all sorts of uninformed assertions. It allows us to ask the right questions instead of the wrong ones.
For example, asking if there is a biological basis underlying the observed discrepancy on math scores between men and women is the wrong question to be asking. Because proficiency in mathematics depends on years of formal schooling. There is no way to isolate the effects of biology when the very thing you are interested in emerges only extensive explicit instruction. Instead, the right questions are: what are the evolutionary mental building blocks that combine to give rise to mathematics? Are these shared with other animals? Do these cognitive traits have the same characteristics in other cultures? What about in human infants? Do we observe any sex differences among human infants, or in other cultures? Even if we did find sex differences in something like approximate large number representation, does this bear on more complex mathematics and test scores? Does the ability to form large number representations, for example, even matter, when it comes to abstract language-dependent things like multivariate regression, or even long division?
We don’t look down upon autism research, as a field, because Andrew Wakefield is a bad scientist who should know better. We don’t look down upon autism research, as a field, because uninformed individuals like Jenny McCarthy preach garbage about vaccines. And we don’t look down upon autism research, as a field, because otherwise well-intentioned but also uninformed individuals actually listen to them. Instead of calling the entire field unscientific and garbage, we call out the douchehats for what they are: batshit crazy. There’s nothing inherently unscientific about evolutionary psychology, yet so often it’s decried on the basis of the same kinds of bad scientists, bad communicators, and uninformed populace.
Well, I think it’s time we take evolutionary psychology back from the bad scientists and uninformed populace. And we’re going to do so by using the tools of our trade: comparative, developmental, and cross-cultural research. We’re going to demonstrate that you can make evolutionary arguments about mind and behavior, but only by asking the right kinds of questions.