Skepticism of Certain Aspects of Evolutionary Psychology is Not Science Denial

Chris Mooney has an astonishingly weak op-ed in a recent edition of The Washington Post. Desperate to make an argument that liberals deny science just as surely as conservatives do, he seizes on a recent study that shows a large percentage of sociologists are not open to the idea that certain gender differences are the result of evolution, as opposed to cultural factors. We shall come to the specifics of that argument in a moment, but we can save some time by skipping to the end of the essay:

None of this is to say that a few sociologists' views about evolution can be considered proportionate with global warming denial, in either the volume of those holding the belief or the belief's consequences. But it does suggest that 100 percent objectivity doesn't exist on any side of the aisle.

Who, exactly was claiming that 100 percent objectivity exists? That's a mighty weak conclusion to put at the end of an article whose title is, “Liberals Deny Science, Too.”

Of course, if the study showed that large percentages of sociologists rejected evolution, then that would be news. But that's not the case:

The new study, by University of Texas-Brownville sociologist Mark Horowitz and two colleagues, surveyed 155 academic sociologists. 56.7 percent of the sample was liberal, another 28.6 percent was identified as radical, and only 4.8 percent were conservative. Horowitz, who describes himself as a politically radical, social-justice oriented researcher, said he wanted to probe their views of the possible evolutionary underpinnings of various human behaviors. “I wanted to get at the really ideological blank slate view, it's sort of a preemptive assumption that everything is taught, everything is learned,” he explained.

Sure enough, the study found that these liberal academics showed a pretty high level of resistance to evolutionary explanations for phenomena ranging from sexual jealousy to male promiscuity.

That's all it takes to be a science denier now? Rather than denying science, the sociologists might possibly be responding to the fact that the specific evolutionary explanations that have been put forward for sexual jealousy and promiscuity are just so much unsubstantiated speculation. Moreover, I would think that sociologists, more so than the rest of us, are tuned in to the myriad ways our culture reinforces sexism and even misogyny. There are obvious cultural factors that relate to gender differences, to the detriment of women. I suspect most sociologists take the view that after we address these cultural factors we can start worrying about possible genetic differences.

But even this weak point quickly gets caveated to death. For example, were the sociologists just generally skeptical of evolution?

In fairness, the sociologists were willing to credit some evolutionary-style explanations. Eight-one percent found it either plausible or highly plausible that “some people are born genetically with more intellectual potential than others,” and 70 percent ascribed sexual orientation to “biological roots.” Meanwhile, nearly 60 percent of sociologists in the sample considered it “plausible” that human beings have a “hardwired” taste preference for foods that are full of fat and sugar, and just under 50 percent thought it plausible that we have an innate fear of snakes and spiders (for very sound, survival-focused reasons).

So that's a no. Are the sociologists ignoring some treasure trove of data that establishes the evolutionary origins of stereotypical gender differences?

Yet the study also found that these scholars were less willing to consider evolutionary explanations for other aspects of human behavior, especially those relating to male-female differences. Less than 50 percent considered it plausible that that “feelings of sexual jealousy have a significant evolutionary biological component,” for instance, and just 36.4 percent considered it plausible that men “have a greater tendency towards promiscuity than women due to an evolved reproductive strategy.” While it is hard to be absolutely definitive on either of these issues (we weren't there to observe evolution happen), evolutionary psychologists have certainly argued in published studies that people exhibit jealousy in sexual relationships in order to ensure reproductive fidelity and preserve the resources that come from a partner, and that men are more promiscuous because they are not constrained in how often they can attempt to reproduce.

So that's another no. That evolutionary psychologists have presented arguments in published studies hardly constitutes evidence of widespread scientific consensus on this controversial question.

Skipping ahead, Mooney concedes this point:

But there's also a notable limitation to the study. When it comes to some of the more controversial statements about the evolutionary basis of various human behaviors that were used (for instance, the assertion that “The widely observed tendency for men to try and control women's bodies as property...has a significant evolutionary biological component”), the research doesn't really take a strong stand on whether they're actually true -- which makes it rather hard to call the sociologists woefully biased. Instead, study subjects were merely asked to state whether they considered such statements “highly plausible,” “plausible,” “implausible,” or “highly implausible.”

A very notable limitation indeed. A further limitation, to judge from what Mooney has presented, is that the sociologists were not asked for the reasons underlying their plausibility judgments. At any rate, we have gone from, “Liberals deny science, too!” to “Some sociologists are skeptical of certain evidence-free assertions that have been made by evolutionary psychologists.” That's quite a let-down. Frankly, my impression is that a majority of biologists also reject a lot of the specific claims that have been made in the literature of evolutionary psychology. Science-deniers all, apparently.

What's especially ridiculous about this is that's not actually so hard to find instances of liberal science denial. Much of the skepticism of vaccination comes from the left, as does much of the hysteria over GMO's. It's not controversial that the mere presentation of scientific data is generally ineffective against deeply held biases, and liberals have those biases just as surely as conservatives do.

There are, however, at least three characteristics of right-wing science denial, specifically with regard to evolution and climate change, that are utterly absent from the trivia Mooney is discussing.

The first is the source of the bias. Hostility to evolution comes exclusively from religious extremism, and that is something that needs to be fought for numerous reasons. Denial of climate change is largely manufactured by monied, corporate interests with a venal interest in preventing environmental regulation.

The second relates to the consequences of the denialism. If the deniers get their way, then science education in this country will be seriously harmed, and our environmental policies will continue to put us on a disastrous course. That hardly seems comparable to the harm of a few sociologists being skeptical of evolutionary psychology.

The third relates to the prominence and power of the people advocating for the denialism. You have no future in the Republican Party if you accept evolution and climate change, and this party now has complete control of Congress.

Somehow that seems way more consequential than anything in this silly little essay.

More like this

That’s all right. Evolution selects against most of the academic sociologists and liberal socialists. Nature will select against the nation that acts on their ideas, too.

By John Hodge (not verified) on 06 Nov 2014 #permalink

[Jason] Moreover, I would think that sociologists, more so than the rest of us, are tuned in to the myriad ways our culture reinforces sexism and even misogyny.

Yes, there is a pretty clear sample bias problem here. Asking a group of sociologists about whether nurture or nature matters most (in some case) is kind of like asking a group of chefs whether flavor or calories matter most: given their choice of profession, you should fully expect the result to be lopsided.

[Moony] Less than 50 percent considered it plausible that that “feelings of sexual jealousy have a significant evolutionary biological component,” for instance, and just 36.4 percent considered it plausible that men “have a greater tendency towards promiscuity than women due to an evolved reproductive strategy.”

Those numbers don't even really support his point. Sure, if the greater scientiific community was credibly certain about one of these conclusions, a 30-40% denial rate amongst sociologists would be very significant. But given that the greater community is ambivalent over these hypotheses because the data is pretty lacking either way, a one-third two-third split between the two major options seems pretty reasonable and expected to me.

Mooney seems to be doing his standard "both sides are a little wrong" faux-balance shtick. He generally seems well-intended and is strongly pro-science, so I presume he believes such knee-jerk moderation is more appealing to those he really wants to reach.

In any case, the real problem with evo-psych is that it is, for the most part, simply bad science. Its evidence base tends to be very weak, and the claims made far outstrip the empirical support. In addition, in many cases, the behaviour examined can be explained just as readily by other, cultural means.

One especially egregious aspect of many evo-psych explanations is using evolution to explain behaviours that in the given socio-cultural climate are actually explainable by rational action. For example, in our current culture, it doesn't take an evolutionary account to explain why, on the whole, women might find material wealth a more important quality in a potential mate than men do. Given that women generally have less economic power than men in our society, such a focus is actually quite rational. What is of interest is whether such gender disparity in focus exists when initial economic disparity is eliminated, e.g., do wealthy/powerful women emphasize material wealth of their mates just as much as less-well-off women? If the difference in focus is based on evolution-shaped genetics, then we wouldn't expect there to be any difference among women of different economic status. But I'm willing to bet that, as women become more economically secure, the focus on the material success of their potential mate is reduced.

I recently saw a similar essay somewhere grousing about how people who disagreed with the author on a wide range of political issues based their invalid beliefs on cultural values and personality traits rather than, like the author, Science and Reason. For example, he derided those poor unscientific people who were still concerned about risks of nuclear power, too ignorant or stupid to admit that it was an "accepted scientific fact" that "nuclear waste could be handled safely". One-word rebuttal: Fukushima. Our culture's recent veneration of science has made it easy and tempting to use Science as a club to beat anyone who fails to adopt a favored opinion, but the habit too widely indulged in risks destroying the reputation of science-as-process.

Keith - Jane commented on the safety of nuclear power, which includes the safety of waste storage but also reactor design and operation. AFAIK with Fukushima there were issues of standard human error, plus issues involving engineering decisions having nothing to do with the reactor (such as seawall height), and issues having to do with how the reactor was designed and operated (such as the reactor core isolation cooling unit being old, and reliant on external power to function).

I would disagree with Jane's implication that nulear power is unsafe. I believe that if you look at various power industries, it's one of the safer per kilowatt hour produced. However, it is certainly the case that a nuclear plant can be poorly maintained or operated in an unsafe manner, and this one appears to be one such.

I am agnostic regarding whether nuclear power is too dangerous to be relied upon. Existing plants have been dependent on heavy subsidies and have caused multiple catastrophes, but new models may be much safer. Further, how you weight different types of harm associated with different power-generation technologies requires value judgements. Therefore, I wouldn't want to digress into that argument - I thought it was relatively safe to mention as an example, compared to the same essayist's assumption that his value judgements regarding gun control should be treated as those of Science.

My point was that, as Eric says, the question of nuclear power safety involves multiple issues - plant design, current and future geological and climatic conditions, ensuring adequate corporate spending on maintenance - beyond that of safely storing waste for a quarter of a million years. If you take it as a premise that the last has been solved, it is not logical to say that the others are therefore also solved. Yet the author I referenced clearly offered the argument: waste storage is no longer controversial, therefore, if you still worry about nuclear power you are un-Scientific. Science thereby is used as a sock puppet to demand obeisance to whatever beliefs a well-educated speaker may happen to hold.

You can see an exact parallel in the essay Jason referenced: that author pretends to believe that failure to assert that certain differences between (largely Western) men and women have been proven to be genetic destiny makes you un-Scientific. Yet it's clear that his opinion regarding the strength of the evidence is powerfully affected by his own emotions and political beliefs. There is no place in a logical or statistical argument for sneering about liberals, so his doing so suggests that he is emotionally attached to these hypotheses because they justify permanent gender inequality.

It's probably not a good analogy to compare sociologists' skepticism about evolutionary psychology to a regular religious conservative off the street's denialism of evolutionary biology.

I'm willing to bet that your average liberal plucked from a random street would object to evolutionary psychology for the same underlying reason that a conservative rejects evolutionary biology: they are uninformed about what it actually says and they think that accepting it implies giving ammunition to behaving or treating people immorally.

By J. Quinton (not verified) on 06 Nov 2014 #permalink

Chris Mooney has an astonishingly weak op-ed in a recent edition of The Washington Post.

Like a good Darwinist, Mooney adapts to his environment.

How long since the WaPo favored any other variety of opinion from the non-corporate sector?

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 06 Nov 2014 #permalink

The other issue with stuff like GMOs is that there's a huge difference between "GMOs are unsafe to eat" (likely wrong) and "Hey, maybe we ought to think really carefully about introducing stuff into our food system / environment before we really understand what we are doing, given the problems we already have."

The latter is not science denial, I don't think. And that's the issue that a lot of people (myself included) have. Potatoes must have seemed like a miracle crop in 1840, and we all know how well that worked out for the Irish. The problem wasn't the crop per se but a whole stack of non-technological issues surrounding it, issues that the GMO-will-save-the-world crowd studiously ignore.

Nuclear power has similar problems. No lefty denies that the plants work. The problems are beyond the technology itself, though. First, the whole industry was subsidized (and let's be honest, initially the point was to have a ready source of bomb-making material). Second, there's the whole problem of the mining industry attached to uranium, and the massive infrastructure needed to supply nuclear power plants. Getting nuclear material isn't a trivial process, nor a "clean" one -- and I am not even thinking of the radioactivity.

It isn't science denial to say that maybe, just maybe, we might want to re-think the way we live at some fundamental levels. I love technology, but I know I won't die if I don't get a new iPad or have to get up and change the TV channel. It isn't necessary to life for me to have access to fresh mangoes in New York (though it's nice). I am old enough to remember life without many of these things, and we all survived it. Asking oneself about the social forces that shape technologies and what some social consequences might be is not, IMO, denying science, any more than it is science denial to say that perhaps we really don't need to have 60-degree climate control in Florida to the point where I have to put on a jacket inside a building when it is 100 degrees outside, and that maybe a purely technological solution isn't always the answer.

Despite the number of studies that show men to be more promiscuous than women. It obviously is the case that men and women on average have had the same number of heterosexual partners. Due to the fact that almost the same numbers of males as females are born. It is mathematically impossible for it to be unequal. . . . Correction females must be more promiscuous than males. More males are born and reach an age of sexual maturity in countries where male children are preferred such as India and China. Therefore the greater male than female balance means on average the males must be less promiscuous than the females. So this actually proves most of the social scientists are right in not believing in there is genetic reason for something that does not exist. Still worrying how many do believe in genes for non existing phenomena.

The construction of the study suggests a different sort of resistance to science by sociologists.

By SqueakyRat (not verified) on 08 Nov 2014 #permalink

Ben's got a good point: studies that report greatly different average numbers of partners for men and women present a mathematical problem. It's very possible that women who sleep around are more likely than men to low-ball their count when interviewed for fear of negative judgement, which would cast doubt on all such studies. Also, surveys may not include enough of the few unusually or professionally promiscuous women who are providing partners for a disproportionate number of men. (Many at the highest end of the female number-of-partners range would be sex workers, who often are subjected to economic coercion or worse and would prefer to have fewer partners if they could do so without starving.) If you envision a hypothetical population of 100 women and 100 men, in which 99 women are faithfully married and each of their husbands plus the one bachelor also sleep with the town hooker, the mean number of partners for each gender would be 1.99. However, the median and mode numbers would indicate a substantial difference in the genders' desire (or else freedom) to have multiple partners. Perhaps reporting those forms of "average" as well as means would be more meaningful, no pun intended.

In any case, the real problem with evo-psych is that it is, for the most part, simply bad science.

And your evidence for this sweeping assertion is....?

And I do mean evidence. Not anecdote.

And your evidence for this sweeping assertion is….?

All the studies I read when doing my PhD in psychology? Now granted, that was a while ago, so the quality of research in the field may have radically improved since then.

The thing about both nuclear power and GMO concerns is that it's hard to call them "anti-science" when they actually agree with the facts and theories (except for the more paranoid elements of anti-GMO concerns), they just disagree about policy, risk levels, etc. That's not parallel to evolution denial or climate-change skepticism (although to be fair, the latter has been moving in this direction for a while: "Sure, CO2 does make the planet warmer, but is this a bad thing?"). That might be one reason Mooney used the evo-psych (blecch, evo-psych) example.

I do wish liberals were more open to GMOs (there's no inherent problem with them, and they do promise some real benefits), but it's absurd to pretend that GMOs are such a beacon of hope and so crucial to humanity's future that we have to welcome them with open arms. They're not like vaccines, or cutting down on greenhouse gases.