What's wrong with evolutionary psychology?

american-eugenics.jpgLike the textbook marketing sidebar, this was not something I originally planned to discuss, so I'm dashing this off in my final hour guestblogging. Forgive the brevity. Those of us who are critical of evolutionary psychology (EP) are often accused of being anti-evolution and/or anti-psychology. Many of us are neither. That's because evolutionary psychology isn't really evolution and it isn't really psychology. It's more of a philosophy of science applied to human traits and behaviors. It's part of a range of ideologies that can trace their roots to eugenics: social Darwinism, sociobiology, behavior genetics, evolutionary psychology. All of these are part of what Nancy Ordover calls the "bio-psych merge" in her book American Eugenics. They are all attempts to graft hard science onto soft science in order to legitimize it, often undertaken by people with backgrounds in soft science. To me, EP proponents' touchiness about criticism often feels like an inferiority complex, psychologists who hate being lumped in with social sciences (especially anthropology). And in my experience, they are often touchier and more humorless than the feminists and postmodernists with whom they disagree most frequently.

Evolutionary psychology is at its worst (but most entertaining) when they create these imaginative after-the-fact "just so stories," making unfalsifiable claims that are not based on the data collected. For instance, one EP paper said women's brains developed to prefer pink because their brains specialized with trichromacy for gathering fruits:

... these underpin the female preference for objects 'redder' than the background. As a gatherer, the female would also need to be more aware of color information than the hunter. This requirement would emerge as greater certainty and more stability in female color preference, which we find. An alternative explanation for the evolution of trichromacy is the need to discriminate subtle changes in skin color due to emotional states and social-sexual signals; again, females may have honed these adaptations for their roles as care-givers and 'empathizers.'
* This kind of stuff appeals to people because it reaffirms what they already believe to be true: women are passive, nurturing care-givers who stayed at home or gathered berries. Never mind that pink didn't get canonized as a girl's color until recently (Answers to Inquiries, Our Continent 1882). That's why this is such a good example of the problem with EP.

Some often-believed tenets of evolutionary psychologists: There's significant evidence that gene expression is not as clear-cut as these ideas suggest, and brain plasticity makes it difficult to prove that this or that part of the brain developed to address this or that adaptation. Clearly, genetics play a role in who we are. But it doesn't do any good to explain away phenomena like rape, altruism and other puzzling behaviors with unsupported statements that devolve into fanciful imaginations regarding their origins.

Occasionally the argument is made that because EP is a concern to people on both the political right and left, EP must be right. This kind of fallacious thinking is at the heart of the problem with EP. What if both sets of critics are correct?

Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature (Bradford Books) (David Buller)

Evolutionary Psychology as Maladapted Psychology (Life and Mind: Philosophical Issues in Biology and Psychology) (Robert C. Richardson)

American Eugenics: Race, Queer Anatomy, and the Science of Nationalism (Nancy Ordover)

War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race (Edwin Black)

The Unfit: A History of a Bad Idea (Elof Axel Carlson)

Previously on BB:


  1. It’s easy to find plenty of examples of silliness in EP, e.g. the example you give with “women like pink.” But that in itself doesn’t tell me much. Just as it’s fallacious to try to gain legitimacy for quackery by associating it with legitimate science, it is just as fallacious to discredit an entire avenue of study because some people say stupid (or unpopular) things.

    So, to discredit “evolutionary psychology” as a whole, you’re going to have to do better than give examples of bad science. You have to show that it is inherently bad science. Why isn’t it a good idea to look at psychology from an evolutionary perspective?

    1. Many great comments in the thread. One key problem with EP is that if you are studying evolution, you need evidence of the process. If you are studying evolution of the brain, you need brains from the past, and soft tissue rarely gets left in a preserved state. In fact, human DNA rarely gets preserved well, especially for the time periods where EP focuses many of its statements. Without scientific anatomical evidence, you can make all the guesses you want, but that doesn’t make it scientifically falsifiable. We can find genes implicated in the acquisition of language, for instance. That’s falsifiable and scientific. We can find genes related to cognitive function. That’s falsifiable and scientific. But when we start to say things like “race” is real because we have found genes that affect skin tone and hair color, that is not scientific. We can talk about something like biogeographic ancestry in scientifically meaningful ways, but “race” is arbitrary and socially constructed and variable by culture and time. When evolutionary psychologists make sweeping claims about race or sex, etc., they are merely reifying arbitrary and unscientific concepts that may reflect a social reality, but are by no means a scientific reality.

      It’s these kind of mushy underpinnings that open the door for unfalsifiable assumptions and sweeping generalizatons endemic to the field. Any claims made by EP regarding prehistoric human behavior need to be subjected to the scientific rigor we expect in a hard science field like evolutionary biology. Otherwise we end up with women evolving to like pink, blacks being lower IQ than other “races,” etc. It’s a seductive argument that’s especially dangerous because it can be dressed up to sound a lot like science (see my example above). It’s fine to speculate and theorize based on a set of premises, but EP is at its very worst when it presents its speculations and hypotheses to the masses. What the general public sees as well-reasoned and scientific is often just pseudoscientific justification for their unfounded beliefs about themselves or another group of people.

      1. Do you need ancient Romans running around to study ancient Rome? Of course you don’t need brains to study human behaviour and evolution! Take a look at neuroscientists studying fMRI data (see Dr. Read Montague) or Chomsky’s work on language acquisition. Or go to the source, read Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals if you want to understand the connection between human behaviour with that of our animal cousins.

        While I have read a great deal on language acquisition and EP, I have read nothing about race and skin tone. What sort of argument are you constructing here? That Evolutionary Psychology excuses racism? The human universals greatly delineated in this field are inherently anti-racist. Ask yourself – What does it mean if we share a species-wide endowment of patterns for behaviour ? Behaviour that (as is detailed thoroughly by EP scientists) is greatly variable according to developmental cues supplied by the environment?

  2. Ours is a species without a great deal of sexual dimorphism, either physicaly OR behavioraly. The range difference between individuals is greater than the median differences between the sexes. So there are plenty of women stronger than me, and men that are more nurturing than Leona Helmsley. Even though it often degenerates into the sort of culturaly specific ex-post-facto “explanations” that the poster rightfully excoriates, there often is something interesting to be learned by applying evolutionary principles in examining those differences.

  3. I agree with this as criticism of actual Evo Psych, and it probably holds for most feasible Evo Psych. But there is still a possibility for empirically meaningful work to be done.

    It’s an interesting question just why so much of this stuff is so bad — not why do they get paid to do it, although that is an interesting ideological-critical question, but just what is it about them that is so bad, methodologically speaking,

    One systematic error is that it often fails to see it has not only to pick its explanations but also to make these more plausible than all the others. It also often fails to see that there are many ultimate or evolutionary explanations available (in our ‘epistemic space’) for any mechanism, and many mechanisms available from any evolutionary process. The worst of the worst simply picks one of each and tells a story about it.

  4. Like many archaeologists, EP theorists seem quite happy to use notions of social order that most sociologists have discarded. The choices that people make respond to a wide range of factors. Certainly we can imagine a subset of these as defaulting to biology. But where the “action” lies in social agency is almost certainly external to this subset. We are surprisingly (all of us) perverse in this way (or, at least, oblique to whatever tugs our will receives from this quarter). And we are ferociously adept at changing our minds and adapting our bodies according to our desires.

  5. “Those of us who are critical of evolutionary psychology (EP) are often accused of being anti-evolution and/or anti-psychology. Many of us are neither.”

    Heh! But you seem very much against psychology from the few posts you have posted!

    I guess if I were in your shoes, I might be as well…psychology, for a long time, seemed to be against areas that you seem to be endeared to. Luckily, this is changing. As the old white male psychologists die out, and a new breed are brought in, a lot of the past prejudices are going away…

    Back to the point, EP has to figure things out by conjecture. There is a lot of it that is just plain wrong, but if we stick to the areas we know, evolutionary psychologists will just stop trying. It is very much a soft science because there is no way of proving any of this…you are very right, it is pretty much anthropology from a psychological perspective. Would you say that anthropologists are wrong? I’m certain they are, but it doesn’t merit taking a stance on it. Anthropologists look at past cultures through our own eyes and make judgements on the cultures based on that, regardless of how it actually was. Same with EPs. They try to understand today, but postulating about yesterday.

    If nothing else, they are able to ask questions and bring them into context so that the higher order of science can try to measure it in today’s context.

    We need soft sciences to post the question as much as we need the hard sciences to give us the boring data…one brings context to the other…

    1. Clif-

      I suggest you look up the definition of anthropology, since you don’t seem to know what it is.

      1. “I suggest you look up the definition of anthropology, since you don’t seem to know what it is.”

        I’m being just as ignorant about it as others are about EP :-)

        I thought that was to be expected on this site!

        I know exactly what it is, and I know the science that it uses is occasionally wrong. I also know it helps give a context to something we might not have otherwise understood. And eventually, as more information is found, these ideas are changed and theories solidified, and still, they may be wrong.

        Same with EP. There are a lot of misconceptions about all of this, but to remain ignorant simply because it doesn’t fit your worldview…well, that is as bad as the other side.

        1. Clif-


          But your claim that “[a]nthropologists look at past cultures through our own eyes and make judgements on the cultures based on that, regardless of how it actually was” isn’t actually correct.

          In the US (and it’s different elsewhere) anthropology is divided into four subfields: linguistic anthropology (language in culture), archaeology (the past of various social groups), sociocultural anthropology, which is by far the largest field of anthropology and is entirely based on studying contemporary societies, and biological anthropology, which can mean a bunch of things, from evolutionary psychology to primatology (think monkeys) to paleoanthropology (think homo erectus).

          Of those, archaeology, paleoanthropology, and evolutionary psychology are the only ones dealing explicitly with the past (EP looks at extant behaviors today and postulates how and why they evolved in the EEA – environment of evolutionary adaptedness). And each has its own methods and theories for how to make educated guesses about unobservable past events.

          However for the vast majority of anthropologists, it’s the exact opposite of your point — they look at what life is like *right now* for people they’re studying, and try to do it from the point of view of those people, rather than from their own. I’m not sure what anthropology you’re imagining.

  6. #1:

    because EP is the nexus of unfalsifiable claims with confirmation bias. like she just explained.

    it’s up to EPists to make falsifiable claims if they want to be taken seriously. while there are certain fields where unfalsifiable claims are a matter of course, like astronomy, these are also constrained by our best available experimental evidence in other fields like physics.

    evolutionary psychology is the worst of both worlds. this is not to say EP is _necessarily_ bullshit, just that the overwhelming majority of it is at this point. it’s fine to add that perspective to the discussion section of a well-constructed experiment, but thats a different thing from claiming that your biases are true Just Because, and Its Science!

  7. I am in agreement with Moriarty here.

    To explain why EP is “wrong,” you need to provide us with a reason for the entire field to be wrong, not just examples of its overzealous application. For example: electromagnetic field theory isn’t wrong just because there are some quacks who keep trying to build perpetual motion machines out of magnets.

    It’s perfectly easy to show that the notion that at least oart of our psychology is determined by evolution: Is sexual desire part of our psychology? Yes. Is it innate? Yes. Does it arise from our brains? Yes. Does it lead to more reproductive success? Yes. How about fight or flight responses? Yes, yes and yes. How about infant rooting behavior? Yes, yes, and yes.

    Here’s why the field of EP is completely logical:

    1) Our behavior is determined by our brains.
    2) At least some of (the vast majority, in fact) our brain’s architecture is predefined from birth — it’s not a tubular rasa.
    3) Our brain’s architecture, being controlled at least in part (the vast majority, in fact) by genetics, is subject to evolution.


    4) Our behavior is subject, at least in to, by evolution.

    Really, I don’t see how this can be a controversy. I mean, does anyone not think that the reason we have sexual desire (for example) is due to evolution?

    1. SamSam-

      “1) Our behavior is determined by our brains.”

      Some of it is. But a lot of those basic brain-controlled behaviors are socially and culturally elaborated and patterned. Everybody eats, but there is tremendous variation in how we eat (times of day, amount and kinds of food, who’s with us when we do, etc.). Even breathing (how fast, how loud, through the mouth or nose) is shaped by culture. The problem is that evolutionary psychologists almost always start with one of their own culturally shaped behaviors and assume it’s the only natural kind and build their arguments from there.

      “2) At least some of (the vast majority, in fact) our brain’s architecture is predefined from birth”

      Yes and no. As has been pointed out here, there’s a lot of plasticity in brain structure. Undoubtedly certain functions are located in general areas of the brain, but merely localizing things doesn’t explain them. Many neuroscientists readily admit we just don’t really understand yet how the brain works. Most evolutionary psychologists, though, are dead certain they’ve figured it all out because they’ve located their newest “module” somewhere next to Broca’s area.

      “3) Our brain’s architecture, being controlled at least in part (the vast majority, in fact) by genetics, is subject to evolution.”

      The vast majority of our brain is not “controlled” by genetics any more than it’s controlled by the real world that the brain lives in. Even evolutionary psychologists admit that, since evolution requires an environment to adapt to. So yes, brains are subject to evolution, but the real questions are a) given the entirely unique status of the brain, is it subject to evolution in the same ways that, say, bipedalism is?; and b) can behavior be boiled down to brain structure? Evolutionary psychologists say yes to both, but the first is an assumption and the second is wrong.

      “4) Our behavior is subject, at least in to, by evolution.”

      Sure, but once you’ve added in all the wiggle-words and hedges, you’re making a non-claim.

      There are academic reasons why people care about this (crudely, “is it natural?” or “is it social?” are questions motivating entire schools of thought). But there are deep implications involved, too, the biggest of which seems to be that advancing evolutionary claims for negative behaviors in a way justifies their existence. Or that’s at least what a lot of people think. Evolutionary psychologists hide behind the “naturalistic fallacy” — just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s good — to defend what they do. But when an entire discipline develops that seems only to provide a scientific explanation for common sense and the status quo, a status quo that almost invariably benefits the kinds of behaviors associated with the researchers themselves, you have to be at least a little suspect. Seriously, I was first taught EP by a balding guy with a beard, who argued that his high levels of testosterone, which rendered his face hairy and his head shiny, made him an extremely attractive mate, and his beard and bald head were signals of great genetic fitness.

      1. “1) Our behavior is determined by our brains.”
        “The problem is that evolutionary psychologists almost always start with one of their own culturally shaped behaviors and assume it’s the only natural kind and build their arguments from there.”

        That’s how they all do it? Every single one? And more importantly, that’s how evolutionary psychology must be done? Unless you show that it is impossible for evolutionary psychology to be done without starting from a biased culturally shaped behavior, then this is not an argument against evolutionary psychology but only against bad researchers.

        “2) At least some of (the vast majority, in fact) our brain’s architecture is predefined from birth”
        “Yes and no.”

        Yes is enough to make the endeavor worthwhile. Again, you should conceptually separate the field from the people. If you can conceive of the field being done without these biases, which as pointed out in other responses is not that hard to do, then this also doesn’t back up your main claim. This is like when people who don’t believe in evolution get all excited when biologists argue about some small point in the theory and think this shows the whole theory is false. One of those two may be wrong, or they both may be wrong, but it doesn’t mean that evolution is wrong. Same with EP.

        “3) Our brain’s architecture, being controlled at least in part (the vast majority, in fact) by genetics, is subject to evolution.”
        “The vast majority of our brain is not “controlled” by genetics any more than it’s controlled by the real world that the brain lives in. Even evolutionary psychologists admit that, since evolution requires an environment to adapt to. So yes, brains are subject to evolution, but the real questions are a) given the entirely unique status of the brain, is it subject to evolution in the same ways that, say, bipedalism is?; and b) can behavior be boiled down to brain structure? Evolutionary psychologists say yes to both, but the first is an assumption and the second is wrong.”

        This is your best point, but still doesn’t wipe out the theory of EP as 1) can still be a starting assumption that could be right and whose results from using that starting point could held determine whether it is correct or not. And 2) may be wrong, but even under you earlier descriptions could be right. If environment or culture influences the brain, then that alters the brains structure. How much? In what way? And how much of that change is pre-determined? A gene doesn’t tell an organism do x. It is much more complex in that it would say something more like: if in situation a do x and if in situation b do y. Plasticity doesn’t mean the brain can do anything and such a view can still fit well with an evolutionary perspective. Lastly, arguments like this are alien to the study of biological evolution, such as the arguments between those who argue for nothing but natural selection and those who argue for more such as genetic drift. Or those who argue that the unit of selection is a gene, a trait, an individual and so on… Why should this type of disagreement lead to the dismissal of evolutionary psychology?

        “4) Our behavior is subject, at least in to, by evolution.”
        “Sure, but once you’ve added in all the wiggle-words and hedges, you’re making a non-claim.”

        This isn’t a non-claim anymore than saying that my cereal is subject to in part the flavors of raisins. It could be that my cereal is all raisins or it could be that there are no raisins. Making a claim that it is somewhere in the middle is still a claim, right or wrong, about the world.

        “advancing evolutionary claims for negative behaviors in a way justifies their existence. Or that’s at least what a lot of people think.”

        Yeah, I never trust those “a lot of people” and what they think.

        Side note – naturalistic fallacy is used incorrectly by a lot of people (get it!) in this area. It doesn’t actually mean what you think it means, it refers to the idea that the concept “good” is a simple, natural property that cannot be reduced to any other concept. For example, utilitarians who equate good with happiness are making the naturalistic fallacy. What you are describing is the is/ought gap which holds that just because something is a certain way doesn’t mean it ought to be that way. (And yes I know that this is probably how it was described to you by prominent people, and yes language changes over time, but if we are talking about fallacies we do need to keep some proper distinctions or we’ll be calling every bad argument under the sun an ad hominem)

        Back to your point, yeah if you notice this trend you should be suspicious of those doing the work, but that doesn’t mean the field is inherently wrong. And, speaking of confirmation bias, you should make sure that trend actually exists. One bad teacher (who may or may not have been making a joke), cherry picked quotes, and anecdotal evidence isn’t enough of a data set to throw out the field with phrenology.

        And one last fallacy for the main article: the genetic fallacy
        Even if the field of EP got it’s start from bad practices such as eugenics doesn’t mean the field is wrong or not worth pursuing. If the practice of picking up dog poop when you take your dog for a walk originated in Nazi Germany, that doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea or the right thing to do. Pick up your puppy poop you nasty neighbors!

        1. you’re seriously busting out the “you’re overgeneralizing” critique for a blog comment? OK, well, no, not every EP researcher works in the way i’ve described. however, that basic orientation to reasoning is perfectly passable in the field. i spent many years in grad school hanging out with a bunch of evolutionary psychologists, not to mention a few classes on the topic, and i got quite familiar with what counts as evidence and argument. your purist desire to separate research from the researchers is laudable, but unrealistic — these undergrads aren’t gonna research themselves! there’s no such thing as researcherless science. when you see first hand how this research is constructed and carried out, it becomes pretty hard to take any of it seriously.

    1. SamSam,

      ..not tabula rasa, no?

      I think Tubula Rasa is what the internet was, before we filled it up with pr0n.

  8. I’m sure you’re right, that there’s plenty of terrible evolutionary psychology out there, but wouldn’t you admit, it’s a fascinating approach? I could never abide Freud and others, because they ignored a) the fact that our physical brains evolved for life on the savannah and b) that brains aren’t blank slates or 100% social constructs; they’re full of hard-wiring (not 100% full of course, but not 0% either). Characterising evolutionary psychologists as ‘touchier and more humourless than feminists and postmodernists’ seems like a stretch (not to mention being rather ad hominem). And linking the discipline, even tenuously, to eugenics seems like a step too far to me. The bad EP might be bad, but isn’t the good EP pretty good? And anyway, I don’t see how one could sensibly eliminate all evolutionary thinking from a scientific approach to psychology. As the commenter ‘Moriarty’ says, “Why isn’t it a good idea to look at psychology from an evolutionary perspective?”

  9. Evolutionary psychology is the worst of both worlds if portrayed in a completely biased and ignorant way. I would suggest strongly that anyone giving this post a second thought actually take the time to thoughtfully consider first the primary sources which have apparently resulted in this view, though I highly doubt they have been consulted. Go to the beginning and read the sociobiology and evolutionary psychology debates (both sides) from the beginning, and then move into recent work, instead of just reading snippets and quotes taken from other quotations, taken out of context and turned around to fit yet another agenda.

    What’s especially telling about the obvious ignorance-based bias of this post is the list of “often belived tenets”. It reads like a caricature of the mudslinging that blindly goes on between the mythically opposed sides. I highly recommend Steven Pinker’s book The Blank Slate, which gives insightful arguments about what kinds of conclusions can be actually drawn from the field, while at the same time going into depth about why points like those advanced above are ridiculous, wrong, and misrepresent what is actually advanced–if anyone believes the points above that are fabricated as completely accepted, they are on the fringes. Anyone else thinks they’re just as ridiculous as we do. Again, it might help to read and base your ideas on something further than other highly opposed critics.

    The kind of fallacious thinking that is exhibited here, painting a whole field as needed in order to have something to fight against is infuriating. Take some time to thoughtfully read a representative selection of the work you’re discarding, and set yourself against more than a straw man next time.

  10. It’s funny that they didn’t suggest that women prefer pink because it reminds them of the flesh of freshly killed meat or the blood of slain enemies. Or would that be too unladylike?

  11. While it seems true that EP cannot be easily falsified, you can still imagine it’s value in some senses as a mental framework. For example, if you start out with some kind of a theory of how some psychological trait may have evolved, you can then use that to create a slew of hypotheses to test based on that theory. In that way, you might be able to discover new psychological phenomena, experimentally link existing psychological phenomena, or disprove someone else’s EP hypotheses. So, while it may not describe the evolutionary truth, it can work as a valuable tool for describing or discovering current phenomena. With that being said, this approach is, of course, open to abuses as well as a certain conflation of a convenient theory/approach with the truth.

  12. There’s a paper waiting to be written on why our brains evolved to love unfalsifiable just-so-stories, especially ones about sex and gender.

    Seriously, though, this seems like a baby-with-the-bathwater situation. It’s regrettable that so much evo-psych is bad science, particularly in the popular press. But the underlying idea, that much of our psychology is evolved, should be uncontroversial and is worthy of proper scientific study.

  13. I’m throwin’ in with Moriarty. There’s quacks thick on the ground, and softer sciences attract them more strongly, because there’s a lot more wiggle room. But that doesn’t invalidate an entire discipline. It just means you need to approach it with a skeptical mind, a knowledge that people will interpret evidence in their own models of reality. Red being an emotional trigger sure shootin’ could have resulted from us loving fruits and learning how to blush and maybe how to tell the red butts from the purple butts when we were more chimpy about everything. Sure, totally possible. Also, other things are possible. So you have provided one possible explanation, which isn’t much of an accomplishment. Explanation is the easy part of the soft sciences. Theories are like bungholes. Evidence is the more difficult part.

  14. Indeed, Moriarty got it in one.

    The thing I want to add is that the real question is, “What’s wrong with some evolutionary psychologists?” is the appropriate question. It’s not as if the idiocies you mentioned are about to last the test of time, and meanwhile even Newton was convinced of some things that we think are ridiculous today… but we don’t throw out calculus or classical mechanics on account of that.

    And claiming that evolutionary psychologists are anywhere near as humorless as the postmodernists and feminists they clash with is, I think, unfair. (Also, the evolutionary psychologists at least are trying to write texts that are comprehensible to readers, instead of purposefully/pointlessly opaque and confusing.) Stephen Pinker, in _The Blank Slate_, provides a pretty thorough response to a number of your (well-rehearsed among some circles) arguments, and I don’t see much in your post that raises the bar over and above his rebuttals. Ooops, I see Lucidity recommending that book, too. Well, consider this a seconding of that recommendation.

    Personally, I’d like to see a more constructive response to texts by people who’re doing good work in the field of evolutionary psychology. One interesting example being Pascal Boyer’s _Religion Explained_. Any specific responses to creditable texts, or is it just potshots at the worst examples cherrypicked by virulent critics? Because believe me, there’s tons of anti-evolutionary psychology and anti-sociobiology writing that could be held up as even more ridiculous, more bigoted, and more harmful besides, than what you’ve discussed here. (Again, Pinker covers that nicely.)

  15. The reference to Freud is kind of appropriate here. Freud wrote his last book in a rush, believing that he was dying of cancer. Those theories have proven to be his most controversial and are the reason people tend to dismiss Freud outright, or accept everything he wrote as all coming from the same gospel.
    Ms. James seems to be in the same situation. Though hopefully in good health, she didn’t have a lot of time for this essay, and some of her statements may have received a little more polish, had the situation been different.
    What’s interesting to see is that there seems to be some kind of dichotomy developing here. You’re either with her, or you’re against her. EP is either good, or it’s bad. (Though to be fair, this binary way of looking at things is much less prevalent on these boards than in other forums).
    The brain is a physical organ, like the heart. Among its many functions is processing information and making decisions. Its function is a result of many genes and proteins working together, but it is also affected by external conditions, both acute and long-term.
    Evolution clearly plays a role, but that role can not be differentiated from the effects of environment – and usually both are at play regarding the same phenomenon.
    There may be some genetic predilection towards females liking the color pink, but that is way overshadowed by the environmental reinforcement directed towards females that they should like that color.
    EP is a very interesting school of thought, and one that tends to do more good than harm. But like all schools of thought that seek to illuminate, it will just end up clouding the picture if it is your only way of seeing things.
    Now, I wonder why people seem so ready to percieve complex situations as binary choices. Might there be an evolutionary benefit to that?


  16. Just to add my two cents on this genetic vs. non-genetic behavior debate going on, I think that it’s probably more complicated than some behaviors being genetically specified and others not. Specifically, there is probably a good bit of complex interaction between genetics and nature to produce a final set of behaviors. For example, take the hypothetical (and simple) example that a scientist finds definitive proof that a person that has a single expression of one gene is susceptible to alcoholism. That doesn’t mean that every person with that gene will abuse alcohol. Indeed most people probably won’t, but it’s the interaction between the environment (social and physical) that the person is in with that expression of the gene that allows for alcoholism to emerge.

  17. The argument that no statement in EP is falsifiable is possibly valid, but doesn’t necessarily detract from the statement’s value.

    There are plenty of statements one can make regarding physical evolution which are just as hard to falsify but are never-the-less valuable.

    For example: “The Human foot’s shape evolved because it provided a selective advantage to a primate when running and walking.”

    This statement has value and is most likely true. However, is there any way that it can be falsified?

    Likewise, the statement “sexual desire evolved because it provided individuals with more reproductive success than those without it, and so provided a selective advantage” would just as difficult to falsify, but is undoubtably true and has value.

    @arkizzle: Damn Droid’s autocorrection to blame for the first one, and my not noticing that the work had two errors when editing it for the second one…

  18. Since I’m in a grouchy mood I’ll say this: As soon as soft science touches hard science, hard science suffers for it. Doing so does not legitimize the soft science, it merely sullies the hard science.

  19. So, basically: Evolutionists (biologists) in general do rigorous science (falsifiable hypothesis, experiments, etc.). Psychologists in general do not (or, at least, much less so). Evolutionary Psychology will share some of this problem. Big surprise.
    Now, one could (and should!) insist that theories/hypothesis in any field be rigorously scientific. And unless the field as a whole takes that position, it will be treated with deep suspicion. This means rejecting too-soft papers, etc.
    Evolutionary Psychology has a chance to start as a “harder” field. It seems to be wasting it. This doesn’t discredit the field itself, just the way it is practiced.

  20. It seems to me that evolutionary theories of animal behaviour have been fantastically successful. Nothing said in the post gives any reason why evolution should not also explain human behaviour.

    Even if the human environment has changed substantially since evolution molded our behaviour, understanding the evolution can help us to understand why we act the way we do now.

    Some of what you point out about evolutionary psychology is indeed pseudoscience, or just plain wrong. But it would be wrong to deny any scientifically proven conclusions that you happen to disagree with for political reasons. Humans have come along way from the “animals” we were and much of what evolution may reveal about human behaviour may be unpleasant, but in the long run denial serves no purpose.

  21. The “function” or “purpose” of life is to make more life

    Well this, at any rate, is correct if you take it properly. It’s not some higher purpose that people should adhere to, or have to behave in accord with, but it is the point of all biological adaptations favored by natural selection.

  22. Regarding girls’ preference for pink, allow me to share my family’s experience. I know that historically, the association of pink clothing with girls is a recent, but for some reason my daughter expresses an innate preference for that color. We dressed our daughter exclusively in dark and primary colors like navy blue, red, green, and brown; strangers often assumed she was a boy. Around the age of three, before leaving house for socializing experiences at nursery school, etc., she decided that she would only wear pink. Tops, bottoms, pajamas, outerwear—only pink would do. Go figure.

  23. At heart, Evolutionary Psychology makes sense: the brain and its functioning *are* a product of natural selection, after all; therefore, evolutionary processes are involved and, very likely, determine or explain a LOT of brain activity. However, that said, here’s my breakdown of the problems with certain aspects of EP, using your list of handy characteristics as a starting point:

    * Computational mind (the brain is more like a computer than a biological organ): this is true only in the broadest sense. The brain is certainly not a digital linear processor like, say, any given computer system, but it *does* process information according to verifiable physical “circuits” (i.e., the visual cortex). Evolutionary psychologists who OVERsimplify the brain’s functioning are clearly missing an obvious point.

    * Determinism (biology is destiny): Only to a small, and often overlookable way. Yes, a lot of *basic* human behaviour such as fight-or-flight and sexual responses, some personality traits, and so forth are *initially* determined by biological factors (both genes and prenatal development conditions), but these behaviours are all susceptible to being reprogrammed by upbringing, personal conviction and efforts, and social conditioning. Biology CAN BE destiny, but consciousness itself gives any human the capacity to self-select certain behaviours regardless of their origins.

    * Fatalism (free will/choice is an illusion): Free will–consciousness itself–is an aggregate meta-effect produced by the networking of millions of simple brain actions. It is NOT an illusion, but it *is* heavily influenced and predicated upon a lot of brain functionality that is not conscious at all.

    * Consciousness (subjective awareness deludes us into thinking we have free will): See above.

    * Reductionism or essentialism (race and gender are concrete, not socially constructed, can be reduced to their genetic essence, and are quantifiable): One can certainly identify races by certain quantifiable phenotypical traits (skin colour, etc.) and distribution of certain “marker” genes, just as sex can be determined by the presence of X and Y chromosomes. But there’s a big difference between simply quantitative measurements and *qualitative* measurements such as “One race is better than another because of {insert factor here}.” That kind of thinking is simply not justifiable by ANYthing in psychology.

    * Intelligence is definable and measurable: It is…but not by such oversimplistic concepts as “IQ.” A *true* quantitative measurement of intelligence that measures a person’s individual capacities and skills does not yet exist, but probably will *some* day.

    * Sexual selection should focus on benefits for the individual organism: The human brain and body already does this unconsciously. Whether a person choose to go with his/her “instinct” (i.e., unconscious urgings) in these matters is entirely up to them.

    * The “function” or “purpose” of life is to make more life: From a strictly biological perspective, this is true–and, as such, the mating impulse and other life-preserving/continuing behaviours are strongly selected for, thus they *are* to be considered when contemplating the machineries of consciousness. But though the ultimate “aim” of biology is to reproduce, humans are more than just a bundle of biological impulses.

    * The __ gene: The gay gene, the god gene, etc.: This is just bullshit, period. No one gene codes for any specific behaviour; there is not a 1-to-1 correspondence between Behaviour A and Gene 0001. Behaviours are products of brain activity produced by brain structures whose growth are determined by many, many different genes. Plus, all those genes do is provide a basic growth or organizational template for the neurons to follow during growth–those genes do not determine each and ever synaptic connection, though: THOSE are produced uniquely during growth.

    So, basically, Evolutionary Psychology has a certain basis in scientific reasoning, and is valid TO A DEGREE–but not, I think, to the degree that many so-called Evolutionary Psychologists say it is. They are guilty of reductionism, not realizing that consciousness and the brain are *incredibly, incredibly* complex. Just because you can recognize some of the simple mechanical processes at the foundation level of consciousness does not mean you will understand the meta-order of all those simple processes interacting and adding up, eventually, to human consciousness.

  24. I’d say the brevity is hurting this post. Our mental states, like all neurological and behavioral activity, are not dependent on a popular notion of social order. There is an inherent root of behavior in physical, biological evolution. To deny this reality, that behavior is as old and rooted in natural selection as your opposable thumbs, is to say that compiled data in conflict with our moral or ethical standards are in error.

    “Touchiness to criticism” is not unique to any specialization in research. I, personally, get ‘touchy’ when people approach EP in the way that they “market evolution” or “social Darminism,” which tries to force complex non-evolutionary structures or consequences into a biological box. That’s what Ms. James is doing here, inversely–to say that one dislikes a science that makes statements from collected data that color preferences may indeed be sexually dimorphic and a result of differentiation of activities between the sexes over evolutionary timescales betrays a ‘touchiness’ that is rooted in your author’s own socio-cultural beliefs.

    This is why sci texts have peer review.

  25. While I wholeheartedly agree with the point of Andrea’s article – that EP should be taken with a grain of salt, that experimental testing is the bedrock of science, and that EP is more like the softer sciences of History and Anthropology*, which can make falsifiable claims, but where experimentation is hard – however, I disagree that her bulleted points are caused by EP, rather than merely correlated with it.

    * Determinism (biology is destiny)
    * Fatalism (free will/choice is an illusion)
    * Consciousness (subjective awareness deludes us into thinking we have free will)

    These three points are more heavily associated with Philisophical Materialism, or possibly some theories of Neurobiology (or whatever that field is called) than with EP – EP theorists will generally believe in these fields as well, but the causation goes in the opposite direction.

    I will confidently assert that the mind arises wholly from the brain (and body), yet I am deeply suspicious of EP arguments no matter how seductive they are.

    * Reductionism or essentialism (race and gender are concrete, not socially constructed, can be reduced to their genetic essence, and are quantifiable)

    This statement is too broad; from a purely medical perspective, there are distinct differences between races; knowing race can be as important as family history when it comes to assessing risks.

    Also, there are distinct genetic markers for race – that’s how we know that American Indians are not, in fact, descended from the Israelites as the Mormons claim.

    This claim is entirely part of the evolutionary camp – the camp that traces back our human ancestry to a first common mother – it’s supported by evidence, and makes predictions; it’s not part of EP

    * Intelligence is definable and measurable

    This statement is too vague to be useful. Intelligence does have a genetic component. Whether it is ‘definable’ is dependant on the context – what do you want to do with the definition? Messy heuristics are involved here.

    * Sexual selection should focus on benefits for the individual organism

    This would be an argument belonging to the Evolutionary camp, not the EP camp.

    * The “function” or “purpose” of life is to make more life

    Well… isn’t that kind of the idea behind evolution?

    * The __ gene: The gay gene, the god gene, etc.

    You’re right that this is ridiculously specific, and innacurate description of how our genes work – but is anybody seriously advocating this outside of neonazi messageboards?

    In conclusion, this is by far Andrea’s worst article. :) Her others have been absolutely briliant, and I see the point she is trying to communicate, but as we used to say in my army days “She shit the bed on this one.”

    *Make no mistake – history is without a doubt a scientific discipline, where hypotheses are weighted on evidence, and theories are expected to predict – it’s just that the experimental part is hard.

  26. Many on the right reject evolutionary psychology because they dogmatically believe humans were created by God. Many of the left reject evolutionary psychology because they dogmatically believe humans were created by Society.

    If you accept Darwinism as an explanatory theory for the origin of species, then you must also accept that natural selection strongly influences behavior of species, including primates. And if you accept natural selection influences behavior of primates, you must accept it influences human behavior. This does not validate any particular finding of EP, but it does strongly suggest we need to understand how we act through the lens of natural selection. Dress it up however you want, but saying otherwise relegates you to the intellectual level of creationists.

  27. The mind is what the brain does. If the brain is a product of evolution then so is the mind.

    You can pull out one example like a preference for pink which seems silly and is probably culturally motivated but that doesn’t invalidate the entire exercise. Humans became the way they are somehow. If you examine this process scientifically that means naturalistic explanations.

    If all human behavior is biologically driven, including culture then it is understandable. Even if it is a highly complex emergent phenomena.

  28. There are certain points of view, schools of thought, that really hate the idea of any human behavior being hard-wired, and it is my opinion that this is what is really at the root at a lot of objections to evolutionary psychology. Just because you can use it to make claims that aren’t in fact ‘scientific’, doesn’t mean that it lacks value as way to try and better understand human behavior. Our behavior has obviously been shaped by evolution. Obviously.

  29. HA! CT and EP are much more nuanced overall than this article suggests. Read Steven Pinker’s ‘How the Mind Works’ and Douglas Hofstadter’s ‘Godel Escher and Bach’ and Bloom’s ‘The Lucifer Principle’ then come back and look at these supposed beliefs of CT, EP, and AI researchers. This field is much deeper, nuanced, and subtle than this article suggests. Sure there will always be quacks in any field, but don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. There is so much to these fields to learn; it helps to be more charitable in the beginning to aid understanding. Stil, Pinker is just as guilty when he says the Social ‘Sciences’ are more concerned with politics than science, exclusively. He says in summary, even if science discovers some probable ‘truth’ about nature, it has to pass through the PC litmus test. Do feminists, LGBTs, ethnic minorities, and postmodern deconstructionsts approve? No? Then it MUST be quackery! Pinker just stereotypes the whole social science field as nothing more than a politically motivated field. Obviously that isn’t entirely true either is it?

  30. Can’t you do better than argue:
    a. EP must be wrong because of a couple of examples of disproven or weak hypothesizes?
    b. EP must be wrong because I don’t like the implications

    really, if that’s the best that an opponent can do then it looks more like a strong case for EP.

  31. I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with the concept of evolutionary psychology. The problem is that currently there is no “fossil record” or equivalent to verify the various speculative claims being made.
    In physical evolution, one can trace the various forms back thru the fossil record and discover that things that look related in modern animals, such as the eyes of people and the eyes of spiders, can actually be completely unrelated.
    So, until a data set that is equivalent to the fossil record for physical evolution is found, evolutionary psychology will remain simply an area for whimsical speculation.

  32. The commingled cognitive dissonance and unintentional irony in your last sentence is pretty telling, Ms James.

    I suspect you’ve picked your side a long time ago, in opposition to a mindset that pretty well hasn’t existed in two decades. Please read the link at #25, and keep a vaguely open mind?

  33. This is a woefully ill-informed piece and my guess is the author is far more steeped in ideologically driven critiques of EP than source materials. On hysteria and reaction, I’d strongly recommend Ullica Segestrale’s “Defenders of the Truth: The Sociobiological Debate.” Segestrale conducted ongoing interviews with all the main proponents on both sides of the sociobiology debate commencing from shortly after publication of the book that started it all, Wilson’s “Sociobiology,” and continuing for a couple decades. It’s a fascinating and brilliant study of science as a sociological phenomenon; I think it shows pretty clearly that the most vociferous and leading opponents of the field (Kamin, Rose, Lewontin, Gould) had strong Marxist backgrounds that profoundly predisposed them to oppose anything smacking of the notion that economic forces alone are all important and that these are working their will on a species (us) that cannot as an ideological matter have any inherent predispositions that could throw a monkey wrench into historical inevitability. Wilson’s “Naturalist” is also worth reading on the subject, as is Pinker’s “The Blank Slate,” already suggested above by others. See also, Cosmides and Toomy, “Evolutionary Psycholgoy: A Primer,” accessible online, and especially Dawkins, “The Selfish Gene,” “The Blind Watchmaker,” and “The Extended Phenotype.” The Dawkins books are a must if you’d like to see how egregiously the anti-EP crowd mischaracterize their opponents. I’d also suggest Alcock’s, “The Triumph of Sociobiology,” showing how sociobiology has utterly and non-controversially triumphed as the paradigm for understanding and studying the behavior of ever species except one: us. The critics of the field as applied to humans strike me as exceptionalists–we, humans, are different from every other species. They generally seem to come at the issue from a strong ideological stance and, it sure seems to me, the underlying ideology is usually one that’s largely inconsistent with much beyond a blank-slate view of humanity. A tendency to engage in straw-man argument seems endemic in the anti-sociobiological/EP milieu, and that’s usually a sign of ulterior motives and end-justifies-any-means ideological fervor. I’ve only read the first two recommended books of the four suggested at the end of the post. I’d only note that neither of the authors are biologists and both books struck me as poorly reasoned, tendentious, and unconvincing. That’s too bad, because well reasoned criticism of any scientific discipline is a good thing. Regardless, it’s disappointing to read a short, manifestly uninformed screed like the above; and it’s a bit disheartening to suspect, as seems pretty clear, that the primary thrust of that screed is an attempt to strongly predispose others to view EP with a knee-jerk, uninformed, and ideologically based antipathy.

  34. EP enables psychologists to associate disgust with moral judgment. And they tested the hypotheses and provided evidence. As you may know, it not likely for non-EP scholars to associate disgust with moral judgment. EP is not a sub-discipline of psychology, but a framework for understanding human minds. As Moriaty pointed out, “Why isn’t it a good idea to look at psychology from an evolutionary perspective?” Why didn’t you answer this question? By the way, we can find genes related to sex, just as we can find genes related to cognitive function.

  35. Why this dichotomy between “hard” and “soft” sciences. Is this some kind of gendering, ie: soft sciences like sociology or psychology are for girls or girlie men or soft brains or people who should not be taken so seriously while hard sciences like geology or physics are more manly or serious thinkers?

    Can’t the difference be quantified another way? Like “the measure of static systems” versus “the measure of complex systems”? Would Economics be a hard science or a soft science? What about meteorology? Can anyone determine what exactly will be the weather tomorrow or what the stock indexes will do tomorrow?

  36. Please don’t lump sociobiology in with EP. Its a completely legitimate sub-field of evolutionary biology. Indeed, as many commenters have stated, it is the practitioners of EP that are suspect, not the fundamental idea (that human behaviour can be understood using the methods of evolutionary biology).

    “One key problem with EP is that if you are studying evolution, you need evidence of the process. If you are studying evolution of the brain, you need brains from the past.”

    The toolkit of evolutionary biology is equipped to deal with this issue. For many, many years now, biologists have used the comparative method (comparing sister-taxa with the taxa of interest) to infer the ancestral state(s) of a given trait. This approach is applicable to any type of trait, from gene expression to behaviour. In the context of understanding human behaviour, chimps and other great apes are often used as comparisons (although the taxa could be more distantly related, depending on the question).

    Obviously it is an imperfect approach, but a great deal of work has gone into making it as rigorous and reliable as possible. Combined with other approaches (palentological, population genetic, genomic, neurobiological, etc.), it allows for powerful inference.

    Another fundamental fact is that a great deal of brain structure and neurochemistry (with some obvious exceptions, e.g. the neocortex) evolved prior to the evolution of the hominid lineage. Hence, we can learn something very real about human behaviour by studying even distant relatives.

    There are many professional zoologists studying the evolution of social behaviour in animals who can’t even use the word ‘sociobiology’ in their talks because of the venomous attitude people have towards it, mostly because of its association with EP-esque reasoning and just-so stories. Those ideas are NOT what constitutes sociobiology today. There is no need to perpetuate this! For a glance at what sociobiologists do, take a look at the journals “Behavioural Ecology” and “Behavioural Ecology and Sociobiology”.

  37. This article is like saying “Leni Riefenstahl made Nazi propaganda, therefore filmmaking is evil.” Or, “John Brinkley transplanted goat testicles into humans, therefore medicine is wrong.”

    I’ll just respond to the “often-believed tenets of evolutionary psychologists” (without attribution or citation there’s no context, so my responses can only be general).

    Claim (what evolutionary psychologists/biologists(?) supposedly think): Computational mind (the brain is more like a computer than a biological organ)

    In fact, anyone who seriously studies the brain knows that it’s vastly different from a computer, and vastly more complex. Computers as we know them are: digital, sequential, linear; brains are analog, simultaneous, reticulate – and so on.

    Claim (what evolutionary psychologists/biologists(?) supposedly think): Determinism (biology is destiny)

    First, at the very beginning of a basic genetics class, you learn that the phenotype (traits of the individual) is produced through an interaction between genetics and the environment. That is, biology only explains part — often a small part — of the variation among individuals. Environment, including social factors, education, etc., is often more important than genetics. But if genetics explains only a small part of variation among individuals, it can still be important for evolution.

    Second, even when differences among groups are significant, that tells us nothing whatsoever that’s useful concerning individuals. That’s both a biological and a statistical fact.

    Claim (what evolutionary psychologists/biologists(?) supposedly think): Fatalism (free will/choice is an illusion)

    There are too many undefined terms here for this to be a scientifically useful claim; it’s more of a philosophical issue.

    Claim (what evolutionary psychologists/biologists(?) supposedly think): Consciousness (subjective awareness deludes us into thinking we have free will)

    This is just a reformulation of the preceding claim.

    Claim (what evolutionary psychologists/biologists(?) supposedly think): Reductionism or essentialism (race and gender are concrete, not socially constructed, can be reduced to their genetic essence, and are quantifiable)

    Though you might find evolutionary biologists or evolutionary psychologists who make these claims, they are not the prevalent views among biologists. Biologists generally don’t think of “race” as a meaningful concept for humans. Likewise, “gender” is a social concept. “Sex” only means whether the individual makes eggs, sperm, or both.

    Claim (what evolutionary psychologists/biologists(?) supposedly think): Intelligence is definable and measurable.

    No. I can’t speak for psychologists, but for biologists, “intelligence” is too vague. Some narrowly defined specific skills can be quantified but, even then, any measurement would be highly context-dependent and hard to generalize.

    Claim (what evolutionary psychologists/biologists(?) supposedly think): Sexual selection should focus on benefits for the individual organism.

    “Should?” Do you mean “studies of sexual selection” should… ? Otherwise, “should” isn’t meaningful here. But since you don’t define sexual selection here, I’ll assume you’re using the phrase correctly. In that case, I’m not sure what your point is. Of course, natural selection usually acts on what’s good for the individual, not for the species — the vast majority of species that have ever lived are extinct, and all the ones now living will be extinct eventually.

    Sexual selection usually refers to things such as the evolution of display characteristics to impress the other sex. Because females in many species choose to accept or reject particular males as mates, sexual selection often refers to traits such as peacock’s tails, racks of antlers on deer, elk, etc. In this context, sexual selection can favor the evolution of traits in males that are disadvantageous (to the individual) to overall survival, but advantageous to reproduction. These traits allow females to choose “better” (healthier, or more desirable) males. Switch “males” and “females” around in the previous statements, depending on which sex gets to be choosy, and which sex must impress the other.

    Claim (what evolutionary psychologists/biologists(?) supposedly think): The “function” or “purpose” of life is to make more life.

    This is another philosophical issue. Biology doesn’t deal with overall “purpose” in that sense. Evolution favors those individuals that have traits that enhance their reproductive success relative to other individuals in the population; the frequency of those traits increases in the population, until selective pressures change. That’s not a statement of “purpose” or “value”, it’s just what happens. Whether it’s good, bad, useful or not, etc., is a philosophical question and a value judgment.

    Claim (what evolutionary psychologists/biologists(?) supposedly think): The __ gene: The gay gene, the god gene, etc.

    Nonsense. This is the sort of rubbish you find in the popular media and in books aimed for the best-seller market. First, most traits are influenced by more than one gene, second, most genes influence more than one trait and, third, gene expression occurs through interaction with the environment. Sexual orientation may well be influenced by biology, and our neurological structures may tend to try to make sense of the world and to look for cause-effect relationships, but the _____ gene stuff is the pop-science, cartoon version.

    So, no. These claims are straw men. They’re oversimplifications and misrepresentations of what evolutionary psychology is about.

  38. What struck me most about this rather ill-informed article is that in the evolutionary psychology books I’ve ready, pretty much all of the “often-believed tenets of evolutionary psychologists” are argued against, de-emphasised or demolished.

    How about giving *us* some evidence of *your* processes? Who are these evolutionary psychologists who defend these tenets without reservation? Let’s say three prominent names per tenet, with supporting quotations and sources, and you may use the same name more than once.



  39. One of the things that is worth remembering in any discussion of “evolutionary psychology” is that the first word refers to a sub-discipline in biology — evolutionary biology. For some reason that has never been clear to me as an evolutionary biologist, quite often self-styled “evolutionary psychologists” don’t seem to have any actual biological training whatsoever. I get the feeling that they read a couple of popular works by Dawkins and then think they are qualified to spew evolutionary scenarios.

  40. This article is just straw men and red herrings. Don’t discard an entire field based on a few anecdotes. How about commenting on Darwin’s chapter on instinct in The Origin of Species? (Read the rest of the book for context.) Then you might consider Darwin’s book The Expression of Emotions in Animals and in Man.

    About that list of things that evolutionary psychologists supposedly think — no, they don’t. Even if you could dredge up an anecdote or two, most of those directly contradict fundamental ideas in evolutionary biology. The other ones are philosophical questions, not biological (e.g., the “purpose” of life).

  41. Am I misunderstanding something about evolutionary theory? It seems as though Andrea James is saying that the concept borrowed from evolutionary biology is that the end result of the expression of genes are deterministic, whereas I have the impression that the end result of the expression of genes are probabilistic.

    In the developmental stage, there is a map of proteins to be produced certainly, but environmental factors can alter the gene expression. One example may be the theory that the effects of endocrine disruptors are found in the histories of a large percentage transsexuals. From what I understand, the environmental effects on gene expression will not be passed on genetically but could still be passed perhaps socially. Nor are endocrine disruptors an indicator of the “strategies” that an individual may employ since, removing social factors, a person can just as easily identify as a different predefined gender as they can decide to claim and redefine their socially originated gender.

    Furthermore, even under the probabilistically anticipated environment, there are theories such as the “stress diathesis” model that suggest that a number of genetic variants, such as the variant of a dopamine-processing gene known as DRD4 that is considered an ADHD risk allele, make it so one person may, for example, produce less dopamine under any circumstance than another, whether the result was good or bad for that person’s ability to prosper. This variant is found in an incredibly high number of people, in about 1 out of 5 people. What would remain in the deterministic equation would be the individual’s initial environment, and then we can finally get to the position of ultimately asking the question of what does the individual decide as the best strategy for expressing this minority difference. Then we can talk about plasticity. A recent article in the Atlantic Monthly explains an even more recent hypothesis, called the Orchid Hypothesis, that this extremely prevalent risk allele, and others like it, have remained within the gene pool because they are beneficial to human adaptability.

    Are these types of theories somehow different from evolutionary psychology? They don’t seem to reinforce politically unpopular ideas about race, gender, or sexuality, and yet contain elements of determinism and essentialism within a probabilistic context.

    1. I forgot to add a link for the endocrine disruptor paragraph. It is for an article on Trans-Health.com, “The online magazine of health and fitness for transsexual and transgendered people”. It seemed like that paragraph got moderated for a moment so allow me to add that … A) I don’t imagine its accurate that all transgendered people originate from intersex development from endocrine disruptors, B) I also don’t imagine it’s accurate that intersex development automatically induces a person to transition.

  42. To unilaterally attack Evolutionary Psychology is to deny that there is any part of human behaviour that is the result of evolution. This is the only claim that EP makes as a field and to go against this basic tenet goes against the oceans of evidence from genetics, neuroscience, psychology, ethology, etc. It is such a shallow understanding of evolution to claim that our limbs have been subjected to evolution, but not our neurology and behaviour. This book must be completely naïve of the great work accomplished in this field over the past 30 years. What does The Adapted Mind establish in its opening pages? Arguments against the tired straw-man claims delineated in this review and in many of the above comments: females preferring pink, the supposed link to eugenics (why isn’t all of genetics washed away by this association fallacy?), specifying ‘a’ gene for ‘a’ behaviour. I have read a lot of work by EP authors over the past few years, and NO-ONE makes these claims! E.O. Wilson, Geoffrey Miller, Donald Brown, Leda Cosmides, and David Buss: their work exposes the intricate relationships between genetics AND environment that orchestrate the basis of human behaviour. Most importantly, these researchers also empathically remind us that what is discovered through science tells us nothing of morals or how we ought to live. Rather, the discoveries of EP act as evidence of our ancestry, and at times this evidence can be quite useful in helping us overcome our genetic dispositions – not supplying us with a decree for indulging in them! What’s wrong with Evolutionary Psychology? Nothing. What is wrong with Evolutionary Psychology criticism? Among other things like poor scholarship, several millennia of an unfortunately placed anthropomorphic egocentrism residing in any one of our historical and contemporary cultures.

  43. So have all those intersting psychology books recommended to me by Boing Boing (Stumbling on Happiness and How We Decide for example) just been a bunch of anti-science who-haa? Seemed like they were backed up by a lot of research to me. This seems to me like attacking an entire field for a few bad apples (which pretty much any scientific field has)

  44. “It’s more of a philosophy of science applied to human traits and behaviors.”

    Because applying a rigorous method of hypothesis and testing (science) to the study of human behavior is bad… how?

    Thank you BoingBoingers for pointing out the straw-man attack on EP.

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