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:

  • Computational mind (the brain is more like a computer than a biological organ)
  • Determinism (biology is destiny)
  • Fatalism (free will/choice is an illusion)
  • Consciousness (subjective awareness deludes us into thinking we have free will)
  • Reductionism or essentialism (race and gender are concrete, not socially constructed, can be reduced to their genetic essence, and are quantifiable)
  • Intelligence is definable and measurable
  • Sexual selection should focus on benefits for the individual organism
  • The "function" or "purpose" of life is to make more life
  • The __ gene: The gay gene, the god gene, etc.

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: