Is evolutionary psychology not getting a fair shake?

I am not a scientist, but I am a fan of calm, rational scientific debate. One of my favorite bloggers, Rebecca Watson, has been one of many voices critical of the field of ‘evolutionary psychology’.

Until recently, I simply accepted it as a failed science. Now I’m back on the fence, largely leaning the other direction. UCLA graduate student, Ed Clint also appears to be a fan of Rebecca Watson. However, he is much more of an expert in this particular topic, as he has experience in the field. He recently penned an eye-opening rebuttal to a recent speech of Watson’s. It’s a must-read.

I’m reminded of the devastating articles Richard Carrier penned about his colleague Bart Erhman’s latest book (on the subject of the historicity of Jesus as an actual person). Carrier utterly convinced me, but he has a few quirks such as making lengthy lists, presented in reverse order of importance.

With Ed Clint’s take down of Watson’s speech, it is clear that he was not attacking her with ad hom or other nastiness that often accompanies criticism lobbed her way. He did not write with malice. In fact he seems to regard her as somewhat of an inspiration to his involvement in activism. Clint provided this snapshot from Skepticon III with his Secular Student Alliance chapter beaming as they stand with Rebecca Watson.

Rebecca Watson and Ed Clint at SK3


This was a breath of fresh air:

My aim here is not to attack Watson, but to challenge a few of her unnuanced views about science and skepticism with which I happen to have professional experience. If she wishes to produce a sound, more sophisticated criticism of evolutionary psychology (entirely reasonable to do) then I would call this a success. Moreover, motive is ultimately irrelevant to the validity of my criticisms here. They stand or fall on the evidence alone. I am sure that anyone experienced in skepticism knows this quite well.

He even points to a few examples where they agree evolutionary psych seems to have gotten it wrong. Clint argues that these are outliers, and are largely discredited within the field. I don’t expect Watson to be able to rebuff the piece. It’s not her field. I suppose that’s kind of Clint’s point. Perhaps somebody with more training could reply in the negative.

If there really is an undeserved bad rep for EP in the press / blogosphere, perhaps Watson should dial it back on this particular angle. Ed even completely agrees with Watson’s take on the dangers of stereotyping, he just argues that it has nothing to do with evolutionary psychology.

Lastly, Watson notes a Stanford social psychology study which shows that “stereotype threat” can be a powerful force in demotivating people. I couldn’t agree more. I have often argued for 50% female representation at secularist and skeptical events for this exact reason, even knowing that it is likely that fewer than 50% of available speakers at any one time are female. I am not sure what this point has to do with evolutionary psychology, however. I’m familiar with no research or researcher who maintains that stereotypes aren’t capable of being very harmful to society.

Go read it, it’s pretty compelling stuff. You can still be a supporter of Rebecca Watson and disagree with her on something. At least I hope so!

FYI – I’m still on an extended hiatus regarding activism. Sorry, everyone! Will be back as soon as possible.

PS – Please take care not to derail into elevator-gate discussion. I support Rebecca Watson on many issues, and I think she’s a great writer. If you don’t, please keep it to yourself. Stay on the topic of evolutionary psychology. In fact, you should probably just comment at Ed Clint’s place. If it gets out of hand here, I’m shutting it down. I hope you understand (been burned before!)

Welcome: calm rational dialog, and on topic. Not welcome: everything else.

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  • lippard

    My impression of the Ehrman-Carrier debate is a bit different. While I think Carrier often did a better job of critiquing than Ehrman did of responding, Ehrman’s case against mythicism in his book still seems much better to me than any mythicist case so far. This ten-part analysis of the Carrier-Ehrman exchange also shows, I think, that many of Carrier’s criticisms are relatively minor, and some are in error.

  • Miriam, Professional Fun-Ruiner

    I believe Rebecca’s point in bringing up stereotype threat was to show that constantly repeating stereotypes about women via evopsych studies and their accompanying write-ups in the media actually has negative effects. Some people dismiss the studies Rebecca criticized as clearly idiotic (women love to shop because they were gatherers? Really?), but she’s saying that women really are negatively affected by living in a world so saturated with stereotypes about them.

    Obviously, that point is arguable; I’m just pointing out that I think that’s why she included that bit.

    • Justin Griffith

      Oh I totally agree that’s why she likely added it in there. But Clint’s take is that nobody in the evopsych field stands by the things that Rebecca Watson claims they do.

      Ed’s example of a person arguing against the entire field of biology by cherry-picking Michael Behe / Collins is extremely apt. The only difference is that most of the media attention that evopsych generates is based on the sensationalized stuff generated by its pariahs. That’s probably why I fell for the dismissive approach initially.

      It seems that Watson’s arguments would be a lot stronger if she just said “And this study is heavily criticized within the field of evopsych. The stupid media takes it and runs with it!… The guy got fired over this bunk…” etc.

  • cethis

    My problem with Ed Clint’s post is that it equates anti-evolutionary psychology with anti-science. It is not a widely accepted branch of psychological research, and there are scientists who criticize it. Plus it is stretching it to equate speaking about the group’s beliefs with believing in conspiracy theories, which is what Clint does early in the post.

    It not have been Ed’s intent, but I think the take away message from his post is, “Rebecca Watson is anti-science.” I’ve met Rebecca, and I’ve read her works for years. She is pro-science. Could she be wrong about Evolutionary Psychology? Of course, but that doesn’t mean she is anti-science.

    • Justin Griffith

      My problem with Ed Clint’s post is that it equates anti-evolutionary psychology with anti-science. It is not a widely accepted branch of psychological research, and there are scientists who criticize it.

      Is Clint’s example of virtually every college textbook on psychology having a chapter on evopsych not evidence that it’s widely accepted? I don’t know if this point is even accurate, which is why I am looking forward to a rebuttal from someone scientifically inclined.

      I think that Ed Clint focuses on Rebecca’s approach to being anti-evolutionary psychology as unscientific. 25 specific instances, even. He more than welcomes science-based criticism of evopsych (in fact at the end he himself claims to be publishing a peer-reviewed article that is highly critical of a particular accepted part of evopsych theory.)

      Plus it is stretching it to equate speaking about the group’s beliefs with believing in conspiracy theories, which is what Clint does early in the post.

      I agree this is a bit of stretching, but it’s in line with the denialism angle he was going with. I don’t think Rebecca had thought this all the way through, and was simply wrong. Even Ed seems to agree that this is a point he views as arguable (in the comments at his post).

      “It not have been Ed’s intent, but I think the take away message from his post is, “Rebecca Watson is anti-science.” I’ve met Rebecca, and I’ve read her works for years. She is pro-science. Could she be wrong about Evolutionary Psychology? Of course, but that doesn’t mean she is anti-science.”

      I definitely don’t think that it was Ed’s intent, and I didn’t walk away with that. Clint appears to be worried that one of his (for lack of a better word) heroes is completely wrong about one particular science.

      • Kate Donovan

        As a double psych major at a university known for its psych research, I’d like to note that all the classes I’ve taken wherein evo-psych cropped up in the textbook we skipped it or discussed the problems it has with falsifiability.

        Furthermore, I enjoyed Rebecca’s talk in that it covered multiple studies that are presented unquestioningly in textbooks (most especially the men vs. women and casual sex) and the problems with them. It’s all nice and good to talk about “all these textbooks have it!”, but actually that’s ducking how professors are responding to that.

    • Marcus Ranum

      it equates anti-evolutionary psychology with anti-science

      That’s not how it’s coming across to me (I’m midway through it) – he’s making an argument that many of the arguments Watson can be equated to typical anti-science arguments. Where I get lost in the weeds is that the accusation one is making ‘typical’ anti-science arguments can always be flicked away with a variation of “no true scotsman.”

      I do have to admit I chortled a bit at the way he dispatched Greg Laden. That, alone, was worth the price of admission.

  • Zazen

    Ed’s point (as i have interpreted it) is not that watson’s conclusions may be incorrect. Rather that her presentation on the subject was a non presentation, void of any knowledge of the subject matter and further completely misrepresented the field to the gathered audience.

  • Rodney Nelson

    Much of evopsych appears to be Just So Stories. The name comes from a children’s book written about a hundred years ago by Rudyard Kipling which has the theme of a particular animal being modified from its original form to its current form by the acts of man or some magical being. For example, the whale has a tiny throat because it swallowed a sailor who tied a raft inside to block the whale from swallowing other people. The kangaroo got its powerful hind legs, long tail and hopping gait after being chased all day by a dingo sent by a god responding to the kangaroo’s request to be made different from all other animals.

    Many evpsych people look at some type of human behavior and come up with a plausible-sounding story about how it happened. To make a typical evolutionary psychological claim about the origins of something is to assume, among other things, that the thing in question is an adaptation, that its suggested origin was the primary driver of selection pressure for the adaptation’s evolution, that a genetic path existed to the adaptation and there was enough genetic variation to make it possible. These claims are almost impossible to verify or falsify.

    • Justin Griffith

      I believe if you read the article, you’ll find that this was dealt with. It was also #9 on the list of 25 instances Clint found to be unscientific.

      “It is unclear to whom “tons of scientists” refers. The only one named is Stephen Jay Gould who used the term “just so stories”, 33 years ago, which is no longer considered salient criticism by itself on the grounds of being trite and banal.

      Scholarly rebuttals to Gould’s criticism can be read here and here.”

      There are also testable hypothesis, and they were spelled out. They were overwhelmingly well-sourced and documented in an addendum. You could argue that a particular paper, or concept may be guilty of ‘just-so’. Telling people that the entire field is untestable (in the face of evidence to the contrary) seems overly dismissive.

      • lippard

        Perhaps so, but there are such critiques from philosophers of science (about “just so” stories). See section 4 of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on evolutionary psychology:

        • Justin Griffith

          I enjoyed that, thanks!

          Clint briefly deals with some of the arguments quoted in that Stanford entry (particularly Sober and Buller) and gives links to more in-depth rebuttals. It seems like he’s use to hearing this sort of argument, and works hard to preempt it. I may be off here, but I think the Stanford article might be splitting hairs over how to define what particular thing is a by-product of evolution (and not some other cause):

          “But again, I think that the disagreement here is over what counts as an adaptation. Buller does not deny that adaptations— traits that arise as a product of natural selection—arise from all kinds of unstable environments. What he denies is that organ-like, special purpose adaptations are the likely result of such evolutionary scenarios. This discussion is ongoing.”

          What about goosebumps? Fear of the dark? Fear of spiders? Fear in general? It’s clearly an evolved trait, and goosebumps are a vestigial organ, no? Stanford seems to be ‘waiting for evopsych to get better’ not calling it ‘forever useless’.

          It seems that some people are getting hung up on (some of) the gender-based concepts of evopsych (including red herrings that are hated within the field itself), when there are plenty of other concepts that they are likely to accept outright. Once again, I’m a layman, and encourage back and forth and citations such as the one you gave.

      • Rodney Nelson

        I’ve read the two articles Clint linked to. One is about sociobiology, a precursor of modern evopsych which almost nobody subscribes to now, and the other takes exception to Gould’s spandrel hypothesis. As for Clint’s rejection of the Just So Stories, “nuh-uh” is not a compelling rebuttal.

        Evopysch has a reasonable basis. It has the potential to become a respectable field of study. However SOME evopsych proponents are trying too hard to push it. Satoshi Kanazawa is a prime example, like when he declared his bigotry against black women to be a universal constant.

      • Marcus Ranum

        The argument made is that Kanazawa is not a prime example. That he’s an embarrassing outlier.

        • Justin Griffith

          I know. He’s a prime example of a red herring. I’m using the term in the ‘mystery fiction’ sense:

          “a clue or lead that turns out not to be relevant to the solution of the mystery would also be a red herring.”

          We are on the same page.

  • Pingback: Is evolutionary psychology not getting a fair shake? | Rock Beyond … « About Psychology

  • Mandamus

    Rebecca Watson has a B.S. in Communications. How does this translate in any way to any kind of authority to speak on evolutionary psychology?

    • Justin Griffith

      I believe she is communicating as a ‘spokesperson for science and skeptical thought’ based on years of experience in front of large crowds. Also helpful is the B.S. in Communications.

      However, I think she may have gotten this particular thing wrong. It happens. I was (potentially) wrong right along with her.

  • Gretchen

    Rebecca Watson has a B.S. in Communications. How does this translate in any way to any kind of authority to speak on evolutionary psychology?

    It seems to me that knowing about evolutionary psychology translates to having authority to speak on evolutionary psychology. If what she says is true, then she apparently knows about it. If what she says isn’t, then she apparently doesn’t. So how about addressing the content of what is said rather than the person saying it?

    • Mandamus

      I can read the wiki too. does that give me the authority to speak on the subject? or any subject? I know you think that that was an ad hominem, but there’s got to be standards. Some inkling that she isn’t just speculating or repeating something she read somewhere.

      • Gretchen

        I can read the wiki too. does that give me the authority to speak on the subject? or any subject?

        Yes. If what you read on the wiki is true, and you have valid points to make based on it? Yes.

        Are you seriously suggesting, however, that the entirety of Rebecca Watson’s understanding of evolutionary psychology could be gleaned from Wikipedia, simply because she doesn’t have a science degree? Because that’s daft.

        but there’s got to be standards. Some inkling that she isn’t just speculating or repeating something she read somewhere.

        Yeah, it’s called a) truth and b) comprehension. I know that looking for these things is a little more challenging than simply noting whether the person speaking has a degree or not, but it’s also a lot more accurate and relevant.

      • Justin Griffith

        Actually, I read the wiki. Frankly, I don’t think she has (or she has, and disregarded it for some reason). It’s pretty compelling. Complex issues are explained, and it does not remotely boil down to “therefore women like to shop… women are lesser creatures… etc.”

        I don’t think she ever claimed to be a scientist. She claimed to be a communicator of science and skepticism. Perhaps she gets some of it wrong (I think an extremely compelling case has been made in this instance), but she is qualified to communicate to large audiences, therefore requiring only a wikipedia-level understanding (or better) on a subject. As long as she gets it right.

        I know you think that that was an ad hominem, but there’s got to be standards.

        That wasn’t ad hom, I just think it’s couching the situation somewhat unfairly. She’s not a scientist, she’s a blogger, a professional communicator. She may need to communicate more accurate science, but she’s arguably good at the communication piece. To my knowledge, this is the first scholarly critique of her speech. Maybe it will have a positive effect (as Ed Clint hopes!)

      • F [disappearing]

        You know, you are simply and only pushing a logical fallacy here: The argument from authority.

    • Bert Russell

      Excuse me, but I saw a falsehood, and I wanted to correct it. Arguments from authority are not a category of logical fallacy. Arguments from authority are an inductive-reasoning arguments that take the form of a statistical syllogism. Yes, arguments from authority can be applied fallaciously when either the authority in question is not a subject-matter expert, or there is no consensus among experts in the subject matter, or both, but that does not make the argument a fallacy.

  • jjramsey

    My impression is that there’s a big gap between what the popular media says about evolutionary psychology and the actual scientific practice of it. Watson apparently underestimated this gap and designed her talk accordingly.

    • Marcus Ranum

      I agree that the popular media have certainly been carrying one story about EP, but there are also popular science writers like Steven Pinker who have been defending it fairly effectively. I highly recommend his book, “The Blank Slate” it’s a good introduction to just how thorny this topic is. Until I read it, I hadn’t conceptualized “just so stories” as a shot in the “nature -VS- nurture” debate, but that’s basically what we’re talking about.

  • edwardclint

    Hello Mr. Griffith,

    Thank you for the delightful write-up, and your fairness regarding a topic you have previously had an unfavorable opinion of. Also, as a veteran, I appreciate everything you do for the foxhole atheists out there.

    I will try to speak to a few points made here briefly, though you largely have gotten it right in your replies.

    *** Is being anti-evol psych being anti-science?

    I used commonly-cited criteria for denialism for the reason that it reduces the subjectivity factor. I made my case for why Watson’s talk was denialist which goes well beyond disagreement with a research program’s basis or prospects. It is not the case that everyone who sharply criticizes evolutionary psychology is a denialist. Elliott Sober is a philosopher I quoted who has strongly criticized EP. He’s also a co-author on my paper. We have had extensive discussion on these matters =)

    I did not say and do not think that Watson is “anti-science”. She’s very pro-science almost all of the time. But this is the nature of denialism, well described by Hoofnagle and Cook- it’s when a person’s views are heavily distorted by some ideological point that only affects a narrow set of particular beliefs. For example, most of Watson’s criticisms would apply to stock evolutionary biology. Why, then, is she not attacking biologists for claiming to know conditions of the distant past when it comes to features of animal minds, or bodies, for that matter? I believe the answer is that she does not perceive her ideological view to be threatened by biology.

    *** Is evolutionary psychology legitimate?

    The foundation of the approach is very hard to disagree with. Tell me which you believe to be incorrect:

    1. Organs are complex functional adaptations, results of selection processes

    2. The brain is an organ

    3. Therefore, we can understand it in terms of the past, just as we do for every part of the body in humans and in all other life forms on earth. (Note that understanding the history of a feature is not the same as saying any observable trait is adaptive or was. Red blood cells are not red because redness was selected for. Hemoglobin is simply a good oxygen transporter, and happens to be red. We still need to understand all this to explain the redness.)

    In a nutshell, that is all one need accept. Now then, there is the matter of how this is done. Here, there is plenty of room for debate! If you noticed, the FAQ I linked at the end (at the Center for Evolutionary Psychology) lists 6 significant challenges in evolutionary psychology which I generally agree to, see

    I’m glad to see some good discussion. Thanks again.

  • chrisho-stuart

    Justin, if this is too far off-topic, feel free to delete.

    I saw this also, and was impressed and am really hoping it will be constructively engaged.

    [JG edit: big brother deletion - FWIW, I dug around, then agreed with your statement, but you were right to assume I don't want the redacted portion here.]

    I do support without reservation your hopes that the substantive aspects of the critique get recognized and addressed.

  • jose

    I’m reading the “25 false of misleading claims made by Watson”. The complaints in the article are more or less what evolutionary psychologists say to defend themselves against accusations from other scientists. I don’t see anything very different here. Usual stuff. This tells me Watson portrayed the evo-psych mainstream criticisms accurately, and that Clint would have written the same post if someone with a PhD in psychology had given a talk about the supposed evolution of shopping.

    There is one point I particularly agree on:

    EP’s claim “stuff written into our genes. They never tell us which genes”

    His response:

    “The implication that gene(s) must be identified before an adaptation is demonstrated is specious.”

    Sure, you can have statistical studies to prove something is inherited rather than learned. Too bad, evolutionary psychologists don’t do that, either. They usually don’t bother controlling for variables. They didn’t in this shoppping evolution study. And worst of all, they consistently, and generally, get the concept of heritability wrong. They consistently confuse heritability with inheritance. Big mistake repeated over and over and widespread among evopsych technical literature.

    The quote he uses talks about the eye. What he doesn’t tell you is that we obviously know the eye is an inherited trait, whereas most of the claims evotionary psychologists make are not obvious at all whether they’re inherited or not. Sorry, you don’t get to say “the eye is an adaptation, therefore shopping trends are a result of genetics”. No.

    Most of the other points are in the same line.

  • WithinThisMind

    The problem is most evolutionary psychology does the ‘start with a conclusion and then find evidence to justify it’ thing instead of ‘look at the evidence and see what conclusions can be drawn’ thing.

    • Justin Griffith

      I believe Ed addressed this too:

      “At 15:41 Watson derisively explained her view of the method of evolutionary psychology as picking a behavior, assuming it is evolved, and then find “anything” in the past that might be relevant to it. Setting aside the inaccuracy of her summary, she seemed to be balking that such an hypothesis is just totally made up. Yes, Ms. Watson, it is. That is how science works. It is not known what the answers are before starting, so a researcher makes as good a guess as they can and then tests it.”

      I think it’s a fair response.

      • jose

        No, it isn’t. Science is not making up whatever and then sticking to that idea and spend the rest of your career arguing with critics. If there are many possible explanations for a certain phenomenom you’re studying, you have to account for other variables, possible explanations, and explain why your particular idea suits the data better than others, or alternatively find new data that fits better in your own explanation than in alternative ones. You will find these goals in any serious study about evolution, no matter the field.

        Compare that with what this study about shopping and evolution did.

        • Justin Griffith

          Science is not making up whatever and then sticking to that idea and spend the rest of your career arguing with critics.

          You’re saying that the American Psychological Association is making things up and sticking to their ideas for their entire careers? That’s precisely the type of conspiracy talk that is characteristic of science denialism.

          That’s an organization representing 137,000 scientists, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. They’re just spending the rest of their careers arguing with critics? That’s in line with 9/11 truther-styled denialism.

          Compare that with what this study about shopping and evolution did.

          I believe this study was discredited within the field of evolutionary psychology.

      • jose

        No, what I am saying is that people who publish these sorts of studies with poor methods and a faulty knowledge of statistical concepts don’t publish corrections and usually just either ignore or dismiss claims critics make, like the guy below did.

        The article you link is a review, and imho it is more favorable than it should. For example, it says: “The logic of hypothesis testing in evolutionary psychology is the same as hypothesis testing in all sciences. The researcher first formulates a hypothesis about an evolved psychological mechanism and then generates testable predictions about the attributes or design features of that mechanism that have not previously been discovered or documented.” Not true in many cases, like the one we’re talking about in this thread.

        There was this popular study about human estrus. They told about 20 lap dancers to keep note of how much tip money they made in relation to their periods. They found they made more money during the theorized estrus time. From this alone they concluded female estrus is a reality. They did not control for any other possible explanation or factor playing a role. Even factors they recognize: They didn’t take into account the fact that the dancers were aware the researchers were looking for a relationship between periods and tips. Could have this influenced the result? We don’t know, because this wasn’t controlled (“control group”, standard practice in every field except for evolutionary psychology). They just assert they don’t believe this biased the results. Why not? They can’t justify it because their statistical study doesn’t account for this. Not to mention we’re drawing conclusions about the evolution of humanity off a study conducted on ~20 individuals over a few months. And no predictions.

        Sloppy studies like this one are legion. Can we have Ed Clint critique the shopping and evolution article for a change? Should be fun for him -it’s worse than the human estrus one.

    • Edward Clint

      EP’ists should consider the existing body of knowledge and they do. Just a week ago a colleague of mine was proposing a new study in an area I happen to know the literature in. I said to them, here’s what some of the findings are, and you should read papers x,y,z.., and so-in-so found this effect and so on. In turn, that person will amend their hypothesis and/or experimental design such that it is consistent with the known facts.

      So it is, that new hypotheses are creatively generated AND they are based on what is already known in the literature. Also, throughout the development of a study, its analysis and publication, peers and colleagues are constantly referred to. And they challenge every assumption they think is wrong or amiss.

      This is why the arm-chair quarterbacking from non-scientists can be so frustrating. Do you ever go to a surgeon and say hey, be careful to wash your hands.. because your patient could get an infection! That is very much how some of the criticism sounds to us.

      • JMH

        To be fair, from what I’m reading of infection rates and post-surgery complications, it’d probably be a good idea if we all reminded surgeons to remember to wash their damned hands…

        • Justin Griffith


          Yeah, but would you then proceed to explain it to him, like this?

      • F [disappearing]

        @ Justin

        I don’t know, as Reddit is currently unreachable. Regardless, I would probably end up explaining it to the surgeon and hospital in court. Is that better or worse than what Reddit says?

        • Justin Griffith

          It’s the “explain it to me like I’m 5 years old” subreddit’s article on washing your hands.

    • winged_humus

      You are simply asserting this. You are stating that professional evolutionary psychologists are ignorant of the scientific method. I find this hard to believe.

  • Bert Russell

    I recommend reading this article on evolutionary psychology from the American Psychologist, the official peer-reviewed academic journal of the American Psychological Association. It is titled “Evolutionary Psychology: Controversies, Questions, Prospects, and Limitations.”

    • Justin Griffith

      That was an extremely enlightening article. Are there qualified scientists in appropriate fields that dismiss this (scientifically)?

      It seems that the APA would be a pretty solid source on the question, “Is evolutionary psychology a legitimate field?”

      • Bert Russell

        Honestly, I couldn’t say with any confidence. I do know that I haven’t come across any scientists in related fields that dismiss evolutionary psychology as a whole, but that, I admit, is anecdotal.

  • pipenta


    This is one of the most interesting posts and discussion threads I’ve read anywhere. Thank you.

    And damn, it was civilized.

    - Pipenta (who is also a Watson fan)

  • nohellbelowus

    What I see in Rebecca Watson’s presentation is a light-hearted, feminism-based, stand-up comedy routine. In her speech being discussed here, Watson appears to be successfully mining a rich vein of material, based upon the fact that many coldly scientific explanations of human social behavior are inherently funny. Not necessarily an original idea, but neither is Watson’s feminist spin on these matters a well-trodden path.

    We laughed alongside Captain Kirk, for instance, at Mr. Spock’s pedantic and über-logical attempts to explain love and other human emotions. Why? I dunno… perhaps we should consult an evolutionary psychologist. (*Audience laughter ensues*)

    The antics of one Robin Ince, for example, are immensely humorous to me. I see no reason why Rebecca Watson shouldn’t be allowed to pursue a similar career path.

    • Justin Griffith

      I mostly agree with you, but not quite all the way. Feminism has nothing to do with whether or not evolutionary psychology is bunk. I wouldn’t watch Tom Cruise do stand up routines about the dangers of psychiatry.

      I completely concede that she should be treated with less expectations of rigorous study, and granted an amateur comedian’s artistic license . She’s a communicator / blogger / writer (including Hitch’s old gig at Slate?) If she’s going to function within the skeptical / scientific / atheist community, part of the trade off is being able to admit when wrong. She’s likely not encountered such a thorough and scholarly critique of her pet theory on EP. I believe she deserves the chance to bring her ‘routine’ more in line with actual science.

      • nohellbelowus

        Indeed. And well-stated.

  • Jonathan MS Pearce

    A good and fair post. Thanks.

    I also think it is worth noting, as some others have here, that Ed seems to be critiquing the methodology. I don’t think this is so much about EP per se, but about how to go about properly critiquing a discipline (not even a single paper, but a whole discipline). U?sing one’s position in a public speech where people can’t instantly fact-check and who don’t necessarily have a clue about EP is a little dodgy when the critiques appear to be poorly researched. Again, I am not interested as to whether those critiques hold or not in ultimate truth, but whether the evidence presented by Watson was good enough to do the job in a robust enough way for a self-proclaimed skeptic (with need, obviously, to here define skeptic).

    Anyway, long live the tradition of respectful debate and argument.

  • Bert Russell

    I thought this was both funny and apropos:

  • F [disappearing]

    Is evolutionary psychology not getting a fair shake?

    Certainly not by the loudest evolutionary psychologists.

    And you still have a hilariously weird interpretation of Carrier, so that example flies exactly nowhere.

    Good to see you posting again.

  • BenSix

    You can still be a supporter of Rebecca Watson and disagree with her on something. At least I hope so!

    I appreciate that you are trying to avoid animosity – and, given the subject, I don’t blame you – but this is not an issue on which people can have reasonable disagreements. Watson makes numerous assertions that are either wrong or right – and, indeed, they appear to be wrong.

    She explicitly states, for example, that Buss and Meston “bravely went and interviewed a thousand white, middle-class women” for Why Woman Have Sex. The implication is that they were narrow-minded and incompetent at best and downright bigoted at worst, and the laughter shows that this was appreciated. The introduction to the book is here. It states that “the women identified…as American Indian, Asian, black, white (non-Hispanic), and Latino”, and that half of their families earned below $50,000. This is, then, unless she knows something the authors didn’t say, a libellous mistruth, and the kind of thing that goes beyond the realm of opinion and must be either justified or corrected.

    • chrisho-stuart

      It’s being corrected. Rebecca has acknowledged this point. She maintains, correctly I think, that the sample is problematic — and will use a more accurate characterization to support that. Specifically: “I think I’ll note instead that the study involved 96% 18-22 year olds, all of whom were psychology students at University of Texas Austin, and among the women 27% of whom had never had sexual intercourse.”

      • BenSix

        That’s good. (And, if the point about the women’s age is true, the book does sound quite bizarre.) I hope she’ll apologise to the authors as well because had her claim been true it would have cast a poor reflection on them both as researchers and people, and when such impressions are promoted falsely they could be rather damaging.

  • gshelley

    Interesting article and important disclaimer, Rebecca is something of a divisive figure, much of which is unwarranted and much of which has little do do with what she actually says, but comes from opponents/defenders seeing to attack or support her regardless of the evidence.

    In this case, it seems she gave a talk on how the media covers EP and how a few researchers over sensationalize their results and do not do adequate science, but thought she was attacking the actual field, rather than her straw man version of it.

    Interestingly, it seems to be a widely held view, given by some the comments here and the original blog repeating some of her debunked assertions, or claiming the responses are the same old thing, rather than actually addressing them

  • gshelley

    Having just read Stephanie Zvan response, I think that is pretty much my point. No attempt to objectively or skeptically analyse Clint’s response, just a knee jerk attempt to defend Rebecca from one of those people who are unjustly attacking her again. It’s a great example of all that is wrong in the skeptical movement.

    • Bert Russell

      I am going to have to agree with you on this. I read her response a few minutes ago. I was disappointed. And I was even more disappointed with PZ Myers’ response as well. He’s trying to poison the well against Clint by claiming he has an agenda. And, you know what, even if he does have an agenda, it has nothing to say about the veracity of Clint’s critique. To suggest that Clint’s rebuttal to Watson’s presentation was flawed or wrong because of a secrete agenda is to employ the genetic fallacy. Sure, it may be enlightening, but ultimately, Clint’s critique will either stand, or fall, on the merits of his critique, and not whether or not he has some agenda.

      • Bert Russell

        I’m going to assume the comment I made over on Stephanie Zvan’s blog post, titled “Science Denialism? The Role of Criticism,” has yet to be approved. I expect it eventually will, but for now, I will try and paraphrase as best I can what I said, because I see a lot of statements on Stephanie Zvan’s post about the intent of Rebecca Watson’s presentation, and Justin Griffith was even called “wilfully ignorant” because he didn’t agree with it, which I think is both rude and without merit. What I had hoped to point out in my comment was that I think it is a stretch to argue Rebecca Watson was only criticizing evolutionary psychology in the media and not as a whole given her response to a question at the very end of her presentation. She was asked if there was any “good evolutionary psychology,” to which she responded with a protracted “Prooooooooooooooooooooobably.” She even said that you can only have “good” evolutionary psychology if you just “make it up.” That is not something anyone could ever reasonably expect to hear from someone who is merely criticizing evolutionary psychology in the media. It is something we can expect from someone who is criticizing the science wholesale.

      • gshelley

        I have seen claims that he has an agenda and history with Rebecca Watson, and his treatment of those on his own page was evasive, to say the least, so I am willing to accept this is true

        1) Did that influence his decision to attack her? Possibly

        2) Should that influence whether people should engage with him? Arguably. I can see a reasonable position whereby people say “this person has a history, I don’t wish to engage with them I think for it to be one I would agree with, the behavior would have to be a lot more extreme than I have seen here, but each person must make their own decisions over what their standards are, and what their limits are before they will cease to deal with a person

        3) If someone does respond, should the response do anything more than briefly mention the past history? Absolutely not. The argument should be attacked on its merits.

      • chrisho-stuart

        For gshelley:

        For responses here in this blog: yes, I agree 100%. Brief mention of past history might be relevant here — particularly if only to declare up front possible biases of the person making the response! No more.

        Justin is here wanting to focus on the substance of Clint’s critique, on its own immediate merits, and that’s a good and constructive focus. Responders here in the comments should respect that.

        Ironically, we aren’t doing that. Discussion of responses by Zvan or others are not actually appropriate in Justin’s blog stream. Can we all nip it in the bud here? And let discussion of *other* bloggers go to their own blogs?

  • Natasha Avital

    I can’t watch the video right now, but I started reading Clint’s article and had to stop at this part:

    “She spelled it out clearly at 38:30 “men evolved to rape… it was used as a well it’s natural for men to rape”. The problem to Watson is that some evolutionary psychologists study the phenomena of rape as a potential adaptation, or a product of adaptations such as the use of violence to obtain what one wants. Watson assumes that if rape is about sex, and sex is good because sex is natural, then rape must be natural and therefore good”

    I HAD to watch at least this part of the video to see what it was about. Wanna know the entire quote?

    “There are many ways stereotypes can harm us. One way is being used as the basis to limit our rights. Another way is being used to justify predatory behavior, via the naturalistic fallacy. An example of that would be ‘Men evolved to rape’. Newsflash: that’s bullshit. And it was used as a ‘Well, it’s natural for men to rape, so we don’t have to do anything to change that behavior.’”

    I think it’s pretty clear that what she’s doing is DENOUNCING the naturalistic fallacy, and talking about how the idea that “men evolved to rape” was used to “justify rape”. The fact that Clint’s article so blatantly misrepresents what’s being said there worries me. I’ll try to watch the video and read the rest of the article when I get home, but I highly recommend that people watch the whole video instead of taking his word at face value when it comes to the points actually made by Watson.

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  • panagiotiskoutelidakis

    59. Perhaps you misunderstand a piece that was rather awkwardly written, Ms. Avital; I think the point is that she sees the proposition regarding rape made in some EP studies as a naturalistic fallacy and thereby rejects it, all the while there being no such thing. As a matter of fact, your quotation supports this notion, as no EP has ever in any way supported the above fallacy and stayed reputable, while it is clear how this is a logical fallacy all too well (that is, it’s not a scientific field making such a claim, it’s some monsters blatantly misrepresenting their claims).

  • Steven Carr (@stevencarrwork)

    Did Rebecca Watson really claim that there was ‘…a series of strange studies in which attractive members of each sex stopped passers-by on the street and asked them if they’d be willing to go have sex with them.’

    I’ve certainly heard of studies where college boys were asked on campus by perfect strangers if they wanted to go on a date with them. Most said ‘yes’.

    I’ve certainly heard of studies where men were shown pictures of perfect strangers and asked if they would be willing to have sex them in theory. Most said ‘yes’.

    But I’ve never heard of a study where women propositioned men in the street for sex.

    Perhaps I’m ignorant. After all, I’m sure there are studies I’ve never heard of.

    When was this study? Where? Obviously, Rebecca must have documented it.

    And , really, did most men say yes to instant sex?

    Just walk through the red-light district of a town and you will see that the street-prostitutes do not have anything like a 90% success rate in propositioning men. Most men just walk past.

    I will be charitable and assume Rebecca did not invent this study. It would be wrong of me to think otherwise.

    Which makes it even more intriguing.

    It really did happen!

    How did the men who propositioned women for sex not get arrested?

    It is also remarkable that this appears to be the one study by evolutionary psychologists that was scientifically valid. It produced genuine knowledge about what those men are like.

    All the other studies by evolutionary psychologists are junk science.

    But that one was scientifically valid.

    • Justin Griffith


      I’m pretty sure both sides of this would agree that you’re off.

      First of all, it’s not illegal to say “will you have sex?” It’s rude, and that was kind of RW’s point. It’s illegal to keep asking after he/she makes it clear they don’t want your company. That’s harassment.

      I can’t even tell if you’re being sarcastic or attempting to strawman, as for your position on EvoPsych.

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