Evo-Psych: The Woo That Dare Not Speak Its Name

Evo-Psych: The Woo That Dare Not Speak Its Name January 18, 2018

I’ve selected this topic because of its fitness for discussion. See what I did there?

evo psych

According to Psychology Today, (if you’re reading it, it must be today) evolutionary psychology is defined as follows:

Our bodies evolved over eons, slowly calibrating to the African savanna on which 98 percent of our ancestors lived and died. So, too, did our brains. Evolutionary psychology postulates that the mind is shaped by pressure to survive and reproduce. We jealously guard romantic partners and cherish our closest relatives above all others, lest we fail to pass on our genes. We easily acquire language, which is critical for cooperation and hence survival. Evolutionary psychology acknowledges these forces but stresses the ultimate (and largely unconscious) gene’s eye view of behavior.

Putting the Cart in Front of the Eohippus

Shem’s Law states that a simple answer for complicated phenomena is the hallmark of pseudoscience. What evolutionary psychology states is that since selective pressures are adequate explanations of human anatomy, they’ll do just fine for any matter pertaining to human endeavor. Anyone who takes issue with such facile reasoning must be an evolution denier or a crackpot, right?

Not so fast. Sure, humans evolved just as all life on Earth did. However, just because selective pressures can explain, for example, the bones of the inner ear, that doesn’t mean Darwinism is an answer for everything pertaining to human society, behavior, and consciousness. Proponents of evo-psych are applying Darwinian reasoning where it doesn’t belong. The Psychology Today website is chock full of articles explaining various cultural phenomena such as the gender wage gap in terms of differential reproductive success.

Evolution Is Smarter Than You Are, But That’s Not Saying Much

The problem isn’t just that such reasoning is sexist and specious, it also trivializes social inequities by making them seem like the ineluctable results of our evolutionary history. Why, you might as well complain about the “unfairness” of the fact that women give birth to 100% of our children, the reasoning goes, because the same evolutionary forces are what led to a scenario where only 4% of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are female . Blame it on evolution!

What evo-psych does is ignore or downplay the effect of power dynamics in our society. Our civilization and culture have taught us to speak, think, and behave in ways that reinforce existing power structures. To simply ignore that fact and seek explanations for human social behavior that are based solely on mating success is to oversimplify a very complex set of phenomena. You can’t talk about human endeavor without acknowledging that there are learned and conditioned aspects —that is, culturally constructed ones— to how humans behave.

Ad Hocs All the Way Down

If evo-psych proponents do acknowledge these aspects, it’s usually to pronounce that they’re products of evolution too. Having his cake and eating it too, the Rational Male (sort of a mismoner) defends evo-psych by quoting evo-psychics Tooby and Cosmides:

To say a behavior is learned in no way undermines the claim that the behavior was organized by evolution because the behavior was learned through the agency of evolved mechanisms. If natural selection had built a different set of learning mechanisms into an organism, that organism would learn a different set of behaviors in response to the very same environment. It is these evolved mechanisms that organize the relationship between the environmental input and behavioral output, and thereby pattern the behavior. For this reason, learning is not an alternative explanation to the claim that natural selection shaped the behavior, although many researchers assume that it is. The same goes for culture. Given that cultural ideas are absorbed via learning and inference—which is caused by evolved programs of some kind—a behavior can be, at one and the same time, ‘cultural’, ‘learned’ and ‘evolved’.

But this is plainly wrong, because it’s mistaking our evolved capacity to learn for the content of what we teach and learn. So instead of ignoring the culturally constructed component of human endeavor, the evo-psychics are handwaving it away.

I realize this is a complicated topic, but I’m interested to hear what you folks think. Can Darwinism explain all of human consciousness and behavior? Is differential reproductive success the answer for every question?


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  • Halbe

    Nice straw man you burned down there.

  • How did I misrepresent evo-psych, pray tell? Doesn’t it claim we can understand cultural phenomena like the gender wage gap in terms of differential reproductive success?

  • John Pieret

    Yea! We agree almost completely for once! Some very basic behavior (eating, sleeping, f***ing) are the result of or driven by inherited traits but the just-so stories as to all culture and behavior being evolved are unevidenced crap. Worse, until the evopsychos (!) can come up with some way to distinguish evolved behavior from unevolved, they are subject to Popper’s otherwise valid criticism of psychoanalysis … that which explains everything explains nothing.

  • Raging Bee

    The Psychology Today website is chock full of articles explaining various cultural phenomena such as the gender wage gap in terms of differential reproductive success.

    Wow. Just wow. That’s an even more disgraceful abuse of evo-psych than the examples I remember. Even less plausible too: evolutionary processes simply don’t work fast enough to affect “cultural phenomena,” which generally change within what is by evolution-time standards, an eye-blink.

  • Raging Bee

    Agreed. There are two major flaws in evo-psych: people who offer evo-psych explanations/rationalizations almost never bother to verify their claims; and many (if not most) such claims aren’t even verifiable or testable in the first place.

    Also, wildly contradictory behaviors can be said to have roughly equal “survival value.” Example: mating for life, staying faithful and maintaining stable families are all good for raising kids into strong adults; but sleeping around is also good for ensuring maximum genetic variety in one’s offspring, and also for getting favors from as many males as possible to help females raise their babies. Just pick a behavior, any behavior — chances are I can come up with a damn-good-sounding reason why it’s good for the tribe. And why the exact opposite behavior is good for the tribe too.

  • Worse, until the evopsychos (!) can come up with some way to distinguish evolved behavior from unevolved, they are subject to Popper’s otherwise valid criticism of psychoanalysis … that which explains everything explains nothing.

    I’m convinced that the tendency to explain all human traits and cultural phenomena in terms of mating success originated on the savanna.

  • Annerdr
  • many (if not most) such claims aren’t even verifiable or testable in the first place.

    Anthropologists have pointed out that we don’t know nearly enough about our early-human ancestors and their culture to make the kinds of sweeping statements that evo-psychics seem to think are perfectly prudent. Speculating about their behavior adds up to a lot of speculation about their behavior.

  • John Pieret

    As for Adler, I was much impressed by a personal experience. Once, in 1919, I reported to him a case which to me did not seem particularly Adlerian, but which he found no difficulty in analysing in terms of his theory of inferiority feelings, although he had not even seen the child. Slightly shocked, I asked him how he could be so sure. ‘Because of my thousandfold experience,’ he replied; whereupon I could not help saying: ‘And with this new case, I suppose, your experience has become thousand-and-one-fold.’

    – Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations

  • To be fair, I think the evo-psychics are explicitly acknowledging that point. They’re saying that even though we consider gender inequities consequences of present-day cultural and social realities we can change through education and legislation, they’re actually the inescapable results of millennia of hard-wiring through natural selection.

  • Halbe

    Maybe next time you can do a hit piece on feminism by only quoting terfs? Or on social-democracy by criticizing stalinism? Or maybe Planned Parenthood based on the CMP videos?

  • That doesn’t really answer my question. In your seven-word rebuttal, you accused me of attacking a straw man. How did I misrepresent evo-psych?

    The Psychology Today article about the gender wage gap was full of speculation about the development of the traits that have made women less likely to earn as much as men. Is this persuasive to you?

  • Halbe

    No, this is not persuasive. And Nigel Barber is feminism’s terf and social-democracy’s stalinist.

  • So who are the writers whose work represents the best of evo-psych? The ones who wrote “Why Do Men Rape?”

  • janatta

    Use scholarly sources for your information about the field. At least sample more widely of the ideas presented by evolutionary psychologists. A Google search will lead you to resources such as the Evolutionary Psychology FAQ (http://www.anth.ucsb.edu/projects/human/evpsychfaq.html). You also will discover that evolutionary psychologists don’t all share the same viewpoint, any more than scholars in any other scientific discipline.

    If you must use Psychology Today as a source, you could look up other evolutionary psychologists. For example, check out the posts by David Schmitt (E.g., https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201711/the-truth-about-sex-differences; https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sexual-personalities/201502/how-big-are-psychological-sex-differences; https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sexual-personalities/201605/sex-differences-in-romantic-jealousy-evolved-or-illusory).

    Finally, a Google search will bring you to posts that deal with the kinds of attacks you made on the field (E.g., http://web.sas.upenn.edu/kurzbanepblog/2011/05/03/the-pop-anti-evolutionary-psychology-game/; https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-how-and-why-sex-differences/201110/playing-the-anti-evolutionary-psychology-game).

  • The problem is that the core truth of evo-psych—that current human and cultural phenomena are mere vestiges of the selective pressures of our ancestors—is something that needs to be proven rather than taken for granted. Why should we believe the claims of the evo-psych community?

  • janatta

    You need to do the work to understand what evolutionary psychology actually is. And it is work. First, it requires thorough and clear understanding of evolutionary biology. That needs to be married to a thorough and clear understanding of psychology. It isn’t something that can be learned from a discussion board.

    There is enough information in the resources that I suggested to demonstrate that what you assert to be a core truth of evolutionary psychology is not consistent with the logic of the field. Fundamentally, evolutionary psychology is the application of evolutionary biology to understanding human cognition and behavior. As with all other organisms, human cognition and behavior is, in part, a product of the selective processes that occurred over evolutionary history. Understanding the nature of those processes can help us to better understand their products. This is the point where a strong background in evolutionary biology and psychology is necessary to move forward with the discussion of particular patterns of human behavior.

    Critics of evolutionary psychology who have done the work to understand what it is really all about have become supporters of the field. Notable examples include the changing attitudes of Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins. Critics of evolutionary psychology who are not well-informed tend to remain critics, not because their criticisms are valid, but because their criticisms are so off-base, they really are attacking straw men. I recommend reading Alcock’s most recent Animal Behavior textbook and then Buss’s Evolutionary Psychology textbook as a good way to start moving toward a better understanding.

  • Steve Bastasch

    Yes…and I get so tired of the cliche-ridden “the fight or flight response evolved because of A) the sabre-toothed tiger, B) the cave bear, C) whatever Ice Age foe” one wishes to mention. It’s a partial truth at best, and is therefore in danger of going the way of the sabre-toothed tiger. Oh. See what I did there. But really, when I hear these analogies, I can’t help thinking of Freud’s antiquated, ever-so-fictitious “Primal Horde”…

  • You need to do the work to understand what evolutionary psychology actually is. And it is work. First, it requires thorough and clear understanding of evolutionary biology. That needs to be married to a thorough and clear understanding of psychology. It isn’t something that can be learned from a discussion board.

    It sure sounds like you’re trying to say it’s futile to have a discussion about this. I’m an educated guy who’s well-versed enough in evolutionary biology and psychology to acknowledge that our evolutionary history can tell us a lot about certain things in human existence. But what I’m skeptical about is whether it can explain complex cultural phenomena, or whether those explanations are just-so stories that de-emphasize social influence over cultural realities.

  • janatta

    A discussion would be more fruitful, and probably unnecessary, with better shared knowledge of evolutionary psychology. That is why I recommended Buss’s Evolutionary Psychology textbook, as a place to start. Your argument that evolutionary psychology, “explanations are just-so stories that de-emphasize social influence over cultural realities,” does not accurately describe the field. There are no just-so-stories in the ideas accepted by mainstream evolutionary psychology. Instead, there is careful empirical work that tests specific hypotheses. Scholars may speculate about possible explanations for phenomena, just as all scientists do. Speculation opens hypotheses to public scrutiny and empirical investigation. Only speculation that leads to testable hypotheses, which are supported by research, is embraced by the field at large. At that point, it is no longer speculation– It is explanation supported by evidence.

    The resources I previously suggested broadly agree with your point that “evolutionary history can tell us a lot about certain aspects of human existence.” However, evolutionary psychologists would go further, pointing out that there is no such thing as non-evolutionary psychology, even when considering culture, based on the following logic: The brain is an evolved organ. The mind (I.e., psychological processes) is produced by the physiological activity of the brain. Behavior is produced by the mind. The content of culture (and the social behavior that influences culture) are the products of human minds. Therefore, natural selection has influenced the content of culture. The precise nature of evolutionary influences on culture would be determined through hypothesis generation and empirical investigation.

    Culture, itself, is a nebulous concept. See http://www.cep.ucsb.edu/papers/pfc92.pdf for an introduction to the issue.

  • I’ve been meaning to read this for some time. First: The smartass in me wants to say that Rational Male is also an oxymoron. But of course, I wouldn’t. 😉 *jk* (Men’s rights activists would seriously retort by resurrecting the old stereotypes about irrational women.)

    Second: Bravo on taking on the just-so stories and circular reasoning of evo-psych! This has been a pet peeve for me for a very long time.

  • The smartass in me wants to say that Rational Male is also an oxymoron.

    Hey! I resemble that remark!

  • Don’t be so hard on yourself. You’re only a regular moron. 😉 *ducks* (I warned you I was a smartass. :-D)

  • Mr. A

    I think the major issue of Evo-Psych is that its very hard to confirm, and that yes, its proponents try to use to it to explain all of human behavior, as opposed to just some of it. Why do humans like sweets and fats? Evo psych can actually explain that. Why are 4% of the Forbes 500 CEO’s female? No, you can’t explain it with Evo-Psych alone. Maybe 1%, but definitely not 100% because that ignores culture, power dynamics and human history to name a few variables.

    I believe you put it best: trying to explain a complicated problem using a simple xplanation very rarely works out.

  • Mr. A

    Too true, which is sad. The bronze age might as well have been called The Wood Age, which is why we have next to nothing about the earliest human anscestors…

  • I think it was Mencken who said, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

    Evo-psych depends on a fallacy called the Street Light Effect, named after the guy in the old joke looking around under the street light for keys he lost in the park. He’s not going to find the keys, but “the light’s much better here.” You’re right, evolution is the right place to look for causal explanations for the panda’s thumb and sickle-cell anemia, not for social inequities and power disparities.

  • Raging Bee

    Yeah, it’s amazing how emotional so many men get when they’re complaining about how emotional women are.

  • vaiyt

    The only way that can be true is if natural selection has hardwired misogyny into our brains.

  • Kevin K

    1. Pro tip: Only Creationists use the word “Darwinism”. You might want to back off of your condescension just a bit.

    2. Evo psych is … well … sorta useful, maybe; but most experts in biology, genetics, and evolution will readily and rapidly acknowledge that much of it is Just So stories wrapped up in scientific language. I don’t think many outside that very narrow field put much stock in it. Some biologists, like PZ Myers, hate-hate-hate it.

    An example …

    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2016/07/18/myles-powers-dishonest-defense-of-evolutionary-psychology/

    Make of that what you will.

    Edited for typo.

  • You might want to back off of your condescension just a bit.

    Right back atcha, you thing-with-a-brain you.

  • Shem I don’t think you’re wrong, but perhaps a bit unforgiving. Evo-psych at least flirts with some important ideas.

    And evolutionary mechanics are nearly ubiquitous among any adaptive system of millions or more vaguely self-organized agents.

    I prefer sociobiology and evolutionary biology to explain human endeavor and behavior systematically. Not that they’re perfect. But they’re useful.

  • I still say that Darwinian mechanisms explain the bones of the inner ear better than they explain complex social phenomena like the gender wage gap. Looking at every feature of human society as if it’s the result of differential reproductive success ignores a lot of cultural context.

  • culture itself is formed by this dynamic.

    even dawkins wasn’t entirely wrong about memetics, but i don’t think he spent enough time with systems theory to flesh it out.

    we adapt and trim and expand culture because we are millions and millions of agents both reflecting and influencing zeitgeist and tradition.

    it’s product of systems that are Really Massive(TM) aka complex.

  • i’m not simply talking about biological reproduction here.

    but reproduction of agents.

    in culture this would be represented by the transmission of ideas from generation to generation.

  • Priya Lynn

    “What evolutionary psychology states is that since selective pressures are adequate explanations of human anatomy, they’ll do just fine for any
    “matter pertaining to human endeavor.”

    I’m not particularly familiar with this field but I’m pretty sure that’s a straw man, that the consensus amongst people studying evolutionary psychology is in no way that “they’ll do just fine for any matter pertaining to human endeavor.”

    “To simply ignore that fact and seek explanations for human social
    behavior that are based solely on mating success is to oversimplify a
    very complex set of phenomena.”.

    I’m highly skeptical that anything but a small percentage of people advocating for the truth of evolutionary psychology are claiming human social behavior is completely or largely explained based solely on mating success.

    “But this is plainly wrong, because it’s mistaking our evolved capacity to learn for the content of
    what we teach and learn. So instead of ignoring the culturally
    constructed component of human endeavor, the evo-psychics are handwaving
    it away.”

    I didn’t get that at all from the passage you quoted. In fact it specifically says in the last sentence that culture is part of what results in our behavior. I’ve recently begun thinking about evolutionary psychology myself and its clear to me that our evolved capacity to learn affects the content of what we teach and learn. I don’t see where you get the idea that Tooby and Cosmides were mistaking evolved capicity to learn for the content of what we teach and learn – you’re unreasonably oversimplifying what they are saying in the passage you quoted.

    A few weeks ago I was thinking about all the anti-immigrant hostility right wingers in the States were showing towards brown immigrants and what a baffling shame it was that these people couldn’t see that our society is improved by the idea that we are all one global community that is better off cooperating than adopting tribal attitudes and feeling hostile to those who seem different than us. Then it occurred to me that our brains evolved to think this way. For the vast majority of the time modern humans have existed they have lived in small groups that often competed with other tribes for the resources necessary to survive. As I see it, our brains evolved to encourage tribal loyalty and fear and hostility towards outsiders in order to maximize the number of offspring with our genes. So that’s why nowadays we see all this tribalism and hostility to people we perceive as different despite these psychological traits no longer being beneficial to humanity as a whole.

    And it occurred to me, to my surprise, that maybe the right wingers had a point. Not very many groups of people believe we are all basically the same and that our differences don’t matter. Perhaps people like me living in a liberal and tolerant Canada accepting migration of anyone unconditionally could hypothetically result in us LGBT tolerant people gradually being outnumbered by intolerant migrants and what we have that we value in society would be crowded out by people who don’t have the same values.

    Its all well and good for me and people like me to think we are a global community that should accept everyone and if everyone else thought the same way there’d be no problem. But many (most?) other cultures don’t think this way (due to evolutionary psychology) which risks the accepting people being displaced by the unaccepting people.

    So, I think that tolerant and accepting liberals are more psychologically fit for our modern world than tribal conservatives who are more psychologically fit for caveman days where tribalism and hostility to outsiders were more advantageous for individuals.

  • Priya Lynn

    Your view strikes me the same as someone saying 2000 years ago, “We don’t know very much about what causes the weather so trying to figure it out by making sweeping hypothesis about it is stupid”.

    Just because we currently have few if any facts about evolutionary psychology in no way proves that studying it is not a worthwhile pursuit.

  • Priya Lynn

    “Looking at every feature of human society as if it’s the result of
    differential reproductive success ignores a lot of cultural context”.

    I find it very hard to believe educated proponents of evolutionary psychology are claiming anything at all like “every feature of human society is the result of differential reproductive success and cultural context has nothing to do with it”.

  • Priya Lynn

    “evolution is the right place to look for causal explanations for the
    panda’s thumb and sickle-cell anemia, not for social inequities and
    power disparities.”.

    You don’t know that, that is an unsupported assumption on your part.

  • So you honestly believe that social inequities and differences in influence in our culture have to do with evolution?

    For instance, the fact that median household income for African-Americans is only half of that of whites may derive not from institutional racism but from our evolutionary heritage?

    Or the fact that women only make up some 4% of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies doesn’t point to sexism but from something about the evolutionary heritage of females of our species?

    I’m sorry, that sounds like wild speculation as far as I’m concerned. And unless you can present anything to change my mind, my skepticism stands.