Evolutionary psychology under attack

Since yesterday, a new thread of email exchanges is circulating among evolutionary psychologists under the title "Newsweek attack on evolutionary psychology." Geoffrey Miller informs us: "Journalist Sharon Begley is publishing a long, very negative, rather muddled attack on evolutionary psychology in Newsweek magazine …Given Newsweek's influence, I'm concerned about this article's effects on our science's public image." Robin Dunbar, Steven Pinker, Dylan Evans and others discuss how to react, and, on the whole, favour ignoring the attack.

The article in Newsweek, with the telltale title "Why Do We Rape, Kill and Sleep Around? The fault, dear Darwin, lies not in our ancestors, but in ourselves" is a pathetic misrepresentation of evolutionary psychology, mentioning only work on mate choice and reproduction, giving pride of place to Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer's book on rape, and presenting the controversial claim that human rape is an adaptation as a central dogma of evolutionary psychology as a whole when not even Palmer agrees with it. Cultural diversity is presented as proving evolutionary psychologists wrong, as if, somehow, they had been unaware of it and had had nothing to contribute to its study. Behavioural ecology is represented as diametrically opposed to evolutionary psychology. And so forth. I assume that most readers of this blog are familiar enough with evolutionary psychology not to be misled by such poor reporting (or else Cosmides and Tooby's "Evolutionary psychology: A primer" is still a good place to start) .



I write this post not to refute such a misrepresentations (a job well done anyhow by Gad Saad here; see also an earlier excellent defense of evolutionary psychology against similar criticisms by Robert Kurzban here), but to reflect on the reason of its occurrence in a popular magazine such as Newsweek. The fact is that, on the whole, the media have been very positive about evolutionary psychology, reporting a variety of tentative findings as ground-breaking discoveries and making cultural heroes of some of the most effective defenders of the approach. Newsweek itself had a very favourable cover story in 1996 on "The biology of beauty" with the classical waist-to-hips ratio story and so on. The problem is that this success was based not so much on an interest for scientific progress and for a genuinely naturalistic understanding of human affairs, as on a taste for sweeping generalizations with hints of political and moral relevance, in particular about sexual relationships, violence, domination, and so on. The reputation of evolutionary psychology has greatly gained from this press coverage, with more students attracted, more jobs, and more research funding, but there is a price to benefitting from the kind of distorted and simplified image produced by the media. Part of the price has been exacted when evolutionary psychologists had to play the game and, in order to benefit from it, went along with the media image, with its superficiality, distortions, and ideological overtones. This might have seemed cheap but now another part of the price is exacted when similar ideologically loaded simplifications and distortions are used not in favour but against evolutionary psychology.



Still another part of the price is paid within the field itself which has, to some extent, come to imitate its own media image. Mate choice is of course a major topic for an evolutionary approach and many ground-breaking contributions to its study have been made within evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychology however will succeed to the extent that it helps explain not just traits of human psychology that are homologous to those of many other species, but also traits of human psychology that are strongly species-specific–e.g. language, meta-representation, abstract thinking, long-term planning–and that in turn help explain the exceptional character of human culture and ecology. The fact is however, that most people who choose to work in evolutionary psychology, possibly attracted to it by the media image of the field, focus on mate choice and related topics and show little interest for the central aspects of human cognition.

The imbalance is so great that Yale psychologist John Bargh, (in an interview on edge.org that we just signalled in the news section of this blog), could, somewhat unfairly but not absurdly, describe his work saying: ""We discovered a new vein of research – the relation between physical and social or psychological concepts – that we came to by taking evolutionary principles seriously and applying them to psychology. We weren't using evolutionary psychology, which has largely been focused on mating and reproduction" (emphasis added). In a way, I find such a statement more worrisome for evolutionary psychology than the Newsweek article. What Bargh and an ever greater number of mainstream psychologists are doing is adopt an evolutionary perspective, but with little or no interaction with full-time evolutionary psychologists and little mutual interest. They would stand to benefit from a more developed grounding in evolutionary psychology and evolutionary psychology would greatly benefit from being able to claim such research as contribution to its own project. Instead of which, these psychologists are being put off by the bulk of self-styled evolutionary psychology research and most evolutionary psychologists pay no attention. Isn't there a risk of evolutionary psychology becoming a mere sub-field of psychology largely focused on issues that, even if biologically central, are psychologically shallow, and of evolutionary themes gaining grounds in psychology in general but in loose manner and without the benefit of serious evolutionary scholarship?

So, fellow evolutionary psychologists, let's ignore Newsweek's attack, but not the reasons why it occurs.



  • comment-avatar
    Colin Holbrook 30 June 2009 (20:34)

    I agree with Dan’s observations, but want to extend the critique of the field of evolutionary psychology’s tendency to focus on a handful of concerns (e.g. attractiveness) a shade further. The relevance of evolutionary concerns has been the received attitude in much (though admittedly not all) of cognitive science since decades before the dawn of the subfield we call Evolutionary Psychology today. (I’m thinking of scholars such as James, Lashley, Bartlett, Lorenz, Cannon, Broadbent, Posner, the list goes on.) Certainly, there were many compelling implications of evolutionary theory which had not been given proper consideration prior to the emergence of modern EP. Nevertheless, I gather from conversations with certain older teachers and colleagues that part of the disconnect they feel with EP stems from their perception that previous evolutionarily informed theory has been overlooked or discounted. And this may be indirectly related to modern EP’s preoccupation with sex (among other things). For instance, categorization researchers have cited evolutionary considerations in arguments for universal human principles of concept-formation and inference. But perhaps this work was too bloodless to be “evolutionary”. Likewise, much of the work on analogical reasoning cites phylogenetic conservation as a selling point, but this too is not often considered evolutionary insofar as it fails to emphasize prevailing notions within the EP community, such as the domain-specificity of unique adaptive solutions. The good news is that succeeding generations of researchers will likely extend the best of EP to core cognitive issues such as metarepresentation, executive planning, etc., if only because these areas will be open to (re)conquest by evolutionary psychologists in need of fresh terrain to stake a claim to. Not to put [i]too [/i]fine a point on things!

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    Bill Benzon 3 July 2009 (21:27)

    I agree with Prof. Sperber that media criticism of evolutionary psychology is no deeper than its earlier praise. Yet I can’t help but feel that the second half of his post seems to be claiming a wide scope for evolutionary psychology as a matter of right rather than as something accomplished through research and thought. I have long thought that, roughly speaking, the task of psychology is to investigate the relationships between: (1) computational (and other) mechanisms, (2) behavior, (3) neuroanatomy and physiology, (4) ontogeny and the life cycle, and (5) phylogeny. Evolutionary psychology has tended to focus on the relationships between (2) and (5), with a rather shallow phylogetic depth and a restricted range of behaviors. That’s not an adequate basis on which to stake a claim for a complete psychology. Nor do I see any reason any of these five should be given a privileged status within psychological investigation. All are necessary. Psychology is psychology and the evolutionary angle is but one way in.