No apology for sociobiology

August 13, 2007 | By | 18 Replies More

Despite the rhyming title, this is a serious topic.   But not always a controversial topic . . .

Sociobiology is an un-controversial field of study as long as we stick to studying animals other than human animals.  Here’s how John Alcock describes sociobiology in The Triumph of Sociobiology (2001): “Genetic differences help explain why people develop differences in at least some aspects of their behavior.” (Page 53).  Here’s another way to put it: “Sociobiologists want to know the evolved function or purpose of whatever aspect of social behavior they are studying.”

Alcock is a prolific and highly respected biologist who teaches at the Arizona State University.  His textbook, Animal Behavior, is currently on its eighth edition.  I used his textbook when I took a class on animal behavior a few years ago. It is a terrific resource, highly organized and thoroughly researched.

On the first day of that course (also entitled Animal Behavior), the instructor, a biologist who worked at the St. Louis zoo, bemoaned the fact that so many people get upset when scientists dare to study human animals as animals.  Certainly, no one questions that the biological makeup of the most animals affects their behavior. Think about dogs, for instance.  We are all “racists” when it comes to dogs.  When a golden retriever seems to enjoy swimming, we summon up by saying “That’s how golden retrievers are.”  That’s why hunting dogs hunt and why herding dogs herd, we say, without anyone taking offense.  No one gets upset when we suggest that the behaviors of any animals other than human animals are systematically linked to their biology.

When it comes to human animals, however, we get nervous when anyone suggests that human behavior has anything at all to do with human biology.  Those who study human behavior from the basis of biology constantly hear accusations that they are like Nazis and other vicious racists.  But then again, why wouldn’t you study human behavior from the basis of human biology? Wouldn’t it be an extraordinarily strange thing to suggest that human behavior had nothing to do with human biology?

In The Triumph of Sociobiology, John Alcock argues that the war against sociobiology is over and that sociobiology (Alcock sees no need to use euphemisms such as “evolutionary psychology”) has overcome the ignorant attempts to slander it.  “The discipline employs a basic research approach that deserves our interests, respect, and even admiration as a potential source of improved understanding about ourselves and all other social species, from ants to antelopes.”  (Page 4).  Further, there is no need to apologize for sociobiology that conducted responsibly: “Social biology does not in any way provide an ideological foundation for accepting racism, sexism, genocide, rape, social dominance of the poor by the rich, or any other of the many unpleasant features of human behavior.”  (Page 20).

In fact, Alcock’s entire book is a response to numerous misunderstandings surrounding sociobiology.  In particular, Alcock argues that it is simply incorrect to assert any of the following:

Sociobiology is a novel and idiosyncratic theory of E. O. Wilson.

Sociobiology is primarily concerned with human behavior.

Sociobiology deals with the evolution of traits that benefit the species.

Sociobiology is a reductionist discipline based on the proposition that some behavioral traits are genetically determined.

Sociobiology makes use of capricious and selective comparisons between human behavior and that of other animals.

Sociobiology is a purely speculative endeavor, specializing in the production of untested and untestable, just-so stories.

Sociobiology cannot account for a learned behavior or human cultural traditions, only rigid instincts; and

Sociobiology is a discipline that, by labeling certain actions “natural” or “evolved,” makes it possible to justify all manner of unpleasant human behavior.

On this last point, Alcock spends a great deal of time pointing out that scientists who practice sociobiology do not equate “adaptive” with “moral.”

When, for example, a sociobiologist analyzes the efforts of men and women to climb the corporate ladder, the goal is to explain, to see things as they are, not to provide moral lessons for a reader.  And if a sociobiologist presents evidence that male competitiveness and desire for high social status have an ultimate function, an “adaptive value,” he is not arguing that the behavior is moral, something that society should value, and courage, or reward.  The statement that social striving is adaptive means only that the psychological mechanisms underlying this behavior have probably tended to promote individual reproductive success during the course of human evolutionary history.  Traits with this effect have helped keep a certain genes in the gene pool, not because it was good for the individual, good for the group, or good for the species as a whole, but because possession of these trades happen to be correlated with success in gene propagation.  No moral lessons can be drawn from the unfeeling, blind process of natural selection.  Nor do sociobiologists attempt to draw such lessons from evolution.  Instead, a sociobiological analysis provides a neutral explanation for human social endeavors, not a justification, not a moral prescription, not a normative declaration about what “ought” to be.

If anything, evolutionary psychology (sociobiology) teaches us to have humility when it comes to moralizing.  Alcock writes this passage toward the end of The Triumph of Sociobiology (page 206):

As Robert Wright has written, “A central lesson of evolutionary psychology is that we should cast a wary eye on our moral intuitions generally.”  That’s the heart of the matter and awareness of the ultimate reasons for our eagerness to make moral judgments and the realization that our emotions really work on behalf of our genes ought to make us less self-indulgent about our feelings, or has encouraging us to be a little more cautious on the moralizing front, a little more reluctant to express moral certitudes, a little more introspective, a little less likely to assume that whatever feels right to us is good for something other than our genes.  Maybe, just maybe, men who really understand evolutionary theory and the naturalistic fallacy would be less likely to claim, “My behavior is excusable but similar behavior in my wife is an offense against God.”

Sociobiology, then, is no more an inherently dangerous science than chemistry or physics.  Any of the sciences can be used in irresponsible ways by people with agendas.  And it’s not only sciences that can be turned against humanity.  Think of the damage caused by malicious uses of English, history and religion. 

The Triumph of Sociobiology is a terrific book by a dedicated and thoughtful man.  I recommend that everyone keep a copy of this book handy for the next time someone comes along-someone who is ignorant and afraid to deal with his own animal nature-and cries out that it is better to know less than to know more.

[I’ve dealt previously with criticisms of evolutionary psychology here.  For those who want to read more about the discipline of evolutionary psychology (sociobiology), I also highly recommend the new third edition of Evolutionary Psychology: the New Science of the Mind, by David Buss (2008).]


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Category: Culture, Evolution, Good and Evil, Psychology Cognition, Religion, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (18)

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  1. Vicki Baker says:

    Erich, it might be that people roll their eyes when they hear the terms "Evolutionary Psychology" and "Sociobiology" it is because much of what goes under that label in the non-technical press is tripe like and <a>this

    Sociobiology is a purely speculative endeavor, specializing in the production of untested and untestable, just-so stories.

    Can you elaborate on this? What experimental methodology do EP's use to test its hypotheses? Even 1 or 2 examples would be helpful.

    Are all the claims that EP makes (such as that human males are naturally both polygynous and sexually selective) )backed up by rigorous research? Why are strong assertions often made (eg "We state them because they are true" in the Psychology Today article), when no support other than a superficially plausible explanation is given?

    If the Psych Today article is an example of EP extremism, why don't we hear more outcry from EP moderates. I suspect you're providing cover for them. 🙂

    Evolutionary Psychologists take current features of human cognition and posit that they are adaptive solutions shaped by natural selection to problems posed by life back in our Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (Tooby & Cosmides, 1992). This might be a good explanatory strategy if three criteria were commonly satisfied:

    1. all traits were adaptations

    2. the traits to be given an adaptive explanation could be easily characterized

    3. plausible adaptive explanations were difficult to come by.

    … The challenge of adaptive explanations is that all three of these criteria are frequently violated.

    from Evolutionary Psychology and the challenge of adaptive explanation

    Language Log also has a great post on the 2 numbers you should ask for whenever anyone makes a claim about the "genetic basis of X":

    Two simple numbers

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Vicki: You raise good issues. I think that what convinces me are that the evolutionary scientists are onto something important are, above all, the experiemental results. Many of these are described in the book by David Buss. Without the experiments, we are dealing with only "just-so" stories. Morning sickness is a good example. "Explanations" of morning sickness that lack reference to a potential adaptation are weak, even dangerous (as women rush to cover up the symptoms, thereby endangering their babies during critical windows of development). I'll provide more information on some of the experiments shortly, but, again, check out Buss' book for hundreds of provocative examples. Had the evidence come in the other way, the hypothesis would be disproved, in case after case. Are some of the EP explanations speculative? You bet! Just like in physics, chemistry, and psychology, the EP explanations run the gamut from very strong (e.g., men in all cultures seek female mates who are younger, symetrical and bearing a .7 waist to hip ratio) to very weak. That's no reason to dis the entire field. Rather, it's a good reason to focus on the claims that are well substantiated and to revise or disgard the weak claims.

    Here is a collection of some of the arguments against EP and rebuttals:

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Why am I so interested in evolutionary psychology? Because there is no worthy alternative model to explain so much conduct that is so basic to the human species. Very few people object when we study animal behavior scientifically. It’s only when we put the same microscope onto human behavior. The source of most of the criticism are proponents of the standard social services model.

    The standard social services model, however, just can’t account for the stunning sameness of much human behavior and the stunning differences between the sexes. The human mind simply can’t be a blank slate in light of these similarities and well-entrenched differences. This much was dramatically shown by Stephen Pinker’s <a href=" ">The Blank Slate.

    With regard to the differences between the sexes, David Buss has found that, on average, men would like to have eighteen sex partners over their lifetimes, whereas the average women would like only four or five. Buss has also documented that, on average, men like the thought of having sex with a woman they’ve known for only a week. Women, on average, are “highly unlikely” to have sex after knowing a guy for only a week. These mating strategy differences are dramatic, consistent across cultures and strongly predicted by evolutionary psychology, based on the relative investments of the two sexes in the process of reproducing. On the other hand, these differences are not predictable by anyone attempting to use the SSSM.

    In his book, David Buss offers hundreds of examples where evolutionary psychology shines while the SSSM is feckless (check out the table of contents of Buss’ book <a href="">here.). Why do so many humans like spices? (<a href="">see the comments here). Why do so many of us drink alcohol? Why do women’s preference for type of mate change with their menstrual cycle? <a href=" Why are we so wastefully extravagant? ">Why do we spend so much time developing artistic abilities?

    With regard to <a href="">ultimate explanations, EP has no rival. As I suggested in an earlier comment, many of these EP explanations are not mere “stories.” They have been confirmed, often to staggering confidence levels. I offer this personal anecdote based on years of reading evolutionary psychology: reading EP studies is often eerily autobiographical.

    Is evolutionary psychology perfect? <a href=" ">Of course not. It’s sometimes done by hacks and it’s got a long way to go. It’s a young science, only a few decades old. Do we always know what an “adaptation” is? No, but George C. Williams gave us several criteria: reliability, efficiency and economy. As Buss writes, “Hypothesis about adaptations are, in essence, probability statements about why a reliable, efficient, and economic set of design features could not have arisen by chance alone.” Will there be some disputes about whether particular design feature are adaptations? You bet!

    We demand explanations even though we have only imperfect explanations available to us. If we’re going to throw away the imperfect solutions, the SSSM approach would be tossed long before we get to evolutionary psychology.

    Here’s a challenge for anyone who remains suspicious of evolutionary psychology: Go read <a href=""&gt;Evolutionary Psychology (Third Edition) (2008), by David Buss. Then report back with your answer to this question: are careful and disciplined evolutionary psychologists locking their sights onto numerous fruitful explanations for why humans do what they do?

  4. CPR says:

    I think David Buss is a prime example of what's wrong with EP. He gives a questionnaire to a bunch of college students in various countries and claims, over and over, to have found "human universals." He never confronts the simple fact that his sample pool is absurdly unrepresentative (all college age, all of a class that sends their kids to school). Nor does he deal with the fact that 19 year-old girls are far from representative of female sexuality. While I admire the attempt to bring scientific methodology to the study of human behavior, EP is full of unacknowledged assumptions and political agendas. The entire field is contaminated by unproven assertions about prehistory (the EEA) that date back to Hobbes.

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    CPR – I'm curious how you could possibly make your accusation in good faith.

    If you had actually read David Buss' lengthy new textbook, you'd have seen that he does far more than ask questions only to college students. You would see that controlling for age (and status as a college student) is primary in the minds of EP researchers. Buss reports the results of surveys and experiments worldwide. He relies on data from each of the following sources:

    Experiments involving different species, comparing males and females, comparing individuals within a species and comparing individuals in different contexts.  These experiments include genetics biological and bio-chemical analyses.

    Archeological records

    Data from hunter-gatherer societies



    Life-history and public records

    Human products

    As Buss acknowledges, "The scientific foundation of evolutionary psychology, as we will see, rests not on a single method, but rather on convergent evidence from a variety of methods and sources of data. (p. 59 of Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind (Third Edition 2008).

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    Over the years I've noted tremendous resistance to the study of human beings using evolutionary psychology, even when the scientists work with great skepticism and even when their conclusions are devoid of any hint of moralizing or politics. I know that much of this resistance comes from those who are wedded to the SSSM model, a model horrifically lacking in operational definitions, ultimate explanations of any shape and overall rigor. Those who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.  

    When I see people lashing out at EP without showing an attempt to get the fact right first, I presume an underlying political agenda aimed, in one form or another, at saving "human dignity."   It's as though letting the chips fall and learning better what kind of animal we are is per se immoral.  

    In fact, I suspect that all of the resistance comes from people who are troubled when they consider that humans are animals.  It seems, further, that the people who are afraid to confront the fact that humans are animals come in two forms: A) religious conservatives (see here) and B) those who can't bear the thought that human minds aren't totally "free" blank slates.

  7. Vicki Baker says:

    This discussion makes me want to coin a new word: "scienciness" a la Stephen Colbert's "truthiness." Oh, I know, there's a perfectly good word – pseudoscience – for the type of "study" I am talking about, but hey, I want to be cool like all the young chicks because… well, I'm sure an EP expert would figure out why. Using slang is sure a damn sight easier than trying to attain a .5 waist to hip ratio, which is my other sure path to positive attention.

    Yes, I know the figure Erich quoted is a perfect .7 for the ideal waist to hip ratio, but that's only because in the initial studies, the lowest waist-hip ratio depicted in the line drawings shown to subjects was .7. As shown in this article (pdf) when the same drawings were manipulated to change the WHR and include lower ratios, .5 and .6 were the most often preferred. Such a ratio is impossible for even a teenager to achieve without a serious foundation garment, or as Bridget Jones would say "giant horror mummy pants."

    As the article points out, WHR preference can then be explained less as a precisely honed mechanism for selecting optimal female fertility but a generic response to supernormal stimuli as seen in many species:

    Why then, were stimulus figures in the “normal” weight range with waist-to-hip ratios of 0.5 and 0.6 ranked as the most attractive body shapes? One potential biological explanation is that this task may tap into a generic psychological mechanism of enhanced responding to exaggerated features, or “supernormal” stimuli (Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 1970). Enhanced responsiveness to supernormal stimuli has been documented in a variety of species. Male fireflies, for example, prefer models of fireflies that contain a larger illuminated area and larger amounts of yellow than is contained in the light of females of their own species. Similarly, when given the choice, the ringed plover prefers to roll eggs that are four times larger than its own into its nest, even though the egg is too big for the plover to sit on and incubate adequately. Finally, the parasitic behavior of the European cuckoo, whereby it lays its eggs in the nests of other birds who then proceed to feed and raise the cuckoo hatchling, often to the detriment of their own young, provides another good example of species responsiveness to supernormal stimuli. The capacious open mouth of the young cuckoo elicits stronger feeding reactions in the foster parent than does the hungry, open mouths of its own young (Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 1970). The WHR of healthy reproductively aged women typically ranges from 0.67 to 0.80, whereas in healthy men it ranges from 0.85 to 0.95 (Singh, 1993). The preference for extremely low WHRs found in our study therefore may be caused by this generic psychological response to supernormal stimuli. WHR is a signal sexual difference. Exaggerating this difference elicits stronger preferences. No specific evolved psychological mechanism for adaptive mate selection needs to be invoked.

    You can't really claim that the authors here are troubled by comparing humans to animals, can you? They then go on to debunk the claims that the .7 ratio is stable across cultures. Studies in Peru and Tanzania found different results. The Peruvian tribesmen stated that WHR lower than .9 indicated that the potential mate probably had diarrhea or was "almost dead."

    The article is well worth a read for its plea to lay aside the dogmas of Evolutionary Psychology (capitalized) in favor of a more rigorous evolutionary psychology (small letters):

    In its enthusiasm to repudiate behavioral creationism and social construction EP has embraced a cartoon version of Darwinism. However, we are not suggesting that psychologists should abandon Darwinism and the power of adaptive explanation. On the contrary, we believe that the future for evolutionary psychology lies in taking the challenge of adaptive explanation much more seriously.

    Dispensing with the current exclusive focus on unique and allegedly universal human adaptations is an essential prerequisite for this improved adaptationism. Hypotheses about unique features (autapomorphies in the jargon) cannot be subject to comparative tests. A broader evolutionary psychology would include comparative tests both across a range of species, and within our own species (Griffiths, 2001). Behavioral and cognitive evolution did not begin, nor abruptly end, in the Pleistocene. It would also be helpful if Evolutionary Psychologists abandoned their a priori commitment to other dogmas such as massive modularity and the monomorphic mind. Evolutionary biologists know that the extent of both phenotypic integration and heritable variation are empirical issues, and so should Evolutionary Psychologists. Finally, in the move from Evolutionary Psychology to evolutionary psychology, psychologists could use studies of behavioral and neural development to characterize appropriate traits for adaptive explanation in the same way the evolutionary biologists currently link developmental and evolutionary analyses. In short, in rising to the challenge of adaptive explanation, evolutionary psychologists need to act less like evangelists and more like current evolutionary biologists.

    ItI heartily recommend applying the 2 tests recommneded in the article to any claims made by EP:

    … many evolutionary biologists find their psychological cousin more than a little embarrassing. In the interests of saving evolutionary biologists from future embarrassment we would like to propose two tests – the Grandparent Test and the Lesser-Spotted Brown Gerbil Test. The grandparent test is a filter for folk wisdom with a plausible post hoc story. It asks, “Does this work give us any insight into human behavior and cognition beyond popular knowledge?” The Lesser-Spotted Brown Gerbil Test asks, “Would this research be publishable in major international journals if the species was a small noncharismatic mammal rather than our own?” Many studies in evolutionary psychology fail these basic tests (e.g., Buss [1994]; Thornhill & Palmer [2000]; see Coyne [2000] and Coyne & Berry [2000] for critiques.

  8. Erika Price says:

    I like evolutionary psychology, but I simultaneously have a love-hate relationship with it. It often seems to me as though, by virtue of the nature of its field, evolutionary psychology states conclusions and then searches to confirm them. That amounts to one of the biggest no-no's in science- our bias toward confirmation makes it all too easy to notice only what validates our expectations.

    Then again, couldn't any psychological subfield suffer from this problem, in one way or another? By studying a phenomenon from a social psychological perspective, say, haven't you already assumed that interpersonal factors cause the behavior in question? Don't clinical psychologists assume the reality of every form of psychopathology they invent a term for? Perhaps evolutionary psychology just falls under fire so often because of the natural limitations to creating its effects in a vacuum. I think the flaws within every psychological subfield demonstrate the necessity of interdisciplinary study. The psychological researchers I work with consult philosophy professors, statisticians, and fellow psychologists from other subfields to enhance their understanding, and I think this should occur in every instance of psychological study.

  9. Michael Cushman says:

    Hi Erich

    My first time visiting, this post showed up on my google alert. I am a big supporter of the general thrust of sociobiology and a good friend is a friend of E. O. Wilson. Many an email debate we have shared. We have both moved a little toward the middle, but not close enough to fully agree.

    I love the idea, but am often sickened at the lack of rigor in this field. The scientific method seems to be a foreign concept. It often reads like fiction, not science. So yes, it does need to apologize. Declaring itself a science doesn't make it one.

    One problem is that it doesn't strip out culture. Most of what is humanity today, is the result of cultural evolution, which is occurring much faster than biological evolution. It's silly science to look at organized religion and say that because we have religion, there's a biological reason for organized religion or god. It's like saying because there are airplanes, there must be an airplane gene, or a desire to fly gene.

    However, their is truth and insight in studying the fundamentals of groups. Why they exist, how they form, how they choose leaders, status, deal with internal conflict, external conflict, bond, grow, fade….

    Strip away the culture and look at the fundamentals of sociology…the biology and chemistry of bonding, cooperation, dominance, submission…and then add rigor, not poetry.

    I suggest instead of declaring victory, apologies come first, then earn respect, and credibility will follow.

    Thanks for the great read. I'm with you in spirit, and hoping the field starts to listen to the critics, because the criticism is valid. It's not because we don't want to think of ourselves as animals. We definitely are that.

    Warm regards


  10. Erich Vieth says:

    Michael: Thanks for the good insights. In supporting EP generally, I'm in no way suggesting that everyone who calls himself/herself an evolutionary psychologist is doing valuable work or drawing valid conclusions. It's the same with physics. That I find that field valuable doesn't mean that cold fusion is something to get excited about.

    I do find much of value in many of the EP studies coming out, however. These studies (when they are done well) should use techniques comparable to those that evolutionary biologists use to study the behavior of the other animals.  For instance, when EP looks at the effect of the waist-to-hip ratio on the mating practices of humans, it should use tools similar to those evolutionary biologists use when studying the effects of colored spots on mating practices of guppies.

    Erika raises a good point when she warns of the dangers of the confirmation bias. That is constantly a danger in every human endeavor.  That only known antidote is good science based on skepticism and empiracal study.  It it always a problem that the date sometimes follows the mere idea?  I don't think so. Hypothesis generation often precedes the data. For instance, relativity was a theory that had to await some of its most powerful evidence, yet we don't hear any criticisms of relativity on that basis. As I see it, theories and data do a constant dance; one of them will often be ahead of the other, sometimes dramatically ahead. And sometimes, the hypothesis that is far ahead. I also agree with Erika's assessment that all psychological sciences suffer from the problems she attributes to EP. All of these fields are struggling to figure out the kind of animal we are and there is a lot yet to learn.

    We students of life are impatient.  We (all of us) are desperately hungry to know. Our lives are ticking away and we crave to know whatever we can. Into that void, hack science and charlatans will often step, wherever there is money to be made or notoriety to be had.  The only alternative to the occasional bad science is to stop trying to understand human nature until we're sure that we've got it right.  But that revelation will never happen in the absence of a cacophonous conversation.  Having good and (sometimes) bad conversations is the only way to hone the truth.

    My concern is that there are many people out there, on both the right and the left, who are willing to cavalierly dismiss an entire field of study based on their fears rather than the facts. The fears are many. EP threatens the existence of "God" for some people. EP threatens human freedom–it makes us seem a little too much like animals. EP is a field in which many hypotheses are unsubstantiated. But keep in mind that EP is also a field in which many bad hypotheses are crushed and thrown aside, as they should be. And EP is that rare field, among the many that study human animals, that actually takes a look at ultimate causation (see here). It is for that attempt to weave the full picture that I admire many of the scientists who do EP. Many of them don't call themselves Evolutionary Pychologists, either. They include many of the scientists about whom I've written on this website. They include numerous psychologists and neuroscientists, as well as primatologists (such as Frans de Waal and Robin Dunbar) and physicians (such as Antonio Demasio).

    Evolutionary psychologists are on an incredible journey and there is so much to learn that it is often like trying to drink out of a fire hydrant. I am not satisfied with many of the "results" coming out of this field, but I am sorely disappointed whenever a scientist disses IP only to announce that "the cause" of a human behavior is "X" when that scientist has considered only the proximate cause and totally ignored the ultimate cause.  I think that Niko Tinbergen had it right.  To know the full story, you must consider both proximate and ultimate causation.

  11. "Hypothesis generation often precedes the data. "

    I'm somewhat confused about this statement. I learned that first you develop a hypothesis, then you go and collect empirical data that might support your hypothesis, see how they fit, modify your hypothesis if necessary. Wash, rinse and repeat until you have enough data to finally formulate your theory, which you can falsify, but never verify.

  12. CPR says:


    You're right that I haven't read Buss's latest textbook, but I've read his books purporting to show that jealousy and murder are central aspects of human nature. I've read many of his papers, as well. I don't have time to get into a detailed discussion with you about this here, but I'd caution you about assuming that critics of EP have "agendas." EP is itself extremely vulnerable to manipulation by researchers with agendas. Pinker, Buss and others work very hard to show that things are the way they are because we are the way we are. In my opinion, they are embarrassingly naive about economic and political factors. They simply state, for example, that women are attracted to males with resources, and have devised many studies to confirm this. They say this is because females needed males with status and resources in the EEA to support them and their kids (thus monogamy, nuclear family, and the rest of it).

    But hunter/gatherers have no resources (no money, no accumulated food, no property) and status has little, if anything to do with offspring survival in h/g societies.

    This is but one example of many. As it turns out, in Sweden, Finland, and other cultures where the government supports single mothers generously (as they were supported in h/g societies), women feel little compulsion to enter into sexually-exclusive, binding contracts with males. In other words, the supposedly "universal" human female attraction to "rich" men is pure bunk! Sure, if you make women an underclass with no access to resources except via men, and call any woman who openly enjoys sex with various men a slut (or worse, burn her as a witch), you'll find women competing to be with rich men. But that's not biology; that's simply adapting to cultural conditions.

    I used to consider myself an Evolutionary Psychologist. But that was before I really understood just how politically-driven the discipline is.

  13. Erich Vieth says:

    Here’s my concern about the criticism I am reading about evolutionary psychology (both on this site and elsewhere). Based on some over-eager evolutionary psychologists running defective experiments and drawing faulty conclusions, I am hearing that the entire field of study is defective, essentially a big sham collection of just-so stories. But is that really a fair criticism?

    Why don’t these same criticisms apply to natural selection itself? Are any of those who are so willing to criticize EP willing to diss natural selection on the same basis?

    If there are faulty experiments and over-anxious scientists in EP, doesn’t that make EP a lot like every other scientific field of study in its infancy? Think of epicycles, phlogiston and blood letting. Think that only a few decades ago, scientists “knew” that stress caused ulcers and that no new neurons were created in the brains of adult humans. It’s not phrenology, which you would think when reading many criticisms of EP. EP has lots of legitimate successes (I’ve detailed only the tip of the iceberg).

    Successes, did I say? Yes, indeed. I’ve mentioned some of them above. Read the Buss and Alcock books for tons more examples. Humans do seem to have rather predictable repertoires of behavior geared to enhancing survival, procreation and care of young. These routines are deep in our bones, as revealed by cross-cultural studies. For example, we are intensely drawn to symmetrical and supremely average faces. EP offers tantalizing reasons for these behaviors, where no other field dares to step forward (symmetry is a token for health and therefore fitness; average faces—which imply symmetry—are interpreted easily, with low cognitive load).

    Evolutionary psychologists have also offered faulty experiments, but why not limit criticism only to the faulty experiments? After all, EP, when done well, is a science, and science is self-correcting. The cure to bad science is better science.

    I admit that individual findings and conclusions are sometimes spectacularly wrong. Problems with individual findings don’t disprove the field of study, however. Therefore, I do suspect that many of those who criticize the field (rather than limiting their criticism to individual findings) are troubled by something much deeper.

    Is their criticism that natural selection doesn’t apply to humans? I suspect this is true for some. Is it that natural selection doesn’t apply to behaviors? Is it that humans don’t have dozens of compartmentalized behavioral routines that can be found regardless of upbringing? Or is the problem that some of us would just rather not know about these sorts of things, as if not knowing about them will make them disappear? As though learning about such adaptations causes them to exist.

    This criticism comes from both the left and the right. I suspect that it has to do with the fear that EP “dehumanizes” humans by revealing that they are less “free” than people want to believe.

  14. CPR says:


    You are correct that every branch of science comes to spectacularly wrong conclusions that often take a long time to be corrected. You're also right that we shouldn't dismiss medicine as a wayward science just because of blood-letting and so on. But I think you're wrong to constantly return to the idea that those who criticize EP do so because they "would rather not know" the truth; that they are motivated by a fear of conclusions that somehow rob humanity of its special dignity or higher purpose.

    This may be true of some critics, particularly those who come from a religious angle or a perspective where anything not politically correct must be banished from conversation.

    But some of us are skeptical about EP simply because the accepted methodology of the field is so shoddy that so-called "cross-cultural studies" are repeatedly taken as "proof" of "human universals" when said studies include ZERO subjects who were not raised in a post-agriculturalist, consumerist, capitalist society — which, as I'm sure you know, is a relatively recent cultural development — seen in an evolutionary context.

    For a more detailed critique of this line of thinking, you can read my commentary in Behavioral and Brain Sciences (vol. 28, no. 2. p.292). In roughly a hundred centuries, humans have adapted to many of the demands of the competitive capitalist world. But there's little in the methodology of EP that can distinguish between these recent adaptations and our "ancestral tendencies." If you've got no pre-agricultural hunter/gatherers in your subject pool, how are you going to control for this?

    The problem with EP, as I see it, is that on one hand you've got very sloppy methodology and on the other hand you've got very intense political/cultural pressure to "confirm" that which seems "natural" from our present perspective. The combination of these two factors leads to precisely the sort of ill-founded, overly-confident conclusions you cite in your post.

    This has nothing to do with not wanting to face the truth. Quite the opposite, really. I'd like to face the truth, as opposed to what Buss, Pinker, Cosmedes and the rest are relentlessly selling as such.

  15. Erich Vieth says:

    CPR: I tried to track down your commentary on the Internet, but I assume it is not freely available there. I assume it is this commentary: Universal human traits: The holy grail of evolutionary psychology, Christopher Ryan, Cacilda Jethá, BBS 28 (2): 292-293. Is there anywhere to get this commentary online?

  16. Erich Vieth says:

    In the name of equal time, here is a pointed criticism of evolutionary psychology. It is from an article by Johan Bolhuis, called "piling on the selection pressure," published in the June 6, 2008 edition of Science (available online only to subscribers). The article is actually a book review, of Evolutionary Psychology As Maladapted Psychology, by Robert Richardson. The following quote captures much of the mood of Bolhuis' book review:

    Richardson concludes that we simply lack the historical evidence for a reconstruction of the evolution of human cognition. For human language, an "explanation" favored by evolutionary psychology is that it evolved for use in complex social groups, that is, there was a functional demand for language. Richardson rightly suggests that paleontologists are unlikely to unearth the evidence that can inform us about the social structure of our ancestral communities. I think one can go a step further. Even if we would be able to muster the evidence needed for an evolutionary psychological analysis of human cognition, it would not tell us anything about our cognitive mechanisms. . . . in that sense, evolutionary psychology will never succeed, because it attempts to explain mechanisms by appealing to the history of those mechanisms. To use [Richardson's] words, "we might as well explain the structure of orchids in terms of their beauty."

    Bolhuis ends his article by quoting Richardson's description of evolutionary psychology as "speculation disguised as results."

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