evo psych gets a scowl from two biologists

January 18, 2011

Biologists seems to have a love-hate relationship with evolutionary psychology. Some think it’s terrific that we apply evolutionary reasoning to different questions about life and living things in general, others see it as the brainchild of sloppy thinking or just thinking way too hard. Personally, though I’m not a biologist, reading a lot of evolutionary psych investigations pushes me towards the opinion of the latter group. It seems that virtually every supposedly scientific finding about dating, sex, and social habits that produces a buzz in the media and prompts lists of "scientific reasons why blank" you see on so many pop sci and entertainment sites, will also generally support stereotypical gender roles or vast blanket generalizations such as: men were hunters while women had children and ran the caves/tents/houses so all their behaviors derive from that arrangement.

A while ago, Greg Laden struck out at evolutionary psychology’s propensity for gender role assignments, and now, after reading a sloppy paper on women’s supposed adaptations to avoid rape during ovulation, PZ went into a rant about the major shortfalls of the field. And you know what? He’s absolutely right. You can’t have a fruitful field of research by focusing on one particular feature of an organism’s body or behavior, then focusing all your efforts on explaining why and how it evolved even if there’s really no apparent reason to pay so much attention to that feature. Well, I suppose you can, but all you’ll end up with is pseudoscience draped with some scientific language borrowed from evolutionary biology and backed up with tests which don’t say a whole lot of anything about the topic or fail to consider the long and complex evolution of human societies in the process of simplifying something very complex or elevating something inconsequential.

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  • Alexander Kruel
  • Greg Fish

    Hmm… So according to Kurzban, sample sizes are not an issue, women who aren’t in the middle of ovulation invite more rapists to attack them, and anyway there are more and better papers out there? How is just waiving it all off and making an unsupported assertion while ignoring Myers’ alternative suggestion that women may cope with rape based on how their culture treats it rather than on some supposed adaptation a good counter-argument? Kurzban ignores the more difficult point to counter and focuses on what he can just roll over quickly and more or less easily.

    As for the H+ link, one bad book doesn’t mean that all every argument against the less scientifically supported papers from the field are wrong and it’s ok to rest on past glory. And comments accusing biologists who doubt popular papers of being cruel meanies who just call people names aren’t a good defense either. Just declaring that no one’s addressing a particular claim doesn’t mean that claim has not been addressed. You’d be amazed how many creationists have looked at a 1,000 world explanation of the very concept they asked to elaborate, peppered with links to journals and press releases from researchers, then declared that none of their claims have ever been addressed and I was just being an anti-God crusader out to pervert their minds.

    There’s an awful lot of just-so tales in the kind of evo psych stories getting published today, they’re being criticized, and I’m really sorry if that gets evolutionary psychologists riled up. Oh and it would be terrific if you added something of your own to the links. It’s kind of nice to see an argument supported by links rather than just having links tossed at you to say “there, read this, I’m too busy to make a full comment.”