Can Evolutionary Psychology Actually Be Science?

Last night at Cherchez La Femme Karen Pickering made reference to the recent abomination where a UNM Professor Geoffrey Miller tweeted “Dear obese PhD applicants: If you don’t have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won’t have the willpower to do a dissertation. #truth.”

Karen noted that Miller is an evolutionary psychologist, at which point I literally snorted with contempt. But then I thought about it at bit more. There is no doubt that evolutionary psychology, as it exists at the moment, is not a science. It’s doubtful whether it is even what Kuhn would call a pre-science. It’s basically just a propaganda arm for misogyny. If you don’t believe me, take a look at Psychology Today’s Satoshi Kanazawa, who may well be the most read evolutionary psychologist in the world today. I could link to pretty much any article Kanazawa writes, but I think this one really expresses the level of his stupidity in a have to see it to believe it way.

Kanazawa may be a particularly egregious example, but it certainly is the case that pretty much all we hear from evolutionary psychologists is pseudo-science. There may be good ones out there, but if so they’re keeping a much lower profile.

Besides the obvious problem with this, there is another problem, which is that in response many people have written off the whole idea of an evolutionary basis for our behaviour, particularly in relation to sex. Consider this documentary (some bits NSFW) by Norwegian comedian Harald Eia. He explores the question of whether differences in enthusiasm for sex between men and women are genetic or cultural. He interviews researchers from both side of the debate, but the problem is that those from the cultural side don’t come out of it looking too credible. It’s hard to know if Eia has cut too much out of their interviews, but they basically seem to be denying that millions of years of evolution could matter at all compared to a our relatively recent cultural traditions. Frankly that’s hard to believe, even as someone who really wants to be on their side.

Antechinuses are proof of how strange sex, even amongst mammals, can be.

Antechinuses are proof of how strange sex, even amongst mammals, can be.

My argument would be that evolution almost certainly has a huge role to play in determining our sexuality. What we don’t know is where it points us. Evolutionary psychologists love to paint a simple picture where it is in men’s evolutionary interests to have sex with as many women as possible in order to spread their genes around in the hope that more children will result. Women, who cannot have nearly as many children and need to invest more heavily in each one are better off only having sex with the most “high quality” men and should be far more choosy.

This line of thinking is exceptionally popular amongst those who want to shame women for any enthusiasm for sex. A promiscuous man is just following his natural instincts they argue. A promiscuous woman is either a freak of nature, or (from a different brand of slutshamers) a puppet of the patriarchy out of touch with her own intrinsic sexuality because she has been programmed to want what men want.

This line of argument tends to get supported by pointing to animals that really do behave like this. Ducks are a particularly popular example, but there are plenty of others. The problem is that according to this version of how sexual selection this should be the way all animals behave, or at least all animals in which the female cannot have a very large number of offspring with different males.

Trouble is, it’s not. The diversity of animal sexuality is astonishing. I’ll be giving a talk on some of the more remarkable forms of animal mating behaviour on Tuesday June 11 at Loop Bar, just off Bourke St from 7pm. I don’t want to use up all my best material here, but lets just say that if humans do it there is a pretty high chance there is an animal analogue. Just the existence of homosexual behaviour in hundreds of species should be a tip off that the simple vision propounded by evolutionary psychologists leaves a lot out.

So my question is: Is it possible for us to have a useful science of evolutionary psychology? One that is not, as Naomi McCauliffe puts, it run by “Just So Story tellers“. I’d like to think so. The fact that other areas of science are digging up so much interesting information about sex amongst animals ought to help. There is some really interesting research on female rat sexual behaviour in this article as an intro do the discussion of modern mores.More complex modelling work would help. I can’t find it now, but I saw a reference a while back to modelling that showed that even if passing on genes was the only thing that mattered it makes sense for both females and males to adopt a diversity of strategies with some favouring monogamy and some favouring promiscuity.

However, to really get somewhere we are going to have to integrate across a lot of different disciplines. It will be necessary to acknowledge that sex isn’t just about passing on genes (once again, the homosexuality clue).

A fish getting cleaned - and massaged.

A fish getting cleaned – and massaged.

In interviewing the marvellous Lexa Grutter for a recent Cool Scientist column she mentioned that fish have been shown to benefit from “tactile touching” from cleaner fish. If the survival of fish is enhanced from getting massages from a different species I think it should be pretty clear that there may be more to sexual interaction than just producing maximum numbers/quality of offspring*.

I suspect that the name evolutionary psychology is now so tarnished that as genuinely thoughtful work in this area is done it will be stuck with almost any other label.

* In one of the beautiful ironies of science, Grutter’s PhD was crucial in refuting an earlier version of this idea, which then went out of favour for a couple of decades. One of Grutter’s own students then proceeded to find evidence for a more nuanced version of the same phenomenon.


About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
This entry was posted in Anthroplogy, Behavioural Zoology, Self Promotion. Bookmark the permalink.

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