I think at this point just about everyone who reads this blog regularly is a scientist of some form, in some field or other. Most of you are from the "hard" sciences, so I am not going to waste your time (or mine) discussing the basic principles of evolution and natural selection. Nor will I waste your time (or mine) discussing the proper methods for conducting research such as the use of controls, the value of double-blind studies, random sampling, etc. I merely ask that you keep those things in mind as you read through my posts on this topic.
Important Note: Whether evolution and natural selection contribute to human behavior is NOT in question. So please don't comment/flame implying that I am saying something to the contrary. On the other side of that coin, if you are a creationist fuckwit please don't comment implying that I somehow agree with your wackaloon ideas about how the world came to be.
Okay. Now on to the preview.
The first concept that I would like to introduce that is highly relevant to the subject at hand is determinism, or the belief that human beings are slaves to their biology and that, essentially, free will is an illusion. *BULLSHIT* Evolutionary psychology claims to be the "metapsychology" of human behavior and that all other fields of psychology operate at a "lower level of analysis" because everything stems from evolutionary psychological forces. Evol psych is littered with determinist principles that I find to be incredibly cynical and, in some cases, offensive. A lot of it reminds me of Freud - ideas that might make sense on some level but are incredibly flawed, biased, and not subject to scientific analysis. A perfect example to keep in mind is Freud's beliefs about women. If you don't know what they are, google them. Then come back here and keep reading.
Second on my list of major complaints is falsifiability. Every good theory needs to be falsifiable - it must, at least theoretically, be able to be proven wrong. If there is no way for a theory to be wrong, how can we know that it's correct? Freud's work is a fantastic example of this. He proposed that each of us has an id, an ego, and a superego, each of which exerts its will on our conscious mind. Sounds great, except how do you prove it? Better yet, how do you prove that this isn't the case? The best scientific research stems from the perspective of trying to prove something wrong. An example of a good body of research based on a falsifiable theory is the work on attachment. Attachment theory can be proven incorrect. If there were no correlations between infant/caregiver dynamics and later patterns in adult relationships - the theory would be invalid and would need to either be scrapped or revised. That has not been the case in attachment research, but it has been investigated from that standpoint. Falsifiability is also important in determining the limitations of a theory, which generates future research and even new theories.
Keeping that in mind, take a look at this excerpt from a journal article on evolutionary psychology that sparked my desire to write this blog series:
The multitude of male psychological mechanisms associated with cuckoldry avoidance tells us that female inﬁdelity was a recurrent feature of our evolutionary past (Buss, Larsen, Westen, & Semmelroth, 1992; Buss & Shackelford, 1997; GoetzObviously offensive implications aside, how would one go about proving that to be false? We have no way of time-traveling back into our "evolutionary past" to find out what kind of whores women were back then! This claim is not falsifiable. Therefore, it is not theory, it is mere speculation. (And sexist speculation at that)
et al., 2005; Platek, 2003; Shackelford, Pound, & Goetz, 2005)
Fig. 2: Self-explanatory.
Which leads me to the third major theme of my rant: circular logic. A lot of evolutionary psychology arguments go something like this:
Evol Psychologist: Men have much stronger reactions to infidelity than women do because women were major whores millions of years ago.
Critic: But how do you know that women were whores millions of years ago?
Evol. Psychologist: Because men have much stronger reactions to infidelity than women do.
I wish I was making this up, but I'm not. The entire basis of evolutionary psychology is that the ancient environment caused humans to behave a certain way, but we don't know what that environment was like. They're making two-way inferences that sound logical. That's the extent of it.
Some of my *favorite* evolutionary psychology "theories" are the following:
- Women use lipstick and lip gloss because men are attracted to women whose lips remind them of a sexually aroused vagina. (Again, I am not making this shit up)
Fig 3: If your vagina bears any resemblance to these lips, I suggest you see a doctor. Pronto.
- The seemingly insatiable sex drive of men comes from the need to maximize their reproductive success with minimum investment. Women invest 9 months into the birth of a single child, so they are much more careful about who they have sex with. Men just want to spread their DNA around and can do so as a "one-pump chump." (My phrase, not theirs.)
Here's another one for ya:
Psychological, behavioral, physiological, anatomic, and genetic evidence indicates that men have evolved solutions to combat the adaptive problem of sperm competition (Gallup et al., 2003; Goetz et al., 2005; Kilgallon & Simmons, 2005; Pound, 2002; Shackelford et al., 2005; Smith, 1984; Wyckoff, Wang, & Wu, 2000). For example, Shackelford et al. (2002) documented that men who spent a greater proportion of time apart from their partner since the couple’s last copulation—therefore facing a high risk of sperm competition—report that they ﬁnd their partner more sexually attractive, have more interest in copulating with her, and believe that she is more interested in copulating with him (effects were independent of the total time since last copulation and relationship satisfaction). These perceptual changes may motivate men to copulate as soon as possible with their partner, thereby entering their sperm into competition with any rival sperm that may be present in her reproductive tract. Without an evolutionary lens, this exciting and fruitful line of research would have been missed entirely.Really? So much for "absence makes the heart grow fonder." He's just trying to make sure you didn't get knocked up by some other dude while he was gone!
I won't even get started on how "fruitful" this line of research is.
Now keeping in mind my main points about determinism, falsifiability, and circular logic, go ahead and read those examples again. Remember that people are getting paid to come up with this shit. Evolutionary psychology is considered as "sexy" as the fMRI in cognitive neuroscience (see previous blog on the topic). Headlines that proclaim men's sex drives as due to evolutionary forces sell papers and journals. And the two fields joining forces? Well, that's just orgasmic!
Explaining things in retrospect is convenient, but that doesn't make the explanation accurate.
My last point before I end this preview rant - evolutionary psychology cannot explain the maladaptive behaviors of people in society. When asked to address this point, evolutionary psychologists say that "evolution and natural selection are painfully slow processes and the mechanisms we have were not designed to deal with modern society, but rather the ancient times."
Ok. So by that logic, women either emerged from the primordial soup as whores, or evolutionary history is not long enough to explain how that adaptation both developed and has failed to fall by the wayside. Yet HIV, the common cold, and the flu have all rapidly adapted in order to survive a society that tries its damndest to get rid of them. Men are just too damn complex to evolve enough to keep in their pants!
This concludes my preview. I will get into these points in more detail and with many more examples at some point in the near future.
Source for this preview post:
Goetz, A. & Shackelford, T. (2006). Modern application of evolutionary theory to psychology: Key concepts and clarifications. American Journal of Psychology, 119 (4), 567- 584.