Thursday, January 15, 2009

Rant on Evolutionary Psych: A Preview

I've been alluding to my intention of writing a blog about why I think evolutionary psychology is bullshit pretty much since I started this blog. Before I fully undertake this task, I am re-reading the relevant literature so that I am prepared for the inevitable shitstorm that will follow once google search starts leading certain parties to this blog. Nonetheless, I offer this preview of what is to come. Consider it an introduction to to my intended rant while I get myself armed with data and obnoxious quotes from articles.

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. 

Fig. 1: Freud slippers. Yup. 

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; Goetz
et al., 2005; Platek, 2003; Shackelford, Pound, & Goetz, 2005)
Obviously 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)

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.


Ambivalent Academic said...


Just curious, how do you feel about the work of Sarah Blaffer Hrdy.

I'm currently reading "The Woman that Never Evolved". Loving it! But I think that her research argues very strongly against biological determinism, whereas she frequently gets referenced (very much out of context) as being in support of it.

She also took a lot of heat both from evolutionary anthropologists, and feminists at the time she originally published her "radical" ideas, which was interesting because they were upset about the same implications of her research for very different reasons.

If you haven't read her stuff yet, I strongly recommend it. She's a good writer to boot.

I'll look forward tot he next installment.

JLK said...

Thanks, AA!

No, I'm not familiar with her. I'll have to look that up. Thanks for the recommendation! I'm going to check amazon right now.

Silver Fox said...

Maybe with regard to Figure 3, men need reading glasses?! ;)

"Ok. So by that logic, women either emerged from the primordial soup as whores..." Gosh, but isn't that the way some men see things? Yeah, some isn't all, I know CPP would probably cuss a bluestreak at that last comment of mine. (Okay, SFoxx, no more beer for You!)

I don't know, probably one gets too cynical about this whole thing as one gets older! Sorry if I've gotten too flippant.

But yes, you are definitely posting some interesting stuff here, and I'll be reading more.

daedalus2u said...

There is another interpretation to the idea that ”The multitude of male psychological mechanisms associated with cuckoldry avoidance tells us that female infidelity was a recurrent feature of our evolutionary past”

That in our evolutionary past women were not allowed to choose who they would mate with and who they would have children with; so males evolved all these behaviors to thwart the free choice of women.

If women did evolve the behavior of having sex with men of their choosing, not men chosen for them, that behavior must have been successful (or it would not have evolved).

I have a pretty high tolerance for evolutionary-type reasoning. The difficulty I have with it is when it gets used to justify legislation or excuse people behaving certain ways. I have no doubt that all humans are descended from ancestors born of rape. In no way, shape or form does that justify or excuse rape today.

Did what is called “infidelity” evolve as a reproductive strategy to compensate for women being treated as property and forced to have sex at their owner’s whim when she could “do better” by choosing her own mate?

I think that as a strategy, rejecting evolutionary psychology because it isn’t falsifiable won’t work. Proponents will find it too compelling anyway. It might be easier to cast doubt on the conclusions by suggesting hypotheses which are equally plausible, equally supportable and equally non-falsifiable but which the initial proposer finds objectionable.

The conclusion that “men were rapists” and treated women as chattel is (I think) more defensible than “women were whores”. Since we have historical records of men behaving that way (and some still do), it isn’t a great stretch to think men behaved that way in times before we have records.

I think the issue for the men proposing this construct (and I am pretty sure who ever proposed it is male) is that the concept of a woman having the ability to freely choose who will father her children is anathema. There must be something wrong with that idea, so they will push and prod the idea until they find some way to blame it on women, even if those women lived thousands of generations ago.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

These evolutionary psychology shitheads are just pulling just-so stories out of their fucking asses that--purely coincidentally--happen to lead to the conclusion that male privilege and misogyny are, like, totally inevitable and unavoidable and just HOW THINGS ARE cause, like, evolution and stuff. What a motherfucking transparent joke.

Procrastinating Postgrad said...

I'm a sociologist, and evolutionary psychology makes me go a bit postal. On the bright side, where can I get those slippers? I would brighten my day if I could spend breakfasttime with my foot up Freud's arse.

JLK said...

@daedalus - I love your comments. The vast majority of evolutionary psychologists appear to be men, which is especially interesting when one considers that women now dominate psychology as a whole by a substantial margin. In my continuing research for this series of posts I intend to look for alternative explanations and post them as well. The biggest problem I have with this field is what you said - using these ideas and "research" to justify certain behaviors or at the very least, explain them away. Because this field sells papers, it creates impressions on the general public that reinforce stereotypes and inequality. We need to separate out the bullshit from the theories that might actually have practical and beneficial implications for society.

@CPP - That is almost word for word what I wanted to write as my introductory paragraph, but I thought that might be too inflammatory. LOL

@ Procrastinating Postgrad - if you google "freud" images, that picture pops up within the first 2 pages and takes you to the website where you can by them. LOL at your reason for wanting them, and if you get them you need to post a pic of you wearing them! Seeing as you're a sociologist, I'd love to get your comments and thoughts on my subsequent posts on this topic, so I hope you'll venture back!

leigh said...

wow, i read your post and the only thing that my mind could come up with is WTF?!?!?!?!?!!!11!1!?

i mean, that's total motherfucking horseshit!

i guess, by the logic of your last point, men are also too stoopid to figure out that copulation happening a week ago, if resulting in a pregnancy, kinda exempts that whole "competition" aspect of the sperm competition idea.

thanks for pointing out this utter bullshit. i hope you write more about psych topics, because i haven't really gotten much into it myself.

DuWayne Brayton said...

I am so very looking forward to seeing you get to the meat of the subject.

So by that logic, women either emerged from the primordial soup as whores....

I think I'm developing a crush. I can't tell you how endlessly amusing the picture this painted of simple organisms hooking is.

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."

I think that this really drives home the similarity between evo-psych and religion. Seriously, this is exactly the sort of logic I was using to desperately cling to my Christian beliefs, in the face of evolution and my absolute belief that gays are human fucking beings.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I can develop correlations between religion and evo-psych. Both are more a matter of faith than anything else.

JLK said...

@ Leigh - you have no idea how frustrating it has been to listen to professors and grad students who think that evol psych is the greatest thing since sliced bread go on and on about how evol psych "just makes soooo much sense!" And all I can think when they do that is, "Did you people EVER take a research methods course?? Did you EVER learn critical thinking skills? WTF is wrong with you???"

DuWayne said: "I think I'm developing a crush."

Awww....I try my hardest to be amusing while I rip bad science to shreds. It's fantastic to know that my efforts haven't been wasted!

Your parallels between religion and evol psych are right on. I think, just like religious figures, their intentions are benign but the outcomes are horrifyingly oppressive.

If it was based in good science, I could deal with it, but it isn't. So every time I read one of these articles I have to separate my visceral reaction to the blatant sexism from my critical thinking about the points they're trying to make and the evidence they use to try to make them.

If they were based in good science, I would have to approach it differently and so would any other target group. But that's why this stuff is so dangerous. What practical implications could come from a scientific "discovery" that women are inferior and are filthy, lying whores? Or that other races are somehow inferior to whites? Let's say for the sake of argument that they were able to prove both of these things true - the only thing that could come out of that is a new social darwinist movement in favor of white males. And god knows we don't need that.

That's the most important question I think - if it turned out that women were, in fact, huge whores in the ancient past, what the fuck does that have to do with right now? What benefit can we derive from that? How does that better society?

It doesn't. So I want them to stop wasting my fucking tax dollars.

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