Here’s an interesting takedown of evolutionary psychology by Jesse Prinz at the Psychology Today blog (“Why Are Men So Violent?”, Feb 3 2012). Prinz defends social psychology.
Evolutionary psychology posits that our selfish genes drive us to behave in ways that propagate them. That explains love, war, religion, politics, and evidence-based doubt about selfish genes.
Social psychology, on the other hand, posits that social relationships shape behaviour. For example, men are typically physically bigger and stronger than women. That fact alone, perceived by both sexes, predicts many relationships.
For example, if a group is attacked, why do women generally expect men to fight but men don’t generally expect women to fight? The selfish gene is an off-the-shelf explanation intended to protect and expand the reach of Darwinism. Upper body strength differences are, by contrast, an observed reality. Social psychology makes more sense than evolutionary psychology if you assume (unlike Darwin and his followers) that human minds exist and make decisions.
Anyway, Prinz notes, for example, regarding a recent evolutionary psychology explanation (the “male warrior” thesis)
The authors claim that men are more xenophobic than women, because they are wired to wage war. But this is also predicted on the historical account, because men control governments and handle foreign relations. It follows too that men start all wars.
The authors contend that, compared to women, men prefer social dominance hierarchies, which testifies to their innately competitive nature. But this is easily explained on the social story: in male dominant societies, men gain from dominance hierarchies, and women lose.
The authors note that men are more prone to cooperate when under threat than otherwise, which may suggest an instinct to form armies. But a simpler explanation is that, having obtained power, men are reluctant to cooperate except under pressure.
The authors cite a disturbing study in which men endorse war after being primed with a picture of an attractive woman, which suggests that male violence has a sexual motive. But the link between sex and violence may derive from the fact that sex is often coercive in male dominant societies.
The authors link the male warrior hypothesis to racism: white men, they say, show greater fear responses to pictures of black men, than do white women. But this is difficult to explain on any evolutionary hypothesis, since there would have been little ethnic diversity in our ancestral past. Racism is more readily linked to the social history of slavery, an industry run by men.
The authors also remark that women become more racist at times of peak fertility, suggesting fear of impregnation by foreign invaders. A different explanation is that menstrual peaks also bring out strong emotions, which lets latent racism come to the fore.
Not surprisingly, social psychology attributes behaviour to learning and experience rather than to supposed ancient history, somehow trapped in our genes. That doesn’t mean that any given social psychology theory is correct. It does mean that a rational person can assess it, using common sense evaluations.
On that basis, “fear of impregnation by foreign invaders” (which evolution somehow captured in a woman’s genes) is a ridiculous explanation for racism during ovulation. How about general discomfort due to hormone flux? Plus, the frustrating difficulty of accounting for the discomfort: Ovulation is invisible and hard to detect.* Social psychology aligns with common sense in saying that the obvious targets of the woman’s ill will are not genetic memories of ancient enemies but whoever she already dislikes.
Over at The Best Schools, we use social psychology to help us understand the impact of culture on education – here, for example.
Prinz’s analysis will not be to all tastes, of course, but it is a definite improvement on the nonsense he critiques.
* it can be detected, but most women accounting for the malaise are not likely to use technical aids to detect it. They just go with the hormone flow and make the best of things.
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