It’s presumably better than creationist psychology, but nobody practices creationist psychology – so presumably the word “evolutionary” is doing a bit more work here than it may seem at first blush. Indeed, the word seems to encode, in this context, a series of propositions that most people actually working in human evolution believe to be false, if not ridiculous. Foundationally, where students of human evolution have generally emphasized the adaptability of the human mind, evolutionary psychologists have rather attempted to call attention to the adaptedness of the human mind.
From these opposed starting points, other divergences quickly accumulate. For example, the idea that there is an instinctual “human nature” that is analytically separable from human culture. Whether or not you believe it, the idea has far stronger roots in Aristotle than in Darwin. But what our knowledge of human evolution tells us is that even our most fundamental evolutionary instincts, walking and talking, are also learned and highly cultural. Moreover, any familiarity with the history of the subject can show that assertions about “human nature” have a great deal of political valence. They consequently must endure high degrees of scrutiny to be taken seriously; the propositions that regularly emerge from evolutionary psychology tend to wither under the merest criticism.
My personal favorite is the claim that 37 different cultures attest to the divergent features that men and women like in mates, which can now be safely ascribed to nature – until you control for gendered economic inequality, at which point the apparent divergence disappears. It wasn’t nature at all; it was history and sloppy scientific reasoning. My second personal favorite is the presumptively evolved disposition for men to be attracted to women with a waist-to-hip ratio of 0.67, the same as that of the stereotypical 36-24-36 Hollywood starlet. Again, naively cross-culturally supported, until you try to control for familiarity with Hollywood. Then it breaks down quickly. Again, history and sloppy scientific reasoning; what passes for cross-cultural generalization in evolutionary psychology tends to appall scholars actually familiar with cross-cultural analyses.
Note also: Marks’s new book, Tales of the Ex-Apes: How We Think about Human Evolution (2015)
About evolutionary psychology, the skinny:
1. Like astrobiology, evo psych is a discipline without a subject. There aren’t any space aliens or human ancestors from two million years ago available for study. Thus evo psych so often employs that infamous grammatical construction, “would have had to,” as in “Our ancestors “would have had to” be polygamous/eat insects/etc.…
If one can’t say “had to” (as in “had to” find a water supply), it is not science.
2. As Marks implies, the basis of evo psych is inherently contradictory. If modern human psychology can tell us what humans did two million years ago, then there has been no significant evolution since then. If so, what follows? The only reasonable deduction from the evo psych’s assertions undermines the very evolutionary theory he believes heart and soul in…
Marks notes in closing, “And finally, I can’t shake the feeling that the methodologies I have encountered in evolutionary psychology would not meet the standards of any other science.”
One can certainly see why he can’t shake the feeling.
See also: “The evolutionary psychologist knows why you vote — and shop, and tip at restaurants”