Longtime University of Toronto biochemistry professor and frequent Uncommon Descent commenter Larry Moran:
We were discussing the field of evolutionary psychology at our local cafe scientific meeting last week. The discussion was prompted by watching a video of Steven Pinker in conversation with Stephen Fry. I pointed out that the field of evolutionary psychology is a mess and many scientists and philosophers think it is fundamentally flawed. The purpose of this post is to provide links to back up my claim.
Steady, Larry. You are not alone. Lots of people have listened to the tin pan din of evolutionary psychology and come away thinking much the same thing.
Dr. Moran offers citations and goes on to note:
The field of evolutionary psychology is full of hyper-adaptationist thinking. It’s primary task is explaining modern features of human behavior as adaptations that took place in primitive human populations. From an evolutionary perspective, this requires that the behavior has strong enough genetic components to be subject to evolution by natural selection. It requires that primitive populations contained alleles for the modern behavior as well as alleles for a different behavior that reduced fitness. Finally, it requires that selection for the modern behavior is strong enough to lead to fixation in just a few hundred thousand years.
All of these assumptions require supporting evidence that is almost always missing in evolutionary psychology publications. In the absence of evidence, the default assumption should be that the behavior is cultural. If there’s evidence of a genetic component then the default assumption should be fixation by drift unless there’s evidence of selection More.
Of course, the usual story we hear is that evolutionary psychology says we think we should watch our waistlines because Fred Flintstone thought he should watch his waistline.
But, stop wait… Did the genuinely Stone Age, recently censored Willendorf Venus think she should watch her waistline? Could she even find her waistline? If not, what arbitrary line should she choose? How do we know she would even bother?
A few years ago I was discussing this issue with Gad Saad, an evolutionary psychologist at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. He defended his field by listing a number of notable achievements [The Great, Profound, and Valuable Works of Evolutionary Psychology]. I’ll end this post by giving you his list and letting you decide for yourselves whether the field is worthwhile. As you read the list, ask yourselves the following questions …
Is there evidence for genes (alleles) that are responsible for this trait?
Is there evidence that in primitive societies this trait improved fitness more than the original, presumably deleterious, trait?
Is there evidence that this is a universal trait present in all human populations?
He offers 15 questions and I (O’Leary for News) will only attempt one here:
1. Women alter their preferences for the facial features of men as a function of where they are in their menstrual cycles. When maximally fertile, they prefer men possessing markers of high testosterone.
One wonders whether such a finding has been widely replicated. Speaking as a veteran, I would offer the following observations:
How menstrual cycles affect women depends on a variety of issues including health, temperament, and culture. Some women experience amenorrhea and others experience menorrhagia (look it up). Starving women usually stop menstruating (or do so irregularly).
Women vary widely in the extent to which hormone fluctuations make a difference to how they behave because underlying temperament must also be considered.
Whether a culture cares much about menstrual cycles can play a very large role in how women react to them. That can include who or what they think they are supposed to be attracted to.
So even before we get to Dr. Moran’s questions, we should realize that we are not looking at a problem that is as simple as say, the typical behaviour of rabid skunks.
Now, as to the questions he raises:
Is there evidence for genes (alleles) that are responsible for this trait? [UD News: Given the complexities, is there solid long-term global evidence for the trait at all?]
Is there evidence that in primitive societies this trait improved fitness more than the original, presumably deleterious, trait? [UD News: A big problem with the concept of fitness is that what is “fit” is a sliding measure. Is it “fit” to get accidentally pregnant by an alpha male who moves on and doesn’t care about his kid (however fit the kid may be)? For as long as we have known human ancestors, they have lived in groups. Women could hardly afford sisters who created obligations without providing assets. Traditionally, women have let their sisters know that… ]
Is there evidence that this is a universal trait present in all human populations? [UD News: One senses they’d need a big budget for research.]
Other readers can tackle other options, here or at Sandwalk, as they wish.
The bigger question isn’t why evolutionary psychology is bunk but what keeps it alive?
See also: Shock! Darwinism does not explain why old women exist
Toxic snow has claimed Stone Age artwork: Willendorf Venus banned from Facebook (later reinstated)
“The evolutionary psychologist knows why you vote — and shop, and tip at restaurants”
Here is Steven Pinker on evolution and psychology: