by Denyse O'Leary
Evolutionary psychology—the theory that human nature can best be understood by trying to guess the survival strategies that benefited human ancestors hundreds of thousands of years ago (and are now governed by our genes)—burst on the scene in the 1990s. after the controversial failures of similar trends in psychology, Social Darwinism and sociobiology.
Evolutionary psychology is an effort to bring social sciences into line with a current interpretation of Darwinian evolution favored by, for example, Richard Dawkins , by reducing the complex vagaries and choices of current human behaviour to simple formulas based on comparisons with primate apes and speculations about human prehistory based on chance findings from genome maps.
Evolutionary psychologists claim to be able to explain altruism, crime, economics, emotions, infidelity, laughter, law, literature, obesity, religion, war, why the United States does not go to war against Canada (which has almost no military presence),
sexual orientation, why people do or don't vote conservative, what women currently find attractive, why children dislike vegetables, and so forth.
And this is hardly an exhaustive list. Indeed, no exhaustive list would be possible, because anyone can interpret any current social situation (a gruesome baby-killing, a demand to legalize polygamy, current US-Canada relations) in the light of what supposedly happened in prehistoric times and then make up a story about how the behavior arose.
Such enterprises always take as a starting point the values of the individual storyteller. Unfortunately, most of the evo psycho stories I have read assume that a rather vulgar value system is the key to success in life—which does raise certain moral issues that parents and teachers should be aware of.
Evolutionary biologists have at times scornfully critiqued these "just-so" stories:
For example, evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne has commented,
In science's pecking order, evolutionary biology lurks somewhere near the bottom, far closer to phrenology than to physics. For evolutionary biology is a historical science, laden with history's inevitable imponderables. We evolutionary biologists cannot generate a Cretaceous Park to observe exactly what killed the dinosaurs; and, unlike "harder" scientists, we usually cannot resolve issues with a simple experiment, such as adding tube A to tube B and noting the color of the mixture. The latest deadweight dragging us closer to phrenology is "evolutionary psychology," or the science formerly known as sociobiology, which studies the evolutionary roots of human behavior. There is nothing inherently wrong with this enterprise, and it has proposed some intriguing theories, particularly about the evolution of language. The problem is that evolutionary psychology suffers from the scientific equivalent of megalomania. Most of its adherents are convinced that virtually every human action or feeling, including depression, homosexuality, religion, and consciousness, was put directly into our brains by natural selection. In this view, evolution becomes the key--the only key-- that can unlock our humanity." (Coyne, Jerry A. [Department of Ecology and Evolution, University of Chicago], "The fairy tales of evolutionary psychology." Review of "A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion," by Randy Thornhill & Craig T. Palmer, MIT Press, 2000. The New Republic, March 4, 2000.).
From evolutionary biologist Gabriel Dover,
This problem of just-so story telling is not some minor irritation to do with the perennial problem of giraffes, dismissable as some naive caricature of what you really proposed in your theory of evolution. The problem runs much deeper and wider, embracing many new disciplines of evolutionary psychology, Darwinian medicine, linguistics, biological ethics and sociobiology. Here quite vulgar explanations are offered, based on the crudest applications of selection theory, of why we humans are the way we are. There seems no aspect of our psychological make-up that does not receive its supposed evolutionary explanation from the sorts of things our selfish genes forced us to do 200,000 to 500,000 years ago. ... Not only is there the embarrassing spectacle of psychologists, philosophers and linguists rushing down the road of selfish genetic determinism, but we are also shackled with their self-imposed justification in giving 'scientific' respectability to complex behavioural phenomena in humans which we simply do not so far have the scientific tools and methodologies to investigate. There is a naivety about genetic determinism in both evolution and development that signifies intellectual laziness at best and shameless ignorance at worst when confronted with issues of massive complexity.
(From Gabriel Dover,[Professor of Genetics, University of Leicester], Dear Mr Darwin: Letters on the Evolution of Life and Human Nature, , University of California Press, Berkeley CA, 2000, reprint, p.45).
Also, from social scientist Donald G. MacRae,
A peculiarity of Darwinism, both in biology and in other fields, is that it explains too much. It is very hard to imagine a condition of things which could not be explained in terms of natural selection. If the state of various elements at a given moment is such and such then these elements have displayed their survival value under the existing circumstances, and that is that. Natural selection explains why things are as they are: It does not enable us, in general, to say how they will change and vary. It is in a sense rather a historical than a predictive principle and, as is well known, it is rather a necessary than a sufficient principle for modern biology. In consequence its results when applied to social affairs were often rather odd. ( Donald G. Macrae, [Reader in Sociology, University of London], "Darwinism and the Social Sciences," in S. A. Barnett, ed., A Century of Darwin, , Mercury Books: London, 1962, p.304).
In the absence of documentation, no one knows what happened in human prehistory or how those happenings affect the current human population, if they do. That's precisely why it is called "prehistory." The evolutionary psychologist can cherrypick whatever thesis he wants about the origin of human behavior, certain that no rigorous test can conclusively tie his thesis to actual events in prehistory. Some book-length critiques of this approach are beginning to be available.
Now and then, the fog lifts, and we see something from prehistory that is truly remarkable, like the cave paintings of Lascaux or the Willendorf Venus. But what do they mean? We interpret them according to who we are, not according to what they are, and a variety of interpretations is possible. No written record has survived to tell us what their creators really thought about what they were doing.
Another serious practical problem for evolutionary psychology is that the number of common human ancestors may actually be quite small. For example, recent research identifies four women as recent common ancestors of 3.5 million Ashkenazi Jews (2000 mya).
Why is this a problem? Because evolutionary psychology is, in general, group psychology. If the basic evolutionary psychology thesis were sound, a group would respond to a given issue (selective baby-killing, polygamy) by making choices that affects the group's survival and reproduction. This response is alleged to be encoded in our genes, turning up later in our thoughts.
But if only a few human beings are actually ancestors, only a few unique and unpredictable individual responses matter. It is no use theorizing about how early humans in general might have reacted if the individual who chooses to go against the group becomes the ancestor. And we don't even know, for mosst purposes, whether a decision that went against the group played any role in that individual's becoming an ancestor.
Who knows how those four Jewish women felt about the persecution of Jews, for example? The only thing we can say for certain is that they did not see it as a reason to refuse to have children. Similarly, the only thing we can safely say about our early human ancestors is that their challenges and troubles did not dissuade them from raising families. Who can effectively postdict any other critical details in the absence of a historical record?
(postdict = explaining what happened after the fact, the usual procedure of evolutionary psychology; the opposite of predict).
Toronto-based Canadian journalist Denyse O'Leary (www.designorchance.com) is the author of the multiple award-winning By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg Fortress 2004), an overview of the intelligent design controversy. She was named CBA Canada's Recommended Author of the Year in 2005 and is co-author, with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of the forthcoming The Spiritual Brain (Harper 2007).
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