Friday, October 7, 2011

Pop Psychology: We're All Evolutionary Psychologists

"A scientific theory tends to go through four stages before it's accepted: (1) it's wrong; (2) it could be right, but it's dangerous; (3) it's right, but trivial; (4) that's what I've said all along" - Paraphrased from some source I forgot. 

If you happen to think evolution is true, you also happen to be an evolutionary psychologist (implicitly, in that you should conclude our brains are the product of the same evolutionary process that all life is). Every statement about the function (or lack of function) of our - or any other species' - psychology is a statement about selection pressures and adaptations, however implicit. Some of these theories are not very good - the blank slate comes to mind -  or very explicit, but they all deal with the same underlying questions: what were the selective pressures on a species? How did said species evolve to deal with these pressures?   

                                                           According to some, at some point in this process the entire process stopped mattering

Which is why it's strange that the term "Evolutionary Psychology" gets thrown around as a type of insult in some groups. For me, it works the other way around; those who actively don't consider themselves evolutionary-minded researchers are the ones that have the cooties, sit around eating paste, and are to be shunned at playtime. Evolution is true, and its usefulness as a theoretical framework for conducting and understanding research about the human mind and body is well evidenced, so why should anyone actively avoid using it? The reasons for the opposition to evolutionary psychology are numerous on paper, but we can learn about their underlying causes simply by the critics - misguided as they are - speaking for themselves.

                                                                    Yes, these are supposed to be actual criticisms; no, I'm not joking

The colored dots in the bottom-left of each box represent a general category I see the criticism falling into: Red indicates "Just-So Story" criticisms; Green indicates charges of genetic determinism; Blue indicates attempts to distance the authority of "science" from EP; Black indicates a charge that EP will justify morally distasteful actions, also known as the naturalistic fallacy. While these four categories don't wholly encompass the areas criticisms fall into, I think they're an alright - if rough and perhaps arbitrary - start. (Edit: There is an additional category criticisms generally fall under: Conflating proximate and ultimate explanations, nicely summed up by quotes like this one. “Wanting to prevent sexual assault is evolution, instead of, like, wanting not to be assaulted.”)

There was a certain amount of guess-work (or interpretation, if you want to put a positive spin on it) that went into my classifications: some of those criticisms are just stupid in a relatively straightforward way, while others are stupid in several ways, or stupid in ways that aren't quite clear and I had to infer the intentions of the person writing them. By no means should these be taken as set-in-stone (unless it happens to agree or disagree strongly with your existing thoughts, in which case it probably will be).

The first thing I'd like to call attention to is that evolutionary psychologists - or those who defend the field - are portrayed as male (center square and bottom-right corner, the latter of which sends a pretty clear message). One could be left wondering why, considering that the majority of people working in the field are politically left-leaning women (about 65%, which is not significantly different from the 70% of women in other fields of psychology; Tybur, Miller, & Gangestad, 2007). Perhaps men are more vocal in their defenses of the field or are just better known. Perhaps it has something to do with the social views and goals of the person doing the critiquing. I can't say for sure. 

The second thing to consider is breakdown by criticism: 11/25 squares deal with “Just-So” storytelling, 6/25 squares deal with genetic determinism, 4/25 squares deal with a lack of scientific rigor, and a whooping 13/25 squares deal with matters of moral justification or sexism, though I consider that 13/25 to be a conservative estimate; I can think of at least 4 more squares it might apply to.

What could these rough figures - and I do stress rough - potentially tell us about the opposition towards EP? The anecdata point towards the following picture of what the stereotype of an evolutionary psychologist is: men who are trying to justify their nasty and dominating behavior by claiming their genes determine their actions, always have, and always will, so there's no point to try and change the "natural" order of things.   
The people behind this BINGO board are winning at the pop anti-evolutionary psychology game:

I don't think it's a coincidence that the critics of adaptationist thinking often appear more aggressive towards the methods involved when applied to humans - as opposed to non-humans - nor is it just a string of chance happenings that the majority of the criticisms appear to mention perceived negative traits (violence comes to mind, though it could be any idea the author finds distasteful) rather than perceived positive or neutral ones.

Finally, I'm struck by the resemblance of the opposition towards evolutionary psychology specifically to the opposition towards evolution more generally: "evolutionary theory says there's no such thing as morality and everything is permitted"; "you can't test what happened in the past, so it's not science". There are many people who think evolution is true, but back off once they hit the human mind, much like Alfred Russel Wallace did.  

Sounding familiar at all?

References: Tybur, J.M., Miller, G.F., &  Gangestad, S.W. (2007). Testing the Controversy: An Empirical Examination of Adaptationist's Attitude Towards Politics and Science. Human Nature, 18, 313-328

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