Jerry Coyne is trying to defend evolutionary psychology again

Why, oh why, do EP's defenders rely on throwing up armies of straw men to slaughter? It's silly. Here's how he starts:

There are some science-friendly folk (including atheists) who simply dismiss the entire field of evolutionary psychology in humans, saying that its theoretical foundations are weak or nonexistent. I’ve always replied that that claim is bunk, for its “theoretical foundations” are simply the claim that our brains and behaviors, like our bodies, show features reflecting evolution in our ancestors.

Have you ever seen a critic of evolutionary psychology deny that we evolved, or that features and differences of the human body and brain are products of evolution? Not me. When I say that it's theoretical foundations are ridiculous, I don't mean the idea that there are evolved differences between the sexes, but that EP comes with a set of ludicrous assumptions, such as that we are adapted to the African savannah and the agricultural and urban adaptations of the last 10,000 years don't count. It leads to absurdities like the paleo diet, in which it's assumed that we should eat like cavemen, because evolution.

I also criticize the just-so story-telling. Coyne should know this well: studying evolution is hard and demands rigor. Yet evolutionary psychologists will do a quickie study on color perception in college undergraduates and announce that women evolved to be better at recognizing ripe berries.

And obviously, as you might guess, there are the methodological problems. There is so much trivial market-driven crap in evolutionary psychology that it swamps out any hypothetically 'good' research in the field. If I were doing research on the evolutionary basis of human behavior (I'm not, fortunately), I would run away so fast from the label "evolutionary psychology" that I'd make Kanazawa's head spin, and he'd have to formulate some story about the distant ancestors of white people having to sprint away from noisy speculating sabre-toothed tigers.

But then Coyne pulls his magic "proof" out of his hat: the existence of sexual dimorphism. Yeah, who has a problem with that? Men and women look different in grand and subtle ways. Some of those differences were almost certainly selected for. Again, I don't know anyone who denies that, so it's kind of weird to use it as his triumphant example. Except that he seems to think all those lefty wackos -- you know, feminists, apparently -- are in the business of denying the obvious.

But the left-wing opposition to evolutionary psychology as a valid discipline in principle, especially when it involves differences in sexual behavior, seems to me based more on ideology than on biology. Ideologues cannot allow any possibility that males and females behave differently because of their evolution. Such people think that this would buttress the view that one sex would be “better” than the other.

I know a lot of modern radical feminists. I'm pretty solidly in the left-wing camp myself. And NO ONE denies the physical differences between men and women, or claims that evolution could not have played an important role in shaping the diversity of modern humans. Nor do any claim that there aren't significant behavioral differences -- we encounter those every day. What we oppose is the credulous insistence that every single difference is a product of selection, that the influence of culture is noise gently overlaying the purity of the biological signal, and worst of all, the idea that the status quo is justified as a product of biology (which Coyne at least tries to distance himself from at the end).

But please, spare us the simplistic causal explanations for these differences that rely on cartoony, evidence-free speculation, like that men evolved to be bigger than women because they had to punch each other lots in fights for dominance. Perhaps we should recognize that culture creates roles that can generate differential selection pressure on men and women, and that human behavior is far more complex and cooperative than cavemen bashing each other with clubs.


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Coyne's laziness and stereotyping on this front doesn't surprise me. He's got a huge emotional issue with feminists and leftists in general who criticize him, so he latches on to Steve Pinker-style stuff like this.

In part because humans are significantly sexually dimorphic, level of sexual dimorphism correlates with level of polygyny among primates, and males are dominant over females in absolutely every human society, then it is the best explanation that male dominance is psychologically innate. It is not certain. It is merely the best explanation. You call it a "just so" story, but a "just so" story is merely derogatory word for a hypothesis. Such hypotheses can be either true of false just like hypotheses generally, and they are confirmed or disconfirmed with further evidence and study. You acknowledge the existence of sexual dimorphism, yes, but your relevant failure is your hatred of the analysis or explanation of it.

By Abel Dean (not verified) on 02 Dec 2014 #permalink

Not all evolutionary psychology studies are badly founded, but the well-founded ones have a habit of supporting rather than detracting from feminist ideals if you look at their implications.
For instance, there has long been a myth that women secretly desire to be raped. Of course it doesn't take any scientific modelling to disprove that, just women's real life experience. What evolutionary psychology has done is strip away the scientific respectability that Sigmund Freud and others lent the myth.
It is true that evolutionary psychology predicts psychological as well as physical differences between the genders; like the physical differences we would expect them to be mostly limited to sexuality and aggression. Being male is a risk factor for violence and domineering behaviour. These traits make people simultaneously good at grabbing leadership positions and bad at fulfilling the duties of those positions. Since the correlation between maleness and aggression is not purely a social construct, it can only be countered fully by ensuring there are plenty of women leaders. Steven Pinker, whom someone above dismisses, argues on that basis that a world with more women in leadership will be more peaceful and prosperous.
I've blogged at length on the subject, please feel free to check out if you're interested.

By Daniel Copeland (not verified) on 02 Dec 2014 #permalink

"It is the best explanation that male dominance is psychologically innate. It is not certain. It is merely the best explanation."

I'm skeptical we can produce a definition of dominance that explains both human and non-human behaviors, I'm skeptical that male dominance exists in every human society under a gorilla definition of dominance, I'm skeptical you can separate out sex from mere size. If we wave our hands and say that all gender issues are equivalent to mate selection in gorillas, then I'm still skeptical that something psychologically innate would so quickly vacillate over the course of history, as women's roles in society have so rapidly shifted over the last few hundred years, or country by country.

Mostly, though, I'm skeptical that it's fair to draw comparisons between primates that use rational thought, debates, and recordings of history to inform decisions, and those that don't in areas that are so frequently the subject of introspection and debate.

You say "male dominance as psychologically innate" is the best explanation, but I don't see it as offering any explanatory power. It would predict, what, that FGM and the hijab are the natural state of affairs, and destined to become state law in, say, France in the next decade or so? Polygamy will soon be encouraged as the norm in all countries around the world?

You'll say, "no no, of course you can't extend it that far..."

But a theory you constantly have to calibrate to conform to your intuitive expectations isn't really a theory explaining anything at all.

By Thomas B. (not verified) on 03 Dec 2014 #permalink

E. O. Wilson once claimed how our need for water and fear of predators defines our aesthetics, which perfectly explains why we nearly universally prefer green pastures and despise reptiles.

Note to all lizard owners and members of Reddit's "Desert Porn" sub, you're all inhuman monsters.

By Thomas B. (not verified) on 03 Dec 2014 #permalink

Let's suppose evolution drove the development of human curiosity, rationality (albeit with heuristics / biases), and a desire for social bonding.

Let's say you can explain some behavior as an outgrowth of those features.

If it's already a predominant behavior, where's the selective pressure operating on that specific behavior? Where's the drive for additional physical changes for something that's already universal?

Evolutionary pressure is redundant for such behaviors, once you concede that evolution provided those fundamentals.

Occam's razor (or here, an extrapolation from the expensive tissue hypothesis) should drive you to reject the idea that behaviors are selected for when they can be explained naturally by other human attributes. EP does not offer the "best explanation" when its explanations are redundant (let alone when it tries to explain something that varies from generation to generation, or on topics where individuals routinely change their mind).

EP should therefore constrain itself to the domain of behaviors that a) cannot be explained by rationality or social factors, and b) are verifiably fixed across all cultures and for millennia.

I suspect this is a null set, but maybe not. EP might have something to say about cognitive biases, for example.

By Thomas B. (not verified) on 03 Dec 2014 #permalink

Abel Dean - Even if you indeed have an innate desire to dominate me, it does not follow that I have an innate desire to be dominated.

Clearly, you are not an anthropologist, as if you had read anything about "absolutely every human society" [that still exists or of which lasting evidence is available], you would know that while gender-based social roles are universal, female subjugation is not. There have been cultures in which war was almost always the province of men, yet women controlled or heavily influenced most major political decisions and ceremonial activities. We like to attribute our species' current success to being thinking animals and not brutes, after all. It makes no more sense to exclude women from making intellect-based contributions to their society because "women are smaller" than it would be to exclude smaller or weaker men from such activities. Some cultures have been smart enough to recognize that.

The non-emotive difference between a just-so story and a hypothesis, by the way, is whether it is liable to disproof.

I can't agree with the limits you suggest for natural selection on the human mind, Thomas B. You say
"EP should therefore constrain itself to the domain of behaviors that a) cannot be explained by rationality or social factors, and b) are verifiably fixed across all cultures and for millennia."
Let's take these by turns:
(a) i) "Rationality". If you're facing a problem which has a single good solution, finding that solution is the sort of thing rationality is good at. But it's also the sort of thing natural selection is good at (if the "problem" is something that affects reproductive success and the "good solution" can be reached by incremental change). Take the tree structure of human language, with phrases nested within phrases: it's hard to come up with a better way of organizing open communication, yet children learning their first language do not reason their way into it, they just spontaneously start doing it.
(a) ii) Social factors? You'll have to be a bit more specific. There are people out there -- including some teaching in universities, I've met them, I studied cultural anthro -- to whom any "cultural conditioning" hypothesis whatever, no matter how far-fetched, automatically trumps any biological hypothesis about human behaviour. They tend to be vague about it, though. "This study doesn't exclude cultural factors" sounds a lot better than "Why haven't you dealt with the possibility that these people suddenly turned from nature-loving hippies to trophy-hunting warriors after five minutes' contact with the Western scientific outlook?" I had an anthropology professor who thought Aboriginal Australian rain-dances actually worked. I shit you not.
(b) "Verifiably fixed" -- this is a much more respectable criterion than the last two, but still... I should point out that beardedness in men is a variable trait across cultures. Would you argue on that basis alone that beards are not an adaptation? They're certainly biological in nature. Some cultures have practices that cancel out that biological reality, others do not. The same could be true of any given psychological feature of biological origin -- whether or not it was originally adaptive.

By Daniel Copeland (not verified) on 08 Dec 2014 #permalink