Bronze-level article

Evolutionary psychology

From RationalWiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Tell me about
your mother

Icon psychology.svg
For our next session...
Popping into your mind
EvoPsych 101: Rats and people are the same, but men and women are different.

Evolutionary psychology (EP) attempts to explain how and why complex human behaviours emerged as a result of the evolution of humans and of the human brain. The field includes examining fitness advantages that such behaviors give, like by natural selection. Evolutionary psychologists see behaviors or social constructs, in the broadest sense, as adaptations in the same way as physical ones. However, evolutionary psychology also investigates behaviors as possible byproducts of natural selection (or "spandrels", to use Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin's term[1]) or as mere evolutionary noise.

Evolutionary mechanisms of mutation and natural selection have been very successful in explaining most aspects of human biology, and so far have had some success in explaining why many complex human behaviours exist throughout the human species. However, evolutionary psychology as a field is notoriously full of woo and cranks producing theories — that are either proven wrong or which cannot be disproven — to promote bigotry. Examples include the idea that black people and women have not evolved the same ability to understand science like white men can,[2] that standards of beauty not evident outside the West are actually universal,[3] and that black women haven't evolved to be as good-looking as women of other races.[4][note 1] More scientific studies by actually qualified evolutionary psychologists actually do help explain beauty preferences seen throughout the human species,[5] along with many other features of human behaviour.

Note that evolutionary psychology isn't a scientific non-starter like homeopathy or intelligent design. Unlike these pseudo-intellectual excrescences regrettably misguided notions, evo-psy can, both in theory and in practice, produce well-founded conclusions.

Those interested in it should know, however, that even its least controversial and best-supported claims are intensely prone to distortion in the non-technical press and especially on the Internet. Just as self-interested hypocrites well-meaning men of substance almost immediately perverted Darwin's 1859 theory of natural selection to justify cruel bigotry (Social Darwinism, eugenics), so interested parties can readily twist evolutionary psychology to buttress prejudice. This does not make evolutionary psychology wrong, any more than the brutality of Social Darwinism made evolutionary theory wrong, but it does suggest that one should assess claims rooted in evolutionary psychology very carefully, whether reading them or writing them.

Assumptions of evolutionary psychology[edit]

Evolutionary psychology has one basic premise: that human behaviour and cognition (collectively known as psychology) are governed to a great extent by Darwinian evolution. In other words, evolutionary psychology proposes that genetics is an important mechanism behind shaping psychology. When evo psychs formulate hypotheses, they try to use the Darwinian evolutionary history of humans, even though there is little evidence to corroborate their specific account.

Evolutionary psychology attempts to provide explanations for certain human behaviours. However, whether or not these generated explanations can then be established as scientifically-plausible or consistent is a separate question.[6] Areas in which an evolutionary approach to psychology is often applied include sex, morality, religion, and in-group/out-group effects.

While no scientist worth their salt will dispute that humans are the product of evolution, they will posit that they are a product of culture as well. A very clear picture has emerged in the literature and it goes against evolutionary psychology's main assumption — recall that they claim human psychology is governed to a great extent by Darwinian evolution. So, it is not that human psychology is not in part governed by our evolutionary history, but that social and cultural (i.e., on the levels of analysis above genetics) factors override the genetic layer in the overwhelming number of cases.[7] What this means is that many of the explanations and hypotheses evo psychs propose are fundamentally misplaced, leading to begging the question.[8]


In general, the idea of applying natural selection to human behaviour is controversial.[9] The reason is that in order for natural selection to occur, a trait must both be genetically inherited and exposed to sufficient selective pressure.

In studies of animal behaviour, the first requirement can usually be assumed in animals that lack cultural transmission. In humans, it is often not possible to establish whether or not given behavioural traits have a genetic component, as controlled experiments are not available for ethical and historical reasons, and workarounds such as twin studies often suffer from fatal flaws.[10] A further problem exists in that the definition of a discrete 'trait' is difficult to achieve; a behavioural trait exists in a behavioural context, and cannot be separated out the way that 'eye colour' can.[9]

In regard to the presence or absence of selective pressure, critics allege that much of evolutionary psychology's claims about selective regimes are pseudoscientific in nature, as proposals about particular selective pathways often cannot be theoretically disproven. In a broader sense, they allege that EP has failed to produce any new insights into human evolution that move beyond a purely speculative character, remaining at the level of generating hypotheses without having generated evidence to build upon these initial hypotheses.[11][12] As such, it hasn't matured into a field of study analogous to other areas of biology, remaining merely a novel proposal.

Specific debates about evolutionary psychology[edit]

Straw men and heated arguments[edit]

Proponents and critics alike are prone to making straw-man arguments — both in popular literature and sometimes in scholarly literature. First, critics of EP are prone to dismissing it as genetic determinism, although proponents rarely (if ever) make such a claim.[13]

On the other side, self-righteous promoters of EP (and especially its pop incarnations) will straw-man their critics as denying biology, as "social constructionists", as "politically correct", or even as "radical feminists."[14] However, prominent EP critics such as David J. Buller do not repudiate that the human brain is the product of evolution; Buller divides EP into what he sees as upper-case "Evolutionary Psychology" (i.e., EP of the Flintstones variety) and lower-case "evolutionary psychology" based on better research and on a broader view of evolutionary theory.[15][16] Similarly, Stephen Jay Gould argued that evolutionary psychology was only problematic insofar as it was concerned with finding selective, adaptationist explanations to the exclusion of others; he viewed human cognition as a spandrel that, once evolved, became subject to cultural and social factors.[17] This has led some to differentiate between two "senses" of evolutionary psychology in the sense that Buller has. "Capital EP" has also been referred to as "narrow-sense EP" or the "Santa Barbara school" due to its association with certain key assumptions and specific researchers.[18] Many criticisms of evolutionary psychology are directed at narrow-sense EP.

Common criticisms of evolutionary psychology[edit]

  1. EP as genetic determinism. In some cases, this is genuinely a straw man, as EP does attempt to describe the interaction between genes and environment in certain cases. EP generally claims that environmental input is necessary for genetic programs to operate.[19] However, in situations where there is an unambiguous interaction between genes and environment (for example, human height is determined both by genetics and nutrition), both the genetic and environmental component of the given trait can be independently established to some degree. Critics allege that EP often imposes no requirement that a given behavioural trait be established as having a genetic component or overestimates the influence of that component. In many cases, EP assumes the genetic component to exist, and assumes that it has a substantive impact on human behaviour, when neither clause has actually been shown to be true.[9]
  2. EP relies on guesswork about a hypothesised "Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness" (EEA) because little is known about the environment of the late Pleistocene. The EEA does not refer generally to one single evolutionary environment, but specifically the environment in which a specific adaptation developed.[20] Critics charge that this enables proponents of EP to shift the ground in debates and create a situation in which no EP claim can ever be disproven, as a new EEA can be established any time an old one is shown to be unlikely, a hallmark of pseudoscientific thinking.
  3. EP is selection-centred and adaptationist. While some EP crosses into Lamarckian "hyper-adaptationist" territory and Panglossian thinking, much research in EP explains certain psychological phenomena as by-products (or "spandrels").[21] Stephen Jay Gould regarded evolutionary psychology as a potentially legitimate field of research, and lamented that it was held in thrall by adaptationist, selection-centred approaches to problems, while actual human behaviour may not have been shaped by selective evolutionary processes.[22] EP can and does cross into the territory of hyper-adaptationist, speculative, unfalsifiable "just-so stories." A number of concepts, findings, and methodologies in the field have been criticized for being implausible or false by the standards of neuroscience,[23] evolutionary biology,[18][24][25] and anthropology.[26] Application of pop EP ideas, both by pop-science writers such as Steven Pinker[27] and by fields outside of traditional EP[28] have, again, been snarkily referred to as "Flintstones thinking."
  4. EP ignores proximate explanations of psychological phenomena. EP attempts to explain proximate explanations provided by cognitive, social, etc. psychology with an ultimate evolutionary explanation. These explanations are not mutually exclusive, but complementary. However, the issue is whether or not the "ultimate evolutionary explanation" is ever necessary to explain observed phenomena to begin with. EP proposals often fail to pass the test of Occam's Razor, failing to establish that EP provides an explanation for data that can't be explained with more mundane approaches.
  5. EP is unfalsifiable. In some cases, EP generates explanations for behaviour that cannot be falsified, opening it up to charges of classical pseudoscience. One example is the changing EP explanations for traits such as altruism, in which multiple EP explanations have been put forward to explain the trait. Ground can be shifted between group selection,[29] reciprocal altruism, sexual selection (mate choice), and kin selection; if one explanation is shown to be inappropriate, the other can be invoked.
  6. EP relies on the assumption of massive modularity. EP posits domain-specific modules that are shaped by natural selection to perform a specific task as well as claiming that the brain is composed largely of these modules (hence "massive modularity").[30] Critics contend that neuroscientific data does not support massive modularity.[23][31][32]

The media discovers evo psych[edit]

The mainstream media and pop science love evolutionary psychology. In the specific cases or studies brought to the public's attention in newspaper articles, situations are often over-simplified to the point of being plain silly. Even qualified scientists who should know better can sometimes not resist the temptation to attribute every behavior that is (stereotypically) associated with a particular gender in contemporary society is actually the result of something our remote ancestors did to survive on the savannah. In fact, evolutionary psychology, at least in its "popular" incarnation, can be an example of using "science" to imbue just-so stories with an air of credibility that actually justifies sexism and discriminatory behavior[33] — or, in a similar vein to self projection as god, can be used to attack sexism and discrimination as an "outdated" relic of bygone times that is no longer relevant in modern society[citation needed].

An example is a supposed "study"[34] which explains why boys prefer blue and girls prefer pink. In the view of pop-evolutionary psychology, this is because women being gatherers and men being hunters, liking pink was most likely to allow you to find berries so women grew to be attracted to pink. So far, so common sense; however, the idea completely ignores many established facts (and blueberries). In actuality, colour preferences change from place to place, and even in the Western world (where the concept of gender-specific colours is strongest), 100 years ago it was reversed; i.e., the soft colour of blue was associated with the Virgin Mary, and was thus feminine, while men preferred associations with strong, passionate colours such as red and pink. Another colour that's now seen as feminine, purple, was once associated with the Roman Empire, and with it, was seen as masculine back in the day. Indeed, a purple cloak was part of the Roman Emperor's regalia. To "wear the purple" was a euphemism for assuming this position, and the word itself became used for royalty in general.

The curious case of Kevin MacDonald[edit]

Another example of how evolutionary psychology can go in a wrong direction is the work of Kevin B. MacDonald, who uses evolutionary psychology to explain stereotypical Jewish characteristics as being part of a group evolutionary strategy. His trilogy of books on the subject, especially The Culture of Critique (1998), has been called anti-Semitic for its assertion that Jews gravitate toward politics to promote policies in opposition to the dominant culture. In 1995 he was elected to a six-year term on the executive council of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society, but by 2007, he had increasingly associated on a working level with anti-Semitic and white nationalist groups, causing the California State University at Long Beach, where he is a professor, to publicly distance itself from his views. In 2010, he became the director of the newly-founded American Third Position political party. His "theory" essentially asserts Jewish biological superiority, but turns this around and uses it to argue that anti-Semitism is justified as "self-defense."[35]

Other evolutionary approaches[edit]

Although the field explicitly calling itself evolutionary psychology is relatively new, the idea goes back to Charles Darwin. Darwin's works The Descent of Man and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals included applications of evolutionary thought to psychology. Other evolutionary approaches to human psychology and behavior have variously gone under the names of "sociobiology", "human behavioral ecology", "gene-culture co-evolution", and "human behavior and evolution".[36] Some critics have contended that evolutionary psychology is a rebranding of sociobiology.[37] While a number of former sociobiologists have moved into the field of evolutionary psychology, the focus on psychological mechanisms is what distinguishes the two approaches. As Leda Cosmides and John Tooby write: "... in the rush to apply evolutionary insights to a science of human behavior, many researchers have made a conceptual 'wrong turn,' leaving a gap in the evolutionary approach that has limited its effectiveness. This wrong turn has consisted of attempting to apply evolutionary theory directly to the level of manifest behavior, rather than using it as a heuristic guide for the discovery of innate psychological mechanisms."[38]


  1. Good looking to whom, may I ask? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, rather than an inherent property of the beholdee.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]



  1. Stephen Jay Gould and Richard C. Lewontin. The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme. Proceedings Of The Royal Society of London, Series B, Vol. 205, No. 1161 (1979), pp. 581-598.
  6. Human nature, a Humean take by Massimo Pigliucci
  7. Evolutionary psychology, Jerry Coyne, Robert Kurzban, and the so-called creationism of the mind by Massimo Pigliucci
  8. Is cultural evolution a Darwinian process? by Massimo Pigliucci
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Lewontin R., Rose S., & Kamin L. (1984) Not In Our Genes: Biology, Ideology & Human Nature
  10. Joseph, Jay (2003) The Gene Illusion
  11. Pigliucci, M. (2006). Is evolutionary psychology a pseudoscience?. Skeptical Inquirer, 30(2), 23-24.
  12. Buller, D. J. (2009). Four fallacies of pop evolutionary psychology. Scientific American, 300, 74-81. See full text here.
  13. For further detail and more common straw-man arguments, see Robert Kurzban. "Alas Poor Evolutionary Psychology: Unfairly Accused, Unjustly Condemned". The Human Nature Review 2002 Volume 2: 99-109 (14 March).
  14. A 2006 criticism of Griet Vandermassen.
  15. Psyching Out Evolutionary Psychology: Interview with David J. Buller, Scientific American.
  16. Sex, Jealousy, and Violence, Skeptic magazine.
  17. Gould SJ. (2002) The Structure of Evolutionary Theory.
  18. 18.0 18.1 Johan J. Bolhuis et al. Darwin in Mind: New Opportunities for Evolutionary Psychology. PLoS Biol 9(7).
  19. John Tooby and Leda Cosmides. The Psychological Foundations of Culture. Chapter 1 in The Adapted Mind.
  20. This is explained in further detail in: Liddle and Shackleford. Why Evolutionary Psychology is "True." Evolutionary Psychology - 2009. 7(2): 288-294
  21. Stephen Jay Gould penned a scathing attack entitled Darwinian Fundamentalism, yet he believed religion to be an evolutionary spandrel, which has become a dominant view in EP in agreement with Gould as set forth in works like Scott Atran's In Gods We Trust and Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained. However, there is no irony here, as Gould explicitly described evolutionary psychology as a potentially fruitful field, if only it moved away from a preoccupation with adaptationism.
  22. Gould, S.J. (2002) The Structure of Evolutionary Theory
  23. 23.0 23.1 Jaak Panksepp and Jules Panksepp. The Seven Sins of Evolutionary Psychology. Evolution and Cognition. 2000, Vol. 6, No. 2.
  24. Robert Lickliter and Hunter Honeycutt. Developmental Dynamics: Toward a Biologically Plausible Evolutionary Psychology. Psychology Bulletin, 2003, Vol. 129, No. 6, 819 – 835
  25. Elisabeth A. Lloyd and Marcus Feldman. Evolutionary Psychology: A View from Evolutionary Biology. Psychological Inquiry, Vol. 13, No. 2 (2002), pp. 150-156
  26. C.R. Hallpike. Some Anthropological Objections to Evolutionary Psychology. In On Primitive Society: And Other Forbidden Topics, ch. 10, pp. 214-255.
  27. Simon Blackburn, "Meet The Flintstones" (available online at:
  28. Graham Sewell. Yabba-Dabba-Doo! Evolutionary Psychology and the Rise of Flintstone Psychological Thinking in Organization and Management Studies. Human Relations, August 2004, vol. 57 no. 8 923-955
  29. Marc Srour (April 13, 2013). "On Group Selection". 
  30. Peter Carruthers. (2006) The Case for Massively Modular Models of Mind. In The Architecture of the Mind: Massive Modularity and the Flexibility of Thought.
  31. David J. Buller and Valerie Gray Hardcastle. Evolutionary Psychology, Meet Developmental Neurobiology: Against Promiscuous Modularity. Brain and Mind 1: 307–325, 2000.
  32. See also the Internet Encylopedia of Philosophy on Fodorian modularity and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Modularity of Mind for the theoretical differences between types of modularity and arguments concerning them.
  33. Science reveals evolutionary origins of gender stereotypes (parody, but everything except the last two paragraphs is from real news stories)
  34. Pink, pink, pink, pink. Pink moan., Bad Science
  35. Kevin MacDonald profile, Southern Poverty Law Center
  36. See Kevin N. Laland and Gillian R. Brown's Sense and Nonsense for a detailed overview.
  37. Val Dusek. Sociobiology Sanitized: The Evolutionary Psychology and Genic Selectionism Debates. Science as Culture, Volume 8, Issue 2, 1999
  38. Cosmides and Tooby. (1987) From Evolution to Behavior: Evolutionary Psychology as the Missing Link. In The Latest on the Best Essays In Evolution and Optimality, ed. John Dupre