ADVERTISEMENT
  About the SA Blog Network













Context and Variation

Context and Variation


Human behavior, evolutionary medicine… and ladybusiness.
Context and Variation Home

5 Ways to Make Progress in Evolutionary Psychology: Smash, Not Match, Stereotypes

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


Email   PrintPrint



(Alternate, Twitter-sourced titles: “5 Ways to Prove Darwin Wasn’t Crazy,” “Shut the Eff Up and Science Already,” “5 Ways Psychology Needs to Evolve.”)

Evolutionary psychology, the study of human psychological adaptations, does not have a popular or scientific reputation for being rigorous, even though there are rigorous, thoughtful scientists in the field. The field is trying to take on an incredibly challenging task: understand what of human behavior is adaptive and why. We can better circumvent the conditions that lead to violence, war, and hatred if we know as much as we can about why we are the way we are. What motivates us, excites us, angers us, and how can evolutionary theory help us understand it all?

Because of this, there are consequences to a bad evolutionary psychology interpretation of the world. The biggest problem, to my mind, is that so often the conclusions of the bad sort of evolutionary psychology match the stereotypes and cultural expectations we already hold about the world: more feminine women are more beautiful, more masculine men more handsome; appearance is important to men while wealth is important to women; women are prone to flighty changes in political and partner preference depending on the phase of their menstrual cycles. Rather than clue people in to problems with research design or interpretation, this alignment with stereotype further confirms the study. Variation gets erased: in bad evolutionary psychology, there are only straight people, and everyone wants the same things in life. Our brains are iPhones, each app designed for its own special adaptive purpose.

I once had a fellow from this field talk my ear off for fifteen minutes about his “one bad apple spoils the barrel” hypothesis (it was so long ago at this point that I’m not too worried about the story identifying him). He contended that an early-maturing boy was a “bad apple” that would drive other surrounding boys to early puberty. Whenever I politely inquired as to what the mechanism would be that would drive the other boys to mature, or why this would even be adaptive, he would move on feverishly to the next part of his metaphor. “But you see,” he said almost breathlessly, “it’s like the boys are all in a barrel, and when apples are in a barrel one rotten apple can make the others go rotten too.”

No one should ever love their idea so much that it becomes detached from reality, as much an issue for those testing hypotheses as those reading about them in blog posts and magazines. And I think I’ve come up with five exhortations to help any reader trying to tell the good ev psych from the bad.

1. You’re not measuring what you think you’re measuring.

Something we scientists like to do is to operationalize variables. That means that, since we cannot often measure what we want to measure, we come up with some sort of proxy that makes the best of a bad job.

For instance, let’s say what you’d really like to know is whether a trait affects reproductive success in Urbana, Illinois. There are a lot of barriers to being able to tell whether this trait – karaoke ability, for instance – affects the total number of children had by individuals in this population. Humans live a long time, so the project would have to span someone’s entire reproductive years. Many humans also plan their families and so use contraception from time to time, and many perfectly fertile humans make the perfectly rational decision to not have any babies at all. And so even if you could do this study as long as you needed to, you can’t with confidence say that the childfree person is less fertile than the one with seven children.

So, you use some sort of proxy for fertility, something necessary for reproductive success. In women, you may look at their ovarian hormone levels, their endometrial thickness, the length of their cycle or frequency of ovulatory cycles. In men, you could look at testosterone as well as sperm count and quality. Sometimes you have the resources to recruit a number of people trying to conceive, and then you can see how long it takes them to conceive, or whether they do at all. These are all considered pretty good proxies of fecundity, and thus also by extension fertility.

In some studies of evolutionary psychology, a never-before-used variable is often created to serve as a proxy for what they really want to know. Not too long ago I took issue with a “maternal tendencies” variable. Because they couldn’t assess maternal behavior in these young, childless undergraduate women, they asked them how many children they wanted to have. The more children these eighteen and nineteen year olds wanted, the more maternal they were.

Yet desired family size at eighteen, and maternal tendencies as a future mother, are very, very different things. As I pointed out in my post on this, there is too much context-dependence embedded in when you ask women how many kids they want for it to tell you anything with much biological meaning.

So, make sure you’re measuring what you think you’re measuring. And validate the heck out of any new proxy you come up with.

2. Undergrads only teach us about undergrads.

Much of the psychological research coming out of the US and other western countries are performed on the easiest to access sample population: undergraduates eager for cash or extra credit. Many of the major conclusions we make about humankind come out of this very specific group of individuals. Often, the undergrads sampled are mostly white and middle class. Undergraduate sampling is an extreme version of the challenge much human behavior research faces: the use of, and then extension from, WEIRD people.

WEIRD stands for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic. This particular subset of humans, despite the experience of so many of us who work at universities, is actually not the majority worldwide. The lived experience of being WEIRD means a particular kind of access to resources in terms of money, vaccines, food, school, and government.

Have you ever had someone say they “speak for the moms” or some other subgroup and it made you feel uncomfortable? Have you ever been inadvertently put in the position of having to speak for a group of people, but felt that group was way too variable for your one experience to apply to everyone? This is why testing hypotheses and sampling populations from WEIRD places is such a bad idea, and not just from a cultural standpoint but a biological one. The daily lived experience of those resources, vaccines, schools, and other aspects of the WEIRD environment produce a person very different from one that grows up without a nearby hospital, running water or shoes. Even if your Institutional Review Board gave you permission to separate identical twins at birth and have them grow up in the city and the savanna, their height, weight, hormones, sensitivity to stressors, nearly every imaginable metric would show some interesting variation, much of it due to this lifetime of different experiences.

The two reasons oversampling from WEIRD people is bad is first that oversampling in general is bad, but second that being WEIRD puts you about as far removed from the conditions in which we evolved as you can get. WEIRD stressors are chronic and psychosocial (which makes them great if that’s your research interest, otherwise not so much). They have a lot of weird (ha ha) immune problems, possibly related to under-challenging their immune systems when young. They tend to survive the major childhood illnesses but then die of heart attacks, strokes or cancer. Many of them delay childbearing into well into their reproductive years and breastfeed for a short duration if at all, meaning they have eight to ten times as many menstrual cycles as the average forager. And they tend to have nuclear families, rather than breed cooperatively in large groups, sharing the parenting load among peers and across generations.

So the punchline here is: don’t speak for everyone until you’ve spoken to everyone. (My one exception: The Lorax gets to speak for the trees.)

3. It’s not true that everything happens for a reason.

One of my least favorite papers is on rape as an evolved sexual strategy among humans. The abstract begins,

“Psychological adaptation underlies all human behavior.”

I still remember the photocopied version I first read of this for a class in graduate school, because it was marked up by the professor who had read it first. Next to this line, the professor had written,

NO!

And I remember mulling over this, particularly because this professor was not exactly emotive, and so it was interesting to see him have a strong reaction to something. Sure, the whole paper was problematic, and the great thing about Thornhill and Thornhill (1992) is that because they published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences it came with a bunch of commentaries, most of them negative, some of them hilariously witty in their takedowns. Yes, we academics can be witty.

Years later, the first time I taught with this paper, I pulled out that same old photocopied version to make a pdf, and I saw that professor’s comment again. And it struck me how this was one of the fundamental problems with many disciplines that tend towards the adaptationist, including evolutionary psychology. We forget that natural selection and sexual selection are only two ways in which evolution – which is really just change over time – happens. There are also things like genetic drift and mutation, which can also have a direction and also produce change. While this may drive some adaptationists into an existential crisis, sometimes there is no reason at all for a given human behavior or trait. My decision to wear navy socks today, the route I walk from one campus building to another, making cupcakes instead of cookies for my daughter’s playdate, these are behaviors we can tell adaptive stories about.

But it may not be realistic or accurate to do so. And if you do want to tell an adaptive story about it, you have to make sure the argument is pretty airtight.

There are ways to be able to be more confident about whether a trait you’re interested in has been selected (or rather, not eliminated). You can see if it conforms to these three principles:

  1. The trait is variable. The number of fingers on a human hand is not significantly variable since most everybody has five. Hair length is variable.
  2. The trait is heritable. Hair length is not heritable since we cut it to suit our personal and cultural preferences. Freckles are variable and heritable.
  3. The trait produces variation in reproductive success. As far as I know so far, freckles do not affect how many kids you have. Voice pitch, however, is a good example of a trait that is variable, heritable, and has been shown to be correlated with the number of children a man has – in a non-WEIRD environment, no less.

It’s tempting to see selection’s hand in everything people do. But doing so makes the same mistake as those who say that they see design in evolution. It is possible to be enchanted by the amazing things biology can tell us, while accepting the added randomness of existence.

4. There is more than one way to skin a cat.

When an evolutionary psychologist makes a claim about the effectiveness of a human male reproductive strategy like breadwinning, or dominating behavior, or large muscle mass, I cringe. They are usually described – in the press releases, yes, but also in the articles themselves – as a prime determinant for reproductive success. The best strategy. The only strategy.

Or sometimes you see two strategies proposed, which follows sexual selection theory a bit more closely, but then puts those individuals in two categories rather than along a spectrum: for instance, big strong males who show off their gene quality versus more nurturing males who demonstrate their parenting quality. The way many of these studies are designed end up eliciting responses that lead to stark categories.

As it turns out, reproductive strategies – most behavioral strategies, in fact – are widely variable, and you see a pretty stable constellation of them in any given population. Rather than try to promote the idea that one particular strategy is the only one any successful person would think of using, we should be identifying, appreciating, and understanding this variation.

Unsurprisingly, most of these one-size-fits-all assessments of human behavior conform to how we already think men and women should behave in our culture.

What saddens me the most about this particular problem is the way it makes people with non-straight identities invisible, or worse, implicitly pathological. The straighties are doing their adaptive darndest to make babies, but those homosexuals aren’t following the Darwinian directorate to seek opposite sex partners and spread their seed! No matter that many people who identify in one of the many non-straight identities have children of their own, and many of those children are in fact genetically related to them. In fact, to some extent it makes sense to parse out sexual identity and sexual activities from reproductive success.

Finally, for something to be an evolutionarily stable strategy it has to fit a few conditions:

  1. You need clear evidence it is an adaption, which means it has to conform to the conditions from the previous section: being heritable, variable, and producing differential reproductive success.
  2. You would also need evidence that what you’re seeing isn’t simply a correlated response from another, linked behavior being selected.
  3. You would need to demonstrate that the behavior is at least equivalent to, if not resistant to, alternative strategies, in terms of its rate of success.

I laid out how hebephilia fails these tests in a post last year. The problem with demonstrating natural selection, and in particular evolutionarily stable strategies, is that the burden of evidence is incredibly high. Which means most stories that buttress bad evolutionary psychology work will ultimately lead to that study’s collapse, when we see the stories are made of thin air.

If you design your study really well, finding ways to anticipate and control for cultural bias, and still find a correlation, I’m quite happy for you! But chances are good you don’t have enough to contend what you’re seeing is an evolutionarily stable strategy. So hold the storytelling. Just for a little while.

5. Just because it works today, doesn’t mean it worked back in the day.

To illustrate my final point, I turn to a recent post from Scicurious on the supposed significance of wearing high heels. It’s a classic Sci takedown, and it’s worth a thorough read.

Sci details a paper that demonstrates a positive relationship between wearing high heels and perceived attractiveness. The researchers had women walk with and without high heels, then used point light displays to demonstrate walkers’ gait without revealing their appearance. The methods certainly seem carefully constructed to avoid some kinds of bias.

Where the researchers lost Sci – and me – was where they contended that walking in heels is sexier, and represents a “super-stimulus” (think red lipstick to emphasize feminine lips, breast implants to enhance boobs). Part of the reason they make this assertion is that they claim high heels have a long history of being used to emphasize women’s assets. And of course, this is where they’re very wrong, since high heels have a long history of being worn by men, and since in this study they had no way to parse out watchers’ expectations of what constitutes a sexy walk based on their cultural conditioning.

In any case, many of the things we do today are things we did not do in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness – itself a mythical construct where everyone lived happily in the savanna eating wild game and mongongo nuts (totally Paleo diet, man!!!).

A far more useful way to interpret modern behavior is not the specific behavior itself, but perhaps the temperament or aims of the actor. So, making tumblrs of animated gifs about roller derby is not an adaptive behavior, but the motivations that underlie it could be, depending on the circumstance. A sense of humor is likely heritable, variable and can lead to reproductive success. And those gifs are hilarious.

But I want to see someone test it first. And of course, it would be great if we could get to the point where we can do better than presume that many of these behaviors (or again, the motivations behind them) have a genetic underpinning.

Conclusion

The bad parts of evolutionary psychology confirm what we think we already know about the world. And confirming stereotypes and calling it science tends to keep women and GLBT folk as perpetual second class citizens in this world, rather than the amazing, vibrant contributors to society they are and can be.

Evolutionary theory has been developed and tested for quite a long time, and there is a strong, reliable set of conditions we have developed to help us determine adaptive significance for a given trait. All the field of evolutionary psychology really needs is to be put to the test.

 

 

Kate Clancy About the Author: Dr. Kate Clancy is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois. She studies the evolutionary medicine of women’s reproductive physiology, and blogs about her field, the evolution of human behavior and issues for women in science. Find her comment policy here. Follow on Twitter @KateClancy.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





Rights & Permissions

Comments 31 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. Melanie Tannenbaum 11:48 am 02/11/2013

    Kate,

    Here are 5 reasons why I really like this post.

    1. Acknowledgment that evolutionary psychology doesn’t have to be terrible. I have issues with how evolutionary psychology is *SOMETIMES* (and, sadly, most publicly) conducted now. But there is some great, rigorous, important research going on now in psychology that has evolutionary roots as well. As examples, I would point sociometer theory (evolutionary explanation for the existence of self-esteem) and a lot of research on emotions, which often talks about evolutionary reasons why people around the world experience the same basic emotions and tend to express them in similar ways that are hardwired (e.g. the “six universal emotions” of anger, fear, disgust, sadness, surprise, happiness). I really like that you take specific issue with the use of evolutionary psychology to bolster harmful stereotypes, without necessarily throwing the entire subfield under the bus.

    2. I think the point about motivations being adaptive even if behaviors are not is a very good one.

    3. The high heels example is great.

    4. I wholeheartedly agree with the point that “evolutionary research” conducted solely on US (or generally Westernized) undergrads is not compelling. I’m far more convinced by cross-cultural research on anything claiming to be at all “hardwired” or “biological.”

    5. Finally, I especially like how you point out that even in traditional evolutionary accounts, we have to account for mutation and genetic drift. This makes me think more generally about how we can sometimes misunderstand what Darwin was saying. Michael Kraus actually brought up in our lab meeting two weeks ago that “survival of the fittest” doesn’t necessarily mean aggression like many people think that it does, but that Darwin was actually very explicit in saying that altruism and successful group behavior are incredibly important for survival and reproductive success. Yet somehow that part always gets overlooked or forgotten. You’re spot on in saying that if we’re going to formulate evolutionary hypotheses, we have to be very clear about what the theory of evolution actually states.

    All in all, great piece Kate :) I look forward to sharing it with my colleagues! I have had some great debates with other grad students and faculty here at UIUC about evolutionary psych, and there are some really brilliant minds here who make some really great points in favor of evolutionary psychology. I will be very curious to see what they have to say about your piece.

    Link to this
  2. 2. bioinspired 1:07 pm 02/11/2013

    Fantastic article! Evolutionary psychology has been bugging me for some time, and I hadn’t pinpointed why. This is extremely helpful. If you would like to read about some ACTUAL evolutionary strategies regarding mating behavior, please feel free to read my recent article on BioInspired Ink (“Island of the Praying Mantis”) at http://www.BioInspiredInk.blogspot.com . Enjoy!

    Link to this
  3. 3. sonoran 3:06 pm 02/11/2013

    I don’t disagree with what you’re saying, but I do think that all hypotheses should be able to have their chance to be put to the test, even if they sound “stereotypical”. Viewing evo-psy as a realm where we have to be careful what ideas we propose because it may heighten a prejudice is another form of bad science. The uncritical acceptance and promotion of poor scientific studies by the popular press is where these ideas get amplified into “reality”.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Kate Clancy in reply to Kate Clancy 3:18 pm 02/11/2013

    Thanks, Melanie! Your comments mean a lot to me.

    Bioinspired, thanks for sharing your blog!

    And Sonoran, I appreciate your comment. I am happy to see all hypotheses put to the test, provided good research design. The problem isn’t always with the hypothesis, but with the testing being done in a way that might already confirm cultural biases, that’s all. But I do take your point, absolutely.

    Link to this
  5. 5. nooneexpects 3:42 pm 02/11/2013

    I agree 99.8% of this article. :)

    Evolutionary psychology does indeed need to be strongly informed by cultural psychology as well as by biology– those psychological phenomena shown to be good candidates to be human universals are naturally good candidates for evolutionary explanation. Scholars such as Joseph Heinrich, Ara Norenzayan, Steve Heine, and others have enriched the study of psychology and economics with careful cross-cultural study. Also, adaptation is indeed too narrow a definition of evolution to give provide good evolutionary explanations. An excellent point made here is that the underlying factors of behaviors may be adaptations, but those specific behaviors themselves may not be. Social psychologist Jon Haidt writes that we are ‘pre-wired, not hard-wired,’ which I think encapsulates a more nuanced evolutionary explanation for human psychology.

    However, I slightly disagree with the author towards the end– “confirming stereotypes and calling it science tends to keep women and GLBT folk as perpetual second class citizens in this world, rather than the amazing, vibrant contributors to society they are and can be.” This may be true to an extent, but that is a social, political, and moral concern rather than a scientific research question. It has been the case since the 1970s that many on the cultural and political left have distrusted evolutionary explanations for human behavior for fear of the potential implications of potential answers– the attacks on E.O. Wilson are the best known example. Many in the humanities, for example, dismiss the concepts of nature and sex, arguing they are merely social constructions rather than hard facts. (They also tend to dislike science as it makes claims to objectivity, which postmodernists routinely attack, but that’s a whole other giant can of worms.)

    While scientists should of course consider ethical implications of their research methodologies, they should not confuse the normative with the positive– if, hypothetically, research shows behavioral differences between the sexes that does not mean that the sexes are all of a sudden of different moral worth. That’s the naturalistic fallacy, and we might try to give some scholars in evolutionary psychology the benefit of the doubt and not assume they are constructing arguments using that fallacy (though some may very well be).

    Donald E. Brown has famously assembled a list of human universals which provided Steven Pinker much of his material for ‘The Blank Slate.’ There are there, for example, differences in behavior between the sexes. Reis and Carothers’ “Men and women are from Earth: Examining the latent structure of gender” made the rounds recently, seemingly arguing against psychological difference, but what they actually argued was that the differences are not taxonomic like physical differences, that there is more overlap in psychological traits than physical ones. Furthermore, they write “Our findings are silent with respect to the question of whether gender differences in the variables we studied are caused primarily by biological factors or experience (Eagly & Wood, 1999). In our view, both biological and social causes are essentially continuous, leading individuals to develop various proclivities and dispositions to one or another extent, and encouraging them to follow certain developmental pathways to a greater extent than others (Archer, 1984; Halpern, 2012; Maccoby, 2002). It is unlikely that any of these pathways are fully discrete.” A different recent (by Del Giuduce, Booth, and Irving; it’s linked at bottom) study found that psychological difference is actually greater than expected. Again, we are pre-wired, not hard-wired.

    Marx famously wrote “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” I would argue that we should look to Epicurus rather than Marx, that we should first understand nature and then decide how to act within it. I say let’s do more research, using more cross-cultural data, using different methodologies, and using a fuller view of evolutionary processes. But let’s not avoid asking questions because the potential implications of possible answers might be distasteful. Odds are observed differences will not be huge– and EVEN IF they were, they would not mean some groups are inferior and others superior.

    References:
    http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2013/02/04/study-debunks-notion-that-men-and-women-are-psychologically-distinct/
    http://www.psychologytoday.com/collections/201302/weeks-top-posts-0/when-is-sex-difference-real
    http://www.robotwisdom.com/ai/universals.html
    http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0029265

    Link to this
  6. 6. Kate Clancy in reply to Kate Clancy 3:52 pm 02/11/2013

    Thanks nooneexpects, I appreciate your comments and your contribution. I’m sorry if I wasn’t clear. I don’t want to avoid asking questions. The problem, to my mind, is when poor research design collides with poor hypotheses, both the result of the researcher’s unexamined cultural bias. And as a science communicator as well as scientist, I do think we carry a lot of responsibility in thinking about the implications of our work, both the research itself and how that story is told to the public.

    So, I agree with 99.8% of your comment ;) .

    Link to this
  7. 7. leapinn 4:22 pm 02/11/2013

    I think you made an important point regarding poor research design yielding expected stereotypical results, but “smashing stereotypes” as used in the title is just as “biased.” I thought the goal of science was to look for the truth, however unpleasant. Maybe the stereotype I hold of gay and lgbt people is as creative, vibrant contributors? Do we want to smash that? Your example of the “bad apple” for boys seems like a good example of someone seeing what they want to see but I think there is research that indicates that girls raised in high stress environments mature faster. I would assume that the same might apply to boys. Children tend to emulate their peers who act and behave “older.”and I can imagine a scenario where the “bad apple” could ruin the barrel the way a jerk in a fraternity can push the dynamics so that they are dysfunctional (akin to “the lord of the flies.)” What I’m saying, is that I think the hypothesis you dismissed actually has some merit even if it seems too convoluted to hold any truth. That said, I do not think that one’s political/social perspective, anthropology and evol psych need to be at odds with each other. It’s very interesting work and let us hope we humans can move beyond ranking each other in some sort of pecking order of value if we find that one group falls behind or surpasses another in some measure.

    Link to this
  8. 8. nooneexpects 5:23 pm 02/11/2013

    I’d just like to give props to everyone here for creating a truly rare thing: civil and intelligent dialogue on the internets. My day is brighter because of this. :)

    Link to this
  9. 9. Nils Pihl 3:48 am 02/12/2013

    Ahem. Memes can have survival value too. For something to have been evolutionary selected for does not mean it was genetic – I for one doubt that we have an agriculture gene.

    Link to this
  10. 10. AndrewDWilson 6:09 am 02/12/2013

    “1. You’re not measuring what you think you’re measuring.”

    William James called this ‘the psychologist’s fallacy’ for a reason :) Our field is particularly susceptible to this problem because the vast majority of what gets studied must be operationalised (well, when I say ‘must’ I actually mean ‘has been done this way for so long everyone’s forgotten that we do it’).

    Most of the problems in psychology I’m most concerned with stem from our mechanism aversion. I’m always amazed when I ask for a mechanism and people don’t feel like they need to offer one. This happened in a paper I recently reviewed which reports an effect that, according to their data, couldn’t possibly mean what they claimed it meant. All the reviewers spotted this as a problem; I was the only one who thought it was fatal. The paper was published :(

    It’s a fixable problem, and your post is a damned good start, though, so thanks :)

    Link to this
  11. 11. Kate Clancy in reply to Kate Clancy 6:49 am 02/12/2013

    nooneexpects — I agree! I’m so pleased this has opened up discussion and appreciate everyone sharing their thinking here.

    Thanks for writing Nils. We might part ways a little bit on that one — besides, survival value is not what we’re going for in natural selection, but reproductive success. And again, what I think may be important than, say, agricultural behavior is what kinds of innovative characteristics or motivations underlie whatever led to agriculture.

    AndrewDWilson — biological anthropology is quite susceptible as well! In this comment thread and elsewhere, I feel like what I said in that point has been a little misconstrued, which could very well mean I didn’t write it nearly as clearly as I thought. I don’t see a way around proxies. I just think I’ve seen some really bad ones :) . And I completely agree on the mechanism thing. Without proximate evidence the ultimate level stuff can become straight storytelling real quick. (And I had a similar experience reviewing, for more of a human biology paper, and it too got published.)

    Link to this
  12. 12. AndrewDWilson 9:50 am 02/12/2013

    “I don’t see a way around proxies. I just think I’ve seen some really bad ones :)
    Indeed. I don’t object to operationalising either, but it’s a fine tool, not a hammer.

    Link to this
  13. 13. Nils Pihl 10:13 am 02/12/2013

    Kate,

    Sloppy communication on my part, and a bit sour. My apologies. Of course I mean that memes can lead to higher reproductive success – and they can dramatically increase the carrying capacity of a population, too.

    I feel that your criticism of EP fails to take memes into account. There seem to be a great deal of purely memetic adaptations that have dramatically increased the population of its “hosts”, and I don’t see why this is so commonly overlooked in criticism and practice of EP. It is not only feasible, but plausible, that certain meme pools have been better adapted to their environments than others. There needn’t be any ethical consequence to this, and we needn’t discuss which culture is more virtuous – but surely we can all recognize that certain cultures have done a bang up job at spreading across the globe and increasing the survival fitness of their followers. Again, that doesn’t mean we have to throw our weight behind that culture at the expense of others.

    I think confining evolutionary psychology to the domain of biology is a mistake. That we haven’t found a patriarchy gene doesn’t mean that patriarchy might not have been a very successful meme – and that, in itself, doesn’t excuse patriarchy existing today.

    I think where we really part ways is where you insinuate that we should avoid certain lines of inquiry, in case they do cultural harm. I prefer to believe that we can handle the truth, and that we won’t let either biology or history dictate how we live tomorrow.

    I personally believe that things like patriarchy were selected for – but I am also a feminist, believing that we should do everything we can to end it.

    Link to this
  14. 14. George Smith 10:34 am 02/12/2013

    Kate- why was my comment deleted?

    Link to this
  15. 15. Kate Clancy in reply to Kate Clancy 10:37 am 02/12/2013

    George — I deleted your comment — twice — because what you said about GLBT folks constituted hate speech, to my mind. You’re free to disagree with me about anything, or to rephrase your comment and be more careful in your speech, but I do not allow comments that speak ill of a targeted group like those who identify as GLBT.

    Link to this
  16. 16. Dunnyveg 11:20 am 02/12/2013

    By definition, a valid stereotype is something that is frequently, but not always, true. Stereotypes are also very useful. For example, it is a stereotype to say that women bear children because not all women do. But would it really aid in clarity to say that people bear children, since no men do? It is also a stereotype to say that rattlesnakes bite, since not all of them do. But I surely wouldn’t let a child play with one.

    Science is supposed to be comfortable dealing with phenomena that aren’t always true; this is the purpose of statistics and probability. As Aristotle, the godfather of modern science, so sagely noted, do not demand more precision out of a discipline than it is capable of rendering.

    Stereotypes are only taboo in Political Correctness, which is what this article is really about. Those with scientific training need to make up their minds as to whether they wish to be Politically Correct or scientists. Scientific American, and this article in particular, are proof it is not possible to be both.

    Link to this
  17. 17. Kate Clancy in reply to Kate Clancy 11:32 am 02/12/2013

    Dunnyveg — thanks for your comment. A stereotype is usually about psychological, not physical phenomena, so I’m not sure how useful your examples of childbearing or rattlesnakes are. I’m sorry to hear you think this blog post is just about being politically correct. Perhaps if you do a close reading, you’ll find the broader point I’m making is that assumptions we make can lead to poor research design, and that this doesn’t do good things for science or for people.

    Link to this
  18. 18. Pitchguest 2:52 pm 02/12/2013

    Just an honest question, Kate, and I don’t mean to bring you into any spats so I’ll just ask you generally:

    If someone were to say, go on a panel talk and someone in the audience were were to ask them a question, like, “Is there any good evolutionary psychology out there?” and the one on the panel would answer, “Probably? I’m guessing yes, but it’s so boring, because you can only make it interesting if you make up everything.” and “If there is good evolutionary psychology, it’s not in the media.”

    Would that be an accurate assessment regarding evolutionary psychology, or unevidenced assumption?

    Link to this
  19. 19. Kate Clancy in reply to Kate Clancy 3:15 pm 02/12/2013

    Hi Pitchguest — thanks for writing. I think media attention overselects for bad evolutionary psychology. I also personally, as someone who writes about women, women’s health, and evolutionary psychology, get pushed a lot of “bad science” articles from my readers. The majority of those articles tend to be about evolutionary psychology. So I think there is oversampling in terms of what I see, because people are always sending me stuff. And rather than write a separate blog post about all of those different articles I’ve been sent over the last few years, I finally broke down and decided to write one monster explainer. I’m kind of tired of covering bad ev psych. And I know good stuff is out there. I just see it so rarely because that’s not what people send me or what I read in the news.

    The lovely thing to come out of this whole conversation is that I have finally started getting people sending me good ev psych. And I’ve also gotten to engage with some evolutionary psychologists who used to just grumble about me, and now we’re talking. And they’re talking to their colleagues too. And all of that makes me happy.

    Link to this
  20. 20. Mammals Suck... Milk! 5:07 pm 02/12/2013

    That is so awesome! “The lovely thing to come out of this whole conversation is that I have finally started getting people sending me good ev psych. And I’ve also gotten to engage with some evolutionary psychologists who used to just grumble about me, and now we’re talking. And they’re talking to their colleagues too. And all of that makes me happy.”

    Link to this
  21. 21. gjudge 5:55 pm 02/12/2013

    I don’t disagree with what you’re saying, but I do think that all hypotheses should be able to have their chance to be put to the test, even if they sound “stereotypical”. Viewing evo-psy as a realm where we have to be careful what ideas we propose because it may heighten a prejudice is another form of bad science. The uncritical acceptance and promotion of poor scientific studies by the popular press is where these ideas get amplified into “reality”.

    Link to this
  22. 22. gjudge 5:58 pm 02/12/2013

    bad computer. please ignore comment

    Link to this
  23. 23. zstansfi 6:12 pm 02/12/2013

    Kate, while I heartily agree with your very effective demonstration of how evo psych research can go wrong, what is not entirely clear to me is how it can both go right and actually offer truly useful insights. And by this I mean, even assuming that we can identify some research conducted by evolutionary psychologists as both meaningful and reliable couldn’t this same research be conducted by someone who just ignores the “evolutionary” aspects of the work? For example, I could simply talk about human biology, rather than getting into a discussion of why this biology might have been particularly adaptive at some point in time.
    On this point you note that:

    “We can better circumvent the conditions that lead to violence, war, and hatred if we know as much as we can about why we are the way we are. What motivates us, excites us, angers us, and how can evolutionary theory help us understand it all?”

    My contention is that a direct application of evolutionary theory to observed behavior is not well suited to helping us understand these issues.

    My reasoning includes a number of considerations including that: i) I don’t believe that just because we can explore an idea (e.g. looking at the world through an evo psych lens) that therefore that idea is worth exploring and ii) it’s not clear to me that virtually any evolutionary psychology research uses appropriate methods to actually demonstrate the proposed findings are related to evolved adaptations. For example, is cross-cultural evidence that a particular trait is present in many modern societies actually good evidence that evolutionary pressures selected for this particular trait? Indeed, can we even prove that evolution acts on the level of these traits? (A most obvious example: if certain behaviors reduce an individual’s ability to attract mates, will this influence the ability of the human species as a whole to perform these same behaviors in the long run?)

    Certainly, we can assume that many features of human thought and behavior exist as a result of evolutionary processes, but this null hypothesis should not imply that specific behaviors and mental phenomena were selected for because they are somehow adaptive in and of themselves. It is equally (and perhaps more) probable that it is adaptive to have a vast area of behavioral and cognitive capabilities which allow diverse behaviors, and thus it is a individuals who have a restricted behavioral set, rather than the performance of any specific behaviors per se, which is unadaptive. If this is true, then the entire methodology of studying how people behave in specific circumstances to investigate evolutionary pressures is flawed because we aren’t even observing the features that evolution acts on.

    My more general take on the topic is that in most instances it is either patently obvious that a trait must have been selected for in some fashion (e.g. the ability to perform and select for some set of mating and courtship behaviors, although not necessarily any particular highly specific behavior), but that there is little reason to believe the specific hypothesis of an evo psych study. Or else researchers have identified some speculative curiosity which I can easily perceive to be bunk.

    In either case, I don’t see why so much research is conducted investigating evo psych hypotheses using methods that are rarely appropriate to answer these hypotheses in the first place.

    Link to this
  24. 24. Kate Clancy in reply to Kate Clancy 6:41 pm 02/12/2013

    (Gjudge, just a quick response because I’m confused- were you asking me to delete comment? Just let me know.)

    Link to this
  25. 25. CherryBombSim 8:06 pm 02/12/2013

    “you can’t with confidence say that the childfree person is less fertile than the one with seven children.”

    Actually, I could say that with confidence. If what you meant was that a person with the same traits as the childless person would reproduce just fine in some mythical “environment of evolutionary adaptedness”, I might kinda sort agree. But I would definitely say that he was was less fertile in the environment he actually inhabits. His fertility does not determine his moral worth, though.

    Problems arise when people conflate adaptive advantage with moral worth, which is why so many (including yourself) get so upset over studies about adaptive advantages or disadvantages of homosexuality, rape, hebephilia and altruism. They instinctively feel that “good” behavior must be adaptive in some way, and “bad” behavior must be maladaptive.

    Link to this
  26. 26. jtwitten 9:51 am 02/13/2013

    Nils Phil, it must be noted that, while memes are usually discussed in a selective framework, we are really discussing an “evolutionary” framework. That means that other evolutionary forces – such as drift, mutation, and migration – are also acting on memes. The question becomes “which forces are dominating the evolutionary path of the meme?” Intuitively, it would seem that memes are particularly well suited to respond to selective pressures; but strong arguments can be made that the structure of information flow (analogous to biological reproduction) in human society is such that these other forces may have significant impacts on the evolution of memes.

    Link to this
  27. 27. jtwitten 10:02 am 02/13/2013

    This is alluded to in the article, but I think it bears mentioning clearly. There is a distinction between the types of questions that evolutionary psychologists are trying to answer about the evolution of the human mind and their approach to those questions. Evolutionary psychology, as the field is traditionally defined by its practitioners, is the study of these questions within a certain paradigm. Kate’s article is saying that the research paradigm needs to change, adapt if you will. This situation is not unique to evolutionary psychology. The field of ethology essentially asks overlapping questions with animal behavior studies, but was defined by a specific paradigm laid out by Lorenz & Tinbergen. Times change and today the fields are effectively indistinguishable and the use of the term “ethology” is usually either the affectation of a cute anachronism or a sign of European training.

    Link to this
  28. 28. bucketofsquid 6:03 pm 02/14/2013

    From what I understand high heels were developed by an English king to show off his calves to other men. Considering how damaging high heels are I wish they were outlawed.

    Link to this
  29. 29. mounthell 1:44 am 02/22/2013

    Interesting thoughts here, although some, like the reification of “memes,” are disconcerting, not to mention the context in which such rationalized warbles enjoy acceptance. It’s difficult for some of us to take ev psych seriously because its standards for proof have much in common with selectionistas’ in that, for us, they lie out of sight somewhere below the surface of Dilettante Pond. How so?

    As biomolecular research bores ever finely into the workings of the cell and its constituents we’re finding that genetic processes are vastly more complex than assumed: transcription factors, promoters and modulators of a given DNA sequence may originate in different parts of the chromosome or on entirely different chromosomes. Moreover, most DNA is transcribed as a veritable zoo of RNA species (the list grows ever longer) which are crucial to the cell’s function in unexpectedly diverse ways and multiple different tanscriptions must occur to support a presumed ordinary transcription in an unknown number of cases.

    Recent insights from the Ency. of DNA project (ENCODE) are summarized by researchers who observe that the picture they see forming “prompts the reconsideration of the definition of the gene … the term gene would then denote a higher-order concept intended to capture all those transcripts.” [S. Djebali et al. (2012) "Landscape of transcription in human cells" _Nature_ 489(6099) 7 Sept. pp. 101-8 (p. 108).]

    In deprecating Dawkins’ silli-fish gene, where goes the faddish and puerile Dawkins’ me-me? The problem with ev psych is that it has no plausible and distinguishing theoretical basis to provide uniqueness and, therefore, no reason to exist. There is an alternative, but considering it requires flexible mental sinews to consider that, as examples, Darwin is more correct than he could have known, but biological evolution is a subset applying to that domain and, regardless, Mendel(ism) is irrelevant to the topic.

    Oh, this is a fine Irish stew, Kate!

    Link to this
  30. 30. hearts.in.space 12:49 am 02/23/2013

    Hello Kate Clancey. Great article, and great comments from everyone. I am currently considering doing a thesis that takes an interdisciplinary approach to social issues by comparing theories from evolutionary psychology and sociology.

    What I’ve been wrestling with, and what you bring up in your article, is the moral dimension of studying the possible biological influences of human social behavior. If, as some scientists argue, creating scientific knowledge is an ethically informed process, where human values shape how science is organized and practiced, then we have a duty to do as you say, use our research designs to “smash” stereotypes that society agrees are harmful.

    However, if science is, as leahpin says, simply “look[ing] for the truth, however unpleasant” it seems to me that the opposite position is true, that we should check our personal morals at the door when we do science, or adopt a set of morals that does not fall prey the cleavages in the US culture war.

    I’m really having trouble with this issue, and any feed back people can provide would be helpful.

    From what I’ve read, it appears that our subjective social experiences and the biological processes that create us are mutually productive of each other. Social decisions can guide our genetic evolution as a species, and evolutionary processes that were started long ago by our mammalian ancestors play a role in our social decisions today. The social and biological processes of human life are enmeshed in a very complex positive feed back loop. How we put our theories of science into practice may very well influence our biological and moral fate as a species.

    You argue that a successful evol. psyc. will be guided in part by an urge to ‘smash stereotypes’ that we believe to be false or immoral. But I have to ask, once we have smashed the stereotypes, what will we replace them with? What type of society do we want to live in? What kind of science can get us there?

    Link to this
  31. 31. marygerdt 8:03 am 11/24/2013

    Thanks for this refreshing approach. Love the WEIRD explanation. They can best maneuver the stressful college campus life. The medical students sell sperm because everyone wants a handsome doctor for a Dad. Who will balance our collective societal needs? Everybody cannot be expert in everything. Can a robot or computer fill the gap? I never wanted to give birth and did not. Is that, too, evolutionary, my entire line terminated. I do not like the cruelty of the world. Is extinction, evolutionary? Thank you for making me think!

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a ScientificAmerican.com member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Scientific American Holiday Sale

Give a Gift &
Get a Gift - Free!

Give a 1 year subscription as low as $14.99

Subscribe Now! >

X

Email this Article

X