Evolutionary Psychology: Viewed in Context

Laurie and Debbie say:

Regular readers will know that we keep coming across evolutionary psychology news articles which infuriate us, and which seem to be based on either tiny studies (some as small as 13 people) and/or tiny bits of information.

The two newest ones:

Women walk differently in various stages of their menstrual cycle

Women’s bravery in the hunt caused the extinction of the Neanderthals

We’ve taken shots at several other such pieces, including here, here, and here.

Having these last two come in together got us to thinking about fillyjonk’s superb post on context. which we blogged here.

A study is just a fucking study. Deflate it, and you’ve got a deflated study. Analyze and critique the paradigm that devised, interpreted, reported, and incorporated it, and you’re getting somewhere. Many studies are problematic in and of themselves; others are problematic because they’re being interpreted either in a vacuum or in an unsuitable framework.

So what is the context for these scientifically unsupportable studies, all grouped under evolutionary psychology, and most if not all of them trying to oversimplify the complexities of gender and racial relations in human beings?

Here’s a readable and comprehensive site that discusses the evolutionary psychology context. Note that there’s lots of good material above the link. Cosmides and Tooby, referenced at the link point, are founders of evolutionary psychology, so quoting them is a fair way to examine the discipline.

“Modern skulls house a stone age mind.” This is a catchy way of conveying the idea that human evolution occurred in a very different environment to the one in which we now live.

Most of what goes on in the mind is unconscious .

Evolutionary psychology views the mind as consisting of specialized modules that have evolved with the purpose of coping with adaptive problems. In contrast, psychologists have tended to view the mind as consisting of general purpose circuits involved in many different behaviours e.g. learning, intelligence, memory, reasoning, decision-making.

And our personal favorite:

Evolutionary psychologists are particularly interested in psychological mechanisms that:

* are universal i.e. do not vary greatly between individuals
* are closely related to reproductive success

In other words, evolutionary psychologists are dedicated to the proposition that all humans were created equal between 700,000 and 200,000 years ago. It’s a horrifyingly short jump from that (defensible) proposition to one that says that studying tiny groups of humans without regard to cultural factors will give you generalizations that genuinely and reliably apply to all (or nearly all) humans.

If you keep reading the resource page, you discover that evolutionary psychologists have troubles explaining “nonadaptive” human behaviors such as homosexuality, schizophrenia, and “obesity caused by excessive intakes of fat and sugars.”

In other words, although there are certainly genuine scientists using the scientific method in this are, the discipline itself is falls just short of being designed to throw out any facts that don’t fit the theory.

The next step in examining the context, then, is, “Why does anyone take the junk science aspect of this discipline seriously?” Why don’t these 40-person studies and extrapolations from no data (fertile females apparently hunted in Neanderthal times, therefore they must have been killed in large enough numbers to affect population growth) simply get thrown out by university committees, journal editors, and newspaper desks?

This is easy: because they are speaking reassurance to power. They are providing white men (and the rest of us) with a lot of seemingly convincing material that confirms the “natural order” in which men have more economic/political power than women and white people have more power in most of the world than people of color. If evolutionary psychologists don’t keep re-establishing these cultural paradigms, their whole discipline goes up in smoke. So they consistently tell the people in power what they want to hear: You have every right to your privilege and your power; you evolved to deserve special treatment. And the repetition also reminds the rest of us that we’re in our “appropriate” “scientific” place and we shouldn’t be complaining.

We would take this contextual analysis one level deeper. Psychologist Alice Miller has developed a clear and understandable model for why and how people are so desperate for constant confirmation that they deserve their status in life. Here’s a quotation from Bob Scharf, writing on Miller’s website:

[S]uperstitions involving fortune and control of fortune … represent an omnipresent anxiety about existence and an illusory way of combating this anxiety. We note that this puts the individual at the center of the universe. That is, according to the superstitious world view, bad things don’t happen to people randomly; they happen because people fail to ward them off.

What is it that fuels this sense of being unworthy? What fuels the need for the illusion of control and the feeling that one is responsible for bad fortune?

I believe that these are a projection of the parent-child relationship. It is well known that the abused child will blame the self rather than the parent. The child who is threatened by parental abuse needs to feel that the parent is not really hostile and dangerous. The child instead imagines that the abuse is a result of the child’s own behaviors or unworthiness. This is much less frightening. If the child could see the situation clearly, the child would know that parental abuse is a product of the parent’s own issues, not anything having to do with the child. Yet this would involve the recognition that the parent might indeed destroy the child, as parents often do. To ward off this fear, the child imagines that the parent is benevolent and that the child deserves the abuse the parent inflicts. This creates the illusion of control.

As an adult the individual continues to experience this conflict in the form of the beliefs we discussed above: superstitions concerning a dangerous and hostile world which one can combat by taking action or being different than one is. This informs religious belief and also political world views which imagine that society is just and that it is a meritocracy in which people get what they deserve–the belief in a just world.

Whether we look at the basic assumptions of evolutionary psychology, at the ways in which these assumptions fall on eager ears, or at the reasons why people want to believe what they say, the context is extremely revealing.

Alan Bostick and Morchades found the most recent examples.

evolutionary psychology, science, junk science, gender, men, women, feminism, sexism, racism, Alice Miller, Neanderthal, Body Impolitic