Evolutionary Psychology Gets the Thrashing It Deserves

Debbie says:

Before I start this post on an almost completely unrelated topic, I just want to say briefly that I wish I had the superpowers to protect all the young black men who are at newly-empowered risk of vigilante violence. Justice has not been served, racism is alive and well, and there is almost nothing good about the verdict or the process that got to the verdict.  I’ll stop there, because I don’t have anything original or fresh to say.

So, on to the latest evolutionary psychology jackass:


Geoffrey Miller apparently knows everything.  He’s gotten a lot of attention (not much of it positive) for his early June tweet in which he said, “Dear PhD Student: If you didn’t have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won’t have the willpower to do a dissertation.”

If I started naming fat PhD’s whom I know personally, this would be a long blog.

Miller’s asshole tweet did some good: it was at least one jumping-off point for this informational, thoughtful, complex piece by David Berreby (which has more scientific complexities of obesity than I was aware of, and I’m well read in this area).

It also got Annalee Newitz at io9 to do a thorough, painstaking and deeply satisfying takedown of Miller’s other evo-psych idiocies, which include:

He deleted the fat-shaming tweet and claimed it wasn’t his opinion, just part of his research. But it’s irrelevant to his research. His department chair says: “”[Miller] claims that he’s been sending out provocative tweets over a number of months now to measure people’s reactions to them, and so we’ll be investigating that.”

A tenured professor at the University of New Mexico, Miller apparently thought he was contributing DNA to a “Japanese eugenics project,” and didn’t understand the difference between a research study and a eugenics project. (If you don’t, there’s no shame in that, unless you have a doctorate in the sciences: eugenics is an actual attempt to change a population–usually a human population–by breeding, culling, or otherwise changing the genetic makeup of the group. Research studies on intelligence can lead to eugenics initiatives, but they certainly don’t have to.)

He also got a lot of attention in 2007, by publishing one of those tiny-source evo-psych studies that Laurie and I love to make fun of, this one claiming that lap dancers get better tips when they are ovulating.

At the end of her article, Newitz makes a quick reference to the direct line between evo-psych baloney and the pick-up artist culture I wrote about here.

In both groups, the common sense belief is that sexuality is based on a very old game that isn’t terribly different from clubbing women on the head and dragging them back to an anthropologically inaccurate cave. Other kinds of human relationships aren’t much better.

She is, of course, correct, but it’s even worse than that. Evolutionary psychology is blanket permission to oversimplify anything down to the cartoon level, whether it is pick-up artistry, the relationship between weight and willpower, the changes in a woman’s body when she is ovulating, or the relationship of the butterfly’s wing flapping to the price of tea in China. And oversimplification to this degree allows anyone with a prejudice, a preconception, or even a wish that things were different see the world through their own black-and-white lens. It’s a free pass to lazy (at best) and vicious (at worst) excuses for real thought.

The shame is that men like Miller are tenured professors. I’m not on Twitter, but here’s my response:

“Dear Professor: If you don’t have the common sense to stop doing evo-psych, you don’t have the sense god gave a gerbil. Get another job.”

(Thanks to jae for the David Berreby link.)