Pop Psych

Unpacking evolutionary psychology

Misinformation About Evolution in Textbooks

Perhaps Wikipedia is a better source than the textbook after all...

Throughout my years making my way through various programs at various schools, I have received (and I say this is the humblest way possible, which appears to be not very…) a number of compliments from others regarding my scholarship. People often seem genuinely impressed that I make the effort to read all the source material I reference and talk about. Indeed, when it came to the class I taught last semester, I did not review any research in class that I had not personally read in full beforehand, frequently more than once. Now, to me, this all seems relatively mundane: I feel that academics should make sure to read all the material they’re using before they use it, and that doing so should be so commonplace that it warrants no special attention. I don’t feel teachers should be teaching others about research they, like Jon Snow, know little or nothing about. Now I have no data regarding how often academics or non-academics do or do not try to teach others about or argue about research they have little personal familiarity with, but, if consulting source material was as common as I would hope, it would seem odd that I received explicit compliments about it on multiple occasions. Compliments are often reserved for special behaviors; not mundane ones.

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”Thanks, Bob; it was really swell of you to not murder me”

It is for this reason that I have always been at least little skeptical of textbooks in psychology: many of these textbooks cover and attempt to provide some summary of large and diverse areas of research. This poses two very real questions, in my mind: (a) have the authors of these books really read and understood all the literature they are discussing, and (b) provided they have, are they going to be able to provide a summary of it approaching adequate in the space provided?  For instance, one of my undergraduate textbooks – Human Sexuality Today, by Bruce M. King (2005) – contains a reference section boasting about 40 pages, on each of which approximately 60 references are contained. Now perhaps Dr. King is intimately, or at least generally, familiar with all 2,400 references on that list and is able to provide a decent summary of them on the approximately 450 pages of the book; it’s not impossible, certainly.

There are some red flags to me that this is not the case, however. One thing I can now do, having some years of experience under my belt, is return to these books and examine the sections I am familiar with to see how well they’re covered. For instance, on page 254, King (2005) is discussing theories of gender roles. In that section, hes makes reference to two papers by Buss and Geary, but then, rather than discuss those papers, he cites a third paper, by Wood and Eagly, to summarize them. This seems like a rather peculiar choice; a bit like my asking someone else where you said you wanted to go eat when I could just ask you and, in fact, have a written transcript of where you said you wanted to go eat. On page 436, when discussing evolutionary theories of rape, King writes that Thornhill and Palmer’s book suggested that “women can provoke rape” (which the book does not) and that the evolutionary theory “does not explain why men rape children, older women, and other men” (demonstrating their lack of understanding about proximate/ultimate distinction). In fact, King goes on to mention a “thoughtful review” of Thornhill and Palmer’s book that suggests rape might be a byproduct and that “we must not confuse causation with motivation”. Thoughtful indeed. So thoughtful, in fact, that the authors of the book in question not only suggested that rape might be a byproduct, but the pair also take great pains to outline the distinction between proximate and ultimate causes. Issues like these do not appear to be the hallmark of a writer familiar with the topic they are writing about. (I will also note that, during the discussion on the function of masturbation, King writes, “Why do people masturbate? Quite simply, because it feels good” (p.336). I will leave it up to you to decide whether that explanation is particularly satisfying on a functional level).

Now these are only two errors, and I have neither the time nor the patience to sift through the full textbook to look for others, but there’s reason to think that this is by no means an isolated incident. I wrote previously about how evolutionary psychology tends to be misrepresented in introductory psychology textbooks and, when it is mentioned, is often confined to only a select topic or two. These frequent errors are, again, not the hallmarks of people who are terribly familiar with the subjects they are supposed to be educating others about. To the extent that people are being educated by books like these, or using them to educate others, this poses a number of obvious problems concerning the quality of that education, along with a number of questions along the lines of, “why am I trusting you to educate me?” To drive that point home a bit further, today we have another recent paper for consideration by Winegard et al (2014), who examined the representation of evolutionary psychology within 15 popular sex and gender textbooks in psychology and sociology. Since the most common information people seem to hear about evolutionary psychology does concern sex and gender, they might represent a particularly valuable target to examine.

The authors begin by noting that previous analyzes of evolutionary psychology’s representation in undergraduate textbooks has been less-than stellar, with somewhere between “a lot” and “all” of the textbooks that have been examined showing evidence of errors, a minority showing hostility, and that’s all provided the subject was even mentioned in the first place; not a good start. Nevertheless, the authors collected a sample of 15 academic textbooks from 2005 or later – six in sociology and nine in psychology – that saw some fairly regular use: out of a sample of around 1,500 sociology courses, one of those six books was used in about half of them, and a similar percentage of 1,200 psychology courses sampled used one of the nine psychology texts. The most widely-used of these texts were in around 20% and 10% of courses, respectively, so these books were seeing some fairly good popularity.

Of these 15 books, 3 did not discuss the theoretical foundations of evolutionary psychology and were discarded from the analysis; the remaining 12 books were examined for the areas in which evolutionary psychology was discussed, and any errors they made were cataloged. Of those 12 books, all of them contained at least one error, with the average number of errors per book hovering around 5 (allowing for the fact that they could make the same error more than once), with an average of 4 different categories of error per book. The most common of these errors, unsurprisingly, was the umbrella “strawman” category, where positions not held by evolutionary psychology are said to be representative of their actual positions (I believe the Thornhill and Palmer suggesting women “provoke rape” would fall into this category). The number of errors might not seem all that large at first glance, but once one considers that the average number of pages within the textbooks under consideration were around 6 for psychology and 3 for sociology, that’s around one or two errors a page.

Additionally, the errors that the authors found within these textbooks are cataloged at the end of their paper. Reading through the list should be more than little frustrating, if an entirely familiar experience, for anyone even moderately well-versed in evolutionary psychology. In accordance with the masturbation example listed above, there’s more than one instance in that list of writers suggesting that evolutionary researchers ignore the fact that people have sex for pleasure because we only focus on reproduction (for another example of this error, see here). Now there’s nothing wrong with being critical of evolutionary psychology, to be clear; criticisms are often the lifeblood of advancements. It is important, however, that one is at least familiar with the ideas they are going to be critical towards before attempting criticism, or the education of, others. This should sound like a basic point, but, then again, reading source material you’re discussing shouldn’t be something noteworthy that one gets compliments about.

“As long I don’t read it, I can still disagree with what I think it says…”

These are, of course, just the errors; there’s no consideration here of the degree to which topics are covered in sufficient depth. To the extent that people – teachers and undergraduates alike – are receiving an education from (or creating one based on) these textbooks, we should expect to see these errors repeated. In this case, we might actually hope that students are not reading their books since, in my mind, no education on the subject is likely better than a false sense of one. Now one might make the case that the authors of these textbooks don’t have the time to read everything they cite or cover it in the detail required for it to be of much use, meaning that we should expect errors like these to crop up. If that’s the case, though, it’s curious why anyone would rely on these textbooks as worthwhile sources of information. To put it in metaphorical terms, when it comes to providing information about EP, these textbooks seem about as a good as a tour of Paris taken via plane with a guide who have never been their himself. Not only is the experience unlikely to give you much of a sense for the city, it’s not the type of thing I would pay a lot of money for. While I certainly can’t speak to how well other topics are covered, I think there might be good reason to worry as well.

References: King, B. (2005). Human Sexuality Today. Pearson, NJ.

Winegard B., Winegard, B., & Deaner, R. (2014). Misrepresentations of evolutionary psychology in sex and gender textbooks. Evolutionary Psychology, 12, 474-508.

Jesse Marczyk, M.A., is a Ph.D. student at New Mexico State University; he studies evolutionary psychology and writes the blog Pop Psychology: The Internet's evolutionary psycholo-guy.

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