Sharon Begley has just written an article in Newsweek wherein she castigates the field of evolutionary psychology (EP) using the same antiquated and perfectly erroneous set of criticisms that have been addressed by evolutionary psychologists on endless occasions. If cats have nine lives then critics of evolutionary psychology à la Ms. Begley have infinite lives. The anti-EP dragon is slain repeatedly and yet it always resurfaces, emboldened by its blind and prideful ignorance of the facts. Unfortunately, it would take several posts for me to provide a point-by-point retort to the endless number of falsehoods that appear in her article. Instead, I will focus on a few key ones that were central to her critique.
(1) Ms. Begley's article title, Can We Blame Our Bad Behavior on Stone-Age Genes, seems to levy yet again the specter that evolutionary psychology is tantamount to genetic determinism. Evolutionary psychologists posit that the human mind does indeed consist of evolved computational systems that can be instantiated in one of several ways as a function of specific triggering inputs. Put simply, evolutionary psychologists are perfectly aware that humans are an inextricable mélange of their genes and idiosyncratic life experiences. This is known as the interactionist perspective. Epigenetic rules by definition recognize the importance of the environment in shaping the manner by which biological blueprints will be instantiated. Hence, EP does not imply that we are endowed with a perfectly rigid and inflexible human nature. Rather, we do possess an evolutionary-based human nature that subsequently interacts with environmental cues. That said this does not imply that human nature is infinitely malleable. I challenge Ms. Begley to find a culture in the annals of recorded history where parents were overwhelmingly more concerned about their son's chastity as compared to their daughter's. I challenge Ms. Begley to find a culture where on average men have had a sustained preference for mating with post-menopausal women. I challenge Ms. Begley to find a culture where individuals who possess asymmetric facial features are judged to be more attractive and desirable than their symmetric counterparts. I challenge Ms. Begley to find a culture where on average women have had a sustained preference for lazy, submissive, apathetic men as prospective mates. As a side note, contrary to Ms. Begley's claim, as a woman's socioeconomic status increases, her preference for a high status man becomes even more pronounced.
(2) Evolutionary psychologists, most of whom are very familiar with behavioral ecology (unlike Ms. Begley's claim to the contrary), have uncovered endless examples of phenomena that fit the "it depends" mantra that Ms. Begley is so enamored with. For example, strategic pluralism is an evolutionary-based mating theory developed by evolutionary psychologists that captures within-sex individual differences in the desire to engage in unrestrained sexuality. In line with a point raised by Ms. Begley, several groups of evolutionary psychologists have indeed found that men's waist-to-hip ratio preferences are contingent on local ecological parameters (cf. Westman & Marlowe, 1999; Swami & Furnham, 2007). Much of the glorious behavioral ecology research that Ms. Begley hails has been published in leading evolutionary psychology journals!
(3) In an earlier post, I explained that a human universal (as cataloged by evolutionary psychologists or any other biologically informed scientist) does not imply that every single individual on earth will adhere to this universal. This is not what is meant by universal. Hence, that Katie Holmes is taller than Tom Cruise does not invalidate the fact that men are taller than women. That Ashton Kutcher is married to Demi Moore does not invalidate the fact that men on average prefer to date nubile younger women more so than older post-menopausal women. That your friend Roxanne is dating a starving artist does not invalidate the fact that women around the world prefer high-status men as prospective partners more so than low-ranking, lazy, apathetic, and submissive men. Of course, that we hold these universal preferences does not imply that we'll be able to instantiate them in the mating market. Most people end up assorting with partners of roughly equal mating value. Hence, our preferences are evolutionary-based albeit environmental contingencies will likely require us to subconsciously "settle" for someone other than that dictated by our evolved preferences. If this were not the case then only supermodels and Presidents of the United States would ever mate!
(4) Ms. Begley mentions the proverbial "get-out-of-jail-for-free card" as one of the most pernicious elements of evolutionary psychology. For example, that evolutionary psychologists explain that on average men display a greater desire for sexual variety than do women is taken to mean that we are trying to "justify and condone" men's infidelities. To repeat a point that I made elsewhere, this is as intelligent a comment as to argue that by seeking to understand the causes of cancer, oncologists are seeking to "justify and condone" the existence of cancerous cells. Evolutionary psychologists are no different from any other type of scientist. They seek to pursue interesting scientific questions unencumbered by any grand conspiratorial agenda.
For an incisive critique of such antiquated anti-EP claims, please see Robert Kurzban's 2002 article published in The Human Nature Review.
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