This post is in response to What you think about evolution and human nature may be wrong by Darcia Narvaez


Continuing with my rebuttal of Dr. Narvaez's recent post in which she criticized evolutionary psychologists for their supposedly "erroneous" accounts of human nature.

Dr. Narvaez: Why it matters for your life: Children need lots of close, non-intrusive care throughout their development, best had in a supportive extended family, but also lots of autonomy (see Free-range Kids for ideas). Coercion kills the spirit.

My rebuttal: I was unaware that evolutionary psychologists spent their time trying to be "coercive" [not sure what this means in this context], as a means of killing children's spirits. I better be careful in my parenting style, as I don't want my evolutionary outlook to sap the spirit out of my two-year old daughter.

Dr. Narvaez: 4. There was cooperation and general peaceableness, yet EP assumes competition and coalitionary violence. Who are they talking about? Groups were permeable and fluid. Relatives lived in nearby groups. The anthropological evidence suggests that cooperation was the norm. Yet EP assumes rivalry between groups instead of cooperation. There is no evidence for warring parties among HGSB (Fry, 2006, Human Potential for Peace). There was nothing to be competitive about since there were no possessions and it was a collective.# But what was key was the childrearing practices, practices that bring about happy, healthy people who are agreeable and cooperative (see here and here). Our culture has forced parents away from most of these practices, although children still have a natural tendency to help others (see Michael Tomasello, 2009, Why we Cooperate).

My rebuttal: Yes, yes. There is absolutely no evidence of violence among HGSB. Furthermore, childrearing practices among HGSB have always yielded well-adjusted, playful, and happy children. If you repeat it enough times, it becomes true. To quote George Costanza, one of the central characters on Seinfeld: "Jerry, just remember. It's not a lie if you believe it."

Dr. Narvaez: Why it matters for your life: Notice all the ways that you are cooperative, how you don't demand your way and act aggressively when you don' t get your way. If you find that you are not cooperative or peaceful, it means your brain gets defensive easily based on trauma or neglect during sensitive periods in your life. Noncooperation and aggression are not inherent in human nature (except under threat, which is true for all organisms). People can change. Psychotherapy can help re-work personality (see Schwartz & Begley, The Mind and the Brain). If you are a parent, how you raise your child matters for their personality and sociability.

My rebuttal: Evolutionary psychologists do not posit that human nature makes us aggressive and noncooperative creatures. Has Dr. Narvaez heard of reciprocal altruism, one of the foundational mechanisms for the maintenance of human sociality? Humans have the capacity to both be brutish and kind; cooperative and competitive; loving and hateful. Behavioral plasticity is an integral part of human nature. Rigid biological determinism is not.

Dr. Narvaez: 5. There was generosity and sharing, a natural morality. HGSB didn't need a commandment to "love your neighbor" because one does so when one is raised with kindness and compassion, with needs fully met. Yet EP assumes that humans are naturally selfish.

My rebuttal: Not a single evolutionary psychologist that I am aware of makes the claim that humans are strictly "naturally selfish." Richard Dawkins's famous title of his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, might have confused Dr. Narvaez. If anything, evolutionary psychologists have been at the forefront of studying "non-selfish" topics such as parental love, friendships, kin relationships, reciprocal altruism, philanthropy, selflessness, and morality to name but a few relevant examples.

Dr. Narvaez: But how did we bring about so much truly self-centered behavior that we see in USA society in all ages and nearly all walks of life? I've been blogging about this for a while: it has to do with cultural expectations of (and encouragement of) selfishness, cultural practices that put people "under threat" most of the time, and also childrearing practices (stressing children out by not meeting their needs makes for a self-centered brain, which gets worse with subsequent generations).

My rebuttal: I have no idea what the latter passage means, and how it may or may not relate to evolutionary psychology.

Dr. Narvaez: Why it matters for your life: Your genes do not make you "selfish." That comes from childrearing practices, social situations and cultural narratives. Change your surrounds, your narratives and let your generosity out. What you immerse yourself in is what you become.

My rebuttal: What??!?

Dr. Narvaez: 6. There was virtue and good citizenship, a natural morality, yet EP assumes that humans are natural cheaters. In the HGSB context, everyone would have to be reliable or the group might perish from predation. HGSB members don't trust anything but eyewitness testimony. There would not have been intentional lying about resources and if there was the individual would be shunned or expelled.

My rebuttal: Evolutionary psychologists do not argue that humans are "natural cheaters." Dr. Narvaez is perhaps confused with the fact that Tooby and Cosmides have uncovered a computational system coined the cheater detection module. It simply recognizes that an isomorphic problem of logic (as presented via the Wason selection task) is differentially difficult to solve depending on whether the problem is framed abstractly or using violations of social norms. I am assuming that Dr. Narvaez believes that sexual infidelity and other forms of duplicity were absent among hunter-gatherers. Apparently, they adhered to a "natural morality" as opposed to what exactly: an unnatural morality; a natural immorality; or possibly an unnatural immorality?

Dr. Narvaez: Why it matters for your life: Yes, we have a nation of "mis-raised" people, some of whom do cheat. But it does NOT have to be this way. If we raise children well and make sure workplaces, homes are places of support, if we lessen competition, we will have less cheating.

My rebuttal: If only we could hold hands while smelling incense and chanting "All we are saying is give peace a chance," the world would be rid of violence, cheating, and misery. Notwithstanding the lovely "new age" platitudes, what does this have to do with evolutionary psychology?

Dr. Narvaez: 7. There was more sexual freedom and mating behavior for all ages, yet EP assumes a scenario like today's of restriction and competition, and an emphasis on the timing of first sexual behavior.

My rebuttal: Could Dr. Narvaez share the relevant references regarding the greater sexual freedoms of HGSB across all ages? Which "today" is Dr. Narvaez referring to? Sexual behaviors in contemporary Saudi Arabia are quite different from those implicit to the sexual liberation movement of the 1960s in the United States. Yet both constitute contemporary environments.

Dr. Narvaez: There was cooperative breeding and childrearing, yet EP assumes mate competition and male desire to control female reproduction to ensure genetic dominance.

My rebuttal: This sentence borders on the nonsensical, as it mixes up several issues (let alone it gets the facts wrong). Evolutionary psychologists have been at the forefront of studying cooperative breeding and childrearing (e.g., the grandmother hypothesis). As far as mate competition is concerned, intrasexual competition for mates is a central feature of both male and female sexuality. To argue that humans, a sexually reproducing species, have existed in some "pristine" form wherein mate competition was absent is laughable. To argue this point, Dr. Narvaez is effectively proclaiming that sexual selection, one of the foundational mechanisms of evolution, would have been non-operative (in some HGSB "natural" state). Survival and reproduction are the central processes that guide life. This does not mean that organisms pursue these goals consciously. However, it does mean that there is no context in which mate competition is non-existent (at least for the typical sexually reproducing species).

Dr. Narvaez: In HGSB, sexual relations seemed to be widespread with experimentation at all ages. As with our bonobo cousins, individuals did not wait for the right fertile mate.

My rebuttal: Evolutionary psychologists do not proclaim that "individuals wait for the right fertile mate." This literally means nothing. Men and women have certain ideal mating standards, which in most instances are non-instantiated for a wide range of reasons. An unemployed male janitor, who is also dull, unintelligent, and physically unattractive, might wish to mate with a Victoria's Secret model but he might have to settle for the first woman who can stand to be in his presence for more than ten seconds. Is Dr. Narvaez genuinely stating that evolutionary psychologists are unaware that individuals do not solely mate with "fertile" mates? Who came up with the notion of cryptic ovulation? Social constructivists?

Dr. Narvaez: Sexual relations were more about pleasure [for hunter-gatherers].

My rebuttal: Oh I see. Evolutionary psychologists are otherwise unaware that people have sex because it is pleasurable. Rather, we all think that men and women have sex for the sole and conscious purpose of spreading their genes.

Dr. Narvaez: There is no evidence to show that males were concerned about whose child was theirs, but evidence to the contrary.

My rebuttal: Could Dr. Narvaez share the references that show that not only do HGSB males not care about paternal certainty but also that they display behaviors and preferences to the contrary? Incidentally, what constitutes ‘contrary evidence" to caring about being cuckolded? Attending a swinger's club with your ovulating female partner?

Dr. Narvaez: From the hypotheses that are tested in EP, it is clear that they are missing an understanding of this baseline. Otherwise, for example, why would they hypothesize male preference for virginity? It's because they are using the wrong baseline, one based on more recent social structures. Our ancestors lived in kin-based communities and were not concerned with controlling women's reproduction. Women controlled it themselves--they were responsible for killing a newborn who was defective or unable to be cared for by the community's resources.

My rebuttal: I see. The chastity norm is a manifestation of the more recent evil patriarchy whereas the "liberatory" norms of infanticide are an instantiation of hunter-gatherer egalitarianism. I am afraid that I am having a hard time following the logic.

Dr. Narvaez: Why it matters: Males who are neglected in early life seem to be much more detrimentally affected than females leading to brain decrements and potential fixations (e.g., on sex; see Martin Teicher's work). Even the breast fetish of USA males may be due to the poor rates and length of breastfeeding which are perhaps especially detrimental for male development. So don't attribute the characteristics of USA males today to be reflective of typical male nature.

My rebuttal: I can't speak to the first part of the paragraph, as I am unsure what it means. That said, no evolutionary psychologist argues that contemporary American males constitute the "model" of male human nature. However, Peruvian, Nigerian, American, Bedouin, and Inuit males do share many universal characteristics that speak of a shared common biological heritage.

Final note: My objective in writing these two rebuttal posts is not to frivolously criticize a fellow PT blogger.  However, to the extent that Dr. Narvaez chose to publicly attack evolutionary psychologists in such a shoddy manner (let alone assume that we are members of a conspiratorial sinister agenda), I find it perfectly reasonable to respond in a forceful (albeit hopefully polite) manner.

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About the Author

Gad Saad

Gad Saad, Ph.D., is a professor of marketing at Concordia University and the author of The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption and The Consuming Instinct.

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