That’s Not Really True About Evolutionary Psychology
Five misguided ideas about the science of evolutionary psychology
Posted Jun 24, 2016
Evolutionary psychology is simply the application of Darwin’s ideas on evolution to issues of mind and behavior (see Geher, 2015; Geher, 2014). There is a reason that Darwin has a special place in human history. It’s because his ideas on evolution changed forever how we understand the entirety of life, including ourselves and our behavior. Evolutionary psychology is a scientific approach to understanding behavior rooted in these facts.
In spite of the powerful nature of evolutionary psychology, this approach to behavior seems to always be under an enormous level of scrutiny (see Geher, 2006). One of the single-best responses to this criticism in a broad sense was written by David Schmitt (2015), in his now-classic “Yes, but …” article which responds to 10 specific criticisms of evolutionary psychology.
I write this post as something of a complement to Dave’s piece. The focus here is on the scientific validity of evolutionary psychology. One of the strangest, yet most common kinds of criticisms launched at the field claims that evolutionary psychology research is either shoddy, non-scientific, or non-existent. Below are five specific claims along these lines—as well as five responses.
Five Science-Based Criticisms of Evolutionary Psychology
1. The data from evolutionary psychology research are all based on small samples of US college students.
To be fair, all of the behavioral sciences are guilty of using “convenience samples”—and as most psychology researchers are college professors, then, most participants in research are college students. That said, evolutionary psychologists are often making large-scale claims about human universals. We are aware of this. In fact, with this point in mind, there has been an enormous and genuine effort to collect data on a global scale to test various evolution-based hypotheses. David Schmitt himself has collected more cross-cultural data on more questions about behavior than any other behavioral scientist that I know of (e.g., Schmitt & Shackelford, 2008)—from thousands of individuals across more than 40 nations.
If someone asks you whether all evolutionary psychology research uses only small college-student convenience samples, the answer is this: Not really…
2. Evolutionary psychological research makes claims about brain systems, but fails to include actual physiological data.
Yeah, evolutionary psychologists are making claims that connect with biology and that ultimately relate to the nervous system. For this reason, the new field of evolutionary neuroscience is growing at a breakneck speed. The entire point of this field is to use neuroscience-based techniques to help test evolution-based hypotheses (such as Platek and Singh’s (2010) recent work on how the brain’s reward systems are activated in men who are presented with stimuli of women with relatively low waist-to-hip ratios).
Check out the journal Frontiers in Evolutionary Neuroscience if you really want to dig deep into this exciting new area of intellectual inquiry! Is it true that evolutionary psychological research fails to connect with neuroscience? Not really...
3. Evolutionary psychological research is all correlational and includes no experimental methods.
This particular point may seem a little esoteric—but it’s important. In short, correlational research examines the relationships between variables as they naturally exist (without manipulating a variable). Often, researchers must use correlational methods (for instance, if you were going to study the relationship between population density and mortality rates). Experimental methods include a manipulation of a variable by the researcher—so variables are then examined in the context of an experiment—and this all allows you to potentially make some kind of causal inference (e.g., not only are these variables related to each other, but they are related because X causes Y). A lot of research in evolutionary psychology is correlational, but a lot of research in all of the behavioral sciences is correlational! Further, correlational research is not inherently bad—it’s often the only kind of research that can be conducted on certain kinds of questions (such as the mortality rate example from above). And (at the risk of sounding really nerdy), it often has more ecological validity than does experimental research.
Yet a ton of research conducted in the field of evolutionary psychology is experimental in nature. Consider the seminal work of Cosmides and Tooby (1992) which sought to examine if people are better at logic problems when the problems are framed in a particular evolutionarily relevant way. This research manipulated various independent variables across a large set of experiments to ultimately make causal inferences about the role of the evolutionary relevance of stimuli on logical decision-making. This may well be the most famous research in all of evolutionary psychology—and guess what? It’s experimental research by anyone’s definition. Is it true that there is no experimental research in the field of evolutionary psychology? Not really...
4. Evolutionary psychology is the study of human behavioral sex differences.
Evolutionary psychology is an enormously broad area of inquiry, covering such diverse phenomena as the nature of altruism, religion, education, parenting, music, warfare, and more (see Geher, 2014). It’s true that evolutionary psychologists also study human mating behavior—and within that area, it’s true that a large body of research focuses on an evolutionary account of male/female behavioral differences. And it’s true that this research has been some of the highest-profile work in the field (e.g., Buss, 2003). And you know, there’s some great research found there—providing important insights into who we are! But this said, research into male/female behavioral differences is a slice of evolutionary psychology. Just as geometry is just one element of a typical high school curriculum or as pepperoni is but one of many different kinds of pizza toppings. Is evolutionary psychology exclusively about male/female differences? Not really...
5. Research in evolutionary psychology has no applied value.
A final criticism of the scientific merit of evolutionary psychology relates to this conception that the field has no applied value whatsoever—that work by evolutionary psychologists has little to no capacity to help shed light on important issues of humanity. In fact, many evolutionary behavioral scientists are strongly motivated to use work in this field to help shed light on problems of humanity. Evolutionary psychology has been applied to such areas of education (see Gray, 2014), politics (see Bingham and Souza, 2009), health (see Kruger & Nesse, 2007).
If you’re interested in the many ways that research in evolutionary psychology can help shed light on everyday aspects of being human, check out the website for the Applied Evolutionary Psychology Society (AEPS). Is evolutionary psychological research without any applied merit whatsoever? Not really...
Darwin’s ideas on evolution were nothing short of revolutionary. His ideas changed permanently how we understand the world and our place in it. Evolutionary psychology is simply the application of Darwin’s ideas to issues of mind and behavior using scientific methods. And if someone tries to tell you that evolutionary psychology is “a pseudoscience” or that it relies on “shoddy methods,” feel free to tell that person, “not really…”
Bingham, P. M., & Souza, J. (2009). Death from a distance and the birth of a humane universe. Lexington, KY: BookSurge Publishing.
Buss, D. M. (2003). The evolution of desire: Strategies of human mating (Revised edition). New York: Basic Books.
Cosmides, L. & Tooby, J. (1992). Cognitive adaptations for social exchange. In J. Barkow, L. Cosmides, & J. Tooby (Eds.), The adapted mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture. New York: Oxford University Press.
Gray, P. (2011). Free to Learn. New York: Basic Books.
Kruger DJ, Nesse RM: An evolutionary life history understanding of sex differences in human mortality rates. Human Nature,74 (1): 74-97, 2006.
Platek, S., & Singh, D. (2010). Optimal waist-to-hip ratios in women activate neural reward centers in men. PLoS ONE 5;5(2):e9042. Epub 2010 Feb 5.