Evolutionary Shockology and Human Nature

Promoting the Dark Side of Human Nature

Posted Oct 16, 2011

Note: First author is Adam Felton*

This is follow up to prior posts criticizing a subset of scholars who use evolutionary theory, those identified with Evolutionary Psychology (capital letters), an offspin from sociobiology whose emphasis was on competition of selfish genes. See here and here for prior posts.

If you've been trying to stay afloat the scientific tide, you may have noticed the popular trend in social science:  evolution and its effects on modern humans. Evolutionary Psychology (EP), representing a subset of those who use evolutionary theory to frame their research, has captured media attention.  EP's basic premise is that modern humans are a product of natural selection (gene competition), not only physiologically (genetically) but also psychologically. Evolutionary Psychologists use this premise to explain people's behavior today, assuming that today's behaviors represent the way our evolutionary ancestors behaved to succeed in their environment. 

Evolutionary Psychology addresses human nature: how do we think, what do we think about, why do we do what we do, and why do we prefer what we prefer?  EP theorists assume that the answers lie in our evolutionary past, specifically genetic competition.  Our ancestors had to out-compete others in their environments and in this process forged the characteristics that we inherited.  Reduced to their constituent points, EP implicitly assumes that our goal is simply to compete to survive and reproduce - with emphasis on sexual reproduction. This "survival of the fittest" emphasis ignores all sorts of other characteristics of organisms, such as dynamic self-organization.

Everything in evolutionary psychology comes back to the premises of competition, survival, and reproduction, ignoring how reproduction is not an indication of "fitness" (competitive success) because one must map multiple generations to gauge fitness.

These premises lend themselves to a variety of theoretical views, many of which are alarming.  Evolutionary psychologists have, beneficially, investigated all aspects of human nature: both the good (e.g., altruism) and the bad (see below).  However, it's their focus on the latter that can lead to a false sense of how the world works.  For example, look at some titles and articles published on evolutionary psychology:

Menacing and arousing titles:

  • The Murderer Next Door: Why the Mind is Designed to Kill
  • Demonic Males
  • The Disposable Male
  • Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life
    • Chapters including "Standing in the Gutter", "Why Playboy is Bad for your Mental Mechanisms", "Homicidal Fantasies," "Outgroup Hatred in the Blink of an Eye", "Bad Crowds, Chaotic Attractors, and Humans as Ants"
  • The Evolution of Desire
  • Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite
  • An Uneasy Alliance - Why Women and Men Don't Live Happily Ever After
  • The Mating Mind - How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature
  • Why We Lie
  • Sex, Power, Conflict
  • Why Women Have Sex
  • The Dangerous Passion
  • The Most Dangerous Animal: Human Nature and the Origins of War
  • Articles
    • Homicide Adaptation
    • Susceptibility to Sexual Victimization and Women's Mating Strategies
    • The Evolution of Intimate Partner Violence
    • Domains of Deception
    • The Evolution of Stalking

Even Steven Pinker's seemingly innocuous "The Logic of Indirect Speech" is about off-record speech, using bribery and sexual innuendos as prime examples. 

The focus on such tantalizing topics as murder, rape, deception, and infidelity are definitely selling points, but they also tend to resonate with the prejudices of its consumers.  For example, Jeff Skilling, of Enron infamy, reportedly cited Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene as his favorite book and required his high-level workers to read it.  Skilling used this book as justification for ruthless practices to weed out weaker people. (See here.)  Skilling, who received his MBA from Harvard, misunderstood the central theme of Dawkins's sociobiological book - which was a work that attacked the theory of group-level selection in evolutionary biology. It was not an attack on human kindness or fairness (although see Susan MacKinnon's, Neo-liberal Genetics).

Pushing negativity for its own sake is not so problematic if it's done to unveil the whole continuum of human experience. The problem with EP is that it's got a very particular and staunch paradigmatic perspective (sex and survival) that lends itself to misinterpretation (e.g., Jeff Skilling) and tends to push a negative and cynical worldview.  If you read a newspaper today or watch the news, you will see that EP's views taken as true: that humans are competitive, selfish, and focused on sex.

However, it is a mistake to assume that things have always been the way they are now.  Despite claims to the contrary, murder, war, rape, etc. are not a necessary part of human existence.  The literature on cultures abounds with evidence to the contrary.  Below are some references to check out. The battle over human nature continues, but all sides should give sufficient credit to cultural influence and human variation.

Criticisms of Evolutionary Psychology:

¨     Methodology: Christine Harris (2003), Jealousy, Including Self-Report Data, Psychophysiological Responses, Interpersonal Violence, and Morbid Jealousy, Personality and Social Psychology Review, volume 7, pages 102-128

¨     Paradigm: Steven Jay Gould & Richard Lewontin, (1979) The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme, http://condor.wesleyan.edu/courses/2004s/ees227/01/spandrels.html

¨     Confirmation rather than falsification: Richard Shweder (2003), Why Do Men Barbecue? Recipes for Cultural Psychology

Killing is not in our genes:

Dave Grossman (1995), On Killing

Rape is not in our genes:

Derrick Jensen (2002), The Culture of Make Believe

War is not in our genes:

Peter Gray (2011), How Hunter-Gatherers Maintained Their Egalitarian Ways: Three Complementary Theories

Derrick Jensen (2002), The Culture of Make Believe

Peter Farb (1976), Man's Rise to Civilization

Impact of media on perceptions of reality:

David Philips (1983), The Impact of Mass Media Violence on U.S. Homicides, American Sociological Review, volume 48, p. 560-568.