Christopher Ryan Ph.D.

Sex at Dawn

Evolutionary Psychology Deserves Criticism

Is rape just human nature? What about War? Sexual hypocrisy?

Posted Jun 24, 2009

While I agree with Dr. Saad that some of the common criticisms of EP are a bit weak and that EP has some theoretical strengths, I think he overstates things by dismissing Sharon Begley's critique in Newsweek as an "antiquated and perfectly erroneous set of criticisms." After all, it's not easy to be perfectly erroneous, even with lots of practice.

In fact, Saad ignores two of Begley's most important criticisms: the example of rape as having been advantageous in the EEA (environment of evolutionary adaptedness) and the rapidity with which genetic changes can occur in human populations.

(Begley's article is here, and an interview regarding this material can be found here. David J. Buller's book offering a comprehensive critique of the neo-Darwinian fundamentalism at the heart of much EP is here.)

One of the foundational claims of EP is that "we have stone aged brains in our modern heads." Indeed, EP makes little sense as a science if evolutionary adaptation can take place so rapidly that ancient psychological adaptations have long since been overwritten by more recent changes, as recent research suggests.

The argument over the evolutionary "appropriateness" of rape Begley outlines is important because many self-proclaimed EP realists argue that human nature leads us to wage war on our neighbors, deceive our spouses, and abuse our stepchildren. Rape, they say, is just a reproductive strategy, marriage a no-win struggle of mutually-assured disappointment, and romantic love a chemical reaction luring us into reproductive traps parental love keeps us from escaping. Theirs is an all-encompassing narrative that claims to explain it all.

But evolutionary psychology’s narrative contains many glaring contradictions. Women, for example, are said to be the choosy, reserved sex. Men spend their energies trying to impress women – flaunting expensive watches, driving shiny new sports-cars, clawing their way to positions of fame and status – all in order to convince the coy females to part with their closely-guarded sexual favors. For women, we’re told, sex is all about the security of the relationship, not the physical pleasure. (See Natalie Angier's spirited spanking of EP for gender generalizing here.)

And yet, despite repeated assurances that women aren’t particularly sexual creatures, in cultures around the world, men go to extraordinary lengths to control female libido: female genital mutilation, head-to-toe chadors, medieval witch burnings, chastity belts, muttered insults about “insatiable” whores, pathologizing, paternalistic medical diagnoses, the debilitating scorn heaped on any female who chooses to be generous with her sexuality… all obvious elements of a brutal campaign to keep the supposedly low-key female libido under wraps. Why the electrified razor-wire high-security fence around a kitty-cat?

While EP offers a valuable way of thinking about psychological development and life in the preshistoric environments, many of the most prominent voices in the field are less scientists than political philosophers. They choose some aspect of modern life and construct elaborate justifications located in an inaccessible ancient environment. Often, the fact that their story seems to make sense is the only evidence they offer. For them, it may be enough, but it isn't enough if you're aspiring to be taken seriously as a science.

Update: David Sloan Wilson takes a balanced look at EP and some of its critics (including Begley) here:

Update 2: David Brooks reviews the debate in his New York Times column here. Money quote: "The first problem is that far from being preprogrammed with a series of hardwired mental modules, as the E.P. types assert, our brains are fluid and plastic. We’re learning that evolution can be a more rapid process than we thought. It doesn’t take hundreds of thousands of years to produce genetic alterations."