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A Behavioral Problem

Evolutionary Psychology Explains . . . Itself?

by Denyse O’Leary

Have you ever wondered when a friend would finally grasp that her boyfriend is just bad news in trousers? If your “friend” were the human race, then evolutionary psychology (EP) is the boyfriend. And it looks as though she is finally beginning to get it.

Evolutionary psychology? You must have heard: Evolution, not morality, explains why people return lost wallets (or don’t), run up charge card bills (or don’t), kill their children (or don’t), believe in God (or don’t), and do (or don’t) just about anything that currently interests the editor of the Relationships section of your weekend newspaper.

The basic idea is that, in the Old Stone Age, selfish genes blindly sought to replicate themselves. If those responsible for the neurons in our brains programmed behavior that caused a cave man to leave many descendants, the drive to procreate became part of our mental equipment. Essentially, little programs like these in our brains cause us to behave the way we do. So the reason we return the lost wallet is not because our minds have made a moral decision, but because our selfish genes have been programmed to do so.

Armed with this unproven concept, EP proponents can explain any behavior, or its opposite, by concocting a theory about how it helped our ancestors survive. That is easy to do because we have almost no information about Old Stone Age social life. Sometimes, cute psychological tests are devised to demonstrate a selfish gene’s program—with the results spilling into journalists’ inboxes as triumphant further evidence of EP. Journalists adore evolutionary psychology because it is a good story, and easy to tell.

Skeptical Mutterings

But winds change and fads peter out. Commentators have begun to mutter: The study of evolution is historical science, but evolutionary psychology may not be any type of science.

At first, the critiques focused on implausibility. In 1997, neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran offered a parody, “Why Do Gentlemen Prefer Blondes?”, but was embarrassed when he was taken seriously. Ramachandran is a strict materialist who wanted to demarcate science from storytelling. Agnostic common-sense philosophers David Stove and Jerry Fodor have assailed EP’s simplistic and counterintuitive assertions about human nature. Social scientists such as Steven and Hilary Rose, editors of the anthology Alas, Poor Darwin, weighed in on its counterfactual assumptions about human behavior.

But a culture looking for blame-free explanations of bad or foolish behavior ignored these efforts. Anyway, they were drowned out by cries that the speculation was “based on the science of evolution,” which reveals with certainty what was better (adaptive) for our ancestors—even when the answers are contradictory. As Sharon Begley pointed out recently in Newsweek (June 29, 2009),

From its inception, evolutionary psychology had warned that behaviors that were evolutionarily advantageous 100,000 years ago (a sweet tooth, say) might be bad for survival today (causing obesity and thence infertility), so there was no point in measuring whether that trait makes people more evolutionarily fit today. Even if it doesn’t, evolutionary psychologists argue, the trait might have been adaptive long ago and therefore still be our genetic legacy. An unfortunate one, perhaps, but still our legacy. Short of a time machine, the hypothesis was impossible to disprove. Game, set and match to evo psych.

But not so fast. Absent a time machine, a hypothesis that supposedly explains everything may in fact explain nothing.

Reactive & Adaptive

The key problem with evolutionary psychology emerged from the Decade of the Brain project in the 1990s. The brain is not a series of linked modules; it is a restless sea in a semisolid state, constantly reordering itself, according to the focus of attention provided by the mind. Adapting to one’s environment is constant and normal. Echoes from the past are just that, dimly heard echoes, not prophecies of our behavior today.

In her Newsweek article, Begley talks about a new discipline in psychology, offering a much more accurate interpretation of human behavior: behavioral ecology. Behavioral ecology accepts evolution but does not assume that a given behavior is—or ever has been—always adaptive or otherwise. Predictions can be made only for specific ecologies.

For example, is it better for a girl to marry at puberty or to wait? To marry a rich old man or a strong young one? To marry a cousin or an outsider? Obviously, we need to know the circumstances of the society—the specific human ecology—to answer such questions. And the only thing encoded in the girl’s genes or neurons is a general human ability to react and adapt to her circumstances.

So what now for evolutionary psychology? Given the growing skepticism, based on knowledge of the brain’s workings, the affair is probably over. Unless the time machine is invented soon, EP will join social Darwinism and sociobiology in the museum of failed attempts to explain human behavior by appeals to the Old Stone Age. As to why we rape, kill, and sleep around? Sharon Begley insists that “the fault, dear Darwin, lies not in our ancestors, but in ourselves.” 

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