Evolutionary Psychology

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Robert Kurzban

The Evolutionary Psychology Blog

By Robert Kurzban

Robert Kurzban is an Associate Professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Why Everyone (Else) Is A Hypocrite. Follow him on Twitter: @rkurzban

Dear Stanton Peele, I Would Like To Cordially Invite You…

Published 8 December, 2010

Yesterday I mentioned two articles, one of which was a piece at Huffington Post by Stanton Peele. Today, Peele has followed this up with a post to his Psychology Today blog entitled “Is Evolutionary Psychology Total, Utter, and Dangerous Bullshit?”

So, that’s pretty provocative. I thought I would take a moment to evaluate Peele’s evidence that an entire scientific enterprise – my discipline –  is bullshit. Before I begin, I just want to mention – very casually, of course – that my view is that finding one study that has difficulties isn’t enough to support the bullshit claim. I mean, should we take worries about Bem’s recent paper about psi to be enough to support the claim that “Social Psychology is Total, Utter, and Dangerous Bullshit?” If it turns out the recent work on arsenic-using bacteria is wrong, should we simiarly condemn microbiology?

Peele gathers evidence for the bullshitty nature of the field in six sections. The first section, “EvPsych as catechism,” addresses comments on Peele’s Huff Post piece, several of which pointed out that Peele equated intelligence and level of education. His reply to this is that while Kanazawa says smarter people do more binge drinking, there is other evidence that better educated people binge drink less. So, unless education and intelligence are negatively related, there is a contradiction. This contradiction is, apparently, sufficient to support the “evolutionary psychology as catechism” claim (whatever it is supposed to mean).

The second section, “EvPsych as fable,” consists largely of a lengthy quotation from Peter Sagal’s review of Christopher Ryan’s book, Sex at Dawn. Based on the review, Peele writes that, “the EvPsych narrative reinforces current cultural mores with elaborate claims of evolutionary necessity – we are what we are (inherently monogamous) because – not God – but nature made us this way. Yet, in fact the opposite is true!” I’m not quite sure what “opposite” he’s talking about there — is he saying that we made nature? – but the funny thing about this is that Sex at Dawn is making an evolutionary psychology argument. The Amazon page for the book, for example, says that “Ryan and Jethá’s central contention is that human beings evolved in egalitarian groups that shared food, child care, and, often, sexual partners.” So, you know, the central contention is an evolutionary argument. This idea is actually right there in the review he quotes; Sagal says that the conclusion of the book is that “we are evolved to be highly sexualized creatures…” So Peele is supporting the claim that evolutionary psychology is bullshit by pointing to an evolutionary argument.

The third section, “EvPsych as science,” is brief. Here is his syllogism: 1. Kanazawa said people who score high on intelligence tests drink more. 2. Peele said that people with more education drink more. 3. These two things are “close to the same things.” I take it from the subheading that Peele believes that these three items logically imply that evolutionary psychology is not a science. Interesting.

The fourth section is “EvPsych as three-card monte.” Here, he calls one of the people who commented on his Huff Post piece a “devil” and points out that this commentator incorrectly identifies a claim that Kanazawa made. He also argues that Kanazawa drew a conclusion that he (Peele) suggests the data do not support. From this, apparently, he infers that evolutionary psychology is three-card monte.

The fifth section is “EvPsych as anti-psychology,” and I admit I couldn’t follow it. It seems to have to do with the fact that Kanazawa says that the fact that drinking is bad for you isn’t relevant to the claim he’s making about the correlation itself. From this, Peele writes: “All that stuff about people’s attitudes and behavior that psychology finds – bullshit according to Dr. Kanazawa.  The EvPsych “Hypothesis” reigns supreme!” I think this is sarcasm, but I confess that I have no idea what Peele is saying here.

Sixth and lastly, in the section “EvPsych as detrimental to our health,” Peele distinguishes between moderate and binge drinking. Apparently the fact that these two have different health consequences makes evolutionary psychology dangerous.

I want to be very clear that I am not taking any position at all – here, anyway – on the quality of the Kanazawa work that Peele is criticizing.  I might chime in on this down the road, but my point here is only about Peele’s apoplectic screed about evolutionary psychology being bullshit. I don’t care, for purposes of this post, if the ideas he’s criticizing are right, wrong, or even incoherent.

My point is that while it might well be true that there are logical errors or other problems with the work that Peele is criticizing, finding errors does not render the entire discipline bullshit. Peele did not address, in a single syllable, any of the conceptual foundations of the discipline. Indeed, he actually endorses the approach in his second point.

I might note that Peele’s text is quite agitated, as one can tell from the epithet in his title (and subtitle) and his various rhetorical flourishes. However, Peele hasn’t provided any evidence to support the very strong claim he wants to make. He has presented an enraged, sputtering attack on an entire discipline on the basis of his critique of Kanazawa’s work.

What’s really going on here, I think, is not that Peele isn’t capable of logic. Surely he knows that the fact that moderate and binge drinking have different health outcomes does not logically entail that the entire adaptationist approach to behavior is dangerous. My read is that he is skeptical of some work by some people who call themselves evolutionary psychologists, and his skepticism makes him angry, and he appears to be unable to contain his rage sufficiently, which in turn causes him to adopt this excoriating tone and make these absurdly sweeping claims. There is a real question here, of course, which is why shoddy work in other areas doesn’t similarly cause such rage directed at entire disciplines.

But my point is really that I would be very pleased for Peele to critique any work, of course, by anyone who styles themselves an evolutionary psychologist or anything else. But until he can support these extremely strong and broad claims he wants to make about the discipline – that the entire field is “bullshit” – I would respectfully invite him to shut the hell up.

  • http://thoughtsfromthestreet.com HJ Smith

    After reading both of Peele’s posts and the debate that followed the first post, I have to agree with you that he comes across as someone who is angry at EvPsych. Is his criticism of Kanazawa’s article correct? I don’t know; I haven’t read the Kanazawa piece. However, it seems clear that he is not interested in a rational, dispassionate discussion about EvPsych. His bias, although unsupported in these posts, is quite apparent.

  • http://helian.net/blog/ Helian

    The schools of orthodox psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists of which Peele is a representative example claimed for decades that the role of innate predispositions on human behavior is insignificant. As far as that orthodoxy is concerned, they’ve quite recently had their heads handed to them on a platter. I don’t know how you see your discipline, but historically it is very definitely a part of the hand that did the slicing, and the Peele’s of the world recognize it as such.

    It’s obvious why shoddy work doesn’t excite such rage in other disciplines. Peele and his ilk don’t hate EP and related ideas because it upset their scientific apple carts. They hate it because it upset their ideological apple carts, and those have always been much more important to them. Under the circumstances, their rage and resentment is understandable. To add insult to injury, they know they can’t turn back the clock now.

    Remember that rage and resentment don’t exist because they contribute to rational scientific arguments. They exist as evolved behavioral traits that happened to promote our survival at a time utterly unlike the present. As such, they have no inherent legitimacy, and quickly become comical in someone posing as a scientist.

  • http://www.peele.net Stanton

    Not bad, Robert,

    A few comments: I tend not to respond to people who get my name wrong, but there is enough of quality here for me to overlook that.

    Your analysis is weakest in dealing with the last three sections, which (unfortunately for supporters of EvPsych) are the most damning.

    Three-card monte: Although you might not be aware, Kanazawa added two tables to his original post (where he had one table, concerning frequency of drinking) in order to justify his claims that smarter people binge more. The two tables are quantity consumed overall. It so happens, quantity is directly related to frequency – by definition, binge drinkers are occasional drinkers. Kanazawa then uses this as evidence to support his binge-drinking assertion – by sidling in that quantity could include binge incidents.

    His whole exercise in this section is (a) intellectually dishonest, (b) a subterfuge effort to cover up that he cannot produce relevant, supportive data (as I did for my assertions), because these don’t exist.

    Anti-psychology. In order to evlevate the Hypothesis (one of these quaint assertions claimed by EPers to determine all of human destiny), and again responding to my earlier post by modifying his original document, Kanazawa says so what if smarter people aren’t healthier – the Hypothesis is always supreme. In doing so, he disregards the essential findings of decades of health psychology – that better functioning, smarter people display more concern for their health and act in more healthy ways. This disregard for a body of evidence is, for me, damning in and of itself of this whole scientific enterprise.

    Destructive of health. In his desperation to maintain his original assertion (as described in “three-card monte”) Kanazawa MUST downplay the distinction between regular moderate drinking (which creates overall greater consumption levels) and intensive consumption on individual occasions. However, this distinction is the ESSENTIAL one that alcohol epidemiology has concluded – again following decades of research – determines health outcomes. Would you say that a scientific endeavor that obfuscates the most important determinant of health outcomes – indeed, has life-and-death consequences – is worthy of condemnation?

    And, yes, I do find Kanazawa’s ad hoc, scientifically deficient – even unethical – reasoning to be characteristic of this field.


  • Nick

    You spent 95% of that response fleshing out your attacks on Dr. Kanazawa’s post. I would say the main thrust of Dr. Kurzban’s post was to challenge you to defend your sweeping assertion that the study of evolutionary psychology is bullshit.

    So how about it? As it stands, your argument is logically deficient – even unethical.

  • Phill

    Exactly, why not actually address what Robert said? He’s not defending Kanazawa’s work, he’s suggesting that the extrapolation that all EP is “dangerous bullshit” is not warranted by the faults of a single paper by an author who’s work (according to a previous post) may be questionably representative of EP. So please, Stanton, explain why the scope of your claims is appropriate, answer Robert’s post.

  • Suzanne

    Glad I found this website. I realize this particular thread was created to challenge Stanton Peele’s wholesale dismissal of evolutionary biology and its shaping of human behavior…but I’d be most interested to hear an evpsych explanation of substance abuse.

    Also of interest is the use of certain drugs by the wealthy classes through the ages and how their motive for drug use may have been different from the underclass (this seems to be the thorn in Peele’s paw)

    • Robert Kurzban

      As one entry point into this question, you might be interested in Burnham and Phelan’s book Mean Genes (around p. 59).

      • Suzanne

        excellent–thanks for the recommendation. It sounds like a good read overall.

        • Kyle

          Ed Hagen and colleagues have a very interesting adaptationist theory about substance abuse. It is largely untested, but a very creative idea attempting to resolve such an odd biological paradox (that we would willfully harm ourselves).

          Here is the citation: Hagen EH, Sullivan RJ, Schmidt R, Morris G, Kempter R and Hammerstein P 2009. Ecology and neurobiology of toxin avoidance and the paradox of drug reward. Neuroscience, 160, 69-84.

          • Suzanne

            thanks. I’ll have to check that out.

        • Suzanne

          In the process of reading Mean Genes and just got into the chapter on drugs.

          Reading the scientific explanation of how drugs mimic endorphins, dopamine etc, Peele’s argument denying the existence of drug addiction sounds downright goofy to me.

    • http://helian.net/blog/ Helian

      If you’re interested in historical background, take a look at “The Soul of the Ape,” by Eugene Marais. He was a brilliant South African polymath who was something of an EP precursor. There’s a Wiki page on him. He did the first long term study of primates in the wild (baboons) more than a century ago, although the manuscript for his book was not rediscovered and published until the 60’s. He was also a morphine addict, and his addiction eventually led to his suicide in 1936. A chapter of the book is devoted to observations of the fascination of baboons with intoxicating drugs, and speculations of how such an attraction may have evolved in humans. It’s really a moving piece, because you can almost feel him grasping for some kind of an explanation for his own addiction. Used copies of the book are available on Amazon. Robert Ardrey, who dedicated his first book to Marais, wrote a very sensitive and entertaining introduction.

      • Suzanne

        This sounds like a very interesting book that will no doubt answer some of my questions–and then some. Thanks so much!

  • http://Thanks Nando

    Thanks for pointing out lucidly what struck me also, that disagreement with one of Kanazawa’s posts would not indict the entire field of EP as “bullshit.” What could motivate that kind of obtuseness, I wonder.

    • http://figleaf.blogspot.com figleaf

      My thesis, over and over, is that the obtuseness is driven by the public’s strong inclination to “lap up” Kanazawa’s confident conservatism (promiscuous men are just doing what comes naturally, promiscuous women are dirty sluts; drinking heavily just means you’re more intelligent) than the carefully qualified and necessarily tentative assertions working scientists in EP are required to make… and substantiate. The former drives people who know better crazy. The latter is generally controversial only insofar as the former pick the parts that fit their agendas and run with it. That, rather than the actual merits of the proposition that patterns of behavior can be shaped by selective pressure, is what motivates that kind of obtuseness.


    • James Donaldson

      I would add further that, even if this particular Kanazawa post is bullshit (and I’m not saying it is), that wouldn’t dismiss ALL of Kanazawa’s work.

  • http://figleaf.blogspot.com figleaf

    Coming as I do from a long line of teetotalers I’m inclined to identify with Mr. Peele’s near apoplexy with regards to alcohol. What, exactly, his apoplexy has to do with Satoshi Kanazawa or evolutionary psychology is harder to pin down. Except maybe that this time Kanazawa’s most recent exercise in rump evolutionary psychology involved alcohol use. I mean, seriously, you’re looking at a guy who declares with a straight face and no particular substantiation that evolutionary psychology predicts that the Mac are more hip than PCs and that Russian women have to be “whores” based on Russian names have lots of patronyms in the m and Peele’s ire is roused only when the guy correlates intelligence and alcohol use? Seriously?

    All I can say is that just as bogus propositions don’t invalidate the whole of a scientific endeavor, neither do bogus refutations of said endeavors invalidate other critiques.

    Finally, what does it say about Psychology Today’s selection process that they publish Kanazawa and Peele under their masthead?


  • BalonyDetector

    Wait… Peele, a “health psychologist,” is throwing stones at some other discipline? Wow, if a Health Psychologist thinks you’re stupid, well, my, that really says something… What is he criticizing again… astrology? creationism? geocentrism? psychoanalysis?

    Oh no, what he wants to toss aside in Peele’s psychology is the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection–the central organizing theoretical edifice of the biological sciences.

    Why not? Someone made a kooky claim that Peele doesn’t like, so why not throw out the baby–and the life sciences–with the bath water?

    Who really are the dangerous ones? Scientists who seek to understand the evolved information-processing structure of the mind? Or, “health psychologists” like Peele who willfully ignore the fundamental organizing principles of living systems–the mind included–as they sell their ill-conceived interventions to the masses?

  • Gad Saad

    (1) I am currently reading The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee. Dr. Mukherjee is an oncologist who sets out to provide a historical account of cancer. In so doing, he discusses past theories about the origins of cancer that we now know as being demonstrably false (e.g., the black bile theory of cancer). None other than Hippocrates, the founder of modern medicine, as well as the great physician Galen, were strong supporters of this grossly incorrect theory. As such, according to Dr. Peele’s logic, medicine is “total, utter, and dangerous bullshit.” Clearly, since these astonishingly brilliant ancient physicians were wrong about the workings of cancer, this must imply that medicine in general and oncology in particular are bullshit fields. Nice job Dr. Peele. Your logic humbles me.

    (2) I did not read Dr. Kanazawa’s post so I will not take any position on its veracity. That said, I am aware of numerous treatments of addiction from an evolutionary perspective, some of which I discuss in my 2007 book (The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption). Here is a relevant link to a special issue on evolutionary approaches to addiction published in the journal ADDICTION:


    I would love to hear Dr. Peele’s opinion of the wide variety of papers published in the latter special issue. Are they all “utter, total, and dangerous bullshit”?


    P.S. I also posted this rebuttal in the comments section of Dr. Peele’s Psychology Today post.

  • Dennis Walker

    Having followed Dr. Peele for years and to be honest about my bias for him (modeling much of my clinical work after his teachings). I just really enjoy when he eviscerates the competition. Don’t worry though, all of you form a distinguished group that are countless in number. Well, let me try…Milam, O’Reilly, Schuckit, Vaillant…on and on it goes. Very few people have left their mark on the field as he has. I just worry that common sense will leave us when he retires.

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