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

The Pop Anti-Evolutionary Psychology Game

Published 3 May, 2011

Over the weekend, people pointed out two articles to me. The first is a post in Blag Hag, called “The Pop Evolutionary Psychology Game” from earlier this year. The game involves observing behavior and explaining – whimsically – how it would have led to reproductive success in ancestral environments. The sillier the explanation the better.  But, I want to highlight that the blogger notes in a comment that she put that “Pop” in there in the title to signal that doesn’t think that this characterizes the field. I take her at her word, and certainly there is some bad armchair adaptationism about. For completeness, here are the rules of the game:

1. Make an observation about a particularly odd aspect of human behavior.

2. Come up with an explanation for how that behavior would have increased fitness in hunter gathering societies.

3. Bonus points are rewarded for including 50’s era gender stereotypes.

The second article is a considerably lengthier and more recent piece by Darcia Narvaez, who blogs at Psychology Today, entitled, “What you think about evolution and human nature may be wrong.”

A number of people have posted replies, including two by Gad Saad (here and here), one by Catherine Salmon, and one by Michael Mills. I won’t add my reply to these, since these do just fine on their own.

In this post, I thought that I’d combine these two, and propose the “Pop Anti-Evolutionary Psychology Game.” Anyone can play, and the rules are only a little bit more complicated.

First, assert something that evolutionary psychologists think. These assertions can come in any of a number of flavors, the only requirement being that it has to be something that is obviously false, obviously stupid, or both.

Narvaez intimates that evolutionary psychologists think that humans evolved in the modern era, for instance, but that’s just one of many options. You can assert something about epistemology, for instance. The “just so story” claim is an old standby here; you can essentially always get away with saying that evolutionary psychologists don’t know how to test hypotheses. Or you can say that they think that correlation proves causation.

Another popular trope is about development, that evolutionary psychologists are genetic determinists. Alternatively, hyper-adaptationism is always a good option, that evolutionary psychologists assume that all traits are adaptations. You can also assert that evolutionary psychologists think that the modern social and physical world are identical to ancestral environments. Really, it’s fine to use your imagination.

The second part of the game should be obvious. Once you’ve baldly asserted what evolutionary psychologists believe – and you lose points if, breaking tradition, you provide some evidence for what evolutionary psychologists have actually claimed in print and accurately portray their view – point out the blindingly obvious opposite of the view you’ve hung on evolutionary psychology.

Here, anything vacuous but true works. Development matters. People learn. Behavior is flexible. Brains change over time. Not all traits are adaptations. The world has changed. People differ across cultures. Two plus two equals four. Whatever.

The third part of the game is not always followed perfectly, and it is the hardest part. Now that you’ve shown how you are in full command of the way science is conducted or some truth about human behavior that evolutionary psychologists have missed, it’s important to assert that you absolutely acknowledge that of course humans are the product of evolution, and of course humans aren’t exempt from the principles of biology.

Look, you have to say, I’m not opposed to applying evolutionary ideas to humans in principle. This is key, as it gives you a kind of ecumenical gravitas. Yes, you continue, I’m all for the unity of science and cross-pollination and making the social sciences better, and so on. But, you have to add – and writing plaintively, if you can, helps here – I just want things to be done properly. If only evolutionary psychologists would (police themselves, consider development, acknowledge learning, study neuroscience, run experiments, etc…), then I would be just perfectly happy with the discipline.

Now, you must be careful here. Take care to avoid making any suggestions about how you think a biologically rigorous study of human social behavior should be conducted, and how, exactly, your vision would differ from current practices. Along similar lines, it’s also very important not to compare work in evolutionary psychology with research on the same topic areas with research in which scholars do not take an evolutionary approach. If you complain about research on mating that draws on parental investment theory, avoid any reference at all to the literature in social science that ignores the functional level of analysis, such as the work that proposes that attraction can be best understood with the theory that people are attracted to those who are nearby. If you’re skeptical of the cheater detection work, don’t compare it with alternatives, such as the work on permission schemas. “The Pop Anti-Evolutionary Psychology Game” shouldn’t be sullied with serious scholarship. Looking at the field with this sort of care would, suddenly, turn into work… and that’s the last thing that one wants out of a game.

(Postscript. On an unrelated note, I have been told that the title of a recent post, “Oh! What a Cue You Have!” was far too obscure. Anyone?)

Copyright 2011 Robert Kurzban, all rights reserved.

Opinions expressed in this blog do not reflect the opinions of the editorial staff of the journal.