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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

Amanda Marcotte’s Ugly Prejudices

Published 25 October, 2011

Recently there has been some chatter on Facebook about a podcast by Amanda Marcotte on “The Story Collider” called “De-evolutionary psychology.”(Hat tips: several)

One question that came up in the Facebook discussion is whether it’s worth spending time addressing criticisms of the field as bad as Marcotte’s . It’s a good question, but what decided me in this case is that I really like Slate, and I find it annoying that writers at The XX Factor at Slate seem, generally, to dislike evolutionary psychology. Marcotte blogs for XX Factor (occasionally about EP) which makes me more inclined than I would otherwise be to address what she has to say. (People might recall Marcotte from the incident with the 2007 Edwards campaign.)

I’d like to divide Marcotte’s views into two categories. First is her view of evolutionary psychology as a scientific enterprise, and the second is her view of evolutionary psychology’s relationship with feminism.

Starting with the former, Marcotte either doesn’t understand the discipline even a little bit, or she simply chooses to misrepresent it, possibly in the service of her political agenda. Marcotte very clearly views evolutionary psychology as taking one side in the nature/nurture debate, making this explicit in her remarks in the podcast, referring to “the classic nature vs. nurture debate.” (Big hat tip: Amy Kurzban, for transcribing the podcast.) This error infects the way she interprets the primary literature. Referring to Buss’ (1989) 37 cultures paper, she says:

Buss interviewed women from 37 different cultures and found that in all 37 different cultures that women preferred to marry men with a lot of money. He felt that this was solid evidence for a gold-digging whore gene.

In those two sentences, she manages to make four errors. Buss, of course, didn’t interview women, but that’s a minor point, speaking more to her care about journalistic accuracy than anything substantive. The item she’s referring to was one in which subjects ranked the importance of various characteristics, in this case, “good financial prospect” for “someone you might marry.” In all but one of the 37 samples, there was a sex difference. (Spainwas the exception.) And, most emphatically, Buss made no claim at all – let alone a claim about “solid evidence for”  —  about a putative “gold-digging whore gene.” In the conclusion, Buss writes, “Each of the five evolution-based predictions received some empirical support from these data” (p. 12), a far distance from the conclusion Marcotte hangs on him.

The material in the podcast and some of her writing elsewhere make it clear that her impression of evolutionary psychology is that the enterprise consists of a set of claims about genetically determined behavior, which she sets in opposition to social learning. Here is a comment she made in a discussion about evolutionary psychology that I found as I was looking into her writings. This is Marcotte, quotted by a blogger, Ryan W.:

I read and research a lot of “evolutionary psychology”, and while they are very good at getting people to cop to anti-feminist opinions and sexist behaviors, I have not really seen many—any?—that prove their contention that these behaviors or opinions are encoded in the genes instead of learned from the environment. They simply note people are sexist and claim that it’s genetic. I sense an agenda there, because if you were putting science in front of an agenda, you would acknowledge the huge body of research supporting the idea that we learn our behaviors and beliefs from our environment.

But I’m happy to read studies that prove that sexism is genetic and unchangeable instead of socialized and changeable!  I just haven’t seen it in all the years I’ve been writing about this.

She makes this sort of remark again in the podcast, saying, “they never really prove, like, the fundamental thing that they’re arguing. They can measure a behavior, but they can’t prove that it’s genetic and not socialized.” Note the setting of learned against genetic, completely and utterly missing the point that evolutionary psychologists have repeatedly made , as though the last 20 years of progress in development hadn’t occurred. Here is the way that Leda Cosmides and John Tooby put it in their online primer:

Evolutionary psychology is not just another swing of the nature/nurture pendulum. A defining characteristic of the field is the explicit rejection of the usual nature/nurture dichotomies — instinct vs. reasoning, innate vs. learned, biological vs. cultural….For an EP, the real scientific issues concern the design, nature, and number of these evolved mechanisms, not “biology versus culture” or other malformed oppositions.

By the way, it’s interesting what this critique would look like if she did actually understand the field.:

I’ve read in evolutionary psychology, and while they gather data just like other social scientists do, they insist that the mind is likely to consist of a larger number of more specialized computational devices as opposed to a smaller number of less specialized computational devices. How transparently sexist!

In short, Marcotte doesn’t understand the most basic assumptions that underlie the field, which have been made very explicit in many places. Instead, what’s happening here is that she’s relying on her intuitions about what a field called “evolutionary psychology” is trying to do, which is why she thinks it’s about showing that behavior is genetic as opposed to learned. As something of an aside, note that she thinks that psychologists “prove” things, an incorrect impression many of us are able to suppress in our first year undergraduate students in introductory psychology classes. There is a sense in which her ignorance of the way science works, generally, works against her narrower claims because of the credibility that it costs her.

Along those lines, one of the amusing ways she shows her ignorance in the podcast is her discussion of “study” that, she says, purported to show that “men have a genetic predisposition to love blondes. The theory was that women’s hair gets darker as they get older, so men go after blondes ‘cause they’re younger and more fertile.”

I’m pretty sure she’s referring to Ramachandran’s paper which was published in Medical Hypotheses. Not only is Ramachandran not an evolutionary psychologist, and not only was the paper not reporting a study, but the paper was intended as a “hoax.” (See Don Symons’ remarks about this.) She also discusses some work by a certain professor at Florida State, as though she’s attacking someone in evolutionary psychology, which I have discussed before, which again illustrates how little she understands the complexion of the discipline.

What’s galling is that although she clearly has no understanding, at all, about the constitution of the filed, she feels entitled to claim that its practitioners – “psychologists and linguists,” she puzzlingly and incorrectly believes – “don’t know anything about evolution and they don’t know anything about biology.” It’s striking that she feels so confident dismissing the field, and what knowledge is in the heads of the people who do it, while simultaneously illustrating her complete innocence of any knowledge about it.

This intersects with the second point, which is the political angle. After incorrectly characterizing the field, she asserts that evolutionary psychologists “really don’t like feminists.” Elsewhere, she has asserted that the practice of the field “tends to center around reinforcing retrograde gender roles.”

These accusations are, in my opinion, disgusting. Marcotte styles herself a feminist, and I take it that an important part of feminism is the idea that people – men and women –  should be treated as individuals, not lumped together into a category and stigmatized on the basis of that categorization. This is precisely what she’s doing here to evolutionary psychologists, branding them all, as members of a category (that she little understands), people who don’t like feminists. I certainly have no such aversion, and indeed consider myself a feminist, though of course definitions vary about what that means. I, and no doubt most if not all evolutionary psychologists, I would guess, for instance, strongly support women’s equality and rights.

There should be no tension between feminism and evolutionary psychology, and what tension there is derives from erroneous views such as  those of Marcotte. At its heart, evolutionary psychology uses ideas from biology and other disciplines in the service of trying to understand and explain human behavior. It is, of course, a positive enterprise, and the normative ghosts Marcotte sees are just that, ghosts.

The problem, I think, boils down to this. Evolutionary psychologists say “biology” but what Marcotte hears is “genetic determinism.” Because she is in favor of political change, and because she (incorrectly) understands evolutionary explanations to pull the other way – against change —  this causes her to frame us as enemies.

We’re not. Yes, Robert Wright had a few less-than-favorable remarks to make about some branches of feminism, but hardly, as Marcotte says, did he spend half of The Moral Animal on the subject. He did write that “Feminists have written articles and books denouncing “biological determinism” without bothering to understand biology or determinism” (p. 137), but, in his defense, well, it was and, frustratingly, seems to continue to be, true.

But there is no reason, at all, that I can see that evolutionary psychology and feminism have to be enemies. Yes, if you attack the field with inaccuracies and errors, sure, we’ll defend ourselves. If you label us all anti-feminist and accuse us of unpleasant political views, yes, you’ll make some enemies.

A different idea would be to try to understand the work and the concepts that underlie it, and use those ideas to try to develop better models of human nature, which in turn might help you to effect the sorts of political changes you favor.

Your call.

Added: Note that I made a couple copy edits to this post (see comments), and my attention was called to this paper (available from the Buss lab web page), which is of obvious relevance:

Buss, D.M. & Schmitt, D. P. (2011). Evolutionary Psychology and Feminism. Sex Roles, 64, 768-787.


Buss, D. M. (1989). Sex differences in human mate preferences: Evolutionary hypotheses tested in 37 cultures. Behavioral & Brain Sciences, 12, 1-49.

  • http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/humor-sapiens Gil

    It’s fuuny because I just finished reading one of her recent posts that discusses a recent humor paper, and the last paragraph was an attack on my paper with Geoffrey Miller on the same subject. Not only she completely distorted what both papers claims were, but she used it as an ignorant attack on ev psych.

    I think that as long as such attacks are confined to blogs that have limited exposure or that gather readers who will not be convinced at any rates, a detailed response will have no merit. On the other hand, if a broad audience is exposed to such writings that we should respond which seems to be the case here.

  • robin

    That should be Robert Wright, not Robert Frank

    • Robert Kurzban

      Fixed. Sorry about that. So many Roberts…

  • http://sexandthe405.com/ AV Flox

    I’m glad you responded to these claims. I think it’s imperative to do so. Yes, there is an argument that doing this brings more attention to something that doesn’t necessarily merit it, but I believe — first and foremost — in our responsibility to the public.

    The truth is that Marcotte’s platform is far larger than hundreds or even a few thousand educated people who will understand this information is erroneous. Given how widely her message is distributed, it is essential for those whose goal is to educate the public about science to correct these statements using language that is easy for the public to understand.

    Put plainly, I don’t just think that her commentary merits a response: I think that science writers specializing in evolutionary psychology, especially those who are well-versed in feminist issues, must reach out to general interest and feminist platforms — even the same publications where Marcotte contributes — and offer a rebuttal.

  • Josh

    Individuals who explicitly voice opinions based on perceptions of evolutionary psychologists’ political agendas may be directed here.

  • David P. Schmitt

    Here’s another example of an author’s misunderstandings of evolutionary psychology feeding into a scholarly ugliness: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/context-and-variation/2011/10/20/mate-magnet-madness/

    At this point in EP science, to claim evolutionary psychologists don’t study within-sex diversity (especially within mating strategies) is beyond scholarly irresponsibility…it’s a drive-by science crime

  • http://popsych.blogspot.com/ Jesse Marczyk

    The quote from Einstein in the primer sums up most of the issue nicely: Einstein once commented that “It is the theory which decides what we can observe”. When you start with the perception of pervasive sexist and misogyny, us (fighting sexism) vs. them (everyone else), the chances are you’ll find just that – mostly, because everything you see will look just like that (Buss, apparently looked like he was claiming women are gold-digging whores by nature).

    Any claims that don’t go something like, “Men and women should be equal under the law, therefore men and women are identical“, completely eliminating any possible basis – other than (baseless) sexism and misogyny – for sex differences will be seen as siding with the enemy. The key word there is “basis”, even if the fears of how the basis of sex difference X or Y will legitimize sexism are illusory. The result is that anyone who makes any claim that isn’t men and women are identical must be doing so because they’re mean-spirited sexists; likewise, anyone who is making the claim that men and women are identical gain respect and authority (as Marcotte seems to think Coyne and Myers are authorities on the matter: “If Myers’ authority doesn’t satisfy you, I would also like to present Jerry Coyne, a biologist at the University of Chicago”). I’ve written about this issue before: evidence that people like gets accepted, and evidence people don’t like gets viewed with a far harsher level of scrutiny.

    • jbouie

      In this particular comment, I think you’re arguing against a claim Marcotte hasn’t made.

      • http://popsych.blogspot.com/ Jesse Marczyk

        They are my best guest estimates as to part of the motivation underlying her criticisms. Her criticisms themselves are beyond terrible.

  • http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/humor-sapiens Gil

    I would like to add another point related to the criticism of ev psych. Regardless of the regular evolutionary rant that we are so aused to see, critics tend to comment on every little thing in the study as biased. If you choose a certian intelligence measure they will say it’s no good or not representative, they will say the effects are too small and so on. When they read an article that suport their views, all this problems suddenly disappear. It doesn’t matter that the two studies may use the same methods, but now they are of no problem. I see this in my own research and other evolutioary based studies as well.

  • http://www.realadultsex.com figleaf

    My guess would be that Marcotte, as a political blogger, may be responding to the political use to which EP as touted by non-ep professionals have on her and her constituency.

    There’s also a non-zero chance that rather than reading Buss directly she was reacting to politicized assertions of women’s “biological” status compared to men that (incorrectly) referenced something or other written by Buss. Again, just guessing here but if that’s the case then it’s very likely that her interlocutor took Buss’s 37 (or 36) out of 37 country finding as “proof” that women (in his or their opinion) are indeed “gold digging whores.” And if so then chances are also good that the author was affiliated with the same political organizations that torch-and-pitchforked the Edwards campaign for hiring a “known feminist.”

    Finally, though, chances approach 100% that whoever it was that set Marcotte off knows far less about EP, and is concerned far less about science overall, than she herself is.

    Point being that as always, it’s not so much ignorant mischaracterizations in opposition to EP that EP professionals should respond to. It’s far more important instead to respond to ignorant mischaracterizations by people who support EP not because they understand it but because without understanding it they believe it “proves” their prejudices.


    • K(yle)

      Finally, though, chances approach 100% that whoever it was that set Marcotte off knows far less about EP, and is concerned far less about science overall, than she herself is.

      Why is this certain? Did someone piss creationists off by making evolution political, or is it that evolution conflicts with their worldview?

      Is it so impossible that biology driving behavior is simply verboten in Marcotte’s worldview?

  • http://popsych.blogspot.com/ Jesse Marczyk

    I decided to have a little fun with Marcotte of my own. For anyone interested: http://popsych.blogspot.com/2011/10/some-people-watch-too-much-law-order.html

  • Melodie

    So easy answer is ‘influence’. I will reduce it simply and I am not stating anything new that people did not know. It is influence of biology on human behaviour as interpreted though evolutionary psychology.

  • Ben

    Marcotte’s biggest mistake seems to be interpreting the positive claims of evolutionary psychology as normative statements. I don’t think anybody has ever claimed that we should simply accept whatever nature throws at us. If anything, understanding where prejudice comes from should make fighting it easier.

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  • dystiscian

    The conclusions in this article are ridiculous. Of course the findings of evolutionary psychology are damaging to feminist ideology. If you take the bare minimal definition of “feminism” to be that women are human beings, then of course it isn’t opposed to feminism. Even I, who consider myself to be somewhat anti-feminist, would be considered a feminist by that definition. However, to take such a stance reveals a profound ignorance of the direction feminism has taken in the last century.

    Feminism and evolutionary psychology are at odds. Feminism and science are at odds. That is ultimately because feminism is opposed to reality.

  • John Wilson

    Great post but you are wasting your time, feminists don’t care about truth, science, or even women, they care about political power.

    • scatmaster

      feminists don’t care about truth, science, or even women, they care about political power.

      Smartest comment on this thread.
      Nothing else needs to be said.

  • Gorbachev

    The fear is that EP will illustrate what many people, feminists included, privately think: That there are profound differences in behavior between men and women and that these behaviors emerge initially (and are then socially reinforced) from a biological component.

    Also, feminism as it’s currently constituted is firmly grounded in marxist theory. One of the principles of marxist understanding is that humans are perfectable: That there is no “human nature” that might interfere with a reprogramming of the species to make us better, depending on how you define “better”.

    In effect, the ideology acts as a kind of “creationism” for the Human condition. While it may be true that some groups of people are better athletes than others, are larger (men vs women), are more prone to violence or are sexually programmed on average in different ways, somehow this stops at the brain.

    A dog’s brain is deeply programmed by evolution. A human brain is not.

    To their credit, a lot of people have a problem with accepting that we’re not Special Snowflakes and immune from the laws of nature. We want this to be true.

    That it’s almost assuredly not – that we’re animals in the same way as whales or chimpanzees or mice are animals – is discomfiting to a large range of people.

    When you get right down to it, feminists and marxists generally come full circle and start to sound like religious extremists.

    This is a deeper reason why someone like Marcotte will just be permanently uncomfortable when scientists talk about people the same way they’d talk about cockroaches or ants.

    The trouble goes far beyond simple debates about nature or nurture or political agendas.

  • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

    Interesting article and commentary. The comments of dystiscian and John Wilson go a long way to supporting the point of figleaf, which is that whatever EP’s merits as pure science, it is regularly deployed by anti-feminists for political purposes and that is probably what Marcotte is responding to.

    I just dropped in here and don’t know the author’s writings well, but it seems to me that he ought to spend at least as much time defending EP from its misuse by the politicians of the right as from misrepresentation by the left.

    And everyone who is not a frank reactionary (that is, anyone who has any fondness for democracy and equality at all) needs to work on figuring out just what political equality means in a world where there are clear biological difference between people and groups of people.

  • The fourth doorman of the apocalypse

    It is almost as if Marcotte cannot understand that there can be genetically controlled behaviors, like the ability to experience an erection by males and the ability to learn a language, and there can be socially controlled behaviors, like the precise language you actually learn, or the expression that stereotypical male or female behavior takes.

    We can expect that anything to do with reproductive success will be especially under the control of genes, but of course, in humans, the ability to learn social norms and excel at social inventiveness is very conducive to reproductive success.

    However, we can expect that those individuals who invest more effort in each offspring, the XX individuals among mammals, will be finely tuned to the resources that XY individuals bring to the table.

    At least, an intelligent person would understand these things.

  • http://unruled.blogspot.com Leonard

    Let me second those above pointing out that EP and feminism are inherently and irrevocably opposed. EP assumes that humans have evolved minds. Feminism demands that we are blank slates. (I should reiterate that I am using “feminism” here as what it currently is: an ideology of radical equality.) The feminist doesn’t even want to admit that men are bigger and stronger than women, much less that our brains may be different.

    Also, your earnest tone here indicates that you have never tangled with Marcotte personally. I have: she is a perfect exemplar of the left’s worst tendencies when it comes to discussion and debate. She will eagerly deploy every logical fallacy — ad hom, tu quoque, strawmen, projection, bizarre and tendentious readings, etc. — in the service of her argument. And very little else. If you had actually tried to argue with her, you would not take her seriously as an intellectual. She is an intelligent woman, but far too blinded by ideology (not to mention hatred) to carry on anything like a respectful exchange of views.

  • The fourth doorman of the apocalypse

    Perhaps the most interesting thing about Marcotte’s denial that women are selecting men based on maximizing their reproductive success (ie, both for resource potential and the genes they can contribute to their offspring, because even having inherited wealth is reasonable proxy for good genes, while being wealthy through your own efforts is perhaps even better) is that you can expect, using simple evolutionary arguments, that women’s genes would want to obscure their decision criteria.

    However, this genetic knowledge would eventually get embedded in all of us courtesy of the reproductive success of those with the right genes.

  • uh

    I guess feminism has proven to be more trouble than it’s worth, acting as the new Flat Earth Society and all that.

    And yet even when dismantling leftist lies, the author goes out of his way to compromise with the other side by proclaiming himself a “feminist”.

    Big gold star for you from the Equality Awareness Commission.

  • nah

    Interesting that you shy away from the “nature-nurture” issue. If it isn’t in the genes, then how does it get passed down? How is it selected for or against. You’re not owning your part of the argument.

    And speaking of not owning, I have read many EP articles that start off with an argument against feminist authors, so it isn’t surprising that EP would get feminists upset.

    In fact, it’s surprising that every challenge to EP requires some belabored response. Thin skin? Worried they’re right? The fact is, you guys take a very narrow view of biology and evolution, and these criticisms from a non-biologist sting somewhat because they are essentially correct.

    But feel free to ignore me and enjoy propping each other up.


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