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

Coyne Flips and Groundhog Days

Published 20 December, 2012

In 2011, Jerry Coyne wrote:

Like the stories of the Bible, there’s no evolutionary psychology hypothesis that can be disconfirmed by data.

Here we are at the end of 2012, and Jerry Coyne now seems to take a decidedly different view, writing that:

…those who dismiss evolutionary psychology on the grounds that it’s mere “storytelling” are not aware of how the field operates these days. And, if they are to be consistent, they must also dismiss any studies of the evolutionary basis of animal behavior.

In this more recent post, he discusses the 2010 American Psychologist article by Jaime Confer and colleagues, and specifically identifies a number of research areas that he labels “interesting and worthwhile,” including incest avoidance, innate fears, greater choosiness for mates among women relative to men, and so on. He says that the Confer et al. piece is “an evenhanded exposition of the state of modern evolutionary psychology, how it works, what kinds of standards it uses, responses to some common criticisms (e.g., “we don’t know the genes involved”), and, for the critics, examples of  evo-psych hypotheses that have been falsified.” One conclusion he draws is that:

If you can read the Confer et al. paper and still dismiss the entire field as worthless, or as a mere attempt to justify scientists’ social prejudices, then I’d suggest your opinions are based more on ideology than judicious scientific inquiry.

The distance between the 2011 quotation above and the 2012 post is striking, progressing from the claim that the field isn’t even science to the view that dismissing the field in this way stems from ignorance and ideology. Coyne has, indeed, been a critic of the field for some time, including a review of Thornhill and Palmer’s book in The New Republic, which elicited a spirited reply by John Tooby and Leda Cosmides despite their skepticism regarding the interventions prescribed in the book.

Now, it’s true that there has been some ambiguity in Coyne’s views, about which I’ve written from time to time – and he always adds a caveat or two to the effect that all is not hopeless when he’s criticizing the field (per the third part of the rules of this particular game) –  but because of this volte-face and the importance of the field’s having such a prominent new ally, it seems worthwhile to ask how this came about.

I don’t pretend that I have the answer, but I think that there are some clues. First, the immediate cause of Coyne’s post is, in his words, the “ kerfuffle on the intertubes about the value of evolutionary psychology,” by which he means Ed Clint’s post about Rebecca Watson’s presentation at Skepticon. Clint’s critique of Watson’s presentation was a lengthy and careful account of errors and misrepresentations in the talk, framed as a case of “science denialism.” A central point of his was that Watson was attacking the field while knowing nothing about it, and Clint provides extensive documentation to support this claim.

The post elicited a tremendous response from bloggers and the commenting class, including a number of defenses of Watson, which mostly took the form of claiming that Watson was not critiquing evolutionary psychology as a scientific field, but rather the popular press portrayal of it.

Some reactions, however, took seriously the idea that in Watson’s remarks, evolutionary psychology might not be “getting a fair shake.” In the past, people have, of course, argued that evolutionary psychology is “unfairly accused and unjustly condemned” by critics, who can be shown to be attacking positions not held by scholars in the discipline, with somewhat limited effects.

Clint’s post, however, seems to have been very successful, in part no doubt due to the care with which he documented errors, but also, I think, in his apt reframing of the criticism of evolutionary psychology within the context of good scientific skepticism. This is completely speculative, but my sense is that the way to see the shift here is in the context of the moral frame. In the past, the narrative arc was that if evolutionary psychology is morally bad – see my prior post on irritating explanations – then it was virtuous to join in bullying the discipline. Clint deftly flipped this around, moralizing the act of beating up on the field from a position of ignorance about it.

My read is that this reframing has made it more difficult (though still not impossible) to attack the field without showing that one has at least some minimal mastery of the material, which returns me to the present case of Coyne. Coyne’s remarks indicate that he took the time to study the Confer et al. paper, as well as some of the work in the primary literature to which he alludes. (I guess about some of the papers he might have in mind below, at the bottom of this post.) Again, it’s not possible to know how he went from “no evolutionary psychology hypothesis that can be disconfirmed” to “those who dismiss evolutionary psychology on the grounds that it’s mere “storytelling” are not aware of how the field operates,” but the fact that his post discusses some research programs in a bit of detail points to one possible answer. In any case, no matter what the reason for this change, I welcome it.

Now, I don’t mean to imply that I think that Clint’s post has or will transform all of evolutionary psychology’s critics into allies. Indeed, his post has stimulated some additional animated attacks on the field from quarters that will likely never shift their positions.

…plus que ça change

Still, the ambiance surrounding the reply to Clint’s post makes me feel more optimistic than I have in some time. As I mentioned in a prior post, I was recently invited to give a couple of talks in Belgium at a workshop celebrating the 20th anniversary of the publication of The Adapted Mind. I was asked to prepare some remarks for a debate with Johan Bolhuis, whose work I have discussed in the past. In preparing for that talk, I took some text from The Psychological Foundations of Culture chapter of TAM, and juxtaposed them with criticisms rougghly ten and twenty years after the publication of the chapter. For example, despite the clear articulation by Tooby and Cosmides of their position that natural selection produces byproducts and noise in their 1992 chapter, Gould, Rose, and Bolhuis and colleagues claim that evolutionary psychology assumes all traits are adaptations.

Remember the film, Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray’s character relives the same day over and over again? Critiques of the sort by Bolhuis et al. have this feel to me, not only leveling attacks at fictitious positions, but doing so repeatedly over the last couple of decades. What is the explanation for Coyne’s shift set next to the lack of such a shift among other critics? During the debate at the workshop in Belgium, I, as well as some members of the audience, emphasized that evolutionary psychologists were interested in possible functions of psychological mechanisms, using these proposals in the service of generating predictions to test with behavioral experiments and other empirical work. Bolhuis expressed surprise that we were interested in function, asking why, then, we called ourselves evolutionary psychologists as opposed to something like “functional psychologists.”

If it seems strange to you that Bolhuis would be surprised that evolutionary psychologists are interested in the possible functions of evolved mechanisms given that he has written critiques of the field, I can only say that I share in this puzzlement. His lack of knowledge might help to explain why he and his colleagues continue to take aim at phantom positions; it might be that studying the literature would cause them to take a different stance, as, one could guess, it might have in Coyne’s case.

Now, I don’t mean to imply that everyone who takes the time to actually read the primary and secondary materials in evolutionary psychology will be persuaded. Some scholars resist the inference from function to form, whether it is made in the context of humans or non-humans. Jerry Fodor engaged the primary literature, and eventually came away rejecting not just evolutionary psychology, but the entire theory of evolution by natural selection. And then there is David Buller, who engaged many lines of research in evolutionary psychology, which have been addressed in various venues.

Still, this seems to be a moment for optimism. To the extent that critics of our field continue to engage the ideas and research in the field, as opposed to mistaken impressions of these ideas, Clint has stimulated an advance for all involved.


I’m not sure which work Coyne has in mind, but here are a few guesses of some publications in a few of the areas he mentions based on his description of which fields are interesting and worthwhile. I have biased this list toward papers in Evolution and Human Behavior because such papers speak to the issue that has arisen from time to time about how well we are “policing” ourselves as a discipline.

Incest Avoidance

Fessler, D. M., & Navarrete, C. D. (2004). Third-party attitudes toward sibling incest: Evidence for Westermarck’s hypotheses. Evolution and Human Behavior25(5), 277-294.

Lieberman, D. (2009). Rethinking the Taiwanese minor marriage data: evidence the mind uses multiple kinship cues to regulate inbreeding avoidance. Evolution and Human Behavior30(3), 153-160.

Lieberman, D., & Symons, D. (1998). Sibling incest avoidance: from Westermarck to Wolf. Quarterly Review of Biology, 463-466.

Lieberman, D., Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (2003). Does morality have a biological basis? An empirical test of the factors governing moral sentiments relating to incest. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological Sciences270(1517), 819-826.

Lieberman, D., Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (2007). The architecture of human kin detection. Nature445(7129), 727-731.

Fear of Spiders etc.

Gerdes, A., Uhl, G., & Alpers, G. W. (2009). Spiders are special: fear and disgust evoked by pictures of arthropods. Evolution and Human Behavior30(1), 66-73.

Nesse, R. M. (1994). Fear and fitness: An evolutionary analysis of anxiety disorders. Ethology and Sociobiology15(5), 247-261.

Öhman, A. (1986). Face the beast and fear the face: Animal and social fears as prototypes for evolutionary analyses of emotion. Psychophysiology23(2), 123-145.

MHC genes and mating

Herz, R. S., & Inzlicht, M. (2002). Sex differences in response to physical and social factors involved in human mate selection: The importance of smell for women. Evolution and Human Behavior23(5), 359-364.

Penn, D. J., & Potts, W. K. (1999). The evolution of mating preferences and major histocompatibility complex genes. The American Naturalist153(2), 145-164.

Roberts, S. C., Little, A. C., Gosling, L. M., Perrett, D. I., Carter, V., Jones, B. C., … & Petrie, M. (2005). MHC-heterozygosity and human facial attractiveness. Evolution and Human Behavior26(3), 213-226.

Sexual Dimorphism

Penton-Voak, I. S., Little, A. C., Jones, B. C., Burt, D. M., Tiddeman, B. P., & Perrett, D.I.(2003). Female condition influences preferences for sexual dimorphism in faces of male humans (Homo sapiens). Journal of Comparative Psychology117(3), 264.

Puts, D. A., Gaulin, S. J., & Verdolini, K. (2006). Dominance and the evolution of sexual dimorphism in human voice pitch. Evolution and Human Behavior27(4), 283-296.

Thornhill, R., & Gangestad, S. W. (2006). Facial sexual dimorphism, developmental stability, and susceptibility to disease in men and women. Evolution and Human Behavior27(2), 131-144

Parent-offspring conflict

Buunk, A. P., Park, J. H., & Dubbs, S. L. (2008). Parent-offspring conflict in mate preferences. Review of General Psychology12(1), 47.

Rohde, P. A., Atzwanger, K., Butovskaya, M., Lampert, A., Mysterud, I., Sanchez-Andres, A., & Sulloway, F. J. (2003). Perceived parental favoritism, closeness to kin, and the rebel of the family: The effects of birth order and sex. Evolution and Human Behavior24(4), 261-276.


  • Thom Scott-Phillips

    I am flabbergasted that Bolhuis was surprised that EPists are interested in function. I hope he was put right.

    More generally, I’d be interested to hear more about this debate you were part of (even if just in the form of a twitter hashtag).

    • rkurzban

      As a participant in the debate, I’m probably not an objective source. My summary would be that B reiterated the ideas in his published work, and I reiterated my replies to them. #NoSurprises?

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  • http://www.facebook.com/MilitaryAtheist Justin Griffith

    Quite a few people quoted Jerry Coyne’s prior statements against EP on my posts about Ed Clint’s excellent article. Most of us are laymen, so this type of argument from authority is actually not a fallacy. It’s good to see that Jerry Coyne has experienced quite a significant change of heart. I’m sure that it’ll take a few months for that shift to filter down to all of his readers. He’s really the only one in the blogosphere that anybody brought up. Perhaps you’re right about a watershed moment being on the horizon.

    Nobody seems to bring up PZ Myer’s largely ignored recent posts in his ‘anti-EP’ series. Half of his commenters seem to respectfully disagree with those posts anyway. If that was what you were referring to when you said: 

    “Indeed, his post has stimulated some additional animated attacks on the field from quarters that will likely never shift their positions.” 

    Well…Then don’t sweat it.

    My eyes are open now, and I suspect many more to come around.

    • rkurzban

      Thanks for your comment. You’re exactly right that I had PZ
      in mind when I wrote the sentence you quoted, as well as perhaps Larry Moran,
      who has also been writing about the field. Their objections, if I understand correctly,
      are much broader than evolutionary psychology, and apply to researchers who
      apply adaptationist logic and techniques across the biological world as opposed
      to just humans, which is part of the reason I’m not inclined to engage PZ’s
      posts. In any case, thanks for your comment, and I share your optimism. 

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