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Clarisse Thorn is a Chicago-based, feminist, sex-positive activist and educator. Personal blog at clarissethorn.com; follow her on Twitter @clarissethorn; you can also buy her awesome book about pickup artists or her awesome best-of collection, The S&M Feminist.
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40 Responses

  1. Jadey
    Jadey June 13, 2011 at 5:14 pm |

    The bad stuff that gets produced in the name of evo psych always frustrates (though never surprises me), especially because I *love* evolutionary theory. I think it’s an elegant, persuasive, and compelling way to look at the world (yeah, meaning out of randomness!), but it’s so often misconstrued and misused. A lot of the worst offenders in the name of evolutionary research repeatedly demonstrate a failure to understand its basic principles and lose much of its beautiful complexity in their explanations.

    Anyone looking for a better (and more critical) entry into evolutionary theory (not necessarily from a psychological standpoint), should give Gould’s classic The Mismeasure of Man or Joan Roughgarden’s Evolution’s Rainbow a whirl.

  2. JDP
    JDP June 13, 2011 at 6:15 pm |

    Contrary to popular belief, evolutionary psychology is not a subfield of evolutionary biology and very seldom handles actual evolutionary theory.

  3. Iany
    Iany June 13, 2011 at 10:22 pm |

    I hope that evo psych will blossom the way psychology has since the early days of psychanalysis (which was a hell of a lot of bunk too).

    Media’s not helping matters. Evolution has been used to rationalise some pretty rank opinions too (good book on that called ‘The Black Stork’). In the field itself we’re taught to be conscious of the ways research can be used for ill purposes, I am sure the material reported by the media is being raked over the coals within the literature itself (hope hope hope).

  4. matlun
    matlun June 14, 2011 at 2:36 am |

    The main problem is that evolution is a complex and chaotic process. Trying to just theoretically predict human behaviors from what the evolutionary pressures should result in can often give rise to over simplified “just so” stories.

    In the end you need to actually check these theories against reality. Without empiricism there is no science.

    This is actually a general problems with many of the “soft sciences” where people fall in love with their theories without actually verifying them through objective studies.

  5. matlun
    matlun June 14, 2011 at 2:42 am |

    Just a nitpick regarding the last (ironic) link: Surely that piece is about evolutionary psychology? Virtually all the sex difference “findings” in that article seemed to be about psychological differences…

  6. fuchsia
    fuchsia June 14, 2011 at 3:11 am |

    “Part of the price has been exacted when evolutionary psychologists had to play the game and, in order to benefit from it, went along with the media image, with its superficiality, distortions, and ideological overtones. This might have seemed cheap”

    So having your field represented as the leading example of bad science and defender of outdated and harmful stereotypes rather than of scientific truth is a small price to pay for sensationalist headlines misinterpreting your findings? Interesting reasoning. It also makes you wonder how the rest of us real scientists manage to get by.

  7. Beth Mann
    Beth Mann June 14, 2011 at 7:55 am |

    Evolutionary psychology has tweaked me from day one. I’ve yet to hear of one study that seems sound or worthy. Evolution is far too chaotic to slap on stereotypes and somehow, no matter which way you cut it, they seem limiting and harmful. Perhaps I do need to be more open-minded to this science and its possibilities, sans the hype. Next, I’ll work on leeching…though apparently, there is some good there!

  8. JDP
    JDP June 14, 2011 at 7:58 am |

    Yeah, leeches can be used to drain blood from reattached extremities while you’re waiting for the capillaries to heal. Also purified leech saliva is used as a medical-grade anticoagulant.

  9. Mike the Mad Biologist
    Mike the Mad Biologist June 14, 2011 at 8:29 am |

    The probem with a lot of evolutionary psychology is that, when arguments about selection are being made, sweeping (and often horribly wrong) statements about the environment in which selection is supposed to have occurred are made. There is also little work done on the expected fitness costs and benefits of a particular behavior (even in today’s environment–which isn’t necessarily like the environment in which the psychological trait of interest evolved). If the field were to rigorously address those issues in its own work, it would be more widely accepted by evolutionary biologists (note: I’m an evolutionary biologist). Right now, the field, at best, seems to me to be at the small-scale, reductionist, lab experiment stage–which is fine–and isn’t ready to extrapolate to complex phenomena ‘out there.’

    Re Jadey’s comment: a lot of modern evolutionary biology doesn’t deal with “meaning out of randomness” but the converse–recognizing that a lot of existing variation has arisen due to random chance. I still think a lot of that variation is fascinating though (maybe not the giant flower that smells like rotting meat, however…)

  10. kim
    kim June 14, 2011 at 8:42 am |

    Credibility (if this field ever had it) is difficult to get back once it is lost. As a biological science, I read this article with a sense of confusion. There is a reason scientists (for the most part) conduct research and writings based on rigor and when reporting these findings use precise language and not sweeping generalizations. Scientists do these things in order to avoid exactly the situation outlined in article.

  11. Jadey
    Jadey June 14, 2011 at 9:13 am |

    Thanks for that link, Mike – that will come in handy! It’s not actually contradictory to what I was thinking about, but I was also oversimplifying – bad idea on a thread like this!

  12. JDP
    JDP June 14, 2011 at 9:31 am |

    Mike the Mad Biologist:
    The probem with a lot of evolutionary psychology is that, when arguments about selection are being made, sweeping (and often horribly wrong) statements about the environment in which selection is supposed to have occurred are made.There is also little work done on the expected fitness costs and benefits of a particular behavior (even in today’s environment–which isn’t necessarily like the environment in which the psychological trait of interest evolved).

    Well yes and also no. Part of the problem is in the direction of inference itself. A lot of evolutionary psychology makes a legitimate observation about differences in performance with respect to some sort of metric. This difference in performance is the assumed to represent some sort of adaptation to different social roles, and then subsequently this is used to reify existing social stratification. In evolutionary biology, we’d be trying to rule out environment-mediated plasticity before we even started asking questions about adaptive significance. More importantly, evolutionary biology put hyperadaptationism to sleep decades ago, and in many ways Gould’s “spandrels” and “exaptations” were just names for concepts already understood in his time. Evopsych is still very much hyperadaptationist.

    Gotta say there’s also a lot of weirdness with respect to how a lot of evopsych researchers perceive paleohuman societies to have been structured. A lot of it strikes me as romanticized libertarian tripe rather than actual interpretation of what social and behavioral evidence we do in fact have. In my experience, human evolution is one of the high-profile fields of biology that tends to attract a lot of fringe theorists (Aquatic Ape Theory anyone?) and evolutionary psychology appeals to those fringers by offering the same level of media exposure while requiring significantly less rigor than evolutionary biology.

  13. SamanthaPink
    SamanthaPink June 14, 2011 at 9:49 am |

    I definitely agree with your article and the point you’re trying to make. Evolutionary Psychology is such a wonderful subject and it’s so interesting. I think any type of psychology is interesting. It’s a shame that something so noble can be so misconstrued by the media.

  14. JDP
    JDP June 14, 2011 at 12:29 pm |

    No, it’s definitely parodying evolutionary psychology.

  15. JDP
    JDP June 14, 2011 at 12:45 pm |

    No prob. To be fair, I think there’s a lot of overlap in the imagination of the general public, and evopsych aficionados (I hate to call them researchers) make a huge effort to leech credibility from evolutionary biology. It’s something of a scam, to be honest, and unfortunately evolutionary biologists tend to either ignore it or are taken in by it (either because they don’t pay a lot of attention to the actual papers, or because those individuals come to the table with their own ulterior motives). Personally, I think that the evolutionary biology research community needs to more strongly police the whole evo-psych thing, but in my experience, a lot of the biologists I know are primarily concerned with the creationist fiasco and don’t put sufficient effort towards dealing with these sorts of pseudoscientific and often racist and sexist appropriations of the term “evolution.”

  16. William
    William June 14, 2011 at 1:00 pm |

    I hope that evo psych will blossom the way psychology has since the early days of psychanalysis (which was a hell of a lot of bunk too).

    I’d quibble with calling analysis bunk just because Freud had the same bias problems that permeated pretty much every major thinker of his age. Psychoanalysis in the early days was a nascent technology that worked surprisingly well in a field where nothing seemed to work at all. It had problems and biases, but its been one of the more rigorously discussed, studied, critiqued, and modified ways of making meaning in modern history. Psychoanalysis is also still out there and its still pretty competitive when it comes to clinical work, to say nothing of how it has absolutely pervaded women’s studies, queer theory, literary criticism, and the general way in which we think about the human mind.

    Efficacy of Psychodynamic Therapy

  17. William
    William June 14, 2011 at 1:02 pm |

    Ahh hell…the link isn’t working. Heres where it should point:

    http://www.nvpp.nl/JonathanShedlerStudy20100202.pdf

  18. Rare Vos
    Rare Vos June 14, 2011 at 3:04 pm |

    A lot of it strikes me as romanticized libertarian tripe rather than actual interpretation of what social and behavioral evidence we do in fact have.

    Bingo. And that’s why the near-universal response to evo-psych by people interested in social justice is to hold our noses. Evo-psych, thus far, is apparently nothing but piles of bigotted crap covered with a veneer of sciencyness so as to try to make it sound legitimate.

    Every single time this comes up someone always says that it’s a legitimate field with real scientists who aren’t just trying to justify bigotry and privilege with sciencyness. Where are these scientists? Where is their results?

    __

    TO jump off of Jadey’s book suggestions, I’d also suggest Dawkin’s “The Blind Watchmaker” and/or “The Greatest Show on Earth” (I’m currently listening to the later one on my ipod during workouts. It’s oddly motivating.)

  19. Mike the Mad Biologist
    Mike the Mad Biologist June 14, 2011 at 4:41 pm |

    JDP: Well yes and also no.Part of the problem is in the direction of inference itself.A lot of evolutionary psychology makes a legitimate observation about differences in performance with respect to some sort of metric.This difference in performance is the assumed to represent some sort of adaptation to different social roles, and then subsequently this is used to reify existing social stratification.In evolutionary biology, we’d be trying to rule out environment-mediated plasticity before we even started asking questions about adaptive significance.More importantly, evolutionary biology put hyperadaptationism to sleep decades ago, and in many ways Gould’s “spandrels” and “exaptations” were just names for concepts already understood in his time.Evopsych is still very much hyperadaptationist.

    JDP,

    I agree, but evo psych is so far behind the curve, they’re not even thinking about plasticity. I guess I wasn’t clear, but they also aren’t thinking about their environmental assumptions too.

  20. Jim
    Jim June 14, 2011 at 5:11 pm |

    Rare Vos: Bingo. And that’s why the near-universal response to evo-psych by people interested in social justice is to hold our noses. Evo-psych, thus far, is apparently nothing but piles of bigotted crap covered with a veneer of sciencyness so as to try to make it sound legitimate.

    Yes. A bunch of just so stories based on simple-minded pictures of how people lived 10, 000 or 20,000 years ago. But that goes for a lot of uses of history.

    But as others have pointed out that only indicts it in its current mal-form but says nothing about what It may develop into. The same and worse was true of a lot of the early work on Proto-Indo-European – for one thing it was the crucible for a lot of what became Nazi race theory. Some areas of research are still radioactive – the PIE proto-homeland is one.

    And all that criticism of the period of the field is valid. But historical linguistcs evolved far beyond that. Its comparative method was adopted for paleontological research in reconstructing the evolutionary relationships between species. It’s methods have allowed us to reconstruct wide areas of history al over the world in the absence of other reocrds and evidence, or else to confirm them. When archaeologists asserted that indigenous people first appeared in North America 12,500 BP, it was the linguists who could back up indigenous objections to that with hard evidence that that date was impossible.

    All that has taken about 200 years of hard effort and nasty, nasty debate.

  21. Kathleen
    Kathleen June 14, 2011 at 5:55 pm |

    I’d like to second Jadey’s recommendation of Joan Roughgarden’s work. Gould is great, but unfortunately no longer with us, so can’t be looked to for commentary on more recent developments.

    I can’t second the upthread endorsement of Dawkins; his take on evolution is really flawed and the energy he devotes to combating creationism is, scientifically speaking, like shooting fish in a barrel.

  22. Kathleen
    Kathleen June 14, 2011 at 5:58 pm |

    and yeah — evolutionary psychology has nothing to do with proper evolutionary biology. There is no traditional discipline that wants it, and for all its self-proclaimed Sciencey Goodness biology departments don’t truck with it at all. It keeps a much-contested handhold in psychology and anthropology.

  23. Carol Teater
    Carol Teater June 14, 2011 at 6:43 pm |

    I haven’t read any evo psych in real journals, but from the glib accounts I have seen in the general media, evo psych seems to be the best circular reasoning since the Republican Party. The funny thing is, the evo psychs come to conclusions that are pure Republican beliefs, but the Republicans can’t use them b/c anything relating to the word evolution (or really, even to science) can’t be praised. Oh, the irony!

  24. JDP
    JDP June 14, 2011 at 9:28 pm |

    Mike the Mad Biologist: JDP,

    I agree, but evo psych is so far behind the curve, they’re not even thinking about plasticity.I guess I wasn’t clear, but they also aren’t thinking about their environmental assumptions too.

    I’d go further and say that the field is fundamentally unable to handle the issue of plasticity at all.

  25. Iany
    Iany June 14, 2011 at 9:32 pm |

    William: I’d quibble with calling analysis bunk just because Freud had the same bias problems that permeated pretty much every major thinker of his age.

    I’m saying analysis was bunk in the early days, and it was. I don’t really want to argue that it was anything but story telling either, the bias problems in evo psych are pretty much the same (viewing everything through a lens apparently bought in the 1950s as opposed to the 1880s). Evo psych is young and it’s being pretty rigorously discussed and critiqued already, through a variety of perspectives. It took a few hundred years to figure out evolution.

    I would like to argue against the idea that evolution is totally chaotic, which seems to get brought up a bit here. It’s omnipresent and its effects are mediated by chance. Difficult to predict, yes but that’s not so much an issue when you’re looking at the past.

  26. JDP
    JDP June 14, 2011 at 9:32 pm |

    As far as evopsych journals, I have a difficult time figuring out which are credible journals with credible editorial practices and which are essentially vanity journals. This is an issue with a lot of fringe science, but there are a ton of evopsych journals that sort of just appeared in the last few years.

  27. JDP
    JDP June 14, 2011 at 10:26 pm |

    Iany
    I would like to argue against the idea that evolution is totally chaotic, which seems to get brought up a bit here. It’s omnipresent and its effects are mediated by chance. Difficult to predict, yes but that’s not so much an issue when you’re looking at the past.

    Um.

    Neutral theory.

    The null hypothesis in evolutionary biology is that an evolutionary change is the result of stochastic (“chaotic”) processes. Evolutionary biologists do not assume that selection is “omnipresent” at all except I guess in theoretical frameworks like fitness landscapes. There are a variety of methods for investigating selection on a DNA sequence, allele, or trait, but the research necessary to demonstrate that selection is responsible for any given pattern is non-trivial.

    This is IMO the fundamental difference between evolutionary biology and evopsych. Evolutionary biology is about investigating and testing the processes that govern biological variation. Evolutionary psychology is about constructing “scientific” rhetoric to justify social inequality.

  28. William
    William June 14, 2011 at 11:38 pm |

    I’m saying analysis was bunk in the early days, and it was. I don’t really want to argue that it was anything but story telling either,

    You might not want to argue, yet here we are.

    Look, I’m not defender of evo psych. I think its bad for the field of psychology, I think its an opportunistic artifact of our field’s desperate search for scientific credibility, I think it uses the wrong tools and assumptions for asking questions which aren’t terribly interesting in a postmodern world, I’m not entirely sure what their explanations about the past can tell us about today or what, if any, use their observations might have for improving the lives of my patients.

    You decided to bring what I find is a problematic critique of analysis, a clinical endeavor, in as a means to attack something which is masquerading as an empirical science. Its like using a critique of literary criticism to explain why you dislike an especially problematic branch of linguistics. More than that you’re presenting your argument as a statement of fact, as if you’re leaning on the authority of a settled matter. One doesn’t have to be a radical subjectivist to call bullshit on that.

    What analysis did in the early days isn’t so very different from what it does today. Some of the conclusions drawn have changed, much of the rigidity has given way, but the fundamental situation of using history and transference to make the unconscious conscious is still the core of dynamic therapies. More importantly, analysis is still story telling. Most therapy is. Thats how psychotherapy works. Yes, some of the dominant stories have changed to better fit the kinds of narratives we find more useful in the 21st century, the values have changed to something more liberal that more suits the world I’d like to see, but the process isn’t really all that different. Its a collaborative meaning making process. Its about taking a fundamentally meaningless, chaotic, and traumatizing world and transforming it into something one can find meaningful and worthwhile. To hear you dismiss something as bunk because its story telling just like psychoanalysis is simultaneously insulting and telling.

  29. Rare Vos
    Rare Vos June 15, 2011 at 7:37 am |

    But as others have pointed out that only indicts it in its current mal-form but says nothing about what It may develop into.

    That I do not deny. For me, though, its dug itself into such a deep hole . . . .

  30. JDP
    JDP June 15, 2011 at 9:55 am |

    Jim: And all that criticism of the period of the field is valid. But historical linguistcs evolved far beyond that. Its comparative method was adopted for paleontological research in reconstructing the evolutionary relationships between species. It’s methods have allowed us to reconstruct wide areas of history al over the world in the absence of other reocrds and evidence, or else to confirm them.

    I think it’s not really legitimate or appropriate to claim that phylogenetic analysis is a product of historical linguistics. The fact that Cavalli-Sforza and Edwards were the first to publish a cladistic analysis ignores the fact that Hennig (an entomologist) was the one who established the field and worked out a lot of the foundational philosophy. The overwhelming majority of methods development and theoretical work in the field has been performed by biologists, especially molecular biologists.

    Not bagging on linguistics, but I think it’s disingenuous to claim that phylogenetic methods came from linguistic research.

  31. David Gerard
    David Gerard June 15, 2011 at 4:26 pm |

    I feel loved once more :-D

    Evolutionary psychology is fine on the surface as an idea: obviously, everything we are developed through evolution. But what comes out of the field is so very disappointing …

    (I just had a commenter on the post fail to realise it was satire. OTOH, every example before the last two paragraphs is from an actual bad news story.)

  32. lpl
    lpl June 16, 2011 at 10:39 pm |

    So first off, here’s one good journal with plenty of evolutionary psychology in it:
    Evolution and Human Behavior
    Because:

    Carol Teater:
    I haven’t read any evo psych in real journals

    I do appreciate your being clear about this, Carol, because I feel that’s probably a major factor here. Not trying to place blame on the (I’m guessing) majority of the readers here who have understandably not come across ev psych literature first-hand in the course of living their lives, but now you have a link. The least you can do is browse through a few random abstracts before forming judgments.

    And secondly I’d just like to identify myself as a dissenting voice here. Those unfamiliar should know that there are plenty of people (including people do not work in evolutionary psychology themselves) who think the field is legitimate and promising. Yes, there are some serious questions and problems yet to be satisfactorily concluded, some of which have been hinted at by previous commentors who are/I assume are experts in related fields. But this is true of many disciplines, and at roughly 20 years old, ev psych is still young enough for this to be entirely normal, just like your doctor told you when you started having those weird, abstract sexual dreams about household appliances at 13.

    At several points I found myself disagreeing with previous commenters but I feel it’s hard for me to respond without them being more specific. For example:

    Mike the Mad Biologist:
    The probem with a lot of evolutionary psychology is that, when arguments about selection are being made, sweeping (and often horribly wrong) statements about the environment in which selection is supposed to have occurred are made.

    Anything in particular?
    Again for the record, people should know that not making unfounded assumptions about the environment in which modern human adaptions emerged, including how that environment differs from our current environment, is definitely something the ev psych community is thinking about seriously and constantly. Though Mike’s opinion that they’re taking too many intellectual risks may very well turn out to be correct.

    This is more the kind of thing that bothers me:

    Rare Vos: Evo-psych, thus far, is apparently nothing but piles of bigotted crap covered with a veneer of sciencyness so as to try to make it sound legitimate.

    Every single time this comes up someone always says that it’s a legitimate field with real scientists who aren’t just trying to justify bigotry and privilege with sciencyness. Where are these scientists? Where is their results?

    Woah, really? I mean, are you sure this is an evaluation of the scientific validity of a field where, like every other field, 99% of researchers are at least trying to be objective [consciously], and not a reaction to findings that interfere with your beliefs/work? Maybe you’re just being hyperbolic when you say “nothing but piles of bigotted crap”. If not, I frankly can’t imagine anyone who’s moderately open-minded and fundamentally scientifically literate actually reading these results and thinking that none of them are worth anything. [joke]Since we’ve established that psychoanalysis is useless mumbo-jumbo[/joke] I’m afraid to go this far, but I feel like when you wrote “Where are these scientists? Where is their results?” that was a more acceptable way for you to express that you haven’t read any actual evolutionary psychology outside of when it becomes a controversy on the internet. Link’s at the top.

  33. JDP
    JDP June 17, 2011 at 9:12 am |

    Forget environments of selection. Let’s talk about selection itself. In my experience, most evo-psych researchrs (inclding the “good” ones) don’t understand the concept of selection in the first place.

    In many cases, they also don’t understand that it’s generally considered improper to generalize from a sample size of one.

  34. machina
    machina June 17, 2011 at 10:13 am |

    JDP, citations please?

  35. Kathleen
    Kathleen June 17, 2011 at 11:37 am |

    lpl — the least plausible of defenses of ev psych’s failings is that it is a “young science”. It’s been around, and around, and around, for generations. It doesn’t get anywhere because it’s the latest incarnation of a tired old reactionary impulse, totally adverse to the scientific enterprise.

    See Jackson Lear’s article in the May 16th edition of _The Nation_ (“Same Old New Atheism: On Sam Harris”).

    If perchance you are a promising young person, thinking of pursuing training in the field of ev psych: run like hell.

  36. JDP
    JDP June 17, 2011 at 12:51 pm |

    machina:
    JDP, citations please?

    Sample size of one is an independent contrasts issue. Populations may show correlations that are a result of shared history rather than a cause-effect relationship between factors. This is a fundamental problem when making any sort of comparison between populations, be those populations human populations, bird species, or whatever. With humans, this is especially problematic because there is a high degree of heritability of culture and opportunity, even though none of those are genetic. I can hunt down citations I guess, but these are pretty basic methodological issues and I’m not sure I can present a specific “gotcha” paper to make that case.

  37. Hats
    Hats June 17, 2011 at 2:33 pm |

    There’s the basic fact of course that while biologists can see the physical trends in our ancestors over hundreds of thousands of years, there are no real clues as to the intellectual or emotional state of human beings until the advent of written language. While a theory can be put forward and discussed, it is hard to see how it could be rigorously tested. The assumption is made, therefore, that the evolution of psychology is quicker than physical evolution, but this is, again, untestable.

    The difficulty I’ve always had with media reports in this field is that the conclusions put forward (parodied so beautifully in the sarky link above) invariably generalise the average to the whole population. It’s always “people in category A are like this and people in category Y are like this”. Implication being that this refers to all people in categories A and B. The actual research findings will say this is average results across the sample and that individuals between groups vary. But this message is always lost, and we end up with yet another dull variation on the old Men Are From Mars b*llocks.
    Where it gets interesting is in the distribution and levels of crossover between the population. But none of this gets reported. We are told that the average man is X% different from the average woman in this particular respect, but we’re never told what proportion of the women were very different from the female average (or similar for the men).
    And the whole argument is then just used to prop up a stereotype. Sadly, I can’t help feeling that these reports usually do more harm than good.

  38. sarahbee
    sarahbee June 22, 2011 at 10:18 am |

    Beth Mann:
    Evolutionary psychology has tweaked me from day one. I’ve yet to hear of one study that seems sound or worthy. Evolution is far too chaotic to slap on stereotypes and somehow, no matter which way you cut it, they seem limiting and harmful.

    Evolutionary sociology (the field had a different name in my school) class was absolutely the most sexist experience I have ever had in my life. At one point the professor told our class of five students that as the oldest male, he would have priority mating access to me and the other female student were our class a tribe in ancient times. This was the distilled essence of what had been a nauseatingly sexist endeavour from day one. So I’ll conceded lpl’s point that there may be honest scientists in this field who are trying to work on an area of academic interest, but it may be hard to find them in a field populated with Lionel Tigers.

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