Evolutionary Psychology: A Defense -- Sort of!

24 May 2005

It's amazing how divided opinions are about evolutionary psychology.    Some very fine philosophers and cognitive  scientists are  really big fans of  the genre.    Other equally fine philosophers and cognitive scientists appear to  see little of merit in it.   The philosopher of biology John Dupre, who was a guest on our show a few weeks back talking about genetic determinism, says the following about the  evolutionary psychology of sex and gender:

... [it]  offers us mainly simplifications and banalities about human behavior with little convincing illumination of how they came to be banal. It offers no account of the great differences in behavior across cultures, which is exactly what we want to know if we were interested in exercising any measure of of control over changes in these phenomena.  It offers no account of why different people develop such diverse sexual proclivities (notoriously, it has nothing to but the most absurd evolutionary fantasies to offer in explanation of homosexuality).  And it offers no account of how complex motivations underlying sexual behavior interact with the pursuit of many other goals that inform the lives of most humans.  In fact it offers us nothing, unless perhaps a spurious sense of the immutability of the behaviours that happen to characterize our own contemporary societies.  This is scarcely the revolution in our undertanding of human behaviorus so enthusiastically advertized by the exponents and camp-followers of evolutionary psychology.

Though Dupre is perhaps more extreme than many others,  he certainly isn't  alone in heaping at least some degree of  scorn on evolutionary psychology.  But  I don't think evolutionary psychology is nearly as bad off as its worst critics think.

Some criticisms of evolutionary psychology aren't really criticisms of the research program itself, but are really criticisms of the misappropriation  of the results of evolutionary psychology. For example, some people, especially on the political right, think that biology determines appropriate gender roles in some direct and inflexible way.  They probably don't think this directly because of evolutionary psychology, but someone with a merely passing acquaintance with the results of evolutionary psychology  might think that those results somehow justify such a view.   But nothing in evolutionary psychology suggest that biology directly and inflexibly determines gender roles.  Certainly nothing in evolutionary psychology suggests anything about what the distribution of gender roles ought to be in twenty-first century cultures.

Some  people of a leftist bent tend to think, on the other hand, that gender is socially constructed "all the way down.'"  Sometimes such people seem to think that  culture  floats free of biology.    Evolutionary psychology does suggest that this view of biology and culture as really two distinct things,  related in only minimally constraining ways,  can't be sustained.   And here I think the evolutionary psychologists actually get much the better of the argument than  their critics do.

I'll use the example of  gender roles to illustrate what I mean.  Think about it this way. There is a massive three way gender-coordination problem faced by ours and any other species that reproduces sexually. Males have to coordinate with males, so that they don't kill each other over the potential female partners. Females have to coordinate with females so that they don't kill each other over potential male partners. And females and males have to coordinate with each other so that mate selection strategies and preferences are convergent rather than divergent.

There are certainly  lots of solutions to the set of coordination problems that sexually reproducing species face.  Some of them  are probably not very cognitively or computationally  "demanding" to use not quite the right word. But in creatures like us who have the capacity for a complex form of social life, who remain immature and dependent on parental support for a comparatively long period of our lives, any "solution" to the three way coordination problem is going to be massively tied up with all sorts of social structures, including facts about the distinctive biological structure of a characteristically human reproductive life.  I mean by that that we spend a comparatively long time as prepubescent youth, during which we have a whole  lot of socialization and cultural knowledge to acquire.

Now even if you think, as I do, that both our capacity for a distinctive form of social life and the general  structure of an individual human life are the result of some sort of evolutionary process, it certainly doesn't follow that evolution gave us a single solution to the three way coordination problem in the sense of giving us a fixed set of gender roles once and for all. But it wouldn't be  surprising, it seems to me,   if it turned out that evolution supplied us with cognitive and emotive make ups that in some way more or less tightly constrain the possible solutions to the three way coordination problems. How tightly? I can't say. But obviously not so tightly that gender roles are fixed across cultures. I suspect that not so loosely that just anything goes. Right now that's just a hunch in need of evidence and argument.

It's not as though there is currently no evidence, however.  Eleanor Macoby's work, for example, on the structure of children's playgroups and the dynamics of gender socialization, suggests, to me at least, that there probably are some evolutionary constraints on the distribution of gender roles.   It turns out, for example, that all around the world, in pretty much all human cultures,  there exists what we might call a division of gender roles among the sexes.   Moreover, it starts pretty early and it looks as though the children themselves have the primary role in bringing about the division of gender roles.   What I mean by this is that from about the time they enter preschool or some other setting in which they first come into contact with many other children of  their own age,  children start segregating themselves into boy and girl playgroups.  Girl play groups have distinctive styles of play from boy play groups.  Girls, by and large,  prefer to play in girl playgroups and boys prefer to play in boy play groups.   This happens even despite the best efforts of teachers and other adults to promote gender integration.  Moreover,   girls and boys "police" gender roles differently.  Girls are evidently more tolerant than boys are of boys who want to enter girl playgroups and of  girls who want to enter boy playgroups.  Boys, on the other hand, are much more severe gender police.  Certainly  styles of play, for both girls and boys,  vary from culture to culture.  But the apparent high level regularity, at least as I understand the work,  is that in many cultures boys and girls will segregate themselves in this way. 

I don't want to make too much of this kind of thing right now.   I certainly don't think there is any normative claim to be made on the basis of this kind of thing about what the appropriate division of gender roles should be.   But I do think that by trying to think in both "social dynamic" terms about our three way coordination problem and in evolutionary terms about what, if any thing, natural selection has to teach us about what,  if anything, constrains the solutions to the gender coordination problems that really possible social/cultural orders can "settle" into, is very much worth doing. Certainly history and culture and the distribution of power are sources of constraint, but probably some constraints derive from evolutionarily instilled facts about the very general structure of male/female cognitive/affective make ups.

One really deep problem with this sort of approach  is that  we cannot  easily separate  out the contributions of the various constraining factors.  But that doesn't mean that it isn't worth trying to figure out what the various constraints are, how tightly they constrain, and why there are just those constraining factors rather than some others.   Of course,  we need empirical (and other) methods and some real data if we are to make headway on these questions.  And one may worry that we have neither the data nor the methods.     There is, I think, something to this worry.  In part, that is because  we have completed only part of  only one actual walk through the space of cultural possibilities.  We don't know in advance how large that space really is or how "quirky"  and ad hoc our own walk through that possibility space has been. 

If we could more freely employ the method of hypothesis testing and generation, we would certainly be a lot better off.  Since history provides us with some alternative arrangements and  since social experimentation -- especially in an age like ours -- happens relatively constantly, it is not as though we have no clue about the space of possibilities.  But it's admittedly hard to separate out the contributions of the different possible constraining sources when you can't freely manipulate the data and experiment to your heart's content.  Not to say it's hopeless. Just hard.

In spite of these limitatins,  I guess I still think that one of the really cool things about  evolutionary psychology is that it is pretty much a brand new style of hypothesis generator for some really hard problems.    I think people underestimate the importance of simply having  a new source of hypotheses on the table.    It's that underestimation that leads many to curtly dismiss as yet unconfirmed evolutionary hypotheses as so many "just so" stories.   

Admittedly, we're currently at a stage of inquiry in which generating evolutionary hypotheses  is a lot easier than testing and confirming them.  Partly because natural selection is mostly a thing of the past and because there isn't a fossil record of hominid cognitive architectures, testing evolutionary  hypotheses about the structure of the mind is bound to be a REALLY HARD THING. That I  readily admit.  I'm not even  completely sure it can be done. 

Since testing evolutionary hypotheses is relatively hard, and generating them is relatively  easy,  one might be tempted to  think that we should just set such hypotheses to one side as more trouble than the are theoretically worth. That  would be a mistake. What really is required is just a little modesty -- well, maybe a lot of modesty --  about what you can and can't actually establish at this stage in the history of inquiry. 

Of course, culture formation doesn't always wait on scientific progress. So we will go on trying to construct our culture, even if science can't tell us anything terribly deep about the possibility space we are walking through or the constraint we will bump up against,  in the attempt.  But that happens all the time. Unfortunately, lots of time when science "catches up" it turns out that we  attempting to construct a culture on a foundation that wouldn't support it. But we're pretty good at living for generation in castles built on sand.

Comments (7)

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Thursday, May 26, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

One of my goals in life is to find out the proces

One of my goals in life is to find out the process whereby the mind, spirit, and consciousness evolve. I am not concerned with the measurement of neurons or physical brain structures, but the process of critical and analytical processes that is undergone to produce conscious evolution. There is a process that I perceive the mind repeatedly undergoes before it evolves. If human beings knew this process they could then speed it up or bring evolution about more efficiently. The history of humankind is an evolution of consciousness. Great strides were made on evolutionary psychology by Hegel. It was Hegel who stated, ?Philosophical manuals are perhaps not now expected to conform to such a pattern, for it is supposed that what philosophy puts together is a work as ephemeral as Penelope?s web, one which must be begun afresh every morning.? The goal of understanding the mind is the ultimate goal.
Why does it have to be either all biology or culture which determines a human being? Nature does not function with only one tool to bring about the desired effect. Humans function at the either/or level, but nature is not that simple. The systems of nature can not be held down when humans discover one tool through which it brings about evolution; it will either adapt or make new tools. Biology and Culture, two tools of evolution, both come from the same source, the human mind. Genes are chosen by humans through the processes of reproduction by the human mind, i.e. the mind will select a partner which these attributes they wish to continue. The factors that the mind will choose are selected based on a mental process similar to cause and effect and survival. Culture works the same way, but in this case instead of genes being selected you have memes. At the basis level genes and memes are all information.
It is all information, whether it is physical or it is only mental. Genes are basically more advanced structures of information, kind of like the binary code that is behind digital technology. Culture is also information. Humans are at the basic level gardeners of information. When you eat, you choose which information to digest. When you choose a sexual partner you are choosing which information you wish to pass on to the next generation. Nature will not allow for the exact information the partners want to be produced to come about through the differences in genotype and phenotype. The goal of our gardening of information is beauty, power, order, and symmetry.
The difference now is that humans are starting to create new tools whereby they can create the desired effect they want through genetic engineering. Humans are the only animal species whereby natural selection is not fully allowed. Human beings with genetic defects are allowed to live and pass on their unwanted genetic defects-and that may be a good thing. Humans are always trying to create tools to bring about their own will in evolution. One example would be when the Nazis tried to destroy homosexuals, people with physical and mental disabilities, inferior races, etc. It is a good thing that they did not succeed. Now geneticists will try to bring about new tools in evolution. There is a great striving in human beings to evolve and bring about evolution. At the basic level it is all information. Which information as a gardener will you choose to pass on, and which tools will the gardeners create?

Guest's picture


Thursday, May 26, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

Cool stuff. I've been mulling this topic this ver

Cool stuff. I've been mulling this topic this very week.
I'd submit since that marrying for love and an equality of the sexes is only a few hundred years old (and are by no means universal at this moment), our psychology of sex is evolving as we speak.
And since our guiding lights of only 50 years ago, Freud and Kinsey, seem to be all wet, we must realize we know nothing.
As Stephanie Coontz writes in her new book, "Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage," the idea of seeking counseling for "intimacy issues" would have been laughable just a few hundred years ago.
I am sorry the social sciences won't be of much help spiritually or even philosophically as to what should be, since at their best, they can only report what has already happened. But we are at the dawn of an exciting age of understanding, if we do it right.

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Friday, May 27, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

I think one of the most fascinating areas of study

I think one of the most fascinating areas of study that evolutionary psychology opens up is the what if any implications evolutionary theory has for common sense and more philosophically rigorous understandings of morality. I discuss this in my post Evolution, altruism and ethics.
What is also interesting to hypothesize is how the forces of natural selection apply to modern humanity. The environment that human beings reside in changes far too quickly for natural selection to select for adaptations to the environment. But even if it could, the survival of the fittest approach no longer works in the same way, generally we are not killing off those people who are the genetically weakest, we are using all manner of technology and science to keep them alive and cure them, eg. embryonic stem cell research.
Aren?t the people who are dying off, in a general sense the people who can?t afford the technology or medicine to save them? Whether it be the unfortunate denizens of the third world who can?t afford medications at the price we charge, or the people living under the poverty line in our own so called industrialized nations? If this is true then it is no longer survival of the fittest but survival of the richest (assuming this trend where to keep for a few thousand years). Consequently, the people who would be naturally selected are those genetically predisposed to economic success. A scary thought

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Saturday, May 28, 2005 -- 5:00 PM


Or survival of the most moral, as in why is Europe's birthrate falling below replacement level?

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Wednesday, June 1, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

I just looked quickly at Ken's thoughtful post and

I just looked quickly at Ken's thoughtful post and wish I had time to respond in more detail. One point I would like to make is that this idea of a constraint--necessary for evolutionary pscyhology without genetic determinism--is a pretty obscure one. Presumably this is a developmental constraint. Does it make some developmental outcomes more or less likely? Does it rule some out? Either way I'm not sure how you would generate a testable hypothesis about the existence of such a trait. How would you measure the prior probabilitiy of a behavioural trait independent (whatever that means) of particular environmental (social) contexts?
Given this sort of difficulty, it's not surprising that evolutionary psychologists in fact come up not with stories about constraints but stories about what developmental outcomes were in fact likely to have succeeded in the Pleistocene and therefore are likely to be at least default developmental outcomes now. This ends up not, certainly, as strict philosophical determinism, but a kind of fuzzy determinism. And this is reinforced by the strong tendency to assume that, in ways that are entirely mysterious to molecular biologists, this tendency is somehow inscribed in DNA.

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Wednesday, June 8, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

John: I don't think of constraint like the one

I don't think of constraint like the one I'm suggesting as a "developmental constraint" exactly. I think of it as more of an "emergent" constraint. Think of social groups as dynamical systems, with men and women having somewhat different "default" psychological make-ups. If it's right that every generation has to solve a "gender role coordination problem" of the kind I describe in my original post then when I talk about constraints, I have in mind constraints on the range of possible solutions, not necessarily direcly genetically encoded as such. But given the different roles of males and females in reproduction, together with the different psychological tendencies of males and females, etc there might well be a set of emergent constraints on possible solutions. More generally, if we think of human beings as being really good at solving "coordination problems" we have to ask exactly what coordinations problems we're good at solving and exactly why we're good at solving them. I suspect that in order to be solvable many of the coordination problems have to be constrained. ONe source of constraint will be our own psychological make-ups and one source of that psychology will be our evolutionary history. Or so it seems to me.

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Saturday, August 6, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

Here would be one question that I would pose to th

Here would be one question that I would pose to the author of this post: To what degree can a given culture, or a given individual (or group of individuals) overcome or transgress the "constraints" that evolutionary-derived psychology bestows upon us? Is it not more useful to ask, not which elements of human psychology derive from DNA "directly," but how far can we go as creative beings in reinventing ever new and more humane ways of acting, irrespecitve of the role of our genes in giving us certain mental characteristics?
For example, to use the example in the news this week, although it is true that evolution has not given us the physical ability to project from our bodies massive exploding projectiles, the fact that we figured out how to do this has far more relevance for the people of Hiroshima than the discussion as to how Man managed to overcome his biologically-evolved constraints and figure out how to make the atomic bomb.
Surely such questions become an exercise in futility: much better to devote all this intellectual energy to finding ways of stopping Man do such things, and to toss to one side the questions of which behaviors are produced by evolution and which a result of either a mixture of biological and cultural impetus or "purely" cultural impetus (if such a thing is in any case possible given that we are always, in some sense, literally made up of biology). In the end, what is important is the question of how far our potential as a species can be stretched. Insofar as evolutionary psychology focuses on those ways in which we have not progressed beyond instinct-laden behaviors, it inadvertently implies that we cannot progress very far: and this is not an implication that such a narrowly focused field is in a position to release into the social environment.
(For more musings by me, try My Political Columns)