When it comes to evolutionary psychology, things become controversial. I am not talking about disagreements on competing theories within the field, but the controversy that arises when the public interprets the main findings and draw moral conclusions from researches in evolutionary psychology field. It’s all those negative connotations that come along when you tell your friends and people that your research interest is evolutionary psychology.
One of my college professors in religious and philosophy department told me that the professors in the department abhor the evolutionary psychology, and he pointed out evolutionary hypothesis that rape can be seen as adaptive. Many adaptations proposed in evolutionary psychology are seen as positive in the eyes of public. My professor sounded like evolutionary psychologists see rape as a “positive” adaptation. Another friend of mine knew that I have a profound interest in evolutionary psychology. She told me that she believed evolutionary psychology supports a social construct; she referred to how the notions of males are superior to females are supported by evolutionary findings. This simply is not true. Of course, most public also draw conclusions that ethical concerns and their religious beliefs are in conflict with evolutionary psychology.
In this article, I would like to address and clarify some of these issues in 6 points. Most of the perspectives and reasoning come from classes, readings and books.
- Evolutionary Psychology is a reductionist theory.
In science, phenomenon and concepts are reduced and analyzed in details. Chemists study and break down chemistry into molecules and atoms. Physicists study particles and quantum mechanics. Biologists study cells, genes and viruses. Like biologists, evolutionary psychologists study evolved psychological mechanisms in humans. The researches involve investigating in evolved behavioral, physiological and psychological mechanisms that might be adaptive and fit (i.e. passing on the genes and offspring). This however is not to say that evolutionary psychology is the only possible and right explanation to human nature and behaviors. In Evolution and Human Behavior John Cartwright, an evolutionary psychologist in U.K. , gave the example of such danger associated with “reductionism.”
Think about eating an apple. Physiology will tell us how the apple is digested, the environmental chemistry will tell us about what happens to the carbon dioxide we breathe out as a result and evolutionary theory will tell us why we find it sweet (we do not generate our own vitamin C and must obtain it from food and natural selection has driven us to in finding the taste of the apple sweet.
He kept on explaining that evolutionary theories do not have much to comment on how the apples got into your fridge, where do the apples come from or why do the farmers decide to sell the apple. The main point here is that science, essentially is the reductionism and many different disciplines contribute out understandings of human nature.
- Evolutionary Psychology is a deterministic theory.
“All science is based on the notion that events are caused. The whole of scientific progress is the story of how mysterious phenomena are brought within the fold of causal explanation.”
-John Cartwright, Evolution and Human Behavior
The fear is that determinism is limiting to humans. When we study animals and plants or even atoms and electrons, we freely express how events are unfolded and determined. For example, when we study animals and microorganisms, we freely apply and describe the concepts of evolutionary processes and how selection pressures shape certain behaviors such as coercive sexual behaviors in animals. When we describe the same phenomenon to humans such as rape as a possible adaptive behavior, people become extremely self-conscious about how such phenomenon are determined or ingrained in us that we might not be able to change anything. Relax, folks. The nature Vs. nurture debate is over. It’s the interaction between the environment and our genes. Take a look at genetic disorder called PKU (phenylketonuria). With an early dietary practice, even genetic disorder can be pacified. When evolutionary psychologists study behaviors and evolved mechanisms such as more common “rape” behaviors in males with lower mate values or risker actions by males, the researches serve better purposes. When we know what we are up to, we can face what we are against. We can therefore create better programs and interventions.
- Evolutionary psychology justifies/condones the behaviors.
One time I mentioned and shared the insights on how the actor in fifty shades of grey was portrayed as a perfect evolutionary male figure with wealth, attractive looks and dominance. And my sociology college professor, who is also on my facebook friend list, questioned the statement as if it were a social Darwinist viewpoint. It seems to me that the professor was asking me whether the male’s sadistic acts in the movie is justifiable because he is a male with high mate value? The answer is straight no. It’s true that there were a few groups of misinformed “Social Darwinists, ” who have misused and applied evolutionary ideas to “create” hierarchies. However, evolution does not work this way and many of the ideas like selecting a better “species” have shown futile results. When evolutionary psychologists proposed and supported the notions like sex differences in male and female behaviors or how rape, as in coercive sex, could have served as an adaption over evolutionary history, or how homicide might confer adaptive benefits to the murderer, especially when the fitness benefit is greater than the costs, evolutionary psychologists are not condoning behaviors. In fact, they are investigating human nature in a descriptive way, not in a prescriptive way. When microbiologists work and study viruses and how the viruses work, generally nobody is assuming that they are studying viruses to spread the world.
- Evolutionary psychology makes humans immoral.
I remembered reading The Evolution of Human Sexuality by Donald Symmons. One of the quotes in the book explains that when we cannot find flowers that are not local here, should we not bother creating a beautiful garden with the foreign flowers? In fact, we can. I will give you another example of glasses. Glasses are wonderful human invention. I do appreciate having those on my eyes. However, if I describe the fact no human has ever been seen to be born with glasses. Should we stop producing these wonderful tools? Or consider babies born with PKU. Should we stop intervening with PKU related diet because it is not natural to intervene the nature? Such argument is absurd and unnecessary. If you are interpreting an “is, ” to “ought,” you might be committing “naturalistic fallacy, ” coined by philosophers. Therefore when evolutionary psychology describes inclusive fitness or reciprocal altruism with equations, they do not mean to support the notions that humans are immoral. Richard Dawkins said evolution is a blind watchmaker, but the processes have equipped us with wonderful mindsets and emotions, including cooperative behaviors that could have revolutionized human history.
- Evolutionary psychology disproves GOD.
No. The existence of God cannot be proved or disproved scientifically. However, there are people who study religions from evolutionary psychology perspectives (for review, read Pascal Boyer’s The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thoughts). When it comes to people who believe in God make their religious and erroneous assertions on evolution, those can be challenged and debated.
I myself am an atheist now, but used to be a devoted Buddhist. Well there are thousands of Gods in the world and religious people only believe one. To quote Stephen F. Roberts,
“I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”
- Evolutionary psychology supports and confirms social construct.
No. Again, the discipline is not prescriptive. In fact, the researchers in the field recognize the importance of sex differences in men and women and different adaptive strategies. I remember hearing the quote mentioned by my professor, “ Men are hunters and Women, gatherers. Of course, evolutionary psychology does not have all the answers. There are proposed hypothesis and testing but no general agreement or right explanations for why certain people are gay. One thing to note is that evolutionary researchers recognize that homosexual acts are very common and widespread in other species. Evolution recognizes variations.
Thanks for reading the article.