There’s been a lot of kerfuffle on the intertubes about the value of evolutionary psychology, the field that studies the evolutionary roots of human thought, language, and behavior. I want to weigh in here with my answer to the question posed in the title, and my answer is, “Certainly not!”
Now I am known as a critic of evolutionary psychology, and I have been quite critical. For example, I’ve published two scathing critiques (one with Andrew Berry) of Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer’s unfounded theories of the adaptive significance of rape (see references below). I have gone after the popular distortions of evolutionary psychology that appear in the press or books (e.g., my comments on David Brooks’s New Yorker article “Social animal”—an article subsequently turned into a dreadful book). And I have criticized some evolutionary psychologists for failing to police the speculative excesses of their colleagues. But I’ve never maintained that the entire field is worthless, nor do I think that now. In fact, there’s some good stuff in it, and it’s getting better.
I have seen evolutionary psychology begin to mature with its criticisms and disclaimers of its more radical exponents (e.g., Satoshi Kanazawa), and its increasing concentration on evidence and testability rather than just storytelling. Although I don’t keep up with it as much as I once did, I do teach some of it in my introductory evolution class. I have to admit, though, that as the field has evolved, I’ve become less critical of it as a whole. That is, I think, as it should be!
My position has always been that good evolutionary psychology should meet the evidentiary standards of papers on the evolutionary significance of behavior in other animals—standards that are, say, met by papers in the journal Animal Behaviour. Good evolutionary psychology should be able to make either predictions or what I call “retrodictions”—i.e., hypotheses that make sense of previously unexplained or puzzling data. (Darwin made many “retrodictions” in The Origin.) Granted, we can’t go back to the African savanna and witness the evolutionary forces that produce a new trait (hell, we can’t even do that for most traits arising today!), but we can construct reasonable hypotheses about how our behaviors arose and then test them. Or, if tests aren’t possible now, we can make intriguing suggestions that future researchers may find a way to test, as Einstein did with his theory of general relativity. That is not “storytelling,” but the limning of hypotheses that could lead to understanding. “Storytelling” is the endeavor that purports to explain something in a way that can’t be tested, or is satisfied to tell a story without finding ways to test it.
As for those writers who do a good job presenting evolutionary psychology in popular works, I’d suggest both Frans de Waal and Steve Pinker. I know these men, and, believe me, they are no Kanzawas.
And as for academic, as opposed to popular, evolutionary psychology: before you dismiss it whole hog, do me the favor of reading this 2010 paper in American Psychologist by Jaime C. Confer et al. (download free at link; reference below). It’s 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 example of a falsified theory is the old “kin selection” argument for the prevalence of homosexuality: the idea that homosexuals, though not reproducing themselves, stayed home and perpetuated their genes by taking care of their relatives.)
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.
Here are a few fields in which I think interesting and worthwhile evolutionary psychology is being done:
- Incest avoidance, especially in those societies that haven’t made a connection between incest and birth defects. Also, the proximate cues for avoiding incest, as in the failure of children raised in a kibbutz to marry.
- Humans’ innate fear of harmful creatures or features, as in spiders and heights, and the lack of innate fears of more modern dangers.
- The variance in offspring number between males and females in various societies, and the differential “pickiness” of males and females when choosing mates
- The evolution of concealed ovulation in humans as opposed to other primates.
- The use of odors and immune-system matching (i.e., MHC genes) as cues for mates.
- The cause of sexual dimorphisms (e.g., size differences between males and females).
- The cause of physical and physiological differences between human ethnic groups (was it sexual selection, drift, or something else?)
- Gene-culture coevolution, as in the evolution of lactose tolerance.
- The evolution or morality using comparative studies with other primates.
- The evolution of language (see The Language Instinct by Pinker).
- Parent-offspring conflict, and cases in which kin are favored over nonkin
- Why we like food that is bad for us (e.g. fats and sweets), and why we feel disgust at certain foods or odors
Now in many of these areas we’ll never get definitive answers, but that’s characteristic of many areas of evolutionary biology, for ours is a historical science. Why, for instance, did feathers evolve on dinosaurs? Probably not for flight, for the evolution of feathers preceded that of flight, but they could they have arisen via sexual selection, species recognition, or insulation—or all of the above. We might be able to make observations that support some of these ideas more than others, but we’ll never have the absolute truth—only answers with greater or lesser probabilities. But science is not about absolute truth; it’s about the best possible explanation we can think of in light of existing evidence. And many areas of evolutionary psychology do support some explanations more strongly than others. Read the Confer et al. paper to learn more.
Anyway, 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. Yes, there’s some dirty bathwater in evolutionary psychology, but there’s also a baby in there!
Confer, J. C., J. A. Easton, D. S. Fleischman, C. D. Goetz, D. M. G. Lewis, C. Perilloux, and D. M. Buss. 2010. Evolutionary psychology: controversies, questions, prospects, and limitations. American Psychologist 65:110-126.
Coyne, J. A. 2000. Of Vice and Men: The Fairy Tales of Evolutionary Psychology (Revew of A Natural History of Rape by R. Thornhill and C. T. Palmer). The New Republic 222(14):27-34.
Coyne, J., and A. Berry. 2000. Rape as an adaptation: a review of The Natural History of Rape, by Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer. Nature 404:121-122.