Recommended readings on evolutionary psychology

February 17, 2020 • 12:45 pm

I’m still a bit under the weather with an incipient cold, but I’m taking zinc lozenges, which do have some science behind them supporting the claim that zinc shortens the duration and severity of colds. At any rate, since I’ve used them I haven’t had a full-on cold for several years. (A confounding factor: I also wash my hands a lot more.) All this is by way of explaining why I don’t have the energy to brain today.

But I will call your attention to three articles on evolutionary psychology that you may want to read.

About 15 years ago, I was known as a critic of evolutionary psychology, mainly because, along with Andrew Berry, I went after what I saw as bad science promulgated in a book about rape being an adaptation (see also here; copy of my New Republic piece available through judicious inquiry). In those pieces, I made a few disparaging comments about the weakness of evolutionary psychology in general, and so we were off to the races, with radio shows and newspapers all wanting to interview me about rape and evoutionary psychology.

Since then I’ve modified my views about evolutionary psychology, mainly because I’ve tried to educate myself about the discipline. Yes, it’s often a purview of adaptive storytelling, but it’s not all like that; and the field has not only matured, but come up with testable hypothesis about the evolutionary roots of human behaviors, including parental care and sexual behavior. I won’t get into all this today, but you can see an excellent critique of evolutionary-psychology denialism in Steve Piner’s book The Blank Slate.

Now I’ve become somewhat of a critic of the critics, for opposition to evolutionary psychology is often motivated more by ideology than by purely scientific considerations. Blank-slateism is the default position of many on the Left, who simply try to deny science if it’s ideologically inconvenient. That includes not just evolutionary psychology, which has been characterized by some as a completely worthless field, but also any kind of sex difference, or, indeed, the absence of discrete sexes themselves.

The idea that evolutionary psychology is scientifically bankrupt baffles me. If we’re willing to accept that, say, differences between male and female bodies reflects selection in our ancestors, why shouldn’t differences in our behaviors and psychologies also reflect that kind of selection? Yes, I know that there’s culture that affects behavior, and that we shouldn’t blithely assume that every difference we see in mentation reflects natural selection in the past (I’m not that dumb), but there are some hypotheses, like the profligate sexual desires of males versus the choosiness of females, that are not only repeatable, but predicted from our biology and, what’s more, observed in other animals. It would be a remarkable coincidence indeed if such differences between the sexes were evolutionary in other species, but purely the result of socialization in H. sapiens—and yet the behaviors were similar.

But I digress, and am a bit feverish. Here are three reads for you today, the first being this good article from last August in Areo.The author is Laith al-Shawaf, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs.  It’s not ideological, but simply collects the main misconceptions and then attempts to refute them (largely successfully, I might add).

This is my “favorite” misconception, because it’s the one that you see non-biologists using most often when they want to take down evolutionary psychology. I haven’t read all the papers cited, but so be it.

Misconception 6: Evolutionary Psychologists Think That Everything is an Adaptation

This canard just won’t die—though it is tenable only if you read misinformed critiques rather than the actual primary literature in the field.

In their published writing, evolutionary psychologists frequently state explicitly that evolution yields three kinds of products: adaptations, byproducts and noise. Beyond this theoretical statement, researchers also propose hypotheses about byproducts and conduct studies on byproducts.

For example, herehere and here are three conceptual papers that explicitly reject the notion that all aspects of our psychology are adaptations. This paper on adaptations, exaptations and spandrels explicitly discusses byproducts at length. This paper thoughtfully addresses the question of how to carry out an exaptationist program in psychology. Here is an excellent study suggesting that racism is an evolutionary byproduct, not an adaptation, and that it can be erased. Here is a paper suggesting that the higher prevalence of sexual fetishism among men is a byproduct of their easier-to-cross thresholds of sexual arousal combined with their biased sexual learning mechanisms. Here is an example of two prominent evolutionary psychologists claiming that homicide is a byproduct, not an adaptation, and here are the same two researchers (along with a third co-author) claiming that uxoricide and filicide are also byproducts. Herehere and here are examples of researchers explaining religion and belief in supernatural agents as a byproduct of other mechanisms, such as agency-detection mechanisms that are biased toward false positives, theory of mind mechanisms and the attachment system. My colleagues and I recently submitted a chapter titled “The Products of Evolution” to a new handbook of evolutionary psychology, and, unsurprisingly, byproducts are a central part of the chapter.

The disparity between this criticism of evolutionary psychology and what evolutionary psychologists actually say in their published work is remarkable. The only reason it isn’t surprising is that there are many other examples of misrepresentations of the field—you can find some good examples of such misrepresentations herehere, here and here. . . .

Item #2. Colin Wright, who co-wrote the article on the sex “binary” in the Wall Street Journal that I recently mentioned, also had a related piece in Quillette about sixteen months ago. It’s more ideological, and deals with both Leftist criticisms of evolutionary psychology and their claim that the notion of men and women as distinct sexes is a social construct not supported by biology. I highlighted this 2018 article at length in an earlier post, but if you haven’t read it, I recommend it again. (Click on screenshot.) Finally, here’s a fairly new paper (a year old) that summarizes “psychological” differences between men and women, with an eye to explaining them as products of evolution. I have mixed feelings about this one: the stuff on sexual behavior is good, but that on other traits, like the greater “visuospatial ability” of men than of women (i.e., men better at mentally rotating objects and remembering the location of objects), is much weaker, with the differences falling into the category of “unsubstantiated adaptive stories.” Still,  as a summary of the literature on sex differences in psychology, be they evolutionary, cultural, or a combination, it’s a good resource. And access is free (click on screenshot):

Time for another zinc lozenge (75 mg/day)!

38 thoughts on “Recommended readings on evolutionary psychology

  1. I find that the amount of poor evolutionary psychology published (mostly by pop science outlets) downs out any of the good science done on the topic. I’d also like to see that the studies mentioned above take a suitable cross-cultural approach, that I often find lacking in evolutionary psychology work.

  2. Dear Jerry,
    Not sure if you have come across my new book “Good Reasons for Bad Feelings: Insights from the Frontier of Evolutionary Psychiatry.” It is the sequel to “Why We Get Sick” that applies the principles of evolutionary medicine to mental disorders, in hopes that a foundation in evolution that can help to resolve some controversies and help psychiatry become more like the rest of medicine. Full book info at Would love your take on this
    @RandyNesse on twitter

  3. I’m a psychologist who actually specializes in work with sexual offenders; and who has more than a passing interest in evolutionary psychology. I have to say that Thornhill and Palmer book is terrible and have never recommended it to anyone.

    I think that Buss, as mentioned by Fatima, above, is very much on the ball.

  4. I’ve always been quite comfortable with evolutionary psychology. Years ago I read something by Tooby & Cosmides and thought it sounded pretty obvious. The risk of wild storytelling fulfilling prejudices is always there, but I was sure the wheat would shed the chaff. It’s good to see the field flourish.

  5. I have been interested in the concept since I was a psychology student at Emory in the early sixties. That may have been before the term was invented and very little real information was available. I probably lean more toward believing that behavior is genetically determined and influenced than most people. Thanks for the reading references.

  6. Minor typo, fourth paragraph, last sentence: “Steven Piner’s” rather than Steven Pinker’s (Pinkah’s, I assume: would also be acceptable)

  7. Ok, I guess I’ll read Buss and Nesse #2 (read the first short book — useful & interesting).

    For me, with a “spiritual” past, just coming to terms with evolution was a big help. It knocked out a vast amount of spiritually prescribed expectations about there being some divine plan for human nature, with the implicit promise that life will be easy if it’s followed. It’s a highway to hell and guilt, or worse, smug self satisfaction.

  8. Although it is over 20 years old now, and it certainly isn’t a short book, I think the best introduction to evolutionary psychology is still Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works.

  9. Dr. Coyne, I don’t mean to be a nitpicker and understand you are ill, but perhaps you wish to correct Dr. Pinker’s name:

    “I won’t get into all this today, but you can see an excellent critique of evolutionary-psychology denialism in Steve Piner’s book The Blank Slate.”

  10. But I digress, and am a bit feverish.

    Take comfort that the adamantine opponents of evolutionary psychology are at least equally febrile, and zinc lozenges offer no palliation for their malady. 🙂

  11. Robin Dunbar, Louise Barrett, John Lycett, Pinker, Tooby and Cosmides were my introduction to EP and it struck a very probably biased, nerve. I felt intuitively drawn to how hundreds of thousands of years of brain evolution, the physiology and the cognitive, could not but leave some stamp on brain processing and guiding behaviours.
    At 16 / 17 I was fascinated with the brain but I think I would have back then gone very wooish on it, but thank my peers, or not, too much party put paid to that.

  12. A lot of what is under discussion here is out of my area of competence, but the “visuospatial ability” question is one that I find really interesting. I would love to read some objective research on the subject.

    Anecdotally, we spend a lot of our time giving and receiving directions. The women almost always give them as a process to follow. The men tend to do range and bearing from a known object.

    But personal trivia aside, I appreciate your putting all this together, and plan to spend some time reading the links.

  13. IMHO one of the best and well documented well researched example of evolutionary psychology is the work done by Jonathan Haidt and associates. The best overview of his work and a powerful real-world argument is in his book “Moral Foundations Theory.” It is an eloquent exposition. Haidt’s book could serve as the introduction to a “down in the weeds” exhaustive study titled “Mapping the Moral Domain” JPSP 2011, Vol. 101, No. 2, 366–385 done in collaboration with Jesse Graham (1st author), Brian A. Nosek, Ravi Ilyer, Spassena Koleva and Peter H. Ditto. Where Haidt’s book introduces the idea, Mapping the Moral Domain validates it. It has implications for many of the sub-disciplines of Social Psychology.

  14. The Blank Slate was probably the greatest scientific debacle of all times. For more than 50 years, behavioral scientists and academics denied, for all practical purposes, that such a thing as human nature exists. This is, of course, the topic of Pinker’s book, and is also well documented on the pro-human nature side in Degler’s “In Search of Human Nature” and on the anti side in Cravens’ “The Triumph of Evolution.” Pinker “modified” history by dropping the single most important player in smashing the Blank Slate orthodoxy, Robert Ardrey, down the memory hole, along with Konrad Lorenz. Ardrey was an outsider, and had to be erased because he was too offensive to the academic tribe. Ardrey’s significance is documented, for example, in “Man and Aggression,” edited by Ashley Montagu, and “Against ‘Sociobiology'”, which appeared in the New York Review of Books back in 1975. Pinker rationalized erasing Ardrey because of his support for group selection, hardly the major theme of his work. He selected E. O. Wilson to replace him as the knight in shining armor who debunked the Blank Slate. Ironically, Wilson has now come out as one of the leading proponents of (you guessed it) group selection.

    As for evolutionary psychology, it is now in step or, as the Nazis used to say, “Gleichgeschaltet” with the Woke establishment. As anyone can check for themselves, the major journals are full of articles about the arcane aspects of human sexuality, as if human beings had suddenly forgotten how to reproduce. That is a “safe” subject, and avoids conflict with the prevailing narrative. There is very little of any real relevance to the human condition, such as ingroup/outgroup behavior, the connection between human nature and morality, etc., although a few brave researchers are still exploring these areas.

    1. Ardrey’s “Killer Ape” theory is ridiculous on the face of things. Chimpanzees and Bonobos are far more aggressive than humans. Did people know nothing about the behavior of these great apes back then?

  15. It is a fascinating subject. I remember enjoying reading The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature by Matt Ridley. I’m not sure if it is a “good” science based book or not as I am not a scientist. I would appreciate any suggestions for any good books on the subject of evolutionary psychology. I have checked for David Buss’ book after reading the comment from Fatima araujo and Mr Coyne on Amazon at 100$. I’m wondering though if it would be a little bit too much for someone with no scientific training. Any suggestions anybody?

    1. There are lots of good reads relevant to EP out there. Some you might try:

      “The Righteous Mind,” Haidt

      “The Atheist and the Bonobo” and “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?”, de Waal

      “Behave,” Sapolsky

      “Blueprint,” Plomin

      “On Human Nature,” and “The Social Conquest of Earth,” E. O. Wilson

      “Moral Tribes,” Greene

      1. I am slogging my way through Behave. I really like Sapolsky, but this book has maybe a bit TMI of a technical nature for my interest.

        1. Agreed, it can be a bit of a slog compared to the rest of the stuff I listed, but it’s still a great book. I think Prof. CC reviewed it a while back. I might add that Haidt and Wilson are group selection fans, whereas Profs. Coyne and Pinker, and a majority of the rest of the experts in relevant fields, are not. PBS sided with Wilson and Haidt, though. Does that count?

    2. “How the mind works” by Steven Pinker is a classic.

      He had an interesting spat with Fodor (“The mind doesn’t work that way”), that I would also recommend.

  16. You can sort of see why Ev Psych has a bad rep as it can easily descend into Just So stories, and its easy to cherry-pick the cases where it has.

    However, by definition we are all disproportionately descended from the people who had the greatest reproductive success, which means that (also more or less by definition) we are disproportionately descended from the males who had the most children and the females who had the healthiest children, which means …. etc etc …..

  17. I just read the Quillette article. It is pretty good, but what shocked me was the comment section, much of it is derailed into how ridiculous evolutionary theory is. And the enraging thing is that there are no ‘reply’ buttons (I guess the discussion is closed).
    I have to admit that I’m an unabashed enthusiast of evolutionary psychology. I even found that Thornhill and Palmer’s much maligned “a Natural History of Rape” quite good, although it lacks a bit on the evidence side. I have eg. been looking for greater ejaculate during sexual coercion as compared to consensual sex (which they state) but could not find very much there. Nor could I find the percentages of rape resulting in pregnancies in pre-contraceptive societies.
    However, I still think that that book, considered an example of ‘bad’ evolutionary psychology made some pertinent, good points.
    Other evolutionary books and articles are much stronger, of course, from Tooby & Cosmides and Betzig to Wrangham and Trivers.
    The evidence for the causes of behavioral and psychological differences between the two sexes being mainly evolutionary is overwhelming.

  18. I don’t see how anyone could criticize evo psych in particular without criticizing adaptationism in total. That is, if one has a problem with investigating psychological adaptations on the basis of a priori design expectations, then they ought to at least be consistent and take issue with that kind of engineering analysis as applied to all traits, including physiological and morphological. As I recall, Lewontin and Gould, to their credit, did go whole hog against adaptationism as a research strategy, not singling out evo psych for special approbation. That being said, I don’t think their criticisms withstood the progress of later research. Organisms are chock full of exquisite adaptations, and testing for a priori design expectations remains the gold standard.

  19. I attend the annual conferences of the North Eastern Evolutionary Psychology Society.
    One of the most important recent developments is the research conducted along women’s interests. Much of the topics in evos have been driven by male interest but the field has opned up. I highly recommend Sarah Hrdy and her books on mothering, plus the book Evolutins’ Empress:Darwinian Perspectives on the Nature of Women edited by Maryanne L. Fisher et al.
    Great stuff!

  20. Thank you for writing this. Unfortunately, the main critics of EP, philosophers, don’t give a flying f**k. They have internalised their decades old Vaulting Ambition by Kitcher, which lands anyone defending EP in the same camp they call “scientific racists”.

  21. A slightly better criticism, one harder to evaluate on the outside also s\urrounds “adaptationism” and function.

    I will ignore the functions debate, which is horribly hard. As for the first, then: which should we methodologically work with? The critics of EP (like Bunge) claim that the EPers are *jumping too quickly* to adaptative hypotheses, basically that one has to rule out neutralist, exaptatations, etc, *first*, or one will will too easily invent “just so stories”. He doesn’t tie these strains together, but one can apply his (IMO quite correct) critique of rational choice theories that presuppose utility maximization: they are vacuous because *anything* (almost) can be seen as a maximization/minimization process if one allows arbitrary properties to be the subject. So one needs an independent measure of “utility” *first*. Similarly here, how does one know (even within error bars or whatever) that one actually has the relevant target? (This is, I think, the correct way to put the inane criticisms of Fodor and Nagel about natural selection.)

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