An evolutionary psychology book that shows the discipline’s value—but not the value of memes

September 15, 2020 • 9:00 am

I’ve just finished reading Steve Stewart-Williams’s recent book The Ape That Understood the Universe (Cambridge University Press, revised edition 2019). I recommend it highly as a good way to get not only an introduction to evolutionary psychology, but also to see why the discipline is worthwhile and why its detractors are often misguided. Click on the screenshot if you want to buy it from Amazon US.

I have to hedge my encomiums a bit, because while most of the book—the first part that deals with evolutionary psychology—is excellent, the second bit, only the last 64 pages, is weaker. That’s the bit that deals with memes, the popular but, I think, misguided view that we can understand human cultural evolution by assuming it’s propelled by memes, “units of culture” first dreamed up by Dawkins in The Selfish Gene. While memetics sounds good at first glance, and has become incorporated into popular jargon as “an item that’s gone viral on the Internet”, I have always questioned its value as a way to understand how ideas and objects spread in human culture—indeed, supposedly creating human culture. I explained my criticisms in a 1999 Nature book review of Susan Blackmore’s book The Meme Machine, and won’t reiterate them at length here.

But the biggest part of the book is well worth reading, particularly because Left-wing biologists have denigrated evolutionary psychology at length, calling it not only worthless, but meaningless. I won’t name these miscreants, but suffice it to say that their motivations are largely ideological: they think that if human behavior—particularly behavioral differences between groups and especially between men and women (but also behavioral “universals”)—are partly instilled in our genome by natural selection, then that will justify xenophobia, misogyny, and all kinds of bigotry.

This claim isn’t true, of course. As I’ve mentioned repeatedly, to say that our evolutionary past justifies how people should treat others, or construct a morality, is deeply misguided: “the naturalistic fallacy.” And to accept that natural selection has molded human bodies and physiology, and has done so within the last 10,000 years (see here), but then to deny that natural selection has affected human behaviors, including differences between the sexes that sometimes parallel those seen in animals, is a nonsensical and unparsimonious view.

Further, evolutionary psychology as a discipline is neither worthless, unproductive, nor tautological. After describing how natural selection operates on genes (including kin selection and the production of cooperative behaviors), Stewart-Williams takes up some topics in evolutionary psychology and shows that the discipline has indeed produced testable and confirmed hypotheses, particularly those involving aspects of human sexual behavior as well as behavior toward kin and group-mates (“altruism”).

Stewart-Williams is no uncritical booster of evolutionary psychology, readily admitting that some of its advocates have gone overboard. But you don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, and in an appendix called “How to win an argument with a Blank Slater”, Stewart-Williams takes up and rebuts some of the most common criticisms of the discipline (e.g., “evolutionary psychology is the latest incarnation of genetic determinism”, “hypotheses in evolutionary psychology are either just-so stories or are unfalsifiable”, and so on). Hypotheses in the discipline are often testable and falsifiable, and one of the strongest parts of this book is the description of data that support hypotheses about the evolution of behavior, as well as some description of tests that have failed. Like Darwin, Stewart-Williams is always anticipating readers’ queries and criticisms, and addresses them throughout the book.

The discussion of human “altruism”, always a puzzling topic, is also quite good, with Stewart-Williams lucidly describing the various ways what we think of as “selfless behavior” could evolve (kin selection, small-group tit-for-tat strategies, and group selection, which he considers unlikely). All in all, I strongly recommend you read at least the first 218 pages on evolutionary psychology, as well as Appendix A on arguing with Blank Slaters.

You should also read the last chapter on memetics (“The Cultural Animal”), but do so with an especially critical eye. Although Stewart-Williams’s aim in the book is to explain human behavior and society as a result of both biological and cultural evolution, he’s much more successful with the former than the latter. That’s not to say that he doesn’t have good insights into cultural evolution, for he does. It’s just that the addition of “memes” doesn’t, in my view, add much.

I’ll give just one example. Most of us love apple pie and ice cream, and Stewart-Williams considers this a meme whose spread needs explanation. The classical explanation of memetics is that ideas spread when they parasitize human brains and have features that are good for the memes themselves to spread, though those features may not be adaptive for individuals or society (he uses smoking as one example). So it goes with apple pie à la mode:

. . . the ultimate criterion which determines whether a meme will spread is not whether it benefits us or our groups, but whether it benefits the meme itself.

Two examples will illustrate the point. [JAC: I give just the first.] The first is apple pie and ice cream. The apple-pie-and-ice-cream meme has prospered in human societies because it powerfully activates the brain’s pleasure centers—more powerfully, in fact, than anything in our natural environment. Eating too much of the stuff isn’t good for us, but that’s irrelevant. The meme proliferates, not because it’s good for us but purely because it’s good for itself—purely, that is, because it’s good at proliferating. To be clear, it doesn’t want to proliferate or know what’s good for it, any more than genes do. It’s apple pie! The idea is simply that if we want to understand which memes come to predominate in a culture, then rather than looking at how memes affect our fitness or the fitness of our groups, we need to look at how they affect their own chances of being passed on.

But to assert that the apple-pie-a-la-mode meme has properties that make it good at proliferating is simply tautological, and not in the way that the spread of genes is said to be tautological. What, exactly, about this meme helps it spread itself among Americans or Brits? What makes it good for itself? As far as I can see, nothing. What makes it spread is simply that apple pie and ice cream taste good, and taste better than alternatives like, say, donuts and ice cream. While Stewart-Williams admits that this dessert “activates the brains’s pleasure centers,” the real explanation for why this dessert “meme” is popular would involve understanding why it tastes better than alternatives. As I wrote in my Nature review of Susan Blackmore’s book:

. . . Blackmore’s enterprise has two fatal flaws. First, she has got the chain of causation backwards. The claim that memes created major features of humanity is equivalent to the claim that the main force driving the development of better computers has been the self-propagation of software. In reality, computers are usually designed for speed and capacity, which then permits the development of new software. Similarly, the self-replication of memes does not mould our biology and culture; rather, our biology and culture determine which memes are created and spread. What a world of human psychology is obscured by Blackmore’s mantra, “If a meme can get itself successfully copied it will”! To me, memetics boils down to the following obvious theory: ideas tend to spread if they cater to our desires to have love, comfort, pleasure, power, sex, the attention and admiration of others, a meaningful life and a way to evade the awful fact of mortality.

This brings us to the biggest problem: memetics seems completely tautological, unable to explain why a meme spreads except by asserting, post facto, that it had qualities enabling it to spread. One might as well say that aspirin relieves pain because of its pain-relieving properties. The most interesting question — why some memes spread and not others — is completely neglected. Why did Christianity take hold during the waning days of the Roman Empire? You won’t find the answer, or any way to attain it, in memetics. (This, by the way, makes memetics utterly unlike biological evolution. The spread of genes through natural selection is not tautological because one can predict their fate through their known effects on replication and the reproduction of their carriers.)

Nothing is gained in understanding the spread of apple pie and ice cream by considering it a “brain parasite,” which Stewart-Williams does.

I think Stewart-Williams recognizes this problem with memetics, for he deals with it in Appendix B: “How to win an argument with an Anti-Memeticist”. Here we find the following passage, which starts with a criticism of memetics in italics and then the his rebuttal in plain text.

The hallmark of a good scientific theory is that it generates research: it makes novel predictions about the world, which lead scientists to make otherwise unexpected discoveries. Memetics, however, has been woefully unsuccessful on this front. Indeed, the field’s flagship journal, The Journal of Memetics, had to close its doors because it didn’t get enough submissions.”

[Stewart-Williams’s answer]: This is the “if you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” criticism. Of all the criticisms on offer, it’s probably the one that worries me most. In the end, though, I think it fails. It is certainly true that memetics has yet to deliver much in the way of new research. It’s also true that many specific meme-based explanations have yet to be adequately tested. However, when it comes to evaluating a theory or explanation, what we ultimately want to know is not how many publications it’s generated, or how many surprising discoveries, bur rather something more basic: whether or not the theory is true.  That, in the final analysis, is what science is all about.  And despite the current research shortfall, there’s good reason to believe that, at least in its general outline, memetics is indeed a true and accurate theory.

But how can we know if a theory is true if it doesn’t propose tests or potential falsifications? Stewart-Williams tentatively accepts the truth of memetics because he says it makes sense: cultural entities appear “designed to benefit themselves”, even if they harm individuals or groups. (Yes, too much pie is bad for you, or, as the jolly Almus Pickerbaugh said in Arrowsmith, “too much pie makes pyorrhea.“)  But how, exactly, does the apple-pie-and-ice cream “meme” benefit itself? Can you predict this in advance from simply the existence of the combination? Well, perhaps you could predict it if you knew how its gustatory constituents interacted with human brains, but that’s a psychological explanation that has nothing to do with the “self spreadability” of the pie-and-ice cream meme.

In the end, you have to judge whether a theory is true based not on intrinsic plausibility but on whether it survives empirical tests. In my view, the empirical “tests” of memetics boil down to post facto explanations of why something spread based on some characteristic of the cultural unit itself. And here memetics has, as Stewart-Williams admits, failed. It doesn’t explain much and doesn’t seem falsifiable because memeticists always seem able to confect a reason why something had to spread, independent of human tastes, needs, or psychology. It is intrinsically an unfalsifiable theory.

I’ve written a lot about memes because it’s a bugbear of mine, not because it’s the major topic of Stewart-Williams’s book. It isn’t. And so I recommend that you read the book, if for no other reason than to see why the critics of evolutionary psychology are largely misguided. But you’ll also learn a lot about how natural selection works, and how it’s forged an appreciable part of human behavior.

Steve Stewart-Williams on the value of evolutionary psychology

August 26, 2020 • 10:15 am

When I give talks about why Americans reject evolution so frequently, I refer to Steve Stewart-Williams’s excellent book from 2010: Darwin, God, and the Meaning of Life: How Evolutionary Theory Undermines Everything you Though You Knew.  It goes through reason after reason why evolution not only undermines our ideas, but why that undermining makes people resistant to evolutionary biology and its conclusions. It explained to me, for instance, why 27% of American Catholics are creationists, embracing Biblical literalism despite the fact that the Church itself explicitly accepts evolution. Those people, like many, just can’t get past the naturalistic and non-human-centric implications of evolution. The book is like a bucket of cold water tossed on the idea that evolution doesn’t conflict with religion.

Steve has a newer book, published in 2018 (click on screenshot below to go to Amazon site). I haven’t yet read it, though it’s coming to me through my library, but it’s apparently a discussion of the evolution of culture (“evolution” that’s both genetic and cultural), as well as a discussion of the merits of and problems with evolutionary psychology.

 Stewart-Williams is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus, and I’ve written about some of his work here, describing why he thinks that the difference between human males and females in levels of aggression has a substantial evolutionary basis.  But, as the interview below shows, in which he speaks with Pablo Malo at the site La Nueva Ilustración Evolucionista (“The New Evolutionary Enlightenment”), Stewart-Williams doesn’t accept whole hog all the claims of evolutionary psychology, and is sometimes quite critical of them. In other words, Stewart-Williams’s attitude towards the discipline is similar to mine. Read the interview by clicking on the screenshot below. There’s an English translation so you don’t have to use Google translate except for the introduction (or if you speak Spanish):

Stewart-Williams’s take on evolutionary psychology also differs from that of biologists on the “progressive” left who reject evolutionary psychology as a whole, dismissing it as a farrago of “just-so stories” and untested (and untestable) hypotheses. You can see this attitude, for instance, in people like blogger P. Z. Myers, who should know better, and his minions. Yes, the discipline has its “soft underbelly,” as I’ve described, but it’s also led to informative insights, and simply cannot be swept away with unwarranted ridicule. Dismissal of evolutionary psychology as a whole (see another dismisser below) comes not from a scientific attitude, but an ideological one: if human behavior evolved over millions of years, just like human bodies and physiology (one can’t deny the latter), then perhaps we are partly slaves to biological determinism, and, worse, behavioral differences between men and women might be in part the result of evolution.

I think the evidence for evolved differences is pretty solid, but blank-slaters, who happen to populate the progressive Left, deny this determinism because they mistakenly think that evolved differences somehow imply moral differences. As Steve Pinker showed in his book The Blank Slate, and I’ve said many times, the idea that evolution tells us what is right and wrong is a fallacy—the “naturalistic fallacy”.

But I digress. I’ll just say once more that the blatant dismissal of evolutionary psychology as a discipline is not only unwarranted, but ignorant and ideologically based. To think that human bodies are the product of evolution but human minds are not can only be the product of some overweening and blinkered ideology.

On to the interview. It’s in both Spanish and English.. I’ll highlight the main points in bold, and any quotes from Steve will be indented:

Some of evolutionary psychology is weak and “silly”, and can comprise “just-so stories”. 

A third reason I decided to write Ape was that I wanted to present a somewhat circumspect view of evolutionary psychology – one that met the critics halfway on a number of issues. This includes the common criticism that evolutionary psychologists too often overextend the adaptationist mode of explanation, seeing adaptations in all sorts of psychological and behavioral tendencies that probably aren’t adaptations at all. My response to this criticism is: Guilty as charged. Evolutionary psychologists have sometimes put forward some pretty silly adaptationist hypotheses, and we need to be a bit more careful about that
But a lot of it is sound, though not “proven”—but of course no science is “proven”. We just accrue more or less confidence in hypotheses as we do more tests. So the declarations of people like philosopher Subrena Smith, who declared that doing evolutionary psychology was “impossible”, are badly mistaken. (I discussed Smith’s paper here, and Steve Pinker’s ideas about it here.) 

Evolutionary psychology certainly isn’t perfect, but I have to say I wasn’t particularly impressed with [Smith’s] critique. The idea that that EP is impossible – not just difficult, but impossible – strikes me as so extreme that I’m a little surprised so many people took it so seriously. It also strikes me as awfully convenient that, of all the sciences, the one we can rule out a priori, on purely logical grounds, just happens to be one that many people dislike and object to for explicitly political reasons.

Smith’s argument is basically a sophisticated reboot of the old retort that “behaviour doesn’t fossilize.” She claims that there’s ultimately no way to show that the psychological tendencies underpinning people’s behaviour today evolved in prehistoric times to perform the same functions that they currently perform, and thus that evolutionary psychology is impossible in principle.

Is she right? Well, one reason to doubt that evolutionary psychology is impossible is that… people are already doing evolutionary psychology: They’re gathering evidence bearing on evolutionarily informed hypotheses, and this evidence nudges up or down our confidence that these hypotheses are accurate. Sure, no one has provided evidence that proves any hypothesis in evolutionary psychology with the certainty of a mathematical proof. But that’s true of every claim in science. Scientists can only ever nudge our confidence up or down. Perhaps this is harder in EP than in some fields (although the replication crisis in psychology and elsewhere suggests that it’s not as easy as we thought in any field). But saying that it’s harder is very different than saying that it’s impossible.

And in some cases, it isn’t even particularly hard. Consider hunger. Strictly speaking, we can never say with 100% certainty that this psychological capacity evolved in our prehistoric ancestors, or that it had the same function back then as it does today (i.e., motivating us to seek and consume food). But it seems reasonable to think that it did. Indeed, it seems unreasonable to think otherwise – unreasonable, in other words, to think that our ancestors did not experience hunger or that the primary function of hunger back then was unrelated to eating. And if you accept that, I think you also have to accept that there’s no in-principle reason to reject any and all evolutionary psychological hypotheses, even if others are more difficult to evaluate. For a more detailed response to Smith’s paper, see Ed Hagen’s excellent post on the topic.

Few evolutionary psychologists now accept two views they’re often accused of: “Massive modularity” (the brain comprises various semi-independent modules that code for different behaviors), and the “Environment of evolutionary adaptedness”: the idea that our behaviors all show adaptations to the life of our ancestors on the African savannas. The latter, at least, would be foolish given the evidence that humans have undergone palpable evolutionary change in the last 10,000 years. Stewart-Williams prefers that evolutionary psychologists just analyze human behaviors using well-established evolutionary principles like kin selection, parental investment, reciprocal altruism, and the like.

Refutations of the “Cinderella Effect”: the demonstration that parents are more brutal toward their stepchildren than their biological children, are weak. (These were mostly raised by Hans Temrin.) According to Stewart-Williams, the data come down pretty much in support of the Cinderalla Effect. If further studies buttress those data, it would be good evidence for an evolutionary-psychology explanation based on relatedness and parental investment. It makes sense that you’d treat your biological children better than those unrelated to you, and you might even abuse the latter if it favors the prospects of the former. (Remember, lions that invade a pride immediately kill all the cubs from the mothers, and then inseminate the mothers, yielding cubs that are related rather than “step-cubs”.)

The idea of memes hasn’t been that productive in understanding human cultural evolution, but there are a few suggestive examples of memes evolving simply because they have self-propagating characteristics. One of these examples involves witch hunts, and was published last year by Hofhuis and Boudry. I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve been a pretty severe critic of “memetics.”

The Himba people of Namibia have a 48% rate of non-paternity; that is, half the children in a family aren’t fathered by the “father.” Isn’t that a refutation of evolutionary theory? Stewart-Williams explains why we’d sometimes expect these anomalies.

Disparities in representation of males vs. females in different areas don’t always demonstrate sexism and bigotry, as many assume. They could just be differences in preference, and perhaps some of these are the result of evolved behaviors. I’ve made this point many times before, but it still goes over the head of many “progressives”, who fail to realize that there is, for many cases of unequal representation, a competing hypothesis to the idea of “structural discrimination.”

Here’s what Steve says about that in response to a question:

What are you working on now? What mystery would you like to unravel next?

I’m working on two main projects at the moment. One is a theoretical paper with Lewis Halsey, looking at the causes of gender disparities in STEM. As everyone knows, men outnumber women in certain areas of STEM, including mathematics, computer science, and physics. As everyone also knows, the most common explanations for the gender gaps are discrimination and socialization. We argue, in contrast, that although discrimination and socialization are part of the story, they’re not the whole story. We make two main claims in our paper. The first is that factors other than discrimination contribute to gender gaps in STEM; these include, in particular, average sex differences in interests and life priorities. The second is that these average differences aren’t due entirely to socialization. Socialization plays an important role, but the differences are also partly inherited.

People sometimes assume that if you admit a role for biological factors in shaping STEM gender gaps, you must think nothing should be done about those gaps. But that’s not our view. We are wary of overly coercive fixes, such as offering people monetary or other incentives to make career choices they wouldn’t otherwise make, and affirmative-action policies that, in effect, discriminate against men and lead people (including the benefactors of such policies) to secretly wonder whether they really earned their success. But that doesn’t mean we should do nothing. We should let young people know about all the science careers on offer, and make clear that these are options that women as well as men should consider. We should make sure we highlight the scientific achievements of both sexes, rather than focusing unduly on men. We should encourage people to accept and support women (and men) who make gender-atypical choices. We should put policies in place that reduce the possibility of bias against either sex, including gender-blind evaluation of job applications, research grants, and the like. And we should do what we can to make science careers compatible with the demands of motherhood (and fatherhood).

Having done all that, though, we should respect the choices that people make about their own lives and careers, even if this doesn’t result in perfect gender parity. In other words, we should aim for equality of opportunity, rather than equality of outcome. People are ultimately going to be happier if they pursue the careers that most interest them.

There’s a lot more to the interview than this, so if you want a level-headed take on evolutionary psychology, I’d recommend that you have a look at the interview, and perhaps read Steve’s latest book.
Steve Stewart-Williams



Are human facial expressions universal in which emotions they express?

August 24, 2020 • 1:00 pm

The latest issue of Science Advances has a provocative and clever piece of research aimed at answering a long-standing question—one considered by Charles Darwin himself: are the facial expressions associated with human emotions universal across all cultures? And, if so, is that the result of evolution? The paper suggests that, at least for a limited set of emotions, the answer is yes to both questions. You can read the paper by clicking the screenshot below, or reading the pdf here. The full reference is at the bottom.

Cowen and Keltner note that there have been a fair number of attempts to answer this question, all involving going to remote areas where there is little contact with Westerners, and seeing if people in those areas match photos of Western expressive signals (joy, anger, sympathy) with similar words in their native language. The results have been mixed. That, one would think, already suggests that perhaps facial expressions aren’t universal. (Cultural similarities could be due to either cross-cultural transmission of expressivity, or to a common evolutionary heritage, but dissimilarities among different populations already suggest that culture can’t cause similarities.)

However, the authors suggest these tests are not dispositive, and suggest a better way to see if expressions are universal. What they did was to look at ancient Mesoamerican artworks that depict facial expressions associated with different situations, isolated the facial expressions, got modern observers to guess the emotions depicted, and then asked whether Westerners would judge those expressions to be ones appropriate to the situation depicted by the artwork.  If there was a correlation between the judgements of which emotions were shown on faces, and those that other people guessed would appear in the situations depicted in the sculptures, this would suggest (but not prove) that expressions are not only universal, but perhaps universal because evolution made them universal.

The authors examined tens of thousands of Mesoamerican artifacts (going back to 1500 B.C.) archived by museums, and found 63 pieces of art that met their three criteria for this study:

  1. subjects were portrayed “within one of eight identifiable contexts” (torture, being held captive, carrying a heavy object, embracing another person, holding a baby, in fighting position, playing a ball sport, and playing music).  Examples of each of these are given in the figure below.
  2. The facial expressions could be clearly visible.
  3. The artworks (sculptures and vessels) were deemed authentic by authorities.

Here are examples of the eight contexts for emotion; see the caption for details:

(From paper): Fig. 1 Ancient American sculptures with discernible faces and contexts. (A) Captive from Tonina archeological site (Mexico, 690–700 CE). Photo credit: Mauricio Marat, Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia. (1 July 2019). (B) Tortured, scalped prisoner from Campeche (Mexico, 700–900 CE). Baltimore Museum of Art, Kerr Portfolio 2868, photo by J. Kerr. (C) Maya man carrying large stone (Mexico, 600–1200 CE). Kerr Portfolio 8237, photo by J. Kerr. (D) Joined couple (Mexico, 200–500 CE). Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) AC1996.146.21, gift of C. M. Fearing. (E) Maya woman holding child (600–800 CE). Princeton University Art Museum 2003-26, gift of G. G. Griffin. (F) Kneeling Maya warrior with facial tattoos and shield (Mexico, 600–800 CE), detail. Earthenware and pigment, 15.9 cm by 10.8 cm. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco 2009.38.2, gift of G. Merriam and J. A. Merriam. (G) Maya ballplayer (Mexico, 700–900 CE). University of Maine HM646, William P. Palmer Collection. (H) Colima drummer (Mexico, 200 BCE–500 CE). LACMA, Proctor Stafford Collection, purchased with funds provided by Mr. and Mrs. Allan C. Balch.

They then isolated the faces from the contexts so that the modern subjects could just look at the faces but not see what the subject was experiencing in the artwork. The 325 subjects were asked them to describe the facial expressions using 30 categories of emotion (e.g., “awe”, “anger”, “shame”, “fear”, and so on and 13 “affective features” like “arousal” and “dominance” (see categories in figure below).

Independently, they asked 114 different subjects, also modern Westerners, to judge what emotions they would expect someone to show in each of the eight situations above. These people were not shown the artworks but simply given the eight situations verbally and asked what emotions you’d expect people to evince.  They then correlated the first subjects’ judgments on what emotions were portrayed by the faces with the expectation of what emotions should be shown from the eight situations, described in words, chosen for analysis.

Here are the correlations between the “read” of subjects from looking just at the faces with the emotions expected judged from subjects looking at the context described in words.

(from paper): Fig. 2 Accordance between emotions perceived in sculptures’ isolated face depictions and Western expectations for the emotions that unfold in eight portrayed contexts. To calculate the accordance between sculptures’ expressions and Westerners’ expectations, we correlated the participants’ average judgments of the emotions and affective features associated with each isolated face and each context across the eight contexts and divided by the maximum attainable correlation given sampling error (see Materials and Methods). Correlations are generally positive, indicating that facial muscle configurations portrayed in ancient American sculptures align, in terms of the emotions they communicate to Westerners, with Western participants’ expectations for the emotions that unfold in different contexts. Error bars represent SEs. Here, we excluded 10 emotions and 1 affective feature used seldom enough that <1/3 of the covariance in judgments was explainable, as a result of which SEs were very large.

Correlations above zero are positive; that is, the expectations of what you’d feel aligned with the subjects’ “read” of the artworks’ faces. As you see, of the 32 emotion categories assessed, 27 had correlations above zero, which alone says something (if there were no correlation, roughly half of the values would be above zero and half below). More important, only six of the 27 positive correlations had standard errors that overlapped zero, or “no correlation”; the rest were statistically significant.

This shows that, in general, the emotions expected by people hearing about the eight contexts for the artwork were those actually discerned by people who looked at the faces of the artwork. And that means that the emotions we expect to see in a modern situation were those that people read from artwork of ancient civilizations. This is turn suggests that at least some facial expressions are “universal”, and people can read them fairly accurately, even in sculptures, as reflecting what people are feeling in a situation. Because these cultures were far removed from ours, this also suggests that the facial expressions weren’t culturally inherited across the ages—that is, we don’t learn the expressions to show determination or distress or the other emotions from others, but express them innately.

One could, I suppose, argue that the Incas and Mayans simply passed on their facial expressions culturally to us as their descendants, but that’s a big stretch since the route for that kind of cultural transmission is dubious: we’re not the descendants of these Mesoamericans. Alternatively, the expressions could have been culturally inherited from our mutual ancestor who lived at least 60,000 years ago when H. sapiens left Africa to populate the world.  If you’re a blank-slater, that’s the argument you’d make.

But it seems more plausible to me that smiling and scowling and showing distress and pain are innate features of our behavior, though I can’t adduce hard evidence for it except that a). babies who haven’t been socialized to show facial expressions of joy or distress still show easily interpretable expressions, presumably before they’re socialized; b). other primates have readable facial expressions without our kind of culture; and c.) one can make a plausible evolutionary hypothesis that humans might have evolved to show expressions that other humans could read: “honest signals.” None of this adds up to a strong evolutionary-psychology argument, but one can agree, from the results above, that there is some universality across millennia in how humans show emotions on their faces.

Finally, the authors used a method called “principal preserved components analysis” to gather in one basket the main “dimensions” (combinations of emotions) that best explain the correlations shown above. From this they determined that three combinations of factors combine to explain at least five types of facial expressions on sculptures. Those expressions, the ones most easily seen as “universal, are these:

  1. “pain”, often in the context of torture
  2. “determination”/”strain”, in sculptures showing heavy lifting
  3. “anger”, usually in sculptures depicting combat
  4. “elation”, seen in “contexts of familial or social touch”, and
  5. “sadness”, as in being held captive after defeat.

The paper has other analyses, but these are the main conclusion. The authors also give several caveats, and you can have a look at those.

The tentative takeaway lesson is that, even after millennia, we can pretty accurately read the facial expressions of people from different cultures.  That is, there are some universals, at least between ourselves and Mesoamericans, in the expression of emotions. Whether that be the result of cultural inheritance or a universal code for expression that resides in our DNA (or a combination of these factors) can’t yet be discerned, but I’m betting on a largely biological-determinism explanation. And so are the authors, at least judging from their final paragraph:

The present results thus provide support for the universality of at least five kinds of facial expression: those associated with pain, anger, determination/strain, elation, and sadness. These findings support the notion that we are biologically prepared to express certain emotional states with particular behaviors, shedding light on the nature of our responses to experiences thought to bring meaning to our lives.

Here are a few more faces and the contexts in which they appear (see paper for explanation), but I think you can guess pretty well.

h/t: cesar

Cowen, A. S. and D. Keltner. 2020. Universal facial expressions uncovered in art of the ancient Americas: A computational approach. Science Advances 6:eabb1005.

Steve Pinker weighs in on the “evolutionary psychology is impossible” paper

May 19, 2020 • 1:30 pm

After I wrote my critique of Subrena Smith’s anti-evolutionary-psychology paper this morning—hers titled “Is evolutionary psychology possible?”—I sent the link to Steve Pinker, who’s quarantining on Cape Cod. He wrote back with some nice words of approbation, but added a few points. I thought these points were good, relevant and, as the first two weren’t made by either me or critic Edward Hagen, I asked Steve if I could quote him. He said yes. So add these criticisms to those leveled this morning. (Steve’s words are indented.)

All your points are exactly right. The motive seems to be the slipshod politicizing I exposed 18 years ago in The Blank Slate: if we’re blank slates, there can’t be differences between races, which would make racism impossible; therefore to combat racism we must believe that humans are blank slates. It fails both in philosophical coherence (racism is not an empirical hypothesis that might be shown to be true or false) and in accuracy — most evolutionary psychologists argue for a universal human nature. Also, a philosophical argument against evolutionary explanations in psychology ultimately falls apart when it unwittingly “refutes” even the most unexceptionable evolutionary explanations, such as sexual desire or protectiveness of children. And ironically, though this argument claims to be based in the philosophy of science, it seems unaware that within that field “argument to the best explanation” is generally considered the only means by which science of any kind is done — science never makes apodictic pronouncements based on a prior list of methodological precepts.

A couple of other observations [about Smith’s argument]:

—“Massive modularity” [JAC: a term Smith uses as an inherent part of “Evolutionary Psychology”] is not a term that was ever, to my knowledge, used by an evolutionary psychologist. As far as I know it was coined by that foe of natural selection, the late Jerry Fodor, as a term of abuse (and partly to protect the brand of Modularity, which Fodor introduced to philosophy and cognitive psychology in 1983). I’ve always argued that “module” is a misleading metaphor; we should be thinking about specialization. The brain isn’t spam, but the specialization of information-processing systems, like that of organ systems, needn’t be into encapsulated modules (Fodor’s definition); the systems have to talk to each other, share subroutines, pass information back and forth, and so on, just like the circulatory system and the digestive system do.

—This is a point in the fine print of EP, forgotten even by many of its practitioners, but the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness should not be confused with the Pleistocene or the hunter-gatherer lifestyle — it’s a time-weighted composite of selection pressures right up to the present (since natural selection never sleeps). We’ve spent more of our time as humans in a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, and, ironically for the PC police, the simplifying assumption that “EEA = Pleistocene” guarantees human biological equality, since we were all hunter-gatherers then, whereas different groups transitioned to agriculture and civilization at different times subsequent to then. And so if we continued to evolve since then, some groups could be more biologically adapted than others to literacy, settled life, governance, and so on. So the Pleistocene-EEA idealization is simple and convenient. But it’s far from necessary, and I think is an impediment, because it requires being more gratuitously committed to savannah-caveman scenarios. Many selection pressures are more or less unchanged since the dawn of the Holocene — paternity uncertainty, infant care, avoiding toxic foods, securing allies, etc. And for many others the most dramatic dividing line is not Pleistocene-Holocene or hunter-gatherer/agriculture, but urban, educated modernity (knowledge of science and statistics, professional employment, universal information, access to the legal system, modern medical care) versus every other lifestyle. An American 19th century farming village, or a favela or peasant society in the developing world, has pretty much the same face-to-face social network, with a pre-scientific knowledge base and a remoteness from legal and professional institutions, as a hunter-gatherer society 10K years ago. What’s key is avoiding the assumption that humanity is adapted to a modern urban or suburban college-educated lifestyle, not assuming that we have the same brains as hunter-gatherers (whether or not we in fact do).

—I think that one important direction of evolutionary psychology (and medicine, and biology in general) is to look for statistical signs of selection in the genome. This showed that the modern version of FOXP2, involved in language and speech, was a target of selection (though not on the recent rapid sweep originally hypothesized, probably earlier). But this method works best in the rare cases where single genes with large effects can be identified. Now that we know that virtually all behavioral variation is under the control of many genes with minuscule individual effects, I wonder whether there are techniques that can assess signs of selection across an entire vector of genes rather than individual genes.


Did a philosopher make evolutionary psychology impossible?

May 19, 2020 • 10:00 am

Subrena Smith, an assistant professor of philosophy at The University of New Hampshire, has made a bold claim in the journal Biological Theory (click on screenshot below). She claims to have found a fatal flaw in the practice of evolutionary psychology, one that renders the entire discipline “impossible”. Click below to read the article for free:

Here’s the abstract in which she identifies the flaw (there are actually more than one) and pronounces the discipline “impossible”:

Her article has garnered quite a bit of approbation among those who think that evolutionary psychology is a worthless enterprise, including, apparently, the site Gizmodo, which published a worshipful interview with Smith (click on screenshot below to read it):

Well, has she done what she aimed to: brought down an entire discipline? My judgment is “no—certainly not.”  She doesn’t even come close. What she does is list a set of standards that, Smith thinks, must be met for an evolutionary psychology explanation to be credible, and these standards are so rigorous and hard to meet that no study has met them or can meet them. Ergo, evolutionary psychology—done the way she wants—is “impossible.”

I believe that her overly excessive requirements bespeak Smith’s lack of understanding of how evolutionary biology is done. And that, I believe, comes from the fact that Smith is not a practicing scientist, but rather a philosopher, all of whose degrees were in philosophy. I usually don’t bring up credentials when discussing an argument, but I think her concentration on philosophy is relevant to her belief that evolutionary psychology fails to meet all tests of being a scientific field. Philosophers tend to be absolutists who require a clam claim to follow a set of strict rules.

Let me briefly say that I’m not a wholesale fan of evolutionary psychology, as a lot of it involves adaptive storytelling that is untestable. Often sample sizes are too small to be useful, and confirmation bias is strong. But that doesn’t apply to the whole discipline!

It is not ridiculous to think that, just as our bodies were shaped by natural selection acting on our ancestors, and that some of those ancient morphology persists  (the shape of our spine, men being bigger and stronger than women on average, and so on), so our minds have been shaped by natural selection as well, and we still show traces of those evolved behaviors today. (Parental care is an obvious one, as is concern for one’s relatives, and so, I think, are the average differences in sexual behavior of men versus women).

Indeed, Smith seems to agree with me here. She doesn’t object to an evolutionary analysis of human mentation and behavior (“evolutionary psychology” in small letters), but to an extreme form of the discipline that she capitalizes as “Evolutionary Psychology.” The thing is, a lot of us don’t accept “Evolutionary Psychology”, at least as Smith construes it in her paper (my emphasis below):

If the arguments that I have presented in this article are sound, the methodological defects of Evolutionary Psychology are so profound as to be unrectifiable, and consequently Evolutionary Psychology is not possible. Evolutionary psychologists simply do not have the methodological resources to justify the claim that the psychological causes of contemporary behaviors are strong vertical homologs of the psychological causes of corresponding behaviors in the EEA. The result for evolutionary psychology (as contrasted with Evolutionary Psychology) is less clear. No one should contest that the human mind is a product of evolution, and evolution must therefore enter into an explanation of human psychology in some way.

Evolutionary Psychology rests on three pillars: the massive modularity hypothesis, the claim that modular structures evolved as adaptations to recurrent challenges in the EEA, and the tacit assumption that mental structures can be individuated and so license claims about strong vertical homologies. These three components, taken together, are inconsistent with the competing hypothesis that evolution fashioned the human mind as a domain-general or modestly modular learning system.

But if the human mind is a product of evolution, and that evolution impacts human psychology, then she’s already conceded that there’s a valid program of “evolutionary psychology.” What she objects to in the capitalized version are its contentions that “adaptive” modern human behaviors—things like sexual behavior, mate guarding, jealousy, male displays like courting danger and showing off—are represented as “modules” (separable neural networks coding for feelings and behaviors). She also objects to other issues, which I’ll get to presently.

Well, I don’t care much about “modules”; if behaviors are evolved, then there must be some neuronal network that facilitates their appearance. Frankly, I don’t know what a “module” is, but if Smith is right and evolution must explain some of our psychology, then those explanations involve evolution of our nervous system. Modules, in my view, don’t at all need to be separate neuronal “compartments”, for we have no idea of how the brain is structured to produce behaviors. Very different behaviors might involve some of the same neurons.

Smith also claims that evolutionary psychology is different from evolutionary morphology because behaviors, unlike bodies, are flexible, and can vary depending on the environment and other circumstances. But that, too, fails to negate the value of evolutionary psychology. The value of parental care as an evolved trait is not negated because some parents neglect or even kill their children. The evolved difference in male versus human sexual behavior is not negated by the presence of some people, like gays, who fail to conform.  The goal of evolutionary psychology should explain general tendencies, not absolutes. This insistence on absolutism and dogmatic programs of proof derives, I think, from Smith’s training in philosophy.

Smith also insists that not only must our behaviors be adaptive now, but we must show that they were adaptive in our ancestors, which of course is impossible (as it is for all traits in all creatures!). Further, and this is her big issue, we must show that the “modules” that produced an adaptive behavior in our ancestors are genetically related to, and the ancestors of, the “modules” we use today when performing the related behavior. This insistence on showing exact evolutionary homology between a behavior and its “module” today and its ancestral “module” in the past is what Smith calls the “matching problem.”

That too is overly stringent: how could we possibly show that the exact neuronal pathways involved in, say, males being promiscuous, are the same as those in our hominin ancestors? Smith is asking too much here. What we can do is use comparative data (do other primates show similar differences in sexual behavior?) as well as concocting tests (e.g., do males who are less promiscuous have fewer offspring?), and, if our predictions and comparative analyses continue to support our hypothesis, then we get increasing confidence in it.

Smith uses the example of greater male than female sexual jealousy as her sole example of Evolutionary Psychology nonsense: males are (and should be) more sexually attentive and jealous of their female partners because they can’t be sure of the paternity of their offspring (females can cheat). In contrast, females are much more sure of the paternity of their offspring, and so shouldn’t worry as much if their partner copulates with another woman. This, too, can be tested: one test (suggested by Matthew Cobb) is to see if this phenomenon obtains in those societies in which people don’t connect sex with reproduction (there are difficulties with that test, of course). There are other tests of the adaptive value of sexual jealousy as well, including measuring reproduction and paternity. The point is that one can do tests that either strengthen or weaken one’s confidence in a hypothesis, and we don’t really need to figure out what is going on in our ancestors so long as the phenomenon there also seems adaptive. And we don’t need to know anything about ancestral versus current “brain modules”.

Evolutionary biology is not about finding absolute truth, but about inference to the best explanation, and that is what Smith fails to understand. I suppose Smith would consider all phylogenies (family trees of species) unreliable unless we have a complete fossil record of all the species involved, including the common ancestors!

Indeed, one example that Smith gives of a trait that to her seems truly evolved by natural selection in humans is the eye-blink reflex. But, as Edward Hagen shows in his critique below, she uses exactly the kind of inference which she says is subsumed in the unreliable methodology of evolutionary psychology: presumed stories about the adaptive value of that reflex, comparative studies of other species, and so on. I will leave you to read Hagen’s critique, which is polite but trenchant, in the pages of The Evolution Institute (click on screenshot below).

Why is a philosopher critiquing evolutionary psychology? While other philosophers, most notably Philip Kitcher, have written valuable critiques because they were concerned about the lax standards of the discipline, Smith has another reason as well. As you might suspect, it’s because she sees Evolutionary Psychology (capital letters) as somehow vindicating racism and sexism. We can’t have that, and so we must dispose of the discipline.

Of course “is”s don’t imply “ought”s, as I keep saying, and no finding of evolutionary psychology could ever tell us how to treat other people morally and legally. But Smith doesn’t seem to see it that way. Rather, she presents a caricature of evolutionary psychology that might have applied in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but doesn’t apply any longer. This is from her interview at Gizmodo (my emphasis):

The evolutionary psychologists I engage with are not silly people. They are thoughtful and philosophical about these matters. However, the attractiveness of evolutionary theory coupled with peoples’ ideological biases forces them to not be as careful as they might be otherwise. I think that the consequences for our world when we misappropriate evolutionary accounts are really serious. People are saying that people of color have smaller brains, which is not true, or that women aren’t as great as men, which is not true... I think we have a special responsibility, when we say evolution made us that way, to recognize that people will read “innate” or “hardwired” as synonymous with evolution. We should be especially careful to not be making claims like these, which can have consequences.

There you have it ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades—a strong objection to evolutionary psychology on the grounds that it facilitates racism and sexism. I don’t think that’s a reason for opposing a scientific discipline, but a reason for opposing the unjustified misuse of a scientific discipline. I, for one, would find it very odd if people like David Buss, Steve Pinker, Robert Trivers, or Randolph Nesse would sign on to the propositions that people of color have smaller brains and that “women aren’t as great as men.” Smith is faulting an entire discipline for the misuse of it by some people—a hundred years ago.


Smith, S.E. 2020.  Is Evolutionary Psychology Possible? Biol Theory 15, 39–49.

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)!

The biology of male aggression, and why it’s not all “socialization”

December 19, 2019 • 1:15 pm

While I’ve long been a critic of evolutionary psychology, I’m not stupid or woke enough—unlike some bloggers I won’t name—to dismiss the entire field as worthless. While it’s hard to test whether some behaviors in our species have evolved by natural selection, there are degrees of confidence we can get, and predictions one can make, to judge the likelihood that these behaviors are indeed “darwinian.” While nobody argues that behaviors like preferring your own children over others aren’t products of natural selection, there are those who claim that behavioral differences between men and women are not—and in fact cannot—be based on genes installed in our species by natural selection.

The two sex differences I find most evolutionarily convincing involve human sexual behavior—in particular the observation that males tend to be relatively indiscriminate in choosing someone to mate with, while females are pickier—and the fact that males are more aggressive than females. I feel that these behavioral differences are likely, at least in part, to be the result of sexual selection in our ancestors. I won’t talk about sexual behavior today, as I’ve written about it before, but I do want to highlight an article from last April discussing the evolution of male aggression. It’s by Steve Stewart-Williams, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus, and appeared online in in Nautilus. It’s a short but good summary of why the greater aggressiveness of men than of women almost certainly reflects, at least in part, natural selection in our ancestors. Click on the screenshot to read it, and you should:

I should first emphasize that while Stewart-Williams and I share the view of the evolutionary roots of some male aggression, we both agree that males can also be socialized into being more aggressive by being expected to conform to stereotypes of “masculinity” (remember the car race in Rebel Without a Cause?); and that even if males are more aggressive than females because of natural selection, that doesn’t mean that you can’t make them less aggressive—also by socialization. Any geneticist knows that, for nearly all traits, heredity is not destiny, and the environment can make a big difference.

Nevertheless, the SJW view of differences between men and women’s behavior is that all of those differences are due entirely to socialization, with no moiety due to genetics and evolution. That is an ideological stand that, in view of the substantial morphological differences between men and women, is pretty insupportable.  And that view comes from the fear that if we do find evolution-based differences, it will lead to discrimination—usually against women. My own view is that any genetic differences we see cannot support any moral or legal inequality between the sexes, which is a philosophical position that shouldn’t depend on biology.  (If it did, equality would change as our knowledge of biology changed.)

So I deplore those who try to pretend that differences either don’t exist, or can’t have an evolutionary basis, simply because it’s inconvenient for their ideology. (They always pretend that their criticism is based on science, but they don’t fool anybody with two neurons to rub together.) That’s why the same people who will admit that men are bigger and stronger than women because of genetics and evolution will also assert that there can be no behavioral or psychological differences due to genetics and evolution. 

The caveats duly presented, Stewart-Williams gives several lines of evidence for an evolutionary origin of this behavioral difference. I’ll summarize them briefly; the indented sections are Steve’s writing.

1.) The behavior is consistent across different cultures, when one would expect different degrees and kinds of socialization.

An initial line of evidence is that it’s not only in the West that we find sex differences in aggression. Wherever in the world we look, men are more violent and aggressive than women, especially with other men. The clearest and most persuasive evidence for this comes from homicide statistics: In every country, without fail, men commit the vast majority of homicides (and are more likely to be the victims of homicide as well). If the sex difference in aggression is just an arbitrary product of culture, why does it rear its ugly head in every human group?

Now there are those, says Stewart-Williams, who argue that the difference in aggression is just a non-evolved byproduct of differences in size and strength. If you’re bigger and stronger (presumably for evolutionary reasons), then you can benefit by being more aggressive, and you get pigeonholed into social roles that involve more strength and aggression. But that raises the question of why men are bigger and stronger than women! While you’ll see social-justice warriors trying desperately to explain size and stength differences without invoking sexual selection, a reasonable explanation, based on observations below, including the behavioral differences in sexual behavior as well as parallels from animals like seals and gorillas, is that part of the size/strength differentiation involves men competing for women: to the stronger goes the reproduction.

The avoidance of sexual selection as an explanation is because that implies that there could be behavioral differences between men and women as well (sexual selection involves behavior), and to the Authoritarian Left that idea is to be avoided at all costs.

Here’s how Stewart-Williams rebuts the “byproduct” explanation for differences in aggression:

It’s a clever argument, and one worth taking seriously. On balance, though, I don’t think it flies. To begin with, the Eagly–Wood theory raises some awkward questions. Why wouldn’t natural selection create psychological sex differences as well as physical ones? The mere existence of the physical differences tells us that human males have been subject to stronger selection for aggression and violence than females. Why would this selection pressure shape our muscles, our skeletons, and our overall body size, but draw the line at our brains? And why would natural selection give men the physical equipment needed for violence but not the psychological machinery to operate it? This would make about as much sense as giving us teeth and a digestive system, but not a desire to eat.

That is a strong argument, and one that I haven’t seen rebutted by the haters of evolutionary psychology. Why are our brains the one organ that can’t be differentiated between men and women by selection?

2.) We don’t find, as expected under the socialization theory, larger amounts male aggression in societies that have stricter gender roles and less gender equality.

On top of that, if sex differences in aggression were all down to gender roles, the differences would be larger in cultures with stricter gender roles and greater gender inequality. That’s not what we find, though. On the contrary, it seems to be the other way round. A recent large-scale, multinational study revealed, for instance, that sex differences in adolescent physical aggression are smaller, rather than larger, in less gender-equal nations. Culture clearly matters when it comes to sex differences in aggression—but the effect of culture is apparently very different than the social role theory would lead us to expect.

3.) Males are more aggressive than females from the very beginning of childhood, presumably before they’ve had a chance to be socialized.

. . . the sex difference in aggression appears very early in life—usually before children take their first bite of their first birthday cake. From the moment they can move around under their own their steam, boys engage in more rough-and-tumble play than girls. The same sex difference is found in other juvenile primates, and appears to be related to testosterone exposure in the womb. In humans, the sex difference shows up long before kids understand that they’re boys or girls, so it can’t just be that they’re conforming to social expectations about how boys and girls ought to act. In any case, children are terrible at conforming to social expectations, as any parent who’s tried to persuade their progeny to sit nicely and quietly in a restaurant will readily confirm. And not only does the sex difference in aggression emerge early, it remains static until puberty. Absolute levels of aggression trend downward for both sexes; however, the gap between the sexes barely budges. If socialization creates the sex difference, why doesn’t continued socialization before puberty pry the sexes apart?

And here I should add that testosterone has a positive effect on aggression, whether injected or naturally circulating in people with abnormal levels of the hormone for their sex. That, too, points to an evolutionary explanation.

4.) The pattern of male aggression conforms to what we expect if it evolved to promote competition for females.  Stewart-Williams reports that early differences in aggression remain static until puberty, when males suddenly become much more aggressive and much more willing to take risks.  This would be expected because male aggression would be most adaptive when the reproductive benefits are greatest—during early reproductive years (in our relatives, of course, who probably began reproducing much earlier than modern humans). As Stewart-Williams argues:

How would the Nurture Only approach explain the violence gap that opens up between the sexes at puberty? Is there a sudden surge in gender socialization—a surge which, for some unknown reason, happens at exactly the same stage of life in every culture and in many sexually dimorphic species? Is it just a coincidence that this alleged surge in socialization comes at the same time as the massive surge in circulating testosterone that accompanies puberty in males?

He adds that after early adulthood, male aggression goes down steadily for the rest of a man’s life, something that the socialization hypothesis doesn’t explain but the evolutionary hypothesis does: why be aggressive when you get little reproductive payoff but risk being killed or injured by other, younger males?

5.) In many species of animals, including our closest relatives, males are more aggressive than females. If you have a “socialization” theory, you’d have to claim that what everyone accepts in other species as evolved differences in behavior just happen to be the nonevolved products of socialization in humans. What a remarkable coincidence!

A final line of evidence that sex differences in aggression have biological underpinnings is that these differences are not unique to human beings. Indeed, in some cases, the parallels across species are striking. Consider humans and chimpanzees. Among humans, males commit around 95 percent of homicides, and are around 79 percent of homicide victims. Among chimps, on the other hand, males commit around 92 percent of “chimpicides,” and are around 73 percent of chimpicide victims. In short, the sex difference in lethal aggression in the two species is remarkably similar in size.

That’s all I’ll say for now, except to add one more argument that is mine: the aggression difference also goes along with the sexual “choosiness” difference that has been repeatedly observed in psychological studies. Both bespeak a form of sexual selection in which males compete for females and females are choosy about who they select as mates.

I’ll also warn readers that many people who argue against any evolved behavioral difference between men and women are people who likely have an ideological agenda. And they often pretend that they don’t.

At the end, Steve tells us that it’s important to understand the roots of male aggression because it helps us reduce male violence that is harmful in today’s world (my emphasis):

None of this implies, by the way, that we’re necessarily stuck with male aggression, or stuck with aggression in general. As the psychologist Steven Pinker demonstrated in The Better Angels of Our Nature, levels of violence and warfare have fallen steadily over the decades, centuries, and millennia, despite the fact that aggression is part of human nature. In various ways, from policing and government to trade and moral norms, we’ve managed to pull ourselves, to a significant extent, out of the vortex of violence and bloodshed that characterized our species for the bulk of its tenure on Earth.

If we want to continue on this trajectory, however, or ideally to hasten our progress, our best bet is presumably not to delude ourselves about the true causes of our behavior. As policy wonks like to say: Wrong diagnosis; wrong cure. Let’s get the diagnosis right so that we can maximize our chances of curing the scourge of human violence.

I agree with the malleability bit in the first paragraph, but am not so much on board with the idea that we need to understand what causes our behavior because it will help us alter our behavior. After all, whether male aggression be due to socialization, evolution, or a combination of both factors, the treatment is the same: socialize men to be less aggressive!  The reason I want to know what causes our behaviors is pure curiosity.

Evolution denialism from the Left

December 1, 2018 • 1:00 pm

Evolutionary biology gets squeezed from both the Right (many of whose adherents simply deny evolution) and now from the Left as well.  A moiety of the Left, as I’ve written here frequently, has ideological reasons for attacking parts of evolutionary biology, especially those parts that involve genetics and behavior.  So, for example, we see these kinds of views:

1.) Psychological and behavioral differences between men and women are culturally based without evolutionary underpinnings. This view, of course, comes form the mistaken notion that if you admit genetic and evolutionary differences between the sexes, it could buttress sexism. But that needn’t be the case, especially because morality and “rights” shouldn’t rest heavily on biology. The view of equal psychology and behavior in men and women is palpably foolish in view of the physical differences between them that surely reflect evolution in our ancestors. Why would bodies evolve but not brains?

Yet that’s a growing view among the authoritarian Left, some of whom even see all of evolutionary psychology as a worthless enterprise.

2.) There are no meaningful genetic differences between ethnic groups, or “races”, if you will. It’s clear that humanity doesn’t divide neatly into clean-cut groups that can be seen as distinct races into which everyone can be slotted neatly. Still there are meaningful and diagnostic genetic differences between ethnic groups if you analyze a large group of genes together. That in fact is how you can get a good idea of your ancestry from sequencing of a lot of your DNA, as do companies like 23andMe.  While we don’t know whether there are behavioral or psychological differences between ethnic groups that rest on genetic differences, differences that go along with the well known physical differences, it would be both foolish and unscientific to flatly deny that there are differences between groups in psychology and/or behavior.

One would think that Steve Pinker’s book The Blank Slate would have dispelled this kind of blank-slateism, but it hasn’t. In fact, with the rise of the Offense Culture, the Left’s attacks on science have become more intense.  Expect more of them.

3.) In a recent development, there are now common claims that there are not two sexes in humans: that sex is a spectrum, with the implication that it’s continuous. I’ve written quite a bit criticizing this view and the idea that, while everyone admits that there are clearly distinct male and female fruit flies, kangaroos, and robins, humans are the one exception. This is again an ideological viewpoint, not a scientific one, despite the claims of scientific societies and journals that the notions of “male” and “female” are social constructs. The ideological basis for this claim—as misguided as the views that admitting differences between sexes and races will buttress racism and sexism—is the idea that if sex (and gender) were real continuums, this would reduce bigotry against transsexuals and transgender people. Again, we should be fighting for the rights of such people without trying to distort the underlying biology.

The attacks on evolutionary biology on the Left are summarized in the Quillette piece below (click on screenshot) by Colin Wright, identified as having “a PhD in evolutionary biology from UC Santa Barbara [and currently studying] the social behavior of ant, wasp, and spider societies at Penn State.”

I have to say that if you’ve read here regularly, you’ll already know much of what Wright says. But not everyone reads here regularly, or reads all the biology-themed articles, so Wright’s is a good piece to get up to speed, even if the heavy breathing about social justice is a bit gusty. Here are two excerpts, the first emphasizing the religious-like human exceptionalism of biology ideologues:

Given that humans are sexually dimorphic and exhibit many of the typical sex-linked behavioral traits that any objective observer would predict, based on the mammalian trends, the claim that our behavioral differences have arisen purely via socialization is dubious at best. For that to be true, we would have to posit that the selective forces for these traits inexplicably and uniquely vanished in just our lineage, leading to the elimination of these traits without any vestiges of their past, only to have these traits fully recapitulated in the present due to socialization. Of course, the more evidenced and straightforward explanation is that we exhibit these classic sex-linked behavioral traits because we inherited them from our closest primate ancestors.

Counterintuitively, the social justice stance on human evolution closely resembles that of the Catholic Church. The Catholic view of evolution generally accepts biological evolution for all organisms, yet holds that the human soul (however defined) had been specially created and thus has no evolutionary precursor. Similarly, the social justice view has no problem with evolutionary explanations for shaping the bodies and minds of all organisms both between and within a species regarding sex, yet insists that humans are special in that evolution has played no role in shaping observed sex-linked behavioral differences. Why the biological forces that shape all of life should be uniquely suspended for humans is unclear. What is clear is that both the Catholic Church and well-intentioned social justice activists are guilty of gerrymandering evolutionary biology to make humans special, and keep the universal acid at bay.

Wright notes that he and others are afraid to go against the prevailing Leftist Biology Dogma (LBD) for fear of social opprobrium and even career damage. This is when I’m most happy that I’m retired, for I have nothing to fear or lose from saying what I feel. Here’s Wright on the chilling effect of LBD and the vacuous idea of a “sex spectrum”:

Despite there being zero evidence in favor of Blank Slate psychology, and a mountain of evidence to the contrary, this belief has entrenched itself within the walls of many university humanities departments where it is often taught as fact. Now, armed with what they perceive to be an indisputable truth questioned only by sexist bigots, they respond with well-practiced outrage to alternative views. This has resulted in a chilling effect that causes scientists to self-censor, lest these activists accuse them of bigotry and petition their departments for their dismissal. I’ve been privately contacted by close, like-minded colleagues warning me that my public feuds with social justice activists on social media could be occupational suicide, and that I should disengage and delete my comments immediately. My experience is anything but unique, and the problem is intensifying. Having successfully cultivated power over administrations and silenced faculty by inflicting reputational terrorism on their critics and weaponizing their own fragility and outrage, one fears whether there was no belief or claim too dubious that administrations wouldn’t cater to. Recently, this fear has been realized as social justice activists attempt to jump the epistemological shark by claiming that the very notion of biological sex, too, is a social construct.

As a biologist, it is hard to understand how anyone could believe something so outlandish. It’s a belief on a par with the belief in a flat Earth. I first saw this claim being made this year by anthropology graduate students on Facebook. At first I thought they mistyped and were simply referring to gender. But as I began to pay closer attention, it was clear that they were indeed talking about biological sex. Over the next several months it became apparent that this view was not isolated to this small friend circle, as it began cropping up all over the Internet. In support of this view, recent editorials from Scientific American—an ostensibly trustworthy, scientific, and apolitical online magazine—are often referenced. The titles read, “Sex Redefined: The Idea of 2 Sexes Is Overly Simplistic,” and “Visualizing Sex as a Spectrum.”

This politicizing of science can lead to no good, but I’m already seeing those who object to unfounded blank-slateism branded as racists and sexists. That’s not a scientific discussion, but truth-shaming, and it bodes ill for evolutionary biology.

h/t: Matt

Andrew Sullivan on evolutionary psychology

January 21, 2018 • 11:00 am

Since Andrew Sullivan has moved to New York Magazine, I find him more liberal, more tempered, more rational, and more readable. His three-part essay this week is notable for what he says in the first part: “#MeToo and the Taboo Topic of Nature” Don’t be put off by the title: it’s really a discussion of evolutionary psychology infused with Sullivan’s experiences as a gay man.

One thing that makes the Left less appealing than it used to be is its overt resistance to scientific findings that supposedly go against the liberal narrative. For example, any suggestion that there might be evolutionary differences between human ethnic groups, or between men and women, is not only denied, but has become so taboo that merely to bring up these subjects risks opprobrium from the Left. Evolutionary psychology and studies of “race” have been demonized by many to the extent that these endeavors are sometimes deemed worthless.

Likewise, the Left obdurately resists any notion that there are evolved differences between the behavior, abilities, or preferences of men and women. Cordelia Fine, for example, has made this her goal, and while her two books on the subject are good in parts, they’re also deeply flawed in some of their critiques. For instance, males are larger and stronger than females, and it’s hard to explain this without invoking sexual selection. And if sexual selection on the human body caused dimorphism in morphology, isn’t it reasonable to expect it to have caused differences in behavior and brains— just the kind of differences that produce behaviors we see in human society? (Males are generally promiscuous and willing to mate with many females, looking for signs of reproductive capacity, while women are pickier, and more attuned to signs of males being good providers. Males are also more competitive and take more risks when they’re of reproductive age.) Another example: P. Z. Myers is on a constant tirade against evolutionary psychology, and has made the ludicrous statement that “the fundamental premises of evo psych are false.” But those “fundamental premises” are only that the human mind, like the human body, bears traces of our evolutionary ancestry and the selective pressures that molded it. (See my longer response here and here.)

The reason that some Leftists oppose this kind of science, of course, is because they think it enables racism and sexism, with the premise being that any observed differences will be grounds for discrimination. But that need not be true: for example, groups will differ on many axes: better on some, worse on others. More important, and as I’ve emphasized endlessly, the moral and political equality of groups should not be grounded on empirical research. For if you do that, and then, like Fine, slant your analyses to match your ideology, asserting that women and men are absolutely equal in all respects, then your argument for equality becomes vulnerable to future empirical observation of differences. Further, as Pinker emphasized in his Spiked remarks at Harvard, if the Left tries to deny scientific findings, it simply drives people toward the right. Our best strategy, and one that comports with centuries of moral philosophy, is to be open to scientific research but absolutely committed to equality of opportunity for all.

Sullivan’s piece is about the denial of evolutionary psychology by the Left; he too thinks that it’s maladaptive to pretend that all groups are, on average, exactly the same. His perspective as a gay man is quite interesting. An excerpt (my emphasis):

. . . in our increasingly heated debate about gender relations and the #MeToo movement, this natural reality [the effects of testosterone on behavior, based on Sullivan’s own experience with hormone therapy]— reflected in chromosomes and hormones no scientist disputes — is rarely discussed. It’s almost become taboo. You can spend a lifetime in gender studies and the subject will never come up. All differences between the sexes, we are now informed, are a function of the age-old oppression of women by men, of the “patriarchy” that enforces this subjugation, and of the power structures that mandate misogyny. All differences between the genders, we are told, are a function not of nature but of sexism. In fact, we are now informed by the latest generation of feminists, following the theories of Michel Foucault, that nature itself is a “social construction” designed by men to oppress women. It doesn’t actually exist. It’s merely another tool of male power and must be resisted.

This is, however, untrue. Even the newest generation of feminists concede this on the quiet. Although they will organize to shut down an entire magazine to prevent an airing of an alternative view of gender, they are not currently campaigning to shut down the Planet Earth series because it reveals that in almost every species, males and females behave differently — very differently — and there appears to be no “patriarchy” in place to bring this about at all. They know enough not to push their argument into places where it will seem to be, quite obviously, ridiculous. But it is strikingly obvious that for today’s progressives, humans are the sole species on this planet where gender differentiation has no clear basis in nature, science, evolution, or biology. This is where they are as hostile to Darwin as any creationist.

And this is stupid. The alternative explanation — that these core natural differences between men and women have been supplemented by centuries of conscious oppression — is staring us in the face. The fascinating conundrum is where one ends and the other begins. How much of this difference is natural and how much is social? That is the question. And the answer is a tricky one. Is the fact that the vast majority of construction workers are male and the huge majority of nurses are female a function of sexism or nature? Is male sexual aggression and horniness a function of patriarchy or testosterone? Is the fact that women now outnumber men among college graduates a function of reverse sexism or nature?

My suspicion is that it’s more about nature than about society, and one reason I believe this (apart from all the data) is I because I’m gay. I live in a sexual and romantic world without women, where no patriarchy could definitionally exist, a subculture with hookups and relationships and marriages and every conceivable form of sexual desire that straight men and women experience as well. And you know what you find? That men behave no differently in sexual matters when there are no women involved at all. In fact, remove women, and you see male sexuality unleashed more fully, as men would naturally express it, if they could get away with it. It’s full of handsiness and groping and objectification and lust and aggression and passion and the ruthless pursuit of yet another conquest. And yes, I mean conquest. That’s what testosterone does. It’s also full of love, tenderness, compassion, jealousy, respect, dignity, and a need for security and a home. It’s men’s revenge on men. The old joke applies: What does a lesbian bring on a second date? A U-Haul. What does a gay man bring on a second date? What second date?

I know this must be a pain in the neck for most women. But it’s who we are. It’s a blessing and a curse. It’s called being male, this strange creature, covered in hair, pinioned between morality and hormones, governed by two brains, one above and one below. We can and should be restrained, tamed, kept under control. But nature will not be eradicated. And when left-feminism denies nature’s power, ignores testosterone, and sees all this behavior as a function entirely of structural patriarchal oppression, it is going to overreach.

. . . Trump understands this dynamic intuitively. Bannon believed it was integral to the Trump project, and wants the slanted elite discourse on men to continue and intensify. I think this issue was an under-acknowledged cause for Clinton’s failure. At some point, Democrats and liberals are going to have to decide if they want to “problematize” half the voting population. They are going to have to figure out who they really side with: Brooklyn or much of America? Reality or an ideology? Both genders or one?

Sullivan goes on to describe how gay men, in their own relationships, show the same dynamics that that straight men do with women, while lesbians in relationships show behavior similar to straight women. (Read the piece to see Sullivan’s joke about this.) To Sullivan, this is evidence that the important differences of sexual behaviors between men and women are based on hormones and genetics, not pure social conditioning. (I suppose one could counterargue that even gay men and women were socialized when young, but a counter-counter argument would note, as Sullivan did above, that there are striking parallels between sexual dimorphism in human sexual behavior and animal sexual behavior. Is there a patriarchy in wild chimpanzees?)

Sullivan is not, of course, defending the sexual predators singled out by #MeToo. He’s merely pointing out that in our future discussions of the fraught sexual dynamics between men and women (or men with men, or women with women), we must take into account that there are biological differences between the sexes that will affect their behavior.  It’s always better to know what’s true when trying to deal with a problematic issue.

Read the whole piece (the other two pieces, not as thought-provoking, are about Trump’s wall—Sullivan is for it, but not for the reason you think—and about how underrated Washington, D.C. is).

 h/t: Gregory

When ideology trumps biology

March 9, 2017 • 11:00 am

If I was the late Andy Rooney, I’d say “You know what really bothers me? When science shows some facts about nature, and then someone rejects those facts because they’re inconvenient or uncomfortable for their ideology.”

Indeed, when people ignore such inconvenient truths, it not only makes their cause look bad, but can produce palpable harm. Case in point: the damage that the Russian charlatan-agronomist Lysenko did to Soviet agriculture under Stalin. Rejecting both natural selection and modern genetics, Lysenko made all sorts of wild promises about improving Soviet agriculture based on bogus treatment of plants that would supposedly change their genetics. It not only didn’t work, failing to relieve Russia of its chronic famines, but Lyesnko’s Stalin-supported resistance to modern (“Western”) genetics led to the imprisonment and even the execution of really good geneticists and agronomists like Niklolia Vavilov. The ideological embrace of an unevidenced but politically amenable view of science set back Russian genetics for decades.

Other cases in point: the denial of evolution by creationists, and of anthropogenic global warming by conservatives. I needn’t belabor these.

We see this in other areas, too—especially with issues like differences between the sexes, ethnic groups, and evolutionary psychology. The assumption here is that any research on these areas could only serve to reinforce sexism and bigotry, so not only is that research denigrated, but there is an a priori ideological assumption that all groups are genetically equal for areas like behavior, mentation, and so on.  The error of this viewpoint is that whatever the truth is, it shouldn’t—and largely doesn’t—matter in the modern world. Society has advanced to the point where we recognize that equality of treatment and opportunity is the proper way to treat men, women, those of different ethnicities, the transgendered, and so on. There’s no need to assume that a biological “is” translates into a societal “ought”. As Steve Pinker has emphasized many times, we’re well past that view.

But the opposition to research on group and sex differences continues. One of its big exponents is the author Cordelia Fine, who has written two books with the explicit aim of showing that there are no reliably accepted evolved and biological differences in behavior between men and women. I read her first book, Delusions of Gender, and found it a mixed bag: some of her targets did indeed do bad science, and she properly called them out; but the book was also tendentious, and wasn’t objective about other studies. I’m now about to read her second book, Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science, and Society.  Judging from the reviews, which have been positive, it’s just as much a polemic as the first book, and has an ideological aim.

Because I haven’t finished it, I won’t judge it as a whole, but I do want to concentrate on one argument Fine makes that reviewers have found congenial.  That is her supposed debunking of the claim that men have often evolved to be promiscuous, and women to be more choosy, because of the potentially greater reproductive payoff for multiply-mating males compared to multiply-mating females. Lots of psychological studies have supported this difference in human sexual behavior, and of course it holds widely across the animal kingdom as well (there are exceptions exactly where we expect: when the reproductive payoff for multiple matings is greater for females than for males, as in seahorses). This difference between the sexes is in fact the evolutionary basis for sexual selection, and for the consequent observation of males courting females with behavior, ornaments, calls, and the like, with females choosing among displaying males. This is so common in animals as to constitute almost a biological “law”, with the exceptions proving the rule.

Fine denies this evolutionary basis, leaving her unable, of course, to explain sexual dimorphism in humans or any species. Her denial appears to be based on an early flawed experiment of Angus Bateman in fruit flies, which indeed turned out upon reanalysis to be inconclusive.  I’ve discussed this whole issue before, and you can read about it here, and how Sarah Ditum, the Guardian’s reviewer of Fine’s new book, was taken in by Fine’s bogus arguments. (Ditum is not a scientist.)

In my earlier post I pointed out the pervasive biological evidence that in both humans and other species,  the conditions for sexual selection  hold—a greater variance in male than in female reproductive output—probably explaining why men are bigger and stronger than women, and have beards and other secondary sexual differences. It also explains why male peacocks have showy tails, why male sage grouse do “jumping displays” to attract females, why male insects have weapons and ornaments, and so on. (See my bullet-point list of biological facts in that post.) Further, though Bateman’s experiments were flawed, they have been repeated properly in other species and have shown that, yes, males in general have the potential to have many more offspring than females: a higher variance in offspring number).

On February 23 the New York Times also reviewed Testosterone Rex, and the reviewer, the journalist Annie Murphy Paul, also fell for the bogus no-difference-in-reproductive-variance argument (she’s not a scientist). As she said:

Well, then, what about the even more entrenched idea that evolution has primed men to desire many and varied sex partners? Here Fine quotes the Bradley University psychologist David Schmitt: “Consider that one man can produce as many as 100 offspring by indiscriminately mating with 100 women in a given year, whereas a man who is monogamous will tend to have only one child with his partner during that same time period.” Fine expertly fillets this familiar premise, noting, among other inconvenient facts, that “the probability of a woman becoming pregnant from a single randomly timed act of intercourse is about 3 percent,” and that in historical and traditional societies, as many as 80 to 90 percent of women of reproductive age at any one time might already be pregnant, or infertile while they were breast-feeding. “The theoretical possibility that a male could produce dozens of offspring if he mated with dozens of females is of little consequence if, in reality, there are few females available to fertilize,” Fine comments. Think about it: For every man on the prowl, there simply aren’t a hundred women available to bear his child. For all men not named Genghis Khan, monogamy must have started to look like a pretty smart bet.

This is someone who doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Humans in Western society are now socially monogamous, but in effect many are polygamous, committing adultery. Men have been shown, time after time, to be less discriminating and more promiscuous than females. And many of those women who were pregnant were not pregnant by their social mate—if indeed our early ancestors had social mates—but by “alpha” males who got more than their share of offspring, or by those who mate with other males’ mates on the sly—what John Maynard Smith called “sneaky fuckers”. Most species of birds that look socially monogamous, for instance, pairing up in the nest and cooperating in brood care, have been found by DNA analysis to actually be committing adultery all over the place, so that the appearance of pairing gives a false idea of who’s really producing the chicks.

Such is the invidious result of having a non-scientist judge a scientific argument; and yes, the Times screwed up big time.  But someone who should know better is the evolutionary biologist and blogger P. Z. Myers, who bought into Fine’s bogus argument and fallacious mathematics in a post called “Cordelia Fine is doing the math.” Myers accepts Fine’s contention that promiscuous males don’t really have more offspring than do choosy human females—females who are prevented from getting fertilized when they’re pregnant.  Her arguments are wrong—for one thing, she sets unrealistic error limits for promiscuous males to outdo monogamous ones—but Myers has always rejected biology that is ideologically unpalatable to him.

In a rare occurrence at his site, the commenters, usually a choir of osculatory praise, gave him pushback. In fact one,  “Charly”, did the math correctly and showed that males in relationships with multiple females (bigamous or polygamous) have the potential to have more offspring than do monogamous males, supporting the ideas that men are selected to compete for women. (Duh!) Charly ended his calculations with this statement: “But maybe my reasoning and math is wrong, I am sure someone will point flaws out.”

In the next comment, Myers admitted that Charly’s math was actually right—math that invalidates Fine’s argument—but then he said this:

And there we have it, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters: an admission that the biology is right, at least in theory, but the person who did the calculations is immoral.  What better example can we find of someone who opposes the truth because it’s ideologically repugnant? Even Myers’s regular commenters couldn’t live with that pronouncement, with one even asking if he was all right. I won’t speculate on his state of mind, but I will say that he’s on the wrong side in this argument.

Well, be that as it may, we have two lessons from this kerfuffle.

a). Magazines and newspapers should get scientists, or at least journalists who are scientifically educated, to review books about science. Science journalists without training in math and evolution are unqualified to review Fine’s book.

b). It’s always better to accept a scientific fact than to reject it on ideological grounds. For people will know the truth, and when they see it rejected because of confirmation bias, they can see what’s going on.

It always hurts your cause to behave that way. If science finds that men and women behave differently for evolutionary and genetic reasons, or that humans have behaviors that are holdovers from selection in our ancestors, we can deal with that. Such findings do not inexorably lead to racism, sexism, or bigotry, and there’s no reason why they should. Sure, there may be a few misguided individuals who mistake an “is” for an “ought,” but society no longer works that way.  Rejecting the facts because you don’t like them, or because they go counter to your political leanings, is a sure recipe for sinking your cause. First apprehend the facts, and then just deal with them.