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Evolutionary psychology and its critics


I've recently been embroiled in an irrational Internet debate about evolutionary psychology. (It's possible that all Internet debates about ev psych are irrational.) Like Stephen Jay Gould before them, egalitarian foes of ev psych consider its practitioners to be sexist throwbacks. What struck me this time, however, is how closely the well-meaning opponents of evolutionary psychology echo the fundamentalist opponents of evolution itself.


Ev psych is the modest idea that, like every other mammal closely related to us, humans have built-in predispositions for certain behaviors. It's not controversial when we talk about a predisposition to like sweet foods. It gets controversial real fast once the behaviors have anything to do with mating, gender roles, and violence.


Like Gould, opponents of ev psych are well-educated liberals who regard creationism as bunk. Good for them. Like creationists, however, they make the following arguments.


Ev psych is just a theory. This criticism makes me want to produce the following bumper sticker: "Evolution: not just a fact but a theory." A theory is way more powerful and profound than a mere fact. Yes, ev psych is a theory. That's what makes it so useful and important.


Ev psych is a bunch of just-so stories with no empirical support. The inability to conduct evolution experiments in a test tube is a recurrent theme for both creationists and those opposed to ev psych. It's tricky to frame evolutionary hypotheses in testable formats, and not all ev psych researchers have been perfect in this regard, but even mainstream psychologists now agree that ev psych researchers are doing real science.


Ev psych is Nazi. Gould said that ev psych jusitifies racism, sexism, and genocide. Jerry Falwell says that evolution theory justifies rampant amorality and socialism. Gould's criticisms of ev psych were once even used by Republicans trying to ban evolution from Mississippi schools.


Opponents of ev psych aren't creationists. Generally they are fellow liberals who simply aren't caught up with the latest science. But evolution is devilishly hard to understand, and evolutionary explanations are open to the same sorts of criticism whether it's from creationists or from blank-slaters.


May 08, Sep 13



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