Evolutionary Psychology

Okay so earlier today this article showed up on Richard Dawkins’ twitter feed (which is basically just a feed that links to articles about evolution and atheism – I don’t think Dawkins himself uses it personally, and I’d be suprised if he has anything to do with it at all, really). It’s a classic, by-the-numbers example of the theory of evolutionary psychology and the way people leap on it to try and rationalize human behaviour, so I thought it would make a nice example for me to rant about here. Especially since I am currently (and very slowly) writing a couple of posts which deal with evolution and behaviour, so I think this one will serve as a useful caveat to illustrate that I am aware of the numerous problems with this subject, and the way it is usually portrayed in the media.

Nowhere else in science do you see such transparent bias as you do in evolutionary psychology (obviously, I don’t include Intelligent Design Creationism in the category of science). The hilarious thing is that oftentimes, people don’t even seem to realise this bias exists – they will stand there with a straight face and tell you that women like pink things because it reminds them of the berries they used to spend all their time gathering 100,000 years ago. This is my favourite example because it’s so obviously wrong – the blue/pink gender preference thing has been around for less than a hundred years and is clearly a social construct – but there’s also a more serious reason to keep it in mind, because this obstinate failure to question “common knowledge” should give anyone pause before extending similar logic to behaviour which is much more difficult to break down from a nature/nurture perspective.

Creationists aside, I don’t think anyone is going to argue that the human brain wasn’t shaped by evolution. But it is a huge and absurdly simplistic leap to say that this offers a conclusive explanation for human behaviour. And more importantly, it ignores possibly the most remarkable product of evolution so far: consciousness, and free will. This doesn’t actually free us entirely from biological constraints, but it does change the way they operate, and introduces a bunch of new variables into the mix. Evolutionarily pre-determined behaviours are one of the many variables that contribute to the way we act, but in most cases, we are not bound by them.

I think the best way to approach questions of human behaviour, to borrow a metaphor from cognitive psychologist Gary Marcus, is to think of the brain as starting off in a “first draft” state, with some initial organisation and potential behaviour, but also a lot of malleability and room for change and adaption. The first draft can be overwritten by cultural and environmental influences – and in fact, it usually is, because that’s how it’s supposed to work. On top of that, you have the conscious mind, which begins making decisions that affect outcomes and behaviour in different ways. In the early stages of childhood development, the mind is operating from a place of extreme ignorance and naïveté, which is unfortunate, considering these early decisions can have a lasting effect later on in life (it’s kind of a sad and annoying fact that the better you get at making decisions, the less important they are, and the harder it is to change behaviour that you’ve possessed from an early age). This obviously makes the nature/nurture debate even more hopelessly complicated, relying on chance events and multiple influences which may or may not be significant, depending on what the developing mind makes of them and how they affect conscious decisions in seemingly-minor ways.

So whilst understanding all of this complicated mess is a pretty big task, does that make it impossible to pull apart some of the things that influence human behaviour? As the pink berries example highlights, some explanations can be easily debunked. The same can be said of a lot of the more popular ev-psych theories, which basically just parrot back established social roles and provide a comforting “scientific” explanation which allows people to accept these roles rather than ask uncomfortable questions about right and wrong. The article I linked to above is a telling example of the way such explanations are readily applied to problematic behaviour, giving people an excuse, rather than an explanation. Oh, don’t you know… men can’t help it, that’s just the way they are. Of course, it’s merely a coincidence that that’s exactly how they’ve been taught to behave from an early age, and that they grew up surrounded by men who behaved the same way. But when you extend the same logic to other areas of life, and say, for example, that the only reason they chose their partner whom they love dearly is because of pheromones and genetic compatibility, they generally start to get a lot more uncomfortable. I guess some things are more complicated than others, eh.

The main reason why humans have been such a successful species, spreading all over the world and even tentatively beyond it, is because we have developed highly adaptable minds which can change dramatically to suit the environmental circumstances. For better or worse. Writing off negative behaviour as just a product of evolution which can’t be helped is not only simplistic, but highly counterproductive, because it stops people from questioning their behaviour and searching for the sources of such problems, and how to change them. In regards to the specific problem raised by the above article: powerful men don’t cheat on their partners because they are displaced apes who should have been born 100,000 years ago. And they don’t do it because of some innate need to spread their seed far and wide, either (which, it could be argued, is not actually a very good evolutionary approach at all for a highly social species like humans, though that’s another discussion I guess). In part, they do it because they have a basic reproductive drive combined with cultural pressures both pushing them in the same direction – both nature AND nurture, which is always a recipe for powerful and difficult to control behaviour. Ultimately, however, they do it because they choose to – even if that choice is merely the latest in a long line of choices extending back to a time when they were too ignorant to know any better. Evolution doesn’t explain why we do things; it only explains why we have the potential to do things.

Studying psychology from an evolutionary perspective is undoubtedly still a field that has a lot of potential for unlocking the secrets of the human mind. But as long as it remains infested with people searching for ways to legitimize their biases with simplistic excuses disguised as explanations, it will be difficult to get anywhere, and any progress that is made will be obscured. To return to the above article one more time, the problem can be best summed up by the quoted chapter title: “Life’s Not Fair, Or Politically Correct”. Evolutionary psychologists are second only to Rush Limbaugh when it comes to declaring themselves free agents working against the tyranny of political correctness. It’s a rather cute delusion, to be honest. Or at least it would be if these people weren’t affecting public opinion. Anyway, here’s a rule of thumb to keep in mind: if you need to resort to the PC strawman to support your argument, it’s time to rethink your position, because you’re clearly not running on logic anymore.

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