Dennis Mangan calls our attention to an article in Newsweek, by Sharon Begley, that takes aim at the burgeoning science of evolutionary psychology. Begley effectively pronounces the field dead, which will certainly be news to its practitioners.
Anthropologist Dan Sperber writes that the evo-psych community knew this broadside was coming, and that its publication in as prominent an organ as Newsweek would be troublesome. In his post he links to a helpful primer on evolutionary psychology, by Leda Cosmides & John Tooby, and also to a rebuttal, published in the Psychology Today blog by behavioral scientist Gad Saad, of Begley’s criticisms of the field.
Saad’s piece, called The Never-Ending Misconceptions About Evolutionary Psychology, is well worth a look.
…EP does not imply that we are endowed with a perfectly rigid and inflexible human nature. Rather, we do possess an evolutionary-based human nature that subsequently interacts with environmental cues. That said this does not imply that human nature is infinitely malleable. I challenge Ms. Begley to find a culture in the annals of recorded history where parents were overwhelmingly more concerned about their son’s chastity as compared to their daughter’s. I challenge Ms. Begley to find a culture where on average men have had a sustained preference for mating with post-menopausal women. I challenge Ms. Begley to find a culture where individuals who possess asymmetric facial features are judged to be more attractive and desirable than their symmetric counterparts. I challenge Ms. Begley to find a culture where on average women have had a sustained preference for lazy, submissive, apathetic men as prospective mates. As a side note, contrary to Ms. Begley’s claim, as a woman’s socioeconomic status increases, her preference for a high status man becomes even more pronounced.
Ms. Begley mentions the proverbial “get-out-of-jail-for-free card” as one of the most pernicious elements of evolutionary psychology. For example, that evolutionary psychologists explain that on average men display a greater desire for sexual variety than do women is taken to mean that we are trying to “justify and condone” men’s infidelities. To repeat a point that I made elsewhere, this is as intelligent a comment as to argue that by seeking to understand the causes of cancer, oncologists are seeking to “justify and condone” the existence of cancerous cells. Evolutionary psychologists are no different from any other type of scientist. They seek to pursue interesting scientific questions unencumbered by any grand conspiratorial agenda.
I have yet to turn up a response by the field’s best-known proponent, Steven Pinker, but I imagine one is forthcoming, or already in print. (See also this post by Steve Sailer.) We’ll return to this topic later.