Monday, July 20, 2009

The Devil Made Me Do It.

I somehow missed this memo, but apparently Evolutionary Psychology went from being generally accepted to facing substantial amounts of mainstream resistance. I just always assumed there was widespread criticism to it, um, always. All you have to do is go to and read the user reviews of any book dealing with Evo-Psych to see that there are bundles of people who consider it nonsense.

Evo-psych is a difficult case. It can make, and has made, testable hypotheses, but it also goes wildly into outright speculation very frequently.

We are creatures of evolution, and come born with certain coding and behavior. This coding must have come from evolutionary developments. So it makes sense that any behaviors we perform are rooted, in some way at least, to what helped us survive in the wild.

I think evo-psych falls off the rails most spectacularly when it progressively minimizes the roll of higher thought and culture to mold and outright alter mental workings. For example, thin people are attractive today. One hundred years ago, it was the opposite. Chubby people were attractive. Thin in America, birthin' thighs in many areas of South America. We are looking at two states at the extremes of a spectrum, yet they all are rooted in reproduction in some way.

Trying to distill humans down to purely animalistic behavior is doomed to failure. We can't test it, and importantly, ignoring the effects of a complex society, regardless of culture, means that the number of confounding variables is effectively infinite. We can never be sure of evo-psych arguments about our behavior.

Still, evo-psych does make a lot of sense. Many of the broader arguments about things like reproductive viability, the grosser aspects of our behavior, and importantly, unconscious reactions to stimuli work well in broader behavioral theory.

I also feel that the fear that evo-psych gives people an excuse for bad behavior is unfounded. It may work in a moralistic system of judgment, but we don't have that. We have a (supposedly) logic-based system of justice. So if a man rapes a woman, it doesn't matter if evolution made him do it. He's dangerous and MUST BE locked up. Our culture and its rules don't somehow transcend evolution, they stem from it. Thus what evolution begets is immaterial to how we treat the criminals in our species. Evo-psych is in no way a "Get Out of Jail Free" card.

Why Do We Rape, Kill and Sleep Around?
Human Nature Today
Questioning Evolutionary Psychology

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