Evolutionary Psychology, as defended by Jerry Coyne

There are some science-friendly folk (including atheists) who simply dismiss the entire field of evolutionary psychology in humans, saying that its theoretical foundations are weak or nonexistent, said Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary psychology expert. I’ve always replied that that claim is bunk, for its “theoretical foundations” are simply the claim that our brains and behaviors, like our bodies, show features reflecting evolution in our ancestors.

Have you ever seen a critic of evolutionary psychology deny that we evolved, or that features and differences of the human body and brain are products of evolution? Not me. When I say that it’s theoretical foundations are ridiculous, I don’t mean the idea that there are evolved differences between the sexes, but that EP comes with a set of ludicrous assumptions, such as that we are adapted to the African savannah and the agricultural and urban adaptations of the last 10,000 years don’t count. It leads to absurdities like the paleo diet, in which it’s assumed that we should eat like cavemen, because evolution.

I also criticize the just-so story-telling. Coyne should know this well: studying evolution is hard and demands rigor. Yet evolutionary psychologists will do a quickie study on color perception in college undergraduates and announce that women evolved to be better at recognizing ripe berries.

And obviously, as you might guess, there are the methodological problems. There is so much trivial market-driven crap in evolutionary psychology that it swamps out any hypothetically ‘good’ research in the field. If I were doing research on the evolutionary basis of human behavior (I’m not, fortunately), I would run away so fast from the label “evolutionary psychology” that I’d make Kanazawa’s head spin, and he’d have to formulate some story about the distant ancestors of white people having to sprint away from noisy speculating sabre-toothed tigers.

But then Coyne pulls his magic “proof” out of his hat: the existence of sexual dimorphism. Yeah, who has a problem with that? Men and women look different in grand and subtle ways. Some of those differences were almost certainly selected for. Again, I don’t know anyone who denies that, so it’s kind of weird to use it as his triumphant example. Except that he seems to think all those lefty wackos — you know, feminists, apparently — are in the business of denying the obvious.

But the left-wing opposition to evolutionary psychology as a valid discipline in principle, especially when it involves differences in sexual behavior, seems to me based more on ideology than on biology. Ideologues cannot allow any possibility that males and females behave differently because of their evolution. Such people think that this would buttress the view that one sex would be “better” than the other.

I know a lot of modern radical feminists. I’m pretty solidly in the left-wing camp myself. And NO ONE denies the physical differences between men and women, or claims that evolution could not have played an important role in shaping the diversity of modern humans. Nor do any claim that there aren’t significant behavioral differences — we encounter those every day. What we oppose is the credulous insistence that every single difference is a product of selection, that the influence of culture is noise gently overlaying the purity of the biological signal, and worst of all, the idea that the status quo is justified as a product of biology (which Coyne at least tries to distance himself from at the end).

But please, spare us the simplistic causal explanations for these differences that rely on cartoony, evidence-free speculation, like that men evolved to be bigger than women because they had to punch each other lots in fights for dominance. Perhaps we should recognize that culture creates roles that can generate differential selection pressure on men and women, and that human behavior is far more complex and cooperative than cavemen bashing each other with clubs.

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