Magazine article Skeptic (Altadena, CA)

Alas Poor Evolutionary Psychology: Unfairly Accused, Unjustly Condemned

Magazine article Skeptic (Altadena, CA)

Alas Poor Evolutionary Psychology: Unfairly Accused, Unjustly Condemned

Article excerpt

A review of Hilary Rose Steven Rose. Alas Poor Darwin: Arguments Against Evolutionary Psychology, 2000. New York: Harmony Books.

IN ALAS POOR DARWIN (hereafter APD), Steven and Hilary Rose and the other contributors to this edited volume accuse evolutionary psychologists of sins both scientific and political, in prose filled with self-righteous rage, smug dismissals, and unremitting invective. Evolutionary psychologists, they say, are wedded to genetic deter minism, a view simplistic in conception, fatalistic in outlook, and flatly mistaken. Further, they argue that evolutionary psychologists indulge in post-hoc, "just-so" storytelling, the seediest kind of scientific promiscuity. If evolutionary psychology were guilty of the sins of which it is accused, the Roses and their contributors could be considered to have produced an important work, helping to prevent the spread of flimsy science and distasteful politics.

It is therefore important to determine if evolutionary psychology bears any resemblance to the beast the Roses have conjured. Let us review the major charges, as well as hear the defense.

First Charge: Genetic Determinism "Evolutionary principles imply genetic destiny,' Dorothy Nelkin baldly declares. Evolutionary psychologists "dismiss" cultural, historical and individual variables, Hernstein Smith assures us. In short, evolutionary psychologists believe that biology is destiny, with genes alone determining a "hard wired" brain, exerting total control, with no room whatsoever for influences from the environment. (1)

Is this the message we see running through evolutionary psychologists' writings? Are they telling us that there is no chance to escape from Nature, and that Nurture is powerless in the face of our genetic tethers? In point of fact, the accusers in this case have exaggerated to no small degree. Evolutionary psychologists not only reject genetic determinism, but have emphasized that they believe that it is actually nonsensical to try to talk about genes without discussing the environment in which the genes exist. Evolutionary psychology pioneers John Tooby and Leda Gosmides, in their 1992 classic text that became one of the founding documents of the new science, put this as straightforward (albeit in academic style) as one could ask: "every feature of every phenotype is fully and equally codetermined by the interaction of the organism's genes...and its ontogenetic environments." (2) They have expressed similar sentiments elsewhere, as have other evolutionary psychologists. (3)

Why the vast gap between the actual arguments made by evolutionary psychologists and the claims attributed to them? The answer lies in a Jeep confusion about biology shared many of the authors of APD, a preconception that seems to prevent hem from understanding what evolutionary psychologists actually say. Hilary Rose will be our guide.

Unsatisfied with a conjecture advanced by Martin Daly and Margo Wilson about why the incidence of child abuse is higher among stepchildren than biological children, Hilary Rose proclaims triumphantly that evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker "entirely shredded any credibility the Wilson-Daly thesis had" with his suggestion that perhaps when a mother hadn't sufficient resources to nurture a child, maternal love could switch off, replaced by murderous intentions. (4) Rose concludes: "Both killing and protecting are explained by evolutionary selection...selection explains everything and therefore nothing." (5)

Rose seems to suggest that an evolutionary explanation is useless if it predicts that an organism will do one thing under certain conditions (i.e., normal ones), and the opposite under different conditions (i.e., extreme scarcity). This is because she believes that evolution must lead to a prediction of only one sort of behavior across all contexts, and therefore that it cannot yield a prediction that the organism will behave contingently on contextual factors. …

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