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Darwin made me do it

Despite obvious facts and contradictions, evolutionary psychologists say nearly every human behavior can be explained by natural selection


Why <i>do</i> we dress little girls in pink? ©iStock.com/Msartphotography

Darwin made me do it

Denyse O’Leary is a Toronto-based journalist, author, and blogger who follows closely the writings of evolution proponents. She writes of herself, “I first became interested in these issues because materialist, mechanist interpretations of the universe and life do not make any sense. There must be design behind it all.”

The Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture published the following piece on Nov. 5 under the heading, “Post-Election Special: The Evolutionary Psychologist Knows Why You Vote—and Shop, and Tip at Restaurants.” We publish it here with permission, and append to it several segments from O’Leary’s running series, “Science Fictions.”Marvin Olasky

Ever since Darwin’s The Descent of Man, in which he proposed the theory of sexual selection (how some are selected to pass on their traits), his followers have extended his thoughts to encompass just about all aspects of human nature.

First there was social Darwinism, which fell into disfavor after World War II because its theories justified colonialism, exploitation of labor, and eugenics. These policies were developed much earlier and for reasons unrelated to Darwinian theory, but the theory was easily co-opted to justify them. Later, in the 1970s, sociobiology blossomed. Sociobiologists, using insect colonies as their model, explained human behavior that seemed a puzzle—such as kindness to strangers—as originating in the way that our genes get passed on because genes are shared, in large part, with relatives. Sociobiology became controversial, however, when it attracted allegations of racism.

But soon after, a much broader movement burst on the scene—evolutionary psychology (evo psych). Almost all human ideas can be explained, we are told, as the functional products of natural selection in our remote ancestors.

We may not know why we do things, but the evolutionary psychologist does. He knows, by the methods of science, the “truth” about shopping, voting, or tipping at restaurants.

Evolutionary psychology does not, for the most part, explain puzzling human behavior. It offers Darwinian explanations for conventional behavior that are intended to supplant traditional ones. For example, why we are sexually jealous (not fear of abandonment, but “sperm competition”); why we don’t stick to our goals (evolution gave us a kludge brain); why music exists (to “spot the savannah with little Pavarottis”); why art exists (to recapture that lost savannah); why many women don’t know when they are ovulating (if they knew, they’d never have kids); why some people rape, kill, and sleep around (our Stone Age ancestors passed on their genes via these traits); and why big banks sometimes get away with fraud (we haven’t evolved so as to understand what is happening).

Evo psych also accounts for anger over trivial matters (it was once key to our survival), dreams (they increase reproductive fitness), false memories, (there might be a tiger in that tall grass …), menopause (men pursuing younger women), monogamy (control of females or else infanticide prevention—of one’s own children only), music (to ward off danger), premenstrual syndrome (breaks up infertile relationships), romantic love (not an emotion, rather a hardwired drive to reproduce), rumination on hurt feelings (our brains evolved to learn quickly from bad experiences but slowly from the good ones), smiling (earlier, a cringe reaction), and wonder at the universe (explained by how early man lived).

It feels like emptying Darwin’s wastebasket.

Darwinian explanations of morality, self-sacrifice, politics, and religion will each be considered in detail in later installments. These more consequential behaviors seem to pose a greater problem for a Darwinian worldview because the explanations offered are especially numerous and contradictory.

Meanwhile, run-of-the-mill accounts, such as those noted above, can comfortably conflict with obvious facts about human nature. See, for example, Psychology Today’s No. 1 of “Ten Politically Incorrect Truths about Human Nature”: Men prefer women with big breasts, we are told, because they make fertility easier to ascertain, and primeval man unconsciously sought to spread his selfish genes.

Indeed? Men typically prefer more pleasure of all kinds to less—big paychecks, big cars, big steaks, and all things ample, but not necessarily more mouths to feed, entailing more labor. Intelligent animals prefer abundance too. Most of them are genetically distant from us. If intelligent invertebrates should pass the test, we must go back a long way for the origin of a preference for abundance, back to the Cambrian era perhaps. Psychology Today’s No. 1 explanation does not account well for explicitly human behavior (quite the opposite). But it better maps human behavior onto Darwinian thinking, and that is the goal.

Evo psych explanations can also dispense with historical fact. For example, in Delusions of Gender (2010), Cordelia Fine recounts an evo psych explanation of why little girls are dressed in pink (their brains evolved to process emotion differently). That must have been one of the few genuine instances of rapid human evolution ever recorded, because the practice of dressing girls in pink only took root in the 20th century. But no matter. Give us Darwin; we can forget history. The accounts can even fail as parody. Neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran tried parody with “Why Do Gentlemen Prefer Blondes?” but there is no reason not to take his explanation as seriously as all the others.

Science writer Hank Campbell offers a suggestion as to why the nonsense, both high and popular, goes largely unchallenged: “Scientists are inclined to give it a break because they cleverly use the word ‘evolutionary’ in the name.” If it sounds plausible, that is evidence that it is true. But if it doesn’t sound plausible, that just shows how counterintuitive real science can be.

A number of voices of reason have been heard over the years. The best-known dissent is not religious, incidentally. Common-sense philosophers David Stove and Jerry Fodor have written books, respectively Darwinian Fairytales and What Darwin Got Wrong, assailing evo psych’s simplistic, counterintuitive assertions. Social scientists such as Steven and Hilary Rose, editors of the anthology Alas, Poor Darwin, weigh in on its ad hoc assumptions about human behavior. Journalist Sharon Begley (Newsweek, 2009) notes the evolutionary psychologists’ characteristic backpedalling when challenged on extreme claims, and their comfort with undemonstrable hypotheses:

“From its inception, evolutionary psychology had warned that behaviors that were evolutionarily advantageous 100,000 years ago (a sweet tooth, say) might be bad for survival today (causing obesity and thence infertility), so there was no point in measuring whether that trait makes people more evolutionarily fit today. Even if it doesn’t, evolutionary psychologists argue, the trait might have been adaptive long ago and therefore still be our genetic legacy. An unfortunate one, perhaps, but still our legacy. Short of a time machine, the hypothesis was impossible to disprove.”

Medical historian Andrew Scull, reviewing a book on psychiatry’s current legitimacy crisis (2012), writes that the theories of evolutionary psychology are “unnecessary, and get in the way of an argument that depends on no more than the self-evident proposition that all of us experience fears and anxieties, which are intensified in certain social situations and by large-scale trauma, but which cannot be termed ‘mental illnesses.’”

Indeed. At the heart of evo psych is one searing contradiction: “Evolution” is supposed to be the heart and soul of its method, yet adherents believe that nothing has fundamentally changed in at least the last quarter million years. And yet that is not the sort of obvious question one is supposed to raise about their work, is it?

In which case, evo psych really says far more about the culture that created it than about the history of the human race.

Published originally at Evolution News and Views. ©2014 The Discovery Institute. All rights reserved. Republished with permission.

Other segments from Denyse O’Leary’s “Science Fictions” series

“The search for our earliest ancestors: Signals in the noise”

Now and then, a signal rises above the noise. From surprisingly early periods, we encounter special respect for the dead and a sense of the divine. Meanwhile, because we keep finding artifacts and organized activities from earlier periods than “expected,” the half human creature we were originally seeking continues to elude us. More.

“Early human religion: A 747 built in the basement with an X-Acto knife”

Whatever these unknown people saw or sensed, many consumed much of their lives celebrating and memorializing it. And yet curiously, instead of getting better at constructing temples, the Göbekli Tepe worshipers grew steadily worse:

“The earliest rings are the biggest and most sophisticated, technically and artistically. As time went by, the pillars became smaller, simpler, and were mounted with less and less care. Finally the effort seems to have petered out altogether by 8200 B.C. Göbekli Tepe was all fall and no rise.”

Was it a loss of faith? Whether or no, in the words of Göbekli Tepe’s discoverer Klaus Schmidt, “Twenty years ago everyone believed civilization was driven by ecological forces. I think what we are learning is that civilization is a product of the human mind.” More.

“Human origins: The war of trivial explanations”

The overarching theory in biology has been, for over a century, Darwinian evolution: Natural selection acting on random mutation is the cause of all or most variation in life forms. As anyone who has monitored what the media says over the years will know, all evidence is either interpreted on its terms or ignored. Thus, humans are evolved primates, an unexceptional twig on the tree of life, though like other twigs, we are accidental outliers. …

The obvious problems with all of these disunited and discordant theses can be summed up for convenience as: 1) If some aspect of chimpanzee behavior explains matters, why didn’t it produce the same result in chimpanzees? 2) If mere advantage (which every primate seeks) explains a development like the human mind, why did only humans experience it? More.

“A deep and abiding need for Neanderthals to be stupid. Why?”

There has been a significant change in his status in recent years, as researchers began separating what we see from what we think ought to be or must be true. … In fact, quite apart from the fact that Neanderthals appear to have been part of our own families, they have persistently failed to be as stupid as Shermer’s account needs. Increasing numbers of finds are breaking down the supposed differences between them and other early humans. As one paleontologist puts it, “The historical downgrading of our Neanderthal cousins has gone well beyond the scientific.”

It’s not clear, however, that “the scientific” was driving the need to downgrade Neanderthal man so much as a Darwinian anthropology that is at odds with the archaeology. More.

“What can we responsibly believe about human evolution?”

[Paolo] Villa and colleague Wil Roebroeks carefully studied explanations for the extinction of the Neanderthals as a separate human group based on the assumption that they were inferior. Such hypotheses include the idea that they did not use complex, symbolic communication, were less efficient hunters, had inferior weapons, or were not omnivorous. As we have seen, none of these hypotheses panned out.

In any event, the current human genome incorporates Neanderthal genes; it’s at least possible that they were just assimilated, the way many tribes in millennia past were assimilated into larger groupings, empires, or nation states, and lost their separate identity. One question the new assessments raise is, was there ever more than one human race? More.

“What questions about evolution come down to is, ‘Who ARE we?’”

Commenting on a dispute over a supposed human ancestor, Smithsonian paleoanthropologist Richard Potts told The Wall Street Journal, “Evolution is wonderfully messy.” Few would dispute it, but a multitude of conflicting speculations does not add up to progress.

Maybe that is too challenging a way to put the question. How about, it comes down to what we can responsibly believe. More to the point, who are we?

One thing’s for sure: There is no reason, based on any of the above, to abandon a typical traditional religious or philosophical teaching on the origin, let alone the honor and dignity, of human beings. If anything, the sheer vacuity of claims made on behalf of “modern science” (not, in this case, to be confused with actual science) suggests the opposite. More.


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