Rebecca Watson’s Dishonest Representation of Evolutionary Psychology

Edited by Peter

I want you to pretend for a second that you are confronting someone who you really don’t like. Perhaps you are imagining your old boss who didn’t appreciate your hard work, or maybe that annoying child at the cinema that one time who took a phone call in the middle of the movie. You can feel that anger bubbling up inside you and it begins to show on your face. I want you to put on an angry face just like you would when confronting one of these people! I’m not kidding I want you to show me how angry you are!

Why are you showing your teeth!?!? Do you plan on biting someone?

This show of aggression is a form of communication and a partial throwback from our ancestors. It is not something that we have learnt but instead something that is preprogrammed into us. Even blind people who have never seen a face before will still communicate their anger and aggression this way.

In total there are six core emotions we can communicate via facial expression (anger, sadness, happiness, fear, disgust and surprise) all of which are consistent across all humans regardless of environmental influences. This means if I were to meet the head of a long lost tribe in South America I could still communicate my emotions through my expressions. This is important to social animals like ourselves and helps us avoid confrontation and potential danger. The fact that these facial expressions are universal among humans means that we evolved both to make and recognise them; after all, what’s the point of looking fearful if no one can recognise it. This is the domain of evolutionary psychology a theoretical approach to psychology that attempts to explain useful mental and psychological traits as the functional products of natural selection.

Evolutionary psychology, in the past, has had a fair amount of criticism from people accusing it of justifying social hierarchies, gender roles, and racial stereotypes. Its proponents have argued back saying that most of the criticisms are straw men and based on incorrect or inaccurate information. And nowhere is there a better example of this than Rebecca Watson’s talk titled “How Girls Evolved to Shop” which was given at Skepticon 5. A talk in which she tried to convince the audience that evolutionary psychology is not science and it exists to deliberately reinforce stereotypes and oppress women. A talk I can only describe as shamelessly dishonest.

Watson’s presentation actually started off fairly well when she began to talk about how the media loves to hype and distort science to sell newspapers. The first example she gave was from The Telegraph who reported that women like to shop because of a throwback to days when they were cavewomen. The study referenced in the paper was commissioned by the Manchester Arndale shopping centre making the article a perfect example of native advertising. These disguised adverts are a real problem for the general public who are being constantly told conflicting pseudoscientific information to sell a product whilst at the same time denigrating the work of real scientists. These types of stories are so numerous that even I was able to expose one when a company that tests people to see if they carry the ginger gene got a story published saying that, because of climate change, ginger people are becoming extinct. However, rather than criticising the media for their bastardisation of science reporting, Watson seemed to give the impression that evolutionary psychologists and the media were feeding one another. What’s worse is that she never delves any deeper than what is reported in the media or the odd abstract and only attacks evolutionary psychology on the most superficial level.

Watson later goes on to say that evolutionary psychology is based on the belief that the human brain has not evolved since the Pleistocene era (about 10,00 years ago) and that this “contradicts what we know about evolution”. She then says that we are continually evolving hence our ability to drink animal milk. Whilst it is true that evolution never stops, 10,000 years for an animal whose average generation time is 22-32 years is not very long. This is why in us humans, there have been virtually no major physiological changes. Our ability to produce lactase throughout our lifespan allowing us to drink milk is the exception and not the rule and is the result of only two single mutations which pales in comparison to the number of changes required to alter complex behaviours. In short, we spent millions of years as hunter-gatherers and only 10,000 since the invention of agriculture.  Isn’t it reasonable to assume that it would leave a lasting mark on our psychology?

The most shockingly dishonest part of Watson’s talk was when she began to talk about the “satire” study ‘Why gentleman prefer blondes’ . The paper was written by Vilayanur Ramachandran and was made to mock evolutionary psychologists by presenting bogus data implying that men preferred blonde women because it’s easier to detect their age and if they are suffering from any diseases. Watson then joked “…and it got published” implying that the whole field of evolutionary psychology was fooled by an obtuse fraud whilst at the same time making the field look weaker. In reality, the satire was not published in an evolutionary psychology journal but instead published in Medical Hypotheses – a non-peer-reviewed journal that publishes unconventional ideas so long as they are coherent and clearly expressed. To put this into some sort of context this is the same journal that published articles written by Peter Duesberg claiming there is still “no proof that HIV causes AIDS”.  In their defence, it has since been removed but it shows you the calibre of work that has been published. To imply as Watson does that this satire paper fooled the evolutionary psychologists and that it was published in a relevant journal is unbecoming of someone so high up in the sceptical community.

Believe me when I say that I have only lightly touched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how deceptive Watson’s talk was. If you would like to read a more in-depth rebuttal I suggest you read Edward Clint and Chris Hallquist’s blog posts on the subject. Or if you would like to know more about evolutionary psychology I would recommend David Schmitt’s “Yes, but…” Answers to Ten Common Criticisms of Evolutionary Psychology.

Perhaps the most unforgivable and disappointing thing about the whole farce was not how disingenuous Watson was. Nor was it how transparently obvious it is that the only reason she was berating this branch of science in the first place was because it conflicted with her ideology. It was that she gave this talk at a sceptical convention in a room full of people who are meant to be doubtful of everything they hear yet they were all clapping like sea lions at the sea life centre. I found myself infuriated watching the same people who would jeer at a speech given by a creationist giving thunderous applause to a talk that bears a striking resemblance.

I would like to end by saying that someone who produces something that is so profoundly anti-science does not belong in the skeptical community….but I don’t have to. Watson is slowly becoming irrelevant confining herself to what is essentially a trolling channel on YouTube where she spits venom at the camera for views and attention.

She is becoming a nobody, and with dogmatic views like hers, that’s exactly what she should be.

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About Myles Power (562 Articles)
My name is Myles Power, and I run the educational YouTube channel, powerm1985. I spend what little free time I have sharing my love of SCIENCE! through home experiments, visiting sites of scientific interest, and angrily ranting at pseudoscience proponents. I am also one of the founding members of the podcast 'The League of Nerds' - which I co-host with James from 'The History of Infection'.

12 Comments on Rebecca Watson’s Dishonest Representation of Evolutionary Psychology

  1. Hi Myles, I am not a scientist but it hard not to agree with your observations. Btw I think your spell check changed a word, search for”consternating” in the text, I think it should be “continually”. Keep up the good work.

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  2. Spot on! She’s an idiot! Elevator Man doesn’t even exist.

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  3. “…only two single mutations which pails in comparison…” You mean *pales* in comparison, right? :P Also, you might want to check the link “Yes, but…Answers to Ten Common Criticisms of Evolutionary Psychology” because I don’t think it is working. Evo-psychology has a lot of potential but it still has some problems to sort out:

    Evolutionary psychology has a problem
    http://www.evoanth.net/2015/01/27/evolutionary-psychology-has-a-problem/

    I wonder if it places to much emphasis on adaptive explanations as well. Could some of our behaviors have neutrally evolved?

    Anyway, thanks for the post, Myles!

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    • Changed :) and thank you for the link :)

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    • Evolutionary Psychology as a field of science does not “have a problem.” It’s findings, conclusions, and theories evolve with new information just like any scientific field. New genetic data bringing changes to evolutionary theory does not mean the field of Biology “has a problem.” Why would changes to conclusions in Evo Psych justify generalizations about the whole field?

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    • A quick reply to the apparent “WEIRD/NORMAL” problem of Evo Psych by Robert Kurzban.
      http://epjournal.net/blog/2013/09/is-evolutionary-psychology-weird-or-normal/

      The part to emphasize (as the article does), is that EP is not alone is discussing ‘human behaviour’, not ‘the behaviour of college students’ yet is the only perspective in human sciences to be consistently beaten with this particular stick.

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    • Thanks for the comments!

      @ Doug

      I think there is a little confusion about what I am arguing and what the blog post I linked is arguing. I am not arguing that changing conclusions in evo psych somehow means that it has a problem as a whole. I am a lowly undergraduate studying astrophysics, but I have done some research and I certainly understand that it is the nature of science to change it conclusions based on new evidence. Rather, the blog post argues that evo psych stills uses samples that are of limited use to uncovering behaviors that may have evolved. Mainly, studies use samples of Westerners/WEIRD predominately.

      @ Dave

      Thanks for the link to the article. The author of the blog post, Adam Benton, has actually responded to that post as many commenters brought it up to him. You can read it here:

      Evolutionary psychology is riddled with pseudoscience
      http://www.evoanth.net/2014/12/30/75-of-evolutionary-psychology-cant-be-trusted/

      I should say that I think the title of the post is rather harsh in suggesting that evo psych is “riddled with pseudoscience” but the post does illustrate the problem. Also, I do realize that evo psych has been a favorite when it comes to criticizing sciences that try to understand human behavior. Adam, who is a PhD student studying evolutionary anthropology, is focusing his criticisms on evo psych in particular simply because it is relevant to his interest in human evolution.

      To the credit of evo psych, Adam does find that it uses WEIRD populations and college students at a lower rate that the wider field of psychology. They are still used in a very large proportion of studies though.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. OK, first on the substance:
    “which pales in comparison to the number changes required to alter complex behaviour”

    How do you know how many changes are required to alter complex human behaviour? What if most changes in human behaviour rely on diet/culture/environment? Conversely what if one or a few mutation events lead to drastic changes in our brains? The problem with EP is that it almost never actually investigates the genetics of complex behaviours and merely assumes a past selective pressure (even though a given trait could have come about as a biproduct of other selective pressures or just randomly through drift. Brain plasticity is also ignored. I’ll leave it to the biologists to explain further problems with EP.

    “Watson is slowly becoming irrelevant confining herself to what is essentially a trolling channel on YouTube”

    Geez, her channel is literally “reading/investigating the actual studies that science journalism articles are about and debunking the hype”, which is exactly what your channel does, albeit with a different focus. Is MP a trolling channel then? What’s more this kind of spitting response to a fellow skeptic is a bit surprising seeing as you make videos smiling and talking pleasantly about fuckin’ AIDS denialists and cancer quacks who cause actual harm and death to thousands!

    Much disappoint.
    =8)-DX

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Great post.

    Here are some typos I spotted:
    Watson presentation > Watson’s presentation
    psuedoscientific > pseudoscientific
    who’s average generation time > whose average generation time
    there has been virtually no major physiological changes > there have been…
    number changes > number of changes
    millions years > millions of years
    “Isn’t it reasonable…” is missing a question mark at the end.

    Feel free to delete this comment afterwards. :)
    Wim

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hey man, I was in that audience and immediately started tweeting about how dishonestly Watson was treating evo-psy. Got some heat for it later heh heh http://the-orbit.net/almostdiamonds/2012/12/04/not-at-all-targeted/#comment-19324

    Like

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