Evolutionary Psychology: I don’t think it means what you think it means

Guest Blogger - Dave

Now, before I begin, ask yourself this, if you are against EP, why? Which of the following do you disagree with:

  • Evolution shapes both the morphology and behaviour of organisms
  • Humans are as much a product of evolution as any other organism
  • Humans behaviour should show evidence of being shaped by evolution

Because if the answer is, “well, none of them”, then there is really no need to go anything further. Because that’s all EP is in the end, looking at humans from the point of view of evolution. It’s taking 150 years of evolutionary theory and applying it to human behaviour. That’s it. We can discuss the impact any evolved pre-dispositions have on behaviour in the context of social, cognitive and biological perspectives without name-calling. So we’re good yes?

Just kidding. As the … responses… to a recent post by Myles, there is a visceral boarding on pathological dislike of EP. So I thought I’d write my own defence of Evolutionary Psychology, though for much better articles, please see here and here.

I’m framing my post around this article that was sent to Myles as a sort of “gotcha” link. But, unlike some articles floating around, the author doesn’t seem to hate EP.  While I agree in principle with some criticisms, I believe for the most part they are simply not accurate.  I want to be clear I’m not “taking down” the article (and anyway, it’s three years old and in Scientific America, so I’m sure they’re fine); I’m using it as a frame to build a more general discussion around.

I apologise for the length, but otherwise it’d just be me saying “I disagree”. So, to begin

1) You’re not measuring what you think you’re measuring.

Tldr : we should always be careful of our methods, but indirect approaches to human behaviour are useful and valid.

Point 1 suggested that some research used methods that are invalid because they are poor proxies of the behaviour under investigation. Now, after 7 years of teaching undergraduates, I’d be more than happy to staple things to them and document their mating success. But we can’t. Human research will always be hampered by the human life-span and ethics. So we often have to ask indirect questions.

Human life-history theory suggests that the environment calibrates an adaptive response in terms of long-term vs short term outlook. And when questions about reproductive behaviour (or indeed, economic behaviour) are asked, we find that cues to environment stability produce the predicted response; i.e. the more unstable the environment, the sooner people want children because it’s not worth planning for the future. In both males and females.  And we know that low SES and unstable background does affect age of reproduction (for differences between pre-industrial and industrial societies, see the work of Professor Lummaa).

So, is asking what age you want children a valid for drawing adaptive conclusions? I would argue is a caveated yes. The question is associated with real world behaviour in the life-history context, so there is some base validity to it. Is it perfect? No, and I do share a general mistrust of asking people to predict their behaviour, I find it low-resolution data. But is it invalid? No.

Psychology is full of these little tricks for indirectly assessing important questions, from the fact that salient objects are drawn to be bigger than others, to how fast you respond to pairs of words being indicative of prejudice (IATS). On the surface, all these examples don’t seem that connected to the phenomena under investigation, but they have produced a wealth of useful data.

I agree we should always be careful about the measure we use: but indirect measurements are perfectly valid tools as long as they are done carefully. I completely agree with the principle of the point, I just don’t agree that this method is invalid, or that the criticism is any more relevant to EP than other areas of psychology

2) Undergrads only teach us about undergrads

Tldr: the ‘WEIRD’ criticism needs to be left to die. It’s embarrassing at this point.

OK, time to be honest. How many of you who chant “WEIRD people” while throwing EP articles into the fire have actually read Jo Henrich’s seminal paper on that subject? Because what you’ll notice is that this paper is not aimed at EP, it is aimed at Psychology in general. And “mate choice” is in the “similarities” section. But I digress…

As Robert Kurzban points out here, it is EP that tends to test its hypotheses across cultures more readily than other disciplines. To use the link from the top of the page, how many studies have to show similar behaviour amongst different cultures, both current and historic, before this criticism stops being treated as a ‘gotcha’?

In fact, in economic decision making, more recent studies have shown that once a greater number of samples are taken from within non-WEIRD cultures, the result show that differences are consistent with evolutionary theory, not culture difference; i.e. cultural norms might not affect cooperative behaviour as much as we think.

Critics of evolution were famous for using the Darwin ‘eye’ quote, which suggests Darwin thought the eye so complex that to suggest it was the result of natural selection was “…absurd in the highest degree”. I say were, because this was so easy to refute by simply pasting in the rest of the quote  “…difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real”, that Creationist leaders told their followers to stop using the quote.

By now the same has to true of the WEIRD criticism of Evolutionary Psychology. The above links are just a tiny section of the cross-cultural experimental and anthropological research testing evolution-based hypotheses and theories.

Come on guys. It’s really time to stop with this one.

3) It’s not true that everything happens for a reason

Tldr: Not everything happens for a reason, but it’s not always that simple

I will happily agree with this statement; I’m sure the author would be thrilled by this. More seriously, I do cringe when really specific things are worded as “adaptive”; certainly it’s time EP stopped aiming for the pop-culture with titles and press releases.

One thing I do take issue with the simple map of the trait we should look at. Why? Take status. The biggest predictor cross-culturally of female, but especially male, reproductive success is status/power. And probably the most consistent cross-cultural finding is that women find higher status men more attractive (Here’s one more). But, strictly speaking, status isn’t heritable insomuch as there aren’t genes for being high status, those descended from Zeus notwithstanding. But what could be heritable is the drive for status, in the sense that those with no desire for status had lower reproductive success.

Thing is, there are many culturally specific behaviours that go into being high status, many different things that people do in non-WEIRD societies to show off their superiority over others. Actually, it’s in areas like this where we can debate the role of culture quite directly. Equally, status is also associated with being dependable and a good social partner. Human social life is basically a web of social intrigue. So, for status, while not everything happens for a reason, it doesn’t mean lots of things don’t happen for a reason, because “seek status” is a drive, not a single behaviour.

So, to the author I would ask, are those navy socks, or are they $200 Egyptian cotton navy socks? Were you asked to bring cupcakes to the playdate, or did you just happen want everyone to try that new 100% organic dairy-free recipe you found, or will the daughter of the head of the local school also happen to be there…

I am joking, but my point is that yes, not everything is or needs to adaptive. Most everyday actions are just actions. But once you start considering why people consistently make decision x, y, z rather than a, b or c, things become more interesting. Observing a single molecule of water move tells us little, observe 10billion and suddenly there’s a clear direction of flow. And this is the heart of EP, whether the direction of that flow conforms to evolutionary theory.

4) There is more than one way to skin a cat

Tldr: No one says reproductive strategies aren’t variable and complicated.

I don’t know anyone in this area of research who would recognise her assessment of mate choice. I assume it comes from one or two reasons: 1) studies often use forced-choice paradigms, and 2) when talking about research, reference is made to the extremes (or in the media, which the author acknowledges, but carries on anyway). The former occurs because it makes examining sensitivities, thresholds and trade-off simpler and, much as biologists will use agentic language for genes, the latter is just linguistically easier. Researchers are well aware that there is a continuum of strategies and don’t need reminding.

Part of the mate-choice literature that is left out is biological markets. As a theory it covers exactly the sort of variation the author feels is missing. To cut a long story short “you take what you can get”, or to put it as XKCD said “I love you most out of all the girls in the world… who loved me back”.  The adaptive aspect comes from that while we like to think we can’t choose the people we fall for, our brain is making sure this person is basically within our league, as it were.

What critics of the wider literature (intentionally?) forget is for the most part we all want the same things from a partner; kindness, respect, compatible personalities etc – to be shitty for a moment, is wanting a loving partner also a vicious stereotype? Yet, evolutionary theory does suggests there will be sex specific biases, for example males tend to prefer youth (as a cue to fertility) and women tend to prefer status (cue to resources).

What the mate-choice and wider biological market literature examines is how males and females differentially trade the ‘ideal’ from what is likely. Nothing in this strips the variability in behaviour: who we are attracted to is going to be shaped by personality, life-history, ecology and culture, but EP suggests (and finds) that certain preferences are nevertheless weighted in a non-random direction. I fail to see the problem with this.

5) Just because it works today, doesn’t mean it worked back in the day

Tldr: The EEA isn’t what people think it is, and the request for what EP should do is what it already does.  

First point, I find the criticism of the ‘high-heel’ paper here strange. They accept that: the researchers had a valid hypothesis (has culture produced an artefact that amplifies a perceptual bias); that they went out of their way to strip as much cultural bias from the stimuli as possible; that their conclusion is suitably caveated. Yet criticise it anyway, and again mainly from the way it was reported.


Yes, the modern world is very different from our ancestral one, but not as different as you may think.

The EEA is it is not a specific time as such, but recognition that for most of human, and all of pre-human, evolutionary history, we faced a series of consistent selection pressures. Obviously finding food and not being killed by nature, but more importantly within-species competition. To cut a long story short, hominids at some point achieved ecological dominance, the point at which fitness was dictated more by competition between other people rather than against nature. For example a) the need to be in a group, b) the need to have friends and allies in that group, c) the need to be high status as possible in that group, and d) find the best possible mate.  EP essentially argues that in such core areas there should be evidence of adaptation.

While agriculture did change a lot of things (for instance the ability to supress dominant individuals), it’s arguable that the asaptive pressures described above are still very much present, or at least were until very recently: the life of a 17th Century farmer was not that different from that of a 9th Century BC farmer. We still want to identify with groups, to have friends and fear of ostracism, to feel well-regarded by our peers, to have compatible sexual companionship. These are all things motivate the vast majority of people and cause problems when they are not met (e.g. social isolation is a key trigger of depression).

The environment may have changed, but this has changed the methods of achieving these things, not the predisposition to want them. To reiterate an earlier example, if males want to show off in some cultures they dive for turtles, grow inedible yams, collect honey, or go on raids; in ours they do everything from wear expensive suits to brag about their DOTA victory. It’s not the specifics that matter; it’s that these behaviours signal competitive ability. The evolution/culture interaction is a complex and interesting thing.

The author says as much “A far more useful way to interpret modern behavior is not the specific behavior itself but perhaps the temperament or aims of the actor”. But says this if the various domains of EP aren’t doing this, as if the researchers were investigating whether we evolved to like high-heel specifically, rather investigating how this cultural artefact may fit in with theories of social and sexual display.

I agree completely that specific behaviours need to be considered in the context of wider evolutionarily salient aims. It’s a good job EP has always done that.

6) I: The bad parts of evolutionary psychology confirm what we think we already know about the world

Tldr: ‘good’ EP says things the author likes, ‘bad’ EP says things they don’t.  

I haven’t mentioned ideology throughout this article, but the title “5 Ways to Make Progress in Evolutionary Psychology: Smash, Not Match, Stereotypes” gives away the authors reason for disliking EP. The author wants any research on human behaviour to be for something they agree with, and find the things they want it to. In this case, any research can only be valid if it “smashes stereotypes”. I find this classification of findings as good or bad based on the predilections of the viewer troubling. For instance, it could be argued that humans have a bias towards egalitarianism  and fairness over autocracy. But isn’t just this Western propaganda?

It’s also inconsistent. The author is perfectly happy with the male voice-pitch research, but is this not a stereotype? As someone with higher-pitched voice, should I be angry thatI am not being recognised as the individual I am? I doubt the author has a problem with research showing the effects of kin, mutualism, reciprocity and signalling theories on cooperation, supported as it is by experiments, cross-cultural research, mathematical modelling and comparative analyses. But surely “people are nicer to their family and friends” just confirms social stereotypes? What about research that shows race is just another group marker and can be extinguished, but for sex and age it isn’t so simple?

I’m left with the feeling that, within the legitimate criticisms of methods and under-supported conclusions in EP, there is a consistent thread of “these count when I don’t like their findings”. The feeling that that while the author doesn’t disagree that human behaviour has been shaped by evolution; they believe there are certain things that shouldn’t be studied from this perspective

 6) II: [EP] keeps women and GLBT folk as perpetual second class citizens in this world

Tldr: Personally I think there’s just been a big misunderstanding.

The “justifies oppression” is an accusation that is thrown around a lot and, as here, is never really explained. Because I hear this a lot, the following is not aimed at the article, but the wider audience that hate EP.

Culture did not come from nowhere. When the Spanish met the Aztecs, two peoples had been separated by possibly 100,000 years of cultural evolution, yet below the surface were very similar: with social hierarchies, religious belief, warfare, rites and ceremonies, recognition of friends and kin, a translatable language etc. EP can potentially explain why culture is how it is, and should be part of the debate about the causes of cultural change. Regardless though, EP makes no moral statement (see Natural Fallacy). Remember, we’re taking about evolved biases, not absolute behaviours. Minimal group models in social psychology show how little effort it takes to divide people between “us” and “them”. Are we in-group biased? Yes. Does this mean discrimination and genocide are right. No. Britain just committed the biggest collective act of stupidity the world has ever seen, and it was primarily driven by appeals to this in-groupness. It was bloody stupid, mal-adaptive as EP would say, but it’s an impulse we dismiss at our peril.

Let’s be clear here, no researcher has ever aimed to “justify” anything, nor made moral statements about rightness. Anyone that suggests otherwise is being intentionally deceptive about the nature of EP. Finding that women tend to prefer tall husky voiced men says nothing about the values we should place on ‘tough’ or ‘weak’ men. Showing males may on average be more competitive does not mean we should not value elite female athletes less than male ones. An explanation as to why power corrupts does not mean we shouldn’t be outraged if our leaders become corrupt. But if this is why you hate EP, then that’s your problem for refusing to understand the research properly, or at least for not reading passed the headlines on buzzfeed. You have constructed an Emmanuel Goldstein to yell at that bares scant resemblance the field.

I can appreciate why research that talks about ‘typical’ behaviour upsets some people, as society has tended to discriminate against whatever it decides is atypical. But this is not the fault of Evolutionary Psychology, nor does EP justify such behaviour. At worst EP just explains why society may have ended up how it has. Cultural evolution is so quick that even the smallest mental biases can lead to extreme cultural biases that are far from where they originated. If society devalues people because they are atypical, that’s our problem as a society. We should not judge people for their race or sex, nor for not conforming to expectations. Anyone who doesn’t accept this is on the wrong side of history.

But, on a scientific level, the response to socio-political prejudice should not be to arbitrarily decide there’s no such thing as typical human behaviour or responses, and to refuse to accept people respond non-randomly. In the case of EP, to decide that human behaviour can’t have evolved in some way because some people will read this to mean some things, some people, are ‘better’ than others.

Psychology was once described as “most do, some don’t”, and with the point being to explain the former. Experimental psychology, from whatever perspective, is about looking for patterns, why does x usually cause y and not z, not appreciating the cuddly uniqueness of every participant involved. With the caveats above in mind, I can’t help but think that those who hate EP just don’t like the fact their behaviour might follow the same predictable patterns and rules as all other life on Earth.

We’re all special snowflakes. But if you pull back enough, all you see is snow.

7) Final thoughts

To end more positively, a few years ago I travelled into the wilderness with a few friends. As we sat round the camp-fire, I couldn’t help notice the types of conversations we’re having. Sure we talked about films or work, but as darkness fell the conversation changed. It became which of our friends had fallen out, our worries about the future, the ill-health of a family member, whether a partner was cheating, that our boss is exploiting us. EP implies that anywhere where a group of people have ever gathered, from an apartment in New York to a camp on the Euphrates 80,000 years ago, people have had the same conversations. Sure, the worries were less about ones 401k and more about the rainy season respectively, but the meaning was the same. And that’s kind of amazing to think.

This is the beauty of Evolutionary Psychology, one that the fist waving and insult throwing ‘critics’ (the author of the target article was a critic; those name-calling and talking about Nazi’s are just making noise) miss. It’s about finding and exploring the common fears and desires that people share. That deep down, once you strip away the ideology, the group markers, the learned hate, we all basically want the same simple things. It’s about discovering that, despite everything, we are all only human.

About Myles Power (545 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'.

4 Comments on Evolutionary Psychology: I don’t think it means what you think it means

  1. “I just don’t agree that this method is invalid, or that the criticism is any more relevant to EP than other areas of psychology”. Ah yeah. One would however expect that if you’re talking about what is supposed to be a cross-disciplinary approach, then the “evolutionary” part requires you to take into account biology and genetics otherwise what you’re doing is exactly as problematic as psychology in general. Without prying apart genetic components from environmental or cultural ones by identifying genetic contributors to the studied behaviours the “evolutionary” part becomes only a just-so-story alongside any others. Meh.


  2. buckaroosamurai // July 19, 2016 at 5:37 pm // Reply

    Hi Myles, I generally love your stuff but this one seems a bit off the mark. Especially with your blog titles which serve no other purpose than get peoples hackles up before they even begin reading. Anyway found a decent reply to this post without any vitriol or anger.


    • Hi, Thank you for the link :) I will send in onto the guest blogger for his feedback :)


    • Hi Buckeroosamurai, as an individual who thinks EP has legitimate things to say I suppose I come under the banner of “an EPist”, and I do perceive a modicum of anger in vitriol in this guy’s post (weaksauce replies are apparently typical of my ilk, and whilst he bemoans condescension in others I can’t help but perceive it in his own writing here and there).

      I disagree with almost everything he says, and as someone who occasionally defends EP online I’m very used to writing careful rebuttals to this sort of thing which them go ignored.

      So this time I’ll limit myself to responding to his first argument, and if there’s any constructive response either from him, you or anyone else, I’ll continue to his next substantive point.

      He writes:

      “Judging by the citations, I’m going to say that this guy is a proponent of UCSB school of psychology. The principles of UCSB EP do not flow directly from evolutionary theory. He’s not even trying to defend concepts like massive modularity, just throwing out a red herring.”

      Firstly, given that his content was honestly billed as a comment on Rebecca Watson’s talk, why would he have to either defend or disavow “the UCSB School of EP” (for those who don’t know, a slightly demeaning term which I suspect is used to suggest that EP was codified at the University of Santa Barbara and that it hasn’t moved on much since it’s Genesis there, and that it regards the models set up Tooby and Cosmides as some sort of unquestionable dogma)?

      She didn’t bring it up – so in order to critique her why does he have to? He didn’t say he thought EP was correct and unassailable, he’s mentioned several of his own qualms with it – so if he thinks she’s on the wrong track why would he have to discuss it’s theories (whether they are right or wrong) in order to explain why he thinks she is incorrect?

      That would be my first point here.

      Moving on to more meaty stuff – is there really any good reason to suggest that modularity as understood by many proponents of EP isn’t a credible phenomena?

      I think that modularity – the notion that functionally discrete information processing units work in concert to produce some/most/all of our behaviour – is fairly credible. Almost all cognitive psychology rests on this assumption, and produces mountains of evidence to support its case.

      We simply *know-beyond-all-reasonable-doubt* that things like the face recognition module exist. We *know-beyond-all-reasonable-doubt* it’s built genetically because congenital problems impair or destroy it (resulting in the condition called prosopagnosia). We also *know-beyond-all-reasonable-doubt* that it is tied to a fairly specific set of brain architecture, because lesions to certain parts of the brain will impair or destroy it. We know that it isn’t contingent on things like sight (because whether or not a blind person suffers from prosopagnosia is still dependent on the same gene expression, or lack of brain lesion, as it is with sighted people).

      Now I’ll leave it to others to argue about whether or not it’s a safe bet to suggest that a highly social species might benefit, in terms of evolutionary adaptation, from being able to more easily distinguish between faces than other sets of similar objects, or whether there are certain costs to this ability (such as the ease with which people without prosopagnosia “see” faces where there aren’t any). Seems a safe bet to me – but different people have different ideas about what’s needed to make a convincing conviction here. I will defer to the experts, unless they give me the impression that they are ideologically blind to the facts of the case – like PZ Myers or your quoted writer.

      So that’s modularity.

      “Massive modularity” is essentially the belief that modularity is all there is, and that mental plasticity is just the result of different modules bumping into each other to different degrees to various results.

      I have never heard of anyone strongly insisting that massive modularity need be accepted for the purposes of EP.

      What I have heard is the more modest claim, given when people ask how far modularity might go, that “it could go all the way”. I would therefore say that the notional that massive modularity *might* exist is common to proponents of EP – but not that it is necessary to accept, let alone defend.

      So those are my thoughts on his first point. As I say his subsequent points also meet with similar degrees of disagreement, but I really haven’t the time or inclination to write more unless this post meets with some sort of constructive response.


2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Here we go again: another cock-eyed defense of evolutionary psychology - Atheist Boutique
  2. A Response to PZ Myers – Myles Power (powerm1985)

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