The devolution of evolutionary psychology

Evolutionary psychology is a developing branch – no, not of evolutionary biology, as one might think, nor even ethology (which includes the study of analogous and homologous behavior in animals) – but of psychology.  It is apparently derived from the controversial ‘socio-biology’ of E. O. Wilson, and is basically the theory that all human behavior can be explained as somehow evolutionary adaptations favoring the requirement of ‘fitness’ for the survival of the species in reproduction.

There are quite a number of problems with this theory. First of all ‘fitness,’ in evolutionary terms, is a ‘post-hoc’ principle. If a species survives the process of natural selection, then it exhibits fitness. This is only contingently, not absolutely, predictive, since the environment (the gate-keeper of natural selection) could radically alter and a so-far surviving species could be simply fail. Secondly, EvPsych has no connection with any genetics that I am aware, and yet the theory clearly requires considerable genetic explanation of how behaviors are coded into human behavior biologically. Thirdly, and (for the purposes of this comment) most importantly, EvPsych, as a research project, apparently has virtually no account for the processes of education or acculturation – what is usually referred to as ‘nurture’ in the nurture vs. nature debate (since such education, acculturation, socialization, etc, first come to us literally with our mother’s milk).

Recently, in reading the paper “How (not) to Bring Psychology and Biology Together” by Mark Fedyk *, which is critical of the EvPsych project (rightly, IMHO), the following passage especially caught my eye:

“‘Rather, we should expect parental feeling to vary as a function of the prospective fitness value of the child in question to the parent… When people are called upon to fill parental roles towards unrelated children, we may anticipate an elevated risk of lapses of parental solicitude. (Daly and Wilson 1985, 197)’**
(Fedyk notes:) “This prediction about parental feeling was tested by analyzing rates of child abuse in the Hamilton-Wentworth area in Southern Ontario, where Daly and Wilson found significantly higher rates of abuse for children living with at least one step-parent (…).”

Are we supposed to take such ‘predictions’ and ‘testing’ seriously? Coming from a dysfunctional family, and knowing others who also have, it is quite clear to us that favoritism and abuse have more to do with the psychological problems of the parents, or inability to learn parenting skills, than some meta-inheritance of selection for ‘fitness.’

One of the glaring deficiencies of EvPsych is that their models and studies both derive from, and return to, the cultural norms of their own society. They show virtually no deep reading in anthropology, or any real understanding of the issues raised in observing patterns of behavior in other cultures.

We know there have been tribal cultures where children were seen as progeny of the clan, or even the whole tribe, rather than the ‘nuclear’ family, and where it was presumed that all members of the clan or tribe would effectively ‘parent’ the child. We also know that there were, and still are, more developed cultures where lineage and/or gender determined favoritism – often by law. George the Third was not fit to be the King of England, but on the throne he sat. And I don’t see how the dumping a girl baby in the river because the parents want a male for their first born (as happened in ancient Rome, as happens still today in China, occasionally) evidences “a function of the prospective fitness value of the child,” since the infant hasn’t been child long enough to determine its fitness. The Daly and Wilson study only tells us something about the culture of Hamilton-Wentworth, Ontario; surely that’s obvious. EvPsych has a fundamental research problem – its testable predictions all seem to derive from already existent observations – ‘From evolutionary theory, we can predict that, during socialization rituals where alcohol is consumed, someone will get angry when called a cross-eyed baboon’ – as if there could be any doubt of that.

The person drowning the infant daughter in the example is the biological parent, not a step parent with no interest in the possible ‘fitness’ of the child. Infanticide unfortunately has a long history, even in seemingly developed cultures. It evidences a cultural preference, and therefore cannot possibly be a parent’s determination of the ‘evolutionary fitness’ of the child, only its socio-cultural desirability.

I haven’t done the research, but it would not surprise me to find societies in which step parents actually value their step children above their own, given values developed within the culture. The Daly-Wilson data may be useful sociologically concerning a certain area in Ontario Canada, but promoting it as evidence of an evolutionary tendency is simplistic and void.

The common language understandings of ‘dysfunctional family’ and ‘psychological problems’ are well understood in my culture, and linked to technical diagnoses by professional psychologists and psychiatrists. Intervention in cases of child abuse are what we really want from psychology, not recondite theories about possible evolutionary adaptations. If EvPsych doesn’t address these issues, then its qualifications as a branch of psychology are suspect.

If so, then of what line of research could it possibly belong to? There’s no biological component to it, as far as I can tell. There’s no benefit to be gained from it except (so far) offering justifications of the status quo. (‘Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars’ could well be a slogan for an EvPsych theorist who also believes aliens first brought life to this planet.)

EvPsych has little to do with how we actually experience our lives, and more to do with arcane social theories about the structure of society (within particular cultures).

So basically, EvPsych seems to be a branch of Sociology – but predicated on the reduction of human behavior to evolutionary imperatives? This is getting more and more questionable by the moment.

EvPsych is raising some interesting questions, about the prehistory-to-history of human behavior; but that’s not enough to save it  – there are other ways to ask these questions, and anthropologists and archeologists have been studying these for quite some time.

If EvPsych theorists really want to establish a viable field for independent study, they must first incorporate (or account for) knowledge that has been developed in other fields.  Then they really need to recognize their own cultural up-bringing and biases, and how these have been rigging their research questions, in order to unravel the rigging and look at the matter through lenses uncolored by presumptions they inherited from their own culture.

If they do, perhaps they can incorporate the criticisms and suggestions of essays like that by Fedyk. If they don’t, their project seems doomed to the same waste-basket as phrenology and eugenics.

EvPsych researchers need to rethink their premises, which right now are as thin as tissue paper.

(I actually did read an EvPsych book this year, Jesse Bering’s The Belief Instinct, and found it entertaining; but the most insightful passages were simply mainstream psychology, the theoretical component was complete speculation.)

** Daly, M., and Wilson, M. (1985). Child abuse and other risks of not living with both parents. Ethology and
Sociobiology, 6(4), 197-210.


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