The Idiocy of the “Evolutionary” Paradigm in Psychology


In the wake of the financial meltdown a lot of economists are turning to the discipline of evolutionary psychology for answers. Evolutionary psychology basically attempts to explain human psychology in terms of adaptive evolutionary principles. So, a person does X because it is part of their desire to reproduce and thus partake in the evolutionary game and so forth.

I’ve long thought this paradigm to be a crock. Human psychology is not some crude reflection of some abstraction called “evolution” — which is today worshiped in the scientific community as a sort of deity. Human psychology is far more complex and nuanced than that.

The educated public at large, who these days like their deities sanctioned by a man in a lab-coat, have generally embraced the evolutionary paradigm with open arms. They can’t seem to get enough of the latest gimmicky explanation of some type of behavior. This is especially so when the explanation revolves around titillating details about sex and sexuality which it so often does.

Recently, however, I came across an hilarious story in which a very thorough evolutionary psychologist called Satoshi Kanazawa said that women with higher IQs tend to be less inclined to have children. From an evolutionary standpoint this seems absurd because presumably the human race will evolve quicker with more intelligent members. Kanazawa writes:

If any value is deeply evolutionarily familiar, it is reproductive success. If any value is truly unnatural, if there is one thing that humans (and all other species in nature) are decisively not designed for, it is voluntary childlessness. All living organisms in nature, including humans, are evolutionarily designed to reproduce. Reproductive success is the ultimate end of all biological existence.

Hence anyone that is not reproducing is therefore “wrong” or “stupid” at some basic, “natural” level.

Of course, within its own frame Kanazawa’s argument makes complete sense. But the people that usually lap this stuff up don’t like what he’s saying and so they get mad at him. The whole thing is ridiculous.

Wait a few weeks to see another evolutionary psychology study being released which the up-market, liberal press will then salivate over. But the second that the research program conflicts with their cultural values they get up in arms.

That said the media pundits, despite being completely inconsistent, are ultimately right about this particular case. The argument is ridiculous. It is also, however, entirely consistent and follows perfectly well from the underlying structure of the paradigm in question. That is why the argument should not simply be called into question, but should raise questions about the normative metaphysics underlying the evolutionary point-of-view in psychology.

I assume, however, that in the coming months some other evolutionary psychologist will come up with obtuse arguments “refuting” Kanazawa’s work. I can see now the form that the argument will take: the psychologist will bend the theory in pretzels to accommodate high IQ women not reproducing from an evolutionary perspective. The argument will then look correct to those within the paradigm and simultaneously placate the educated public.

“Oh, don’t worry,” they will say, “Kanazawa is just silly, he didn’t really think the whole thing through; look, we can accommodate your cultural values perfectly well. Please continue to talk about our studies when we release them.” And it is thus that psychological theory itself is made to reflect cultural norms at any given moment in history; showing clearly what status the discipline truly possesses.


About pilkingtonphil

Philip Pilkington is a London-based economist and member of the Political Economy Research Group (PERG) at Kingston University. You can follow him on Twitter at @pilkingtonphil.
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7 Responses to The Idiocy of the “Evolutionary” Paradigm in Psychology

  1. PeterP says:

    Human mind and cultural abilities evolved to give its carriers an evolutionary edge. It is a truism, but or course our ability to use it to explain the origin and reasons for some behaviors may be imperfect. Still, I cannot imagine that taking into account *why* we use behavior and emotions can hurt our understanding of these patterns. Jealousy, striving for dominance, greed, hypocrisy, drive to have affluent and fertile partners, all of this is now up for grabs as phenomena we can take a crack at explaining. Previously humans were treated as if we descended from gods or something, their behavior unable to be explained. Animals otoh have strategies, and our emotions and behaviors fall within our arsenal. I see evolutionary psychology as promising.

    • I really don’t think so. “Evolution” as commonly conceived (survival of the fittest etc.) is a deeply metaphysical concept that borders on the telelogical. Using it as a normative benchmark for behavior only results in the likes of the above: judging people for not conforming to what the behaviorist thinks of as “natural”.

      Of course, the other criticism is the arbitrariness of the enterprise. As I say above, the evolutionary psychology community will bend to the media pressure. They already have, apparently, with Kanazawa apparently being banned from major journals. These psychological fads are always just a reflection of contemporary cultural mores. In the 1970s homosexuality was a mental disorder according to the DSM-I and II, today it is not. It’s all just cultural.

      • PeterP says:

        I agree that how it is practiced it often pathetic, but it could also be said about physics, many popular string theory books go far further in extolling what is actually known or could be learned than the critics would ever allow for. In the example you give if the guy says some behavior is “unnatural” then he simply didn’t understand what biology and behavior science (and evolutionary psychology too!) is about: if you think something is “unnatural” is only means your paradigm has no explanation for it. This is ironic because ev. psych tries to explain many behaviors previously thought as “unnatural” or unworthy of man.

        Newtonian physics also spawned many philosophies which we now think are flawed, like laplacian determinism, but the Newtonian physics still stands, not as an “ultimate” theory of everything (there won’t ever be one) but as a fantastically terse and powerful model, still extremely useful in engineering.

  2. Bastien says:

    I won’t say a lot about evolutionary psychology. I’m not an expert but I think it is not impossible for some behaviour to be transmitted if they are the result of some physical or biological structures. Well my point depends on the definition of “psychology”. For instance, I think our mental abilities have constituted an evolutionary advantage at some point in time and may have been transmitted via a reproductive success. But of course, it is not, strictly speaking, “mental abilities” which have been transmitted, but rather the biological structure behind them (probably the organisation of the brain and neurons’ connexions). My point of view.

    Also, I disagree and agree with :

    ” “Evolution” as commonly conceived (survival of the fittest etc.) is a deeply metaphysical concept that borders on the telelogical.”

    I agree because of the “as commonly conceived”. There is a widespread misunderstanding of what evolution is. I think the majority of people still have in mind evolution as Lamarck defined it. In high school, I realized that we were studying Lamarckism and not Darwinism.

    I disagree because of the “survival of the fittest” and “metaphysical concept”. The concept “survival of the fittest” is not appropriate in evolution and is the result of a misunderstanding of it (Darwinism). Evolution is a reproductive success of some individuals due to “features” which give them a temporary advantage (to sum up…). So evolution is mainly about context, and highly random in the sense that these “features”, like hair, skin colour, are distributed among the population and that some individuals will enjoy reproductive success according to their environment. Hence, it is more the reproduction of the fittest, and even that seems problematic. For that reason, I never use the word “the fittest” at all.

    Finally, I disagree because I don’t see evolution as a metaphysical concept. I think it is used like a metaphysical concept by those who cannot (or don’t want to) accept the implications of the theory and are trying to keep human “at the centre of the universe”. As formulated by Darwin, homo sapiens is entirely a part of nature, and has experienced an evolutionary process identical to those of every species on this planet. In other words, we are not necessarily at the top of the pyramid, or a special gift to the universe. As Stephen Jay Gould said, if one restarts the process of evolution to the beginning, one cannot be sure to eventually find the world as it is today. Humans don’t have to exist, there is no teleological direction or final aim.
    I also believe that evolution is used as a metaphysical concept by those who apply it to some part of social science, “social darwinism”. First, they think they apply it, but obviously don’t understand what evolution truly is. Second, they also obviously use it with a political purpose in mind, like saying that the riches are rich because they are “the fittest”. It is a shame to use Darwinism in that sense, and it is a treason as deplorable as Hicksian’s “keynesianism”.

    Sorry, English is not my native language.

    • The “survival of the fittest” always rears its head in Darwinian arguments. It turns from a teleological, Lamarkian conception (“this is what WILL happen”) into a normative, Darwinian conception (“given what we know of evolution this is what SHOULD happen”). That is what the above author has done. He has argued not what high IQ women WILL do, but what they SHOULD do. Thus the evolutionary paradigm drops teleology in favour of normativity. Not much better if you ask me given the whiff of eugenics that this raises.

  3. Hayo says:

    It is unfortunate that people are not aware that there are two different understandings of evolution/genesis: One ancient from Aristotle (taken from Democrit) and one post-Darwin. Most people now use one concept in one domain and the other in other domains. This creates inconsistencies. Unfortunately, these are unconscious and because they happen on a high level of concepts, they are difficult to trace.
    Evolutionary psychology is a nice example of a whole group of scientists who have named themselves after a concept they understand so little epistemologically of (I do not deny that some of their initial ideas were interesting, but not consistently followed through).

    Anyway, at least in the psychological and biological circles I know of they are not taken serious anymore. I suggest instead gestalt psychology as much more evolutionary in the post_Darwin understanding and much more consistent.

    • This is always what you hear from the defenders of the evolutionary faith. I do understand the difference.

      The post, however, is clearly on a certified evolutionary psychologist. And as I say above, his conclusion is perfectly consistent with his oh-so Darwinian theory.

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