Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Just So Stories of Evolutionary Psychology

by Madeleine Kando

Throughout my teaching career, I have been struck by how different little boys behave from little girls. I knew in my gut that I wasn’t stereotyping. At dress-up time, boys rarely asked to wear a tutu and girls stayed away from the pirate costumes and cowboy hats. During free-play, the girls immediately made a bee-line to the beanie baby basket and the miniature tea set, while the boys congregated on the gym mats pushing and shoving each other to be first to do somersaults.

If my school had been in Sweden, I would have not been allowed to call my students ‘boys and girls’, I would have had to call everyone ‘buddies’. Sweden is in the vanguard of countries that try to create a ‘gender-equal’ society where there is no discrimination based on a person’s sex. The country even added a new gender neutral pronoun, ‘hen’ to its language. Some schools have banned ‘free play’ altogether, because that’s when hierarchy, exclusion, and the seed of bullying start. Parents and teachers try to control how children form friendships, what games they play and what songs they sing, all in the name of gene neutrality. (See Slate Magazine: ‘Sweden’s New Gender-Neutral Pronoun: Hen’).

I am sure the supporters of Evolutionary Psychology would frown upon these new social developments. To them, differences between the sexes, including many behaviors, are a result of natural selection, it is encoded in our genes and trying to do away with those differences by manipulating external factors will only lead to trouble.

The field of Evolutionary Psychology is an offshoot of ‘Sociobiology’, a term coined by evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson. It tries to explain human behavior by looking for an evolutionary basis. Other scientists such as Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker and Daniel Dennett also see Evo-Psych as an important branch of science which can explain human social behavior through biology. On the other side, scientists such as Stephen J. Gould argue that these fields spread dangerous ideas because they lead to biological determinism, the idea that, no matter what we do, we are victims of evolution. It is the age-old battle between ‘nature’ versus ‘nurture’.

Behavioral psychologists don’t believe in the ‘Blank Slate’ theory, that we are born without mental content and that knowledge comes from experience and perception. But nobody really believes that we are all nature and no nurture, or vice-versa. Some gender differences are biologically determined, I am sure, but saying that men are programmed to hunt, be aggressive and rape and women are programmed to be submissive, take care of the kids and cook is going a bit too far.

The battle is more political than scientific: If we are blank slates, we're all equal. But if something is written on the slate, some people could have more of it than others. that would justify discrimination and inequality. If we're blank slates, we can perfect mankind through social engineering. If we have instincts, some of them might condemn us to selfishness, prejudice and violence.

It helps the Evo-Psych movement, that none of their claims can be falsified, i.e. proven wrong, because evolution happened so long ago. But many ‘behaviors’ can be explained by ‘reason’ rather than ‘genes’. For instance, when food is scarce and an Eskimo family must move, grandparents sometimes stay behind to die rather than slow down the entire family. Is this because an altruist gene? Or is it because in a culture where sacrifice is celebrated in song and story, aged grandparents who stay behind become the greatest heroes of the clan? **

Many of the studies that try to prove a biological basis for present-day human behavior have a ‘Just So Stories’ air about them. How did the Leopard get its spots? Well, one leopard accidentally had a “spots” mutation (call it a gene from now on) and it survived better, because the camouflage helped. So spotted leopards survived better than plain vanilla ones, and eventually displaced them. So that was how the leopard got its spots. (Next question?)

The same argument could be applied to any trait that the socio-biologist desired to explain, whether animal or human. “The method consists essentially of contemplating the trait and then making an imaginative reconstruction of human history that would have made the trait adaptive.” **

Why are we afraid of spiders? Because in pre-historic times their bite would have been a mortal threat. But there is no reason to think that spiders in the Stone Age were a greater threat to man than they are now—which is to say, hardly any threat at all. *

Evolutionary psychology goes where the wind blows. It is more a reflection of social norms. In the 1970s Sociobiology defended the double standard, i.e., female monogamy and male promiscuity, and claimed to find it in birds. We now find that female birds cheat on their mates so this is seen as the latest deliverance of science with implications for humans, without noting the change of viewpoint from the previous view of bird monogamy.

Does Evolutionary Psychology contribute to our understanding of the world? It basically says that something is the way it is because it exists. If the stock market drops, investors, seeking an explanation in the newspapers, may find a headline like this: “Selling Pressure Causes Stock Drop.” That doesn’t help—it merely re-describes the phenomenon. We want a reason why it dropped. We already know that it did!

You might have deduced by now that I am no fan of evolutionary psychology. It reminds me too much of another discipline that is not ‘hard’ enough to my taste. What was that called again? Oh yes, psychology. Not only does it try to explain too much with too little, it is also trying to show that it can solve problems that do not exist. Why do girls like the color pink? Scientists believe that a woman's brain is more suited to "gathering-related tasks," like identifying fruits and edible red leaves hidden in green foliage. Women's preference for reds and pinks might also be related to finding a suitable mate, one with healthy pink cheeks, they say. ***

Do you seriously want me to believe that a little girl walking down the isles at Toys R Us, looking at endless rows of pink Barbies, pink Disney toys, pink tutus and pink tiaras, is motivated by her instinct to find a suitable mate? Firs of all, pink didn't become the color of choice for girls until the late 1940's; in the 1800's it was considered a masculine color.

But the pink/blue controversy could just as well be explained by any other arbitrary, far-fetched variable. The plosive 'p' in the word pink requires less force to pronounce than the voiced plosive 'b' in the word blue. And everybody knows that boys are stronger than girls. How is that for an explanation? leave comment here

* From an article in the New Yorker: ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’ by Anthony Gottlieb
** See: ‘Against Sociobiology’ by Tom Bethell
*** The Week: August 2011