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Sep 23, 2015

The Psychology of Freedom: Against Evolutionary Psychology

Evolutionary psychology is not a “psychology of freedom.”

One of the important topics that concerns those interested in a psychology of freedom is the issue of free will vs. determinism. There are compelling arguments on both sides that I will address in depth in a later essay in this series. In this essay, I want to address a branch of psychology that offers a less-than-compelling argument for determinism: evolutionary psychology. Its leading exponent, Stephen Pinker, has been warmly received in some libertarian quarters. Pinker’s latest book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, for example, has been positively reviewed by a number of libertarian websites including Mises Canada and discussed positively by Reason (which often mentions quasi-libertarian Pinker in a good light).

But being a libertarian or quasi-libertarian doesn’t automatically make you right about everything. Those libertarians eager to embrace evolutionary psychology or fawn over Pinker might want to be aware that, contrary to the claims of its popularizers, it is highly controversial within academia.  As I have said elsewhere, Pinker would have us believe that it is now “the” accepted academic doctrine, both in general and in regard to gender. Nothing could be further from the truth.  First of all, it has been widely criticized for serious flaws in its research.  The critics include psychologist and author Christopher Ryan, psychologist Robert Epstein at Scientific American, as well as many others. One author describes one of Pinker’s sleight-of-hand tricks thus: “Pinker’s basic problem is that he essentially defines ‘violence’ in such a way that his thesis that violence is declining becomes self-fulfilling. ‘Violence’ to Pinker is fundamentally synonymous with behaviors of older civilizations. On the other hand, modern practices are defined to be less violent than newer practices.”  There’s a name for this. It’s called intellectual dishonesty, and it’s only one example of such dishonesty.

One of its major critics is biologist John Dupre in his book Against Maladaptationism: or What’s Wrong with Evolutionary Psychology. He argues that the evolutionary psychology view is that we are adapted to the Stone Age rather than to modern life. In one of his papers, Dupre, speaking of the kind of evolutionary psychology promoted by Pinker, John Tooby, Leda Cosmides, and others, says:

It is quite surprising that we should be, in this way, systematically maladapted. We are, after all, probably the most successful large organisms in the history of life, and this success has accelerated as the conditions of our existence have diverged ever further from those of the Stone Age. It is surprising, at least, that this should have happened if we are systematically adapted to a quite different environment from the one in which we appear to have thrived so spectacularly. Fortunately, there is no good reason to accept this maladaptationist thesis. It is based on bad biology: an obsolete view of genetics and a dubious and probably unsupportable view of evolution. There is much else wrong with evolutionary psychology, and its errors have been thoroughly documented by myself and others.

Neuroscientist Steven Rose, co-editor of Alas Poor Darwin: Augments Against Evolutionary Psychology is another major critic of Pinker’s brand of evolutionary psychology. In “The Debate between the Two Steves” (Pinker and Rose), Rose comments:

Which brings me to another crucial point—that I emphasize again and again in Lifelines—that is finding the right level of explanation for any phenomenon, the fundamental point of scientific method—and here I mean not just natural science, but all science. Steve’s agenda is grandiose, taking on in his last chapter the meaning of life, but his answer is I think slightly less relevant than 42.1 Take human love, for example—Steven explains love, and he did so again on Start the Week—as resulting from the shared interest of partners in the genes of their offspring. No possibility here for homosexual, same-sex love, no possibility here for the love which goes between—for people who are not—and infants who are not one’s own genetic offspring, and so on. It’s just this impoverishment of thought, which occurs again and again in the ways in which these terms are used, by people of Steve’s persuasion in this context, that I find, both as a human and as a biologist, distinctly troublesome. Sure, as a neuro-scientist I can talk about the firing of cells in the hypothalamus; hormone surges, cortical representations, all the things that go on in the brain when one’s in love. Neither those, nor the genes, tell us anything about the feeling of what it’s like to be in love—what it means to be a person in love, two people in love, and their interactions.

Now finally, what I find very odd about all this macho evolutionary talk, with its wild speculative finale on the meaning of life, is the extent to which in the last analysis it wants to have its cake and eat it. We are, evolutionary psychology argues, mainly the deterministically driven products of our selfish genes and their sole interest, that of replication. All our deepest desires and emotions, our abject selfish failures, as well as our most selfless ambitions to create a more beautiful world, these are all simply shadow-play. Yet at times Steve, quite rightly, like Richard Dawkins and others, recoils from this bleak vision. He is in some unexplained way free; as he puts it, very clearly, in the book, if his genes don’t like what he does, they can go jump in the lake. Now, what I find very puzzling is to understand where this freedom comes from. Does it fall from the sky? Are we suddenly to invoke some new deity to enable him to escape from the deterministic trap into which he’s painted himself? I simply can’t go with this Cartesian split. This is why I want to claim that I’m talking a deeper and a richer materialism than Steve is in his account. It’s a materialism that takes account of dynamism, and isn’t statically frozen into the past. And it’s this richer understanding of biology, the mechanistically driven approach, which helps us to understand that for us, like all living creatures, the future is radically unpredictable.

In his essay criticizing evolutionary psychology, British intellectual Kenan Malik (whose background is neurobiology and the history of science) contends its view of the nature of the human mind is flawed and doesn’t fit the facts. The Cosmides and Tooby model, he writes, argues that “[a]s with our ancestors, our mind is a nest of instincts, all adapted for a Stone Age life.”  This model, he continues, “makes for an interesting, and in some ways a plausible, theory. The trouble is, it simply does not necessarily fit in with what we know about the ways in which the human mind actually works. The modern mind is characterised not by its modularity—a capacity to respond to many tasks in a fast but rigid fashion—but by its flexibility, an ability to think laterally, and to use analogy and metaphor.”

Philosopher David Buller, in his book Adapting Minds, makes a similar argument. In an interview about his book at Scientific American, Buller comments:

There are three foundational claims that it makes. One is that the nature of [evolutionary] adaptation is going to create massive modularity in the mind—separate mental organs functionally specialized for separate tasks. Second, that those modules continue to be adapted to a hunter-gatherer way of life. And third, that these modules are universal and define a universal human nature. I think that all three of those claims are deeply problematic.

If anything the evidence indicates that the great cognitive achievement in human evolution was cortical plasticity, which allows for rapidly adaptive changes to the environment, both across evolutionary time and [across] individual lifetimes. Because of that, we’re not quite the Pleistocene relics that Evolutionary Psychology claims. [Regarding universality,] all of the evidence indicates that [behavioral] polymorphisms are much more widespread in all sexually reproducing populations than the idea of a universal human nature would require. So I think the theoretical foundations from which a lot of predictions get made, about what our mate preferences are going to be, or what the psychology of parental care is, are problematic because the theoretical foundation is mistaken.

There is ample evidence in cognitive psychology to support Buller’s claim. The plasticity of the human brain is well-documented, for example, see here, here, here and here.

Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne, author of Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible, has also long been critical of evolutionary psychology and its weak research. In commenting favorably on a Slate article about evolutionary psychology, he wrote:

It’s typical of many evo-psychology studies that they simply ignore, or downplay, results that don’t support the authors’a priori Darwinian hypothesis. Indeed, in many ways evolutionary psychology resembles religious belief—at least in the fervor of many of its advocates and their tendency to completely ignore data that don’t support their hypothesis….I maintain my claim that much of evolutionary psychology is scientifically weak: little more than exercises in story-telling with a thin veneer of science. I emphasize again that not every study in the field is weak or flawed: there is some good work in evolutionary psychology. But the field suffers in general from not only scientific lassitude, but a failure of its practitioners to police the discipline. Many of them have an interest in selling the field (which, of course, enhances their careers), and you can’t do that if you spend your time criticizing shoddy work by your colleagues. It’s this failure of policing that leads me—and Yoffe and Schaffer—to put on our badges and nightsticks.

When evolutionary psychology wanders into the field of gender research, the results are laughable. I am far from alone in criticizing it. One of its major flaws: it cherry-picks its research, for example, on the issue of rape. Most evolutionary psychologists only cite other evolutionary psychologists when in fact the vast majority of actual research on rape is done by social psychologists and anthropologists like Peggy Sanday. Sanday did a study of over 180 cultures, past and present, which was published in the prestigious academic publication, The Journal of Social Issues, published by the American Psychological Association.  She found cultures where rape was virtually nonexistent, which of course flies in the face of evolutionary psychology theory, which suggests that rape is genetically adaptive. The difference between rape-prone and rape-free societies was their attitudes toward women. In the latter, women were regarded equally with men and violence was disapproved of for both men and women. This shoots major holes in evolutionary psychology’s gender theory but, funny thing, you wouldn’t find this study cited by evolutionary psychologists, including Pinker. Sure enough, in Better Angels, almost all the evidence cited about rape is from other evolutionary psychologists.  Sanday is not mentioned.  This is cheating.

Feminist biologists have also weighed in with their objections to evolutionary psychology in the book Feminism and Evolutionary Biology: Boundaries, Intersections, and Frontiers edited by biologist Patricia Gowaty.  In regard to rape, one of the authors, Victoria L. Sork, writes “My additional criticism of viewing rape as an adaptation is that this perspective not only uses bad evolutionary reasoning, but it also overlooks the pathological and social causes of rape that may provide much greater insight about its solution than an evolutionary perspective.”  In fact, there is a great deal of evidence to show that rapists have bad attitudes toward women. The book Attitudes Toward Rape: Feminist and Social Psychological Perspectives by Colleen Ward, for example, notes that rapists hold women responsible for rape and are more accepting of the myths about rape than nonrapists.

Dupre also criticizes the evolutionary psychology arguments about rape in his book The Evolutionary Psychology of Sex and Gender. Here is a description from the publisher: “Also reviews the kinds of evidence that are offered for claims in this area, including the alleged evolutionary basis for sexual attraction in each sex, and the alleged male disposition to rape. The poverty of this evidence points to the general weakness of the evolutionary psychological programme.”

In my own field of psychology, evolutionary psychology is equally controversial. You will be hard-pressed to find a psychology textbook—whether intro, social, or any other category that gives it more than a brief mention. For thoughts on why it is so popular in spite of rapidly growing academic criticisms, see this article at Slate titled “Cave Thinkers: How evolutionary psychology gets evolution wrong.” The author writes:

So, if evolutionary psychology has so many cracks in its foundations, why is it so stubbornly influential? It helps that EP-ers like Buss and Pinker are lively, media-friendly writers who present topics like sex, love, and fear in simple terms. More to the point for scientists, EP’s conclusions can be quite difficult to falsify. Even if its methods of generating hypotheses are suspect, there is always the possibility that on any given topic, an EP-er will turn out to be partly right. That forces critics to delve into the details of particular empirical claims. Buller does this in the latter part of his book and successfully dismantles several major EP findings.

Ultimately, the biggest problem with EP may be that it underestimates the power of evolutionary forces—both to tinker continually with the human brain, and to have created ingenious and flexible problem-solving structures in the first place. There’s a nice irony here, since for years EP-ers have ridiculed opponents for not appreciating evolutionary theory’s core tenets. Buller goes so far as to note an eerie resemblance between EP and intelligent design, which also treats human nature as fixed and complete. The more persuasive claim is that there is no single human nature, and that we’re works in progress.

I would suggest that in the case of libertarian support for Pinker, the fact that he is apparently some sort of libertarian may be blinding them to the flaws in his ideas.

In spite of the fawning popular media and some libertarians’s enamourment with Pinker, evolutionary psychology is not warmly welcomed by many academicians. Its simplistic, deterministic view of human nature simply does not hold up. It has nothing to offer those concerned with the possibilities of a psychology of freedom. It doesn’t offer freedom, only enslavement to our genes. Evolutionary psychology is playing an academic shell game, pulling in the naive suckers. Or, to put it another way, Steven Pinker has no clothes.


  1. Rose is referencing Life, the Universe and Everything by humorist Douglas Adams; in Adams’s book, 42 is the answer.

Update: In an earlier version of this piece, Steve Horwitz was listed with Christopher Ryan and Robert Epstein as a critic of evolutionary psychology. His name was removed at the request of the column’s author.

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