Evolutionary Psychology 101

Over at Feministing, where I comment frequently, there have been more than a few, er, discussions about evolutionary psychology. (Full disclosure: I started one of them.) In general, the feminists (whom I usually agree with) think it’s a bunch of bunk, and the “trolls,” who are the loud obnoxious frat-boys of the blogosphere (at least, that’s the impression I get), use evolutionary psychology to “put women in their place”—pregnant and at home.

The problem is, evolutionary psychology isn’t really anti-feminist. (Is “masculinism” the opposite of feminism? Just a thought.) Most of the readers at Feministing also have a somewhat distorted view of evolutionary psychology: “evolutionary biology [sic] means that I shouldn’t be good at math or abstract thinking.” Well, actually, it doesn’t. The first thing that you must remember about evolutionary psychology is that no one, not even Steven Pinker, thinks that biology is the only thing that controls personality or ability. There is room for a “use it or lose it” theory, and significant outside influences. Even if someone is born with an aptitude for math, if they are discouraged from taking math, they are likely to lose some of that ability. Conversely, if someone is encouraged to take math, and likes it enough to continue with it, they can become very good at it regardless of innate talent.

Second, evolutionary psychology deals only with averages. It cannot deal with individual cases. So, if most humans are better at arithmetic than calculus (which I blogged about previously), evolutionary psychology can help explain. It cannot explain why Einstein could discover E=MC2 but couldn’t do his taxes. It can explain why most men don’t like it when their wives/girlfriends cheat on them, but not those men who don’t really care. It might be able to explain the difference in the ratio of men to women in sciences and in arts, but not why certain people prefer science, art, language, or any other discipline. It can explain why we like sex, but not why some like BDSM, and some don’t

Finally, and most importantly, evolutionary psychology is descriptive, not normative. It makes claims about how the world is, not how it ought to be. So, even if Lawrence Summers was right when made those stupid remarks about whether or not the lack of women in sciences could be due to innate differences, it should not influence him to avoid hiring qualified female science professors (as he apparently did).



  1. Oenophile said

    Are you claiming that there is no difference between evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology, or that the former is not at all relevant to innate ability? Most of your post focuses on the preferences of men and women – which would be a psychological response. Innate ability is more hardwired.

  2. Bearcat said

    Evolutionary psychology is a branch of evolutionary biology, and preferences are partially heritable, so they are likely hardwired to some extent.

  3. Oenophile said

    But ability would be an evolutionary biology topic, while preferences would be an evolutionary psychology topic, correct?

  4. Bearcat said

    Not necessarily. Ability in calculus, languages, etc. would be a topic for evolutionary psychology, and like I said, evolutionary psychology is a branch of evolutionary biology.

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