Evolutionary Psychology: Do the Psychologists really Get It?

Robert Kurzban has an interesting (and revealing) post at the blog he writes for the journal Evolutionary Psychology.  He cites the following comment that turned up on one of his earlier posts:

The criticism of social scientists for failing to accept an evolutionary explanation for many of the psychological functions they research and teach has been made many many times during the last couple of decades…this criticism usually appears in general terms and without quotations from or citations of published work…Is this criticism now a straw man?

and wonders,

So when didn’t social scientists say that evolutionary psychology was relevant? How would we show, for instance, that they always didn’t accept evolutionary explanations? How can one document being ignored, an act that more or less by definition leaves no traces?

I know! Say what!? That was my reaction, too, but you have to remember this is a relatively young professor speaking. He probably wasn’t even born when Ashley Montagu published Man and Aggression, a whole collection of essays by himself and other luminaries in the social sciences, all saying quite explicitly that what is now called evolutionary psychology was, not only irrelevant, but bunk. When Richard Lewontin published a whole book to that effect, Not in our Genes, in 1985, it is likely Robert ignored it in favor of the far more improving and enlightening comic books available at the time. In a word, he was born too late to experience all the interesting twists and turns relating to the study of human nature during the last half century, and since, to the best of my knowledge at least, no one has ever written a credible history of the relevant events, it’s a “blank slate” (to coin a phrase) as far as he’s concerned.

Alas, I can offer no guidance on how one might document the fact that one is being ignored, but I rather suspect there’s something behind the suspicion.  After all, social scientists were once quite brazen about rejecting any influence of the innate on human behavior, and it stands to reason that they would be somewhat chastened by being put to shame by, among others, a mere playwright by the name of Robert Ardrey.  In the meantime they’ve been buried by such a mountain of evidence that they can’t afford to be quite so brazen any more, but at least they can still pout.  A tendency to ignore evolutionary explanations of human behavior in their work would be an unsurprising manifestation thereof. 

My advice to Prof. Kurzban:  Don’t worry, it’s all good.  The phenomena he’s referring to are an interesting collection of data points on human behavior in their own right, and, in any case, the pouters-in-chief are growing increasingly long in the tooth, and will eventually die off.  Meanwhile, we’ve just experienced a paradigm shift in acceptance of the evolutionary wellsprings of human behavior.  Again, Prof. Kurzban was probably born a bit to late to really grasp what has just happened, but at the moment, books are pouring off the presses in rapid succession that describe the impact of the innate on morality, decision making, and many other aspects of human behavior.  Their reception today is utterly unlike that accorded to books with similar themes in the 60’s and 70’s.  Their authors are not condemned as fascists and racists by their fellow “scientists,” and in the popular media.  Glitzy documentaries do not appear on PBS demonstrating that they are right wing evildoers.  On the contrary, glitzy documentaries appear on PBS praising their conclusions.  They are not ridiculed, as they once were, as “pop ethologists.”  In a word, today’s crop of social scientists may ignore innate behavior, but they are no longer sufficiently suicidal to claim, as they once did, that it doesn’t exist.  Therein lies the paradigm shift. 

We’re hardly out of the woods yet.  Read the comments on Robert’s blog, and you will find some interesting artifacts of ingroup-outgroup behavior and territoriality, in the form of evolutionary psychologists who fondly believe that only they have the right to speak to issues that are of vast significance in philosophy, theology, political science, and, for that matter, to our very survival as a species by virtue of the fact that they have published x number of papers in peer reviewed journals and have been cited x to some exponent number of times by their peers in response.  I have a doctorate in nuclear engineering, and I have worked most of my career in physics.  I would never dare to claim that someone without a Ph.D. in either of those fields is incapable of uttering anything of relevance relating to them.  In fact, I know the contrary to be true.  The most brilliant scientists tend to be focused very narrowly on their research, and are often poor at seeing the big picture.  I find the idea that someone without a certified and approved academic pedigree should not presume to express an opinion regarding behavior dependent on an organ whose workings we are not even close to understanding, namely, the human brain, to be ridiculous.  After the abject debacle of the blank slate?  Please!  Back in the Vietnam days, there was a PFC in my unit named Douglas Littlejohn.  Whenever I made some comment that stretched his credulity to the breaking point, he had a standard reply that seems appropriate here.  “Sir, you must be trying to bullshit me!”

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