The Importance of Evolutionary Psychology

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The social sciences have a problem: they aren’t actually very scientific. Much of what we encounter in a social sciences curriculum is based merely on assertion and has been passed down on the grounds that “if someone important said it, then it must be worth repeating.” This is why we’ve seen enormous progress in the “hard” sciences of physics, mathematics, engineering, biology, chemistry, and so on but very little tangible progress in the social sciences.

Here’s why: in the “hard” sciences, assertion is without merit. What matters is demonstrable proof.

There are several ways to get to proof. Often, there’s an existing theory. Then one or more repeated observations reveal a phenomenon that isn’t predicted by and therefore isn’t explained by the existing theory. An example of this is the apparent retrograde motion of Mercury around our Sun; it doesn’t correspond to the prediction of its orbit made by the mathematics of Newtonian theory. So we realize we need a different theory that not only explains everything in Newtonian mechanics but also accounts for the observed behavior of Mercury. Along comes an unknown young man called Albert Einstein with the idea that spacetime is a unified entity and that it is distorted by mass; his equations not only account for Mercury’s movement around our Sun but also make important predictions that can be tested. In 1919 Eddington conducts such a test (the deflection of light from a star passing behind our Sun) and sure enough, the Einstein field equations are empirically shown to be correct. So Relativity replaces Newtonian mechanics.

Obviously not all science is so clear-cut. While Higgs, Brout & Englert, Guralnik & Hagen & Kibble all developed mathematical models to predict what we now call the Higgs Boson, it took nearly sixty years to develop the necessary technology to demonstrate that this boson does exist and does so at the energy level the theories predict. And some predictions are exceedingly difficult to test, which leaves them in the realm of “mathematically sound but unproven.”

Nevertheless, the concept of testing an idea against empirically derived real-world data is at the core of science. And it’s this concept that has largely been missing in the social sciences.

Until now. Step forward, Evolutionary Psychology.

As Evolutionary Psychology (EP for short) has been widely misrepresented in the glossy magazines, mass media, and in countless Internet blogs and vlogs, it’s worth explaining in detail so we can understand it’s potential.

EP begins with the rational assumption that there’s nothing magical about the human brain, any more than there’s anything magical about any other part of the human body. In other words, the brain, which is the organ in which all our thoughts and behaviors are generated, has been just as subject to selection pressures over the course of our evolution as any other part of our body. Characteristics that on average provided some advantage were retained while characteristics that were maladaptive to our environment were gradually lost from the gene pool.

Cosmides & Tooby’s groundbreaking book The Adapted Mind got the ball rolling back in 1980. It opened up a whole new way of seeing ourselves. Unfortunately, EP rapidly became an intellectual backwater in consequence of the fact that it was exceedingly difficult to get grant funding to study big important topics but relatively easy to get grand funding to study trivial non-contentious topics. To this day EP remains trapped, as far as academic work is concerned, in this backwater of micro-topics. Fortunately, as “hard” science has repeatedly shown, many of the most important contributions to a field of study often arise far beyond the self-referential world of academia.

To see why EP is different from what went before, let’s contrast it with something many people know a little about: Freud’s theory of the human mind. Freud wrote voluminously over a long period and fleshed out a theory of mind in which human sexuality was central. Although Darwin had published decades earlier there is no indication that Freud knew anything about evolution, or that if he did it had any influence on his ideas. Consequently Freud never asks the question, “would my theory be compatible with the challenges the human animal faced during its long evolutionary history?” Instead he simply proceeded to build a baroque structure that largely mimics Christian mythology; the tripartite god of the Christians becomes transformed into the tripartite division of human impulses: the ego, superego, and id.

Freud’s notions don’t make unique predictions so they can’t be subject to empirical test. They are, in short, merely a belief system. Either you swallow Freud’s ideas or you don’t; there’s no way that arises from within the system itself to determine whether or not the ideas are correct.

Real science, conversely, results in theories that make unique predictions that can (assuming sufficient time and technology) be tested and thus either confirmed or falsified. This is why we have smartphones and GPS and airplanes and all the other everyday wonders we have come to rely on. Empiricism is the most powerful tool humans have ever invented because it’s the only reliable way we have of determining truths about reality.

EP is the first branch of psychology to meet the criteria of empiricism. Whereas sociological ideas could attempt to mass circumstantial evidence for or against an idea by means of observation but could generate few if any novel predictions, EP can both generate novel predictions and permit proof testing.

Let’s look at a simple example.

Although a well-known C&W song exhorts women to “stand by your man” this in fact would have been a pretty poor strategy for most of our evolutionary history. A quick thought experiment shows why:

We begin with two family groups A and B. Each family comprises a female, a male, and their child. Thus we have Af, Am, and Ac in family A and we have Bf, Bm, and Bc in family B.

At the beginning of our thought experiment all factors are essentially equal: ages, health status, hunter-gatherer abilities, pair-bond satisfaction.

Both males are adequate hunters and both females are adequate gatherers. (Note: we use this division of labor because in every Neolithic-type society we’ve ever encountered this is the division we actually see. We’ve never encountered female hunters and male gatherers. It doesn’t matter if we think this is morally wrong; it is what observation tells us and so we built it into our model. By way of analogy we might deplore the fact that hydrogen is the primary fuel of main-sequence stars but pretending that it’s really zinc or that it’s really invisible magical unicorns put there by our favorite god or goblin because these are a more comforting choices won’t lead us to build useful models of solar physics.)

One day both Am and Bm return injured from the hunt. For a few days both Af and Bf “stand by their man.” But as the days pass the downside of having an injured mate becomes very apparent: the supply of food diminishes and protection against predators is much diminished also. On a certain day Af decides it’s time to abandon her man so she leaves him and finds another available male to form a new pair-bond with. Meanwhile Bf stands by her man. All three begin to weaken from hunger. Eventually the entire B family perishes from a mixture of disease, depredation, and starvation. Meanwhile even if Ac dies during the re-mating process of Af, Af survives and will pass her genes on when she gives birth to a new child fathered by her new mate. Thus over many generations this scenario leads to a hardwired behavior that programs women to abandon mates who have become non-viable. There is no other possible evolutionary outcome. No matter how successful Am had been in the past, yesterday’s kill won’t feed tomorrow’s empty stomachs.

This “abandon a non-viable male mate” behavior is a prediction not made by standard psychology. But the prediction is worthless unless we can test it. If it is true that all women carry hardwired instructions in the fundamental structure of the brain to abandon a non-viable mate then it follows that assessing mate viability will also have been conserved as an essential trait. After all, you can’t abandon a non-viable mate if you have no way to determine whether or not he is in fact non-viable. Thus we can test the overall theory by testing whether or not women are hardwired to perform mate viability assessment.

Here’s a simple experiment anyone with a female partner can perform at home:

Select a part of your body your partner doesn’t usually touch very much, for example your lower right rib. Now record how many times she touches you there (accidentally or intentionally) over the next 10 days. After you have obtained a count, tell your partner that you have a strange pain there and that it hurts to be touched there. Now record how many times she touches you there (accidentally or intentionally) over the next 10 days.

What we find when we actually perform this test is that after being told of the strange pain, the female partner will (usually “accidentally”) touch the supposedly injured spot multiple times per day in contrast to the very infrequent touching or no touching at all prior to being notified of the purported injury. This is her hardwiring driving her to assess her mate’s degree of viability and is entirely beyond her conscious control.

No doubt many people will object to this type of experiment, arguing that it is “sexist” or “doesn’t prove anything” or “there are probably many reasons why she’s touching that spot” and so on and so on. But the value of science isn’t predicated on people’s willingness or ability to accept a theory; its value derives from its ability to predict with empirical validity real-world phenomenon that would otherwise be inexplicable.

Of course, this baseline scenario is intentionally simple. But we can elaborate on it, driven by the logic of EP. For example, we may hypothesize that because young men have a greater capacity for recovery than older men, it would take more of an injury to trigger the assessment behavior in younger men than in older ones. We could also hypothesize that a female with an injured mate must take into account her chances of finding and securing an alternative mate prior to abandoning a non-viable mate. This means her age and relative attractiveness would become factors in the equation. But no matter how we elaborate on the baseline experiment we will find that we make predictions that can be tested.

And that’s the power of EP. For the first time we can begin to test quite rigorously our theories about the way we humans are hardwired with regards to highly conserved fundamental behaviors. We are no longer stuck with untestable baroque theories and mere observations about particular cognitive limitations. We can begin to theorize and then test these theories against empirical data. And that means that EP can become a real and productive science in a way that no other social science can match.

Of course there are many reasons people hate EP.

Some people confuse the description of a phenomenon with an endorsement of that phenomenon. This is like saying the weather service shouldn’t report an imminent tornado because that would be to endorse the tornado and the damage it will subsequently cause. Obviously this is a pretty silly way to look at things.

Other people hate the idea that much of our behavioral repertoire is hardwired and largely beyond our conscious control. But just because you hate something doesn’t render it untrue. Lots of people hate the idea that the Earth is an oblate sphere but that doesn’t mean the Earth is really flat.

Some people refuse to believe that the brain is the source of what we are, preferring to believe instead in fairytales like “souls” and “spirits.” But just because some people believe in the Tooth Fairy doesn’t mean she actually exists.

Others accuse EP of legitimizing undesirable traits and therefore claim it is a harmful science even if (and especially if) its findings are true. This is like saying that studying genetics legitimizes violence because we discovered that males with two Y-chromosomes are usually more violent than normal males.

People objected to mathematics on the grounds that it was a kind of magic most people couldn’t understand and therefore could be used to trick the masses. People objected to chemistry because there were “things we should not know.” People have always objected to the development of new forms of knowledge, especially when those new forms of knowledge reveal us not to be the clever and wise people we’d like to imagine we are but instead rather intellectually limited and often foolish creatures driven by hardwired behaviors we’re not even cognizant about much of the time. This is not a glamorous view of humanity. But it is a far more accurate view than hitherto and in theory at least we could use this expanded view to our advantage by recognizing our inbuilt limitations and acting accordingly instead of as per today acting as if we don’t have these limitations and then wondering why things don’t turn out as we expected.

Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.

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