Making Hash of Evolutionary Psychology

Stuart Derbyshire, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Birmingham, has an absolutely scathing review (at Spiked) of the latest nonsense emanating from evolutionary psychologists. As Derbyshire has it in the first line:

Sex and War: How Biology Explains Warfare and Terrorism and Offers a Path to a Safer World is an unbearably stupid book.
The authors, Malcolm Potts and Thomas Hayden, ‘explain’ war and violence by treating human beings as machines programmed by evolution to grab resources, form in-groups and pass on their genes. Women, according to the authors, are naturally more passive because they must invest more effort into rearing offspring, and men are naturally more aggressive because they can produce lots of offspring by being dominant. It is a commonly told tale that explains little and confuses an awful lot.

Derbyshire not only challenges the just-so psychological explanations, but unlike many critics of evo-psycho, he dares to

challenge the overly-simplified biological similarities between humans and apes upon which much of evo-psycho rests:

Even the basic differences escape the authors. Potts and Hayden suggest we share a tendency towards war with chimpanzees because, ‘just as we have the same bones in our hands and feet as chimpanzees and the same networks of neurons in our brains as chimpanzees, so we also share with chimpanzees a predisposition for adult males to team up, attack, and kill other groups of our own species’. In fact, human hands and feet are radically different from those of chimpanzees. Our hands have the famous fully opposable thumb, which means we can grasp small items and bring them into closer view for inspection and manipulation (3). Our feet, in contrast, have an adducted (non-opposable) hallux and shortened toes, which means we can’t hold on to a branch or a banana with our feet like a chimpanzee can. We also do not have the same networks of neurons in our brains. There are similarities, but the brains of humans and chimpanzees do not weigh the same, look the same or respond the same. The precise details are discussed in detail elsewhere (4), but it is obviously the case that our bodily and neural anatomy differ importantly from those of chimpanzees, or else we would be chimpanzees. And we aren’t. The anatomical differences reflect massive differences in the actual and potential behaviour of humans and chimpanzees.

The principles by which Derbyshire critiques this book apply to nearly every just-so story offered by evo-psycho adherents. Not only do “the authors have a slavish adherence to a ridiculously simplified evolutionary stance,” but they cannot even uphold this stance consistently. Like Richard Dawkins’ absurd conclusion that we must fight back and take control of our ‘selfish genes,’ evolutionary psychologists nearly always try to have it both ways: Humans are determined by their biology, but therefore they must fight against their biological nature. But of course this makes no sense; for in the evo-psycho materialist vision, there is no separate immaterial self to fight against its biological nature.
If I have any difference with Derbyshire, it is that I wish he would have dug down to the last layer at the core of this view: Namely, Darwinian evolution. If it is true that the mechanism by which biological change happens is merely random mutation and natural selection, then the evo-psychologist can say, ‘sure, these just-so stories may be wrong, but there must be some sort of biological explanation of our behavior in terms of reproduction advantage’ (mutation and selection). Many critics of evo-psycho want to keep Darwinism but contain it so that it does not affect humans. This is untenable. If Darwinism is true, and we were built by this process which did not have us in mind but is merely tuned for survival, then, like it or not, there must be a Darwinian explanation for our thoughts and behavior. Put another way, one cannot claim that Darwinism made our brains but has no bearing on the brain’s contents. Derbyshire may of course see this, but one wishes he would have said it.