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With Evolutionary Psychology, “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” Says New Yorker Writer

Tom Bethell

In The New Yorker, Anthony Gottlieb has an amusing article, slyly deriding evo-psych without being solemn about it (“It Ain’t Necessarily So,” September 17, 2012).
Gottlieb, a philosopher who used to work for The Economist, starts by explaining what a Just-So story is, first as used by Kipling then in its anti-adaptationist sense. Gottlieb speculates that its first latter-day use was by S.J. Gould in 1978. R.C. Lewontin titled one of his books It Ain’t Necessarily So, and both men were at that time highly critical of sociobiology — the antecedent to evo-psych.
The piece looks at a new book, Homo Mysterious: Evolutionary Puzzles of Human Nature, by David Barash, a professor of psychology and biology at the University of Washington. Gottlieb also mentions comparable books by Douglas Kenrick of Arizona State and David Buss of University of Texas.
I should note the comment by Phil Johnson that criticism of evo-psych is a hazardous enterprise for Darwinians because the same arguments apply to Darwinism proper. Here Gottlieb waves regular evolution (of the body) through all the checkpoints while (humorously) examining claims that various forms of behavior are “adaptive.”
The main problem with evo-psych is that nothing ever has to be confirmed. The regular practice has been to invoke the existence of genes “for” the behavior in question. The appearance of a book in 2000, co-authored by Randy Thornhill, imputed rape to “rape genes” and that greatly magnified the criticism of evo-psych. The genes for these forms of behavior never have to be identified physically; plausible speculation (a just-so story) is all that is required. They don’t have to be identified to “explain” traits in the body either. Genes “for” eye color have never been identified, for example. But in this piece, Gottlieb doesn’t mention genes. (They may be pass� anyway).
Gottlieb says that evo-psych has this snappy slogan: “Our modern skulls house a stone age mind.” He goes on:

This mind is regarded as a set of software modules that were written by natural selection and now constitute a universal human nature. We are, in short, all running apps from Fred Flintstone’s not-very-smartphone. Work out what those apps are — so the theory goes — and you will see what the mind was designed to do.

He questions his own use of “designed” and adds:

the coup of natural selection was to explain how nature appears to be designed when in fact it is not, so that a leopard does not need an Ethiopian (or God) to get his spots.

The differences between men and women are the main interest of leading evo-psychos, Gottlieb reports. Obviously there are real genetic differences and we don’t need to study chromosomes to know that out. Gottlieb spends too much time on sex — he can’t resist having fun with evo-psych claims. They have concluded that “men and women look for different things in a mate,” and have spent

decades administering questionnaires to college students in an effort to confirm their ideas about what sort of partner was desirable in bed before there were beds.

Evo- psych has also observed that young men are more violent than old women, and this is the residual effect of mating strategies. Gottlieb comments:

A knowledge if these patterns may be useful one day. Still, when a youth is knifed outside a nightclub, no cop needs evening classes in evolutionary psychology to realize the folly of rounding up grannies.

It is conceivable, he suspects, that in a hundred and fifty years “today’s folk wisdom about the sexes will sound as ridiculous as Darwin’s.”
What did Darwin get wrong? He “built the prejudices of Victorian gentlemen into his account of the evolution of the sexes.” Ba-ad!
So let’s hear it for Darwin, just this once.
Seriously, one wonders if they will ever have as much fun with evolution as they are now willing to have with evolutionary psychology.