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Darwinian Theory and Evolutionary Psychology — A Troubling Legacy

Richard Weikart

To an outsider, evolutionary psychology seems like a field riddled with fabrications of clever stories — some of them rather far-fetched — that try to explain human behavior as the product of evolutionary processes. According to evolutionary psychologists many human behaviors are hard-wired in our genes, because they contribute to survival and reproduction.

As I discuss in greater depth in my book The Death of Humanity: And the Case for Life, evolutionary psychologists have provided evolutionary explanations for many behaviors that help a person get his or her genes into the next generation, including adultery and rape. But what about behaviors that seem to be counterproductive to reproduction, such as infanticide or homosexuality? 

Just-So Stories

No need to fear. Even in cases of behaviors that seem to hinder reproduction, evolutionary psychologists can invent some good-old “just-so story.” E.O. Wilson, a Harvard biologist and the founder of sociobiology, claimed that homosexuality might be selected for, because a homosexual would be able to help siblings have more offspring. Is there any empirical evidence for this? No, but apparently it is the best just-so story he could devise.

In a similar fashion Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker asserts that infanticide has biological roots. He claims that ancient humans were picky about which babies they would raise to maturity. According to Pinker, “A new mother will first coolly assess the infant and her current situation and only in the next few days begin to see it as a unique and wonderful individual. Her love will gradually deepen in ensuing years, in a trajectory that tracks the increasing biological value of a child (the chance that it will live to produce grandchildren) as the child proceeds through the mine field of early development.” Pinker does not provide a stitch of evidence for this assertion, which runs contrary to everything I have ever heard from mothers.

Reinforcing Prevalent Prejudices

It seems to me that evolutionary psychology simply reinforces the prejudices prevalent in the minds of the intellectuals involved in those fields. Thus, perhaps it should come as no surprise that evolutionary psychology is being called upon once again in some circles to reinforce prejudices that have not been widely accepted in academic circles: racism and anti-Semitism. I say “once again,” because this is not brand new. In my book From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism, I provide detailed discussion of scientists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who upheld these positions.

Recently the journal Evolutionary Psychological Science published an article by Edward Dutton, a religious studies scholar, entitled “Jewish Group Evolutionary Strategy Is the Most Plausible Hypothesis.” Dutton’s article supports the hypothesis of the anti-Semitic evolutionary psychologist Kevin MacDonald, who claims that Jews have biologically ingrained behaviors (think of all the negative anti-Semitic stereotypes here) that help them out-compete other races. 

Dutton, by the way, is also trying to resurrect such wonderful “scientific” fields as physiognomy, the popular 19th-century view that one can judge human character by facial characteristics. He recently published a book, How to Judge People by What They Look Like.

Pinker, who is on the editorial board for this journal, rejects Dutton’s “findings,” as undoubtedly many other evolutionary psychologists will (and as they should). They surely will distance themselves from his attempt to resurrect the discredited physiognomy, which is clearly based on prejudice, not empirical evidence. However, perhaps they should ask themselves if their own progressive prejudices that masquerade as science have any more empirical support than Dutton’s racist prejudices.

Richard Weikart is professor of history at California State University, Stanislaus, and a Senior Fellow with Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture. He is the author of The Death of Humanity: And the Case for Life, Hitler’s Religion, and other books.

Photo credit: Steven Pinker, by Better than Bacon, via Flickr.