I write a lot about evolutionary psychology in my work, and consider it to be explanatorily useful. Many people are off put by evolutionary psychology, though. So I thought I’d try to address some concerns here here.
Part of the resistance is the fear of reductionism. It is feared that by explaining certain psychological phenomena in evolutionary terms, we are shortchanging the beauty and/or complexity of the phenomena. I’ve written about this before. About this, all I can say is that I don’t see it that way. I don’t think evolutionary psychology is the end-all-be-all of human psychology. To use the example from my previous post, if we explain that it might have been evolutionarily advantageous for people to, say, enjoy engaging in fictional stories, we cannot go on to say, “And that there’s why you like Pride and Prejudice so much. And that’s that.” Maybe there are some evolutionary psychologists who have that attitude. Indeed, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there were. But it’s not necessary to believe that evolutionary psychology exhausts all psychological explanation; it still may be useful for some psychological explanation. Evolutionary psychology might help explain why there is no culture that exists that doesn’t engage in any form of narrative storytelling, without explaining why Jane Austen is brilliant, or what it feels like to see The Sopranos. Evolutionary psychology should only be considered part of the story of psychology. Just because it is not a total explanation does not mean it serves no purpose. It helps us think about innateness and culture.
Relatedly, if one thinks evolutionary psychology is useful, that does not mean one need deny the importance of nurture; or think that experience is not in the least determinative; or that behaviors, beliefs, and desires are not shaped by the environment. Again, evolutionary psychology is a theory about the origins of some psychological traits, not an end-all-be-all explanation for the entirety of human psychology.
Another objection to evolutionary psychology was made by the person who really brought the idea of innateness of psychological traits back into the mainstream of academic discussion, from which it had been excluded for some time: Noam Chomsky. He considers most evolutionary psychology ” just-so stories.” This is not without some merit, and there has been uneven quality of evolutionary theorizing. But it’s not the case that just anything goes. Evolutionary psychology should and does yield testable hypotheses and predictions. For the nerds among you, here’s a thorough piece by Edouard Machery on what constitutes evidence in evolutionary psychology.
Lastly, people discount evolutionary psychology because it is used to justify some or other unpleasant behavior. It’s been used, not just to describe, but to legitimize the decrying of practitioners of monogamy; a preference for adolescent girls; disgust at other races, homosexuality, and disability; sexism; shrugging off the poor. I haven’t heard it used to defend rape, but I wouldn’t be shocked.
It is unquestionable that adherents of evolutionary psychology have participated in this, and it makes me feel icky to be in their company. But they are completely unwarranted in doing so.
First of all, as Hume famously said: you cannot derive an ought from an is. Facts about the natural world say little if anything about what you ought to do. Just because something is useful in surviving to reproductive age or in attracting partners means that you should do it. There’s no necessary bridge there. That’s not to say that there’s nothing that can be said about the connection between ought and is, but it is a far more complicated connection than: it helped us survive on the Serengeti, so of course it’s okay.
Second, we also evolved metacognition, flexible decision-making, and culture. That is, we are able to reflect on our mental processes. We have an ability to make choices with many competing factors in mind. We do not simply run heavily innately channeled psychological programs that so many animals do. A bower bird will build that damn bower come hell or high water, but we can decide whether we might be better off attracting a mate by singing a song, or being witty, or evincing reliability. We can think about a plan and decide whether it would be a good idea before we act on it. We can have competing urges, and decide which would be best to act on for various and sundry reasons.
We also evolved to be social beings. We live in groups, and group rules such as monogamy or avoidance of nose-picking, even if they are arbitrary, matter. We learn to follow social rules. I’m actually not at all sure that monogamy is culturally dependent and arbitrary, but even if it is – so what? We still belong to a culture, and part of our nature is to be a cultural being. And again, a morality that posits no supernatural forces is not wedded (monogamously?) to the only notion of the good being the survival of the individual or the species. Good may consist in something else entirely.
Evolutionary psychology can help us explain some facets of human psychology. There’s no need to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Just because its usefulness and explanatory power can be overstated or entirely mistaken does not mean it has nothing to say.