An Evolutionary Psychologist Fights Back

One of my favorite discoveries in the blogoverse is the Evolutionary Psychology blog, by Rob Kurzban of the University of Pennsylvania. Evolutionary psychology had an explosive debut in the 1990s, becoming the subject of best-sellers and well-attended conferences. In recent years, a backlash has emerged, and while some criticisms have been justified, a lot of critics either attack straw men or make counterarguments that have serious flaws of their own. Evolutionary psychologists have been defending themselves, but in a relatively scattershot way. Kurzban started his blog in September, and seems to be blogging pretty consistently, and is offering some cogent and entertaining take-downs of the shabbier examples of evo-psycho backlash. I hope the backlashers jump into the comment threads!

PS–Someone has to fix the formatting on Kurzban’s blog. The excerpts look like one-sentence posts….

PPS–Talk about throwing stones from a glass house. Sorry about the headline typo. Now fixed.

9 thoughts on “An Evolutionary Psychologist Fights Back

  1. Thanks for the tip. I commented on his post addressing the question of moral behavior in animals and asking whether morality equals altruism (it doesn’t).

  2. I just don’t understand why “evolutionary psychology” requires it’s own title. A la Theodosius Dobhzansky: “Nothing in biology (including psychology) makes sense except in the light of evolution” (parentheses added). Therefore, shouldn’t all psychology be informed by evolutionary theory? You don’t see behavioral ecologists creating a “new field” of evolutionary behavioral ecology.

  3. In recent years, a backlash has emerged, and while some criticisms have been justified, a lot of critics either attack straw men or make counterarguments that have serious flaws of their own.

    In fairness, a lot of critics are attacking not straw men, but armchair evolutionary psychologists (of the “pink is for girls because TEH EVOLUSHUN!” type) who have given the entire field a bad name. Respectable EPs should be grateful.

  4. @Brad: the evolutionary psychologists have been saying exactly that for a long time. But most of psychology is not evolutionarily-minded (or in some cases even consistent with evolution). Indeed, your (entirely correct) statement that psychology is a sub-discipline of biology would scandalize many psychologists.

  5. EP deserves a lot of the backlash–not the accusations that they are evil genetic determinists, but the accusations that they haven’t provided us any reason to find them compelling or interesting. A lot of EP that gets attention is the sloppy “armchair” variety (plausible-sounding adaptive story for a normative outcome, maybe a little meta-analysis of someone else’s data). I know there is good work being done, but to be taken seriously evo-psych has to put its own house in order. Set some standards for evidence and review. Do an experiment now and then. Hint: psych questionnaires with an evolutionary spin on the conclusions don’t count as studying evolution.

    Maybe some of this has to do with cultural/disciplinary differences between psychology and the life sciences, but if I saw EP as a discipline engaging on a serious level with animal model work, cognitive neuroscience, neurogenetics, and behavioral genetics, it’d be easier to take it seriously. Again, I know there are good, smart people working in this field, but I feel like the interesting work of evo psych is (and already was) being done by people in these other disciplines. And the people who synthesize this interdisciplinary convergence best (like Terence Deacon) are not people who self-identify as evolutionary psychologists. I do feel that they need to justify their existence–what do they do that isn’t being done more rigorously by someone else?

    Maybe my impressions are based on a few bad-apple bottom-feeders of EP–I’m happy to see someone mounting a substantive defense and will follow for a while and will hopefully be convinced.

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