Postmodernists Don’t Understand Evolutionary Psychology

“Racist Wilson, you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide.”

— A member from the International Committee Against Racism (prior to dumping a pitcher of water on E.O. Wilson’s head), 1978

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When speaking to evolutionary psychologists, it isn’t uncommon for them to lament and rail against the disparities between their perspectives and that of other faculty members in their departments. The philosophical leanings in much of the discourse in the social sciences are steeped in the critical writings of Kant, Rawls, Adorno, Marcuse, Foucault and other postmodern thinkers. What this often means to evolutionary psychologists is that the mere mentioning of “Darwin” can trigger a range of responses from passive dismissiveness to outright attempts to destroy one’s career (as they tried to do with Napoleon Chagnon who showed that aggression and mate abduction strategies of the Yanomamö were evolved strategies).

Academic freedom and the campus culture wars over free speech have been dramatically escalating in other domains as well. Most recently, Anne Coulter’s planned talk at Berkley aroused concern for inciting violence from a group of far-Left leaning extremists known as the “antifa” — resulting in its cancellation. Other speakers with conservative ideas have also been criticized and openly attacked. Public intellectuals like Jordan Peterson, and Jonathan Haidt have come under sharp criticism, while speakers like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Charles Murray have seen violent protests.

But how did such disdain towards people like E.O. Wilson (who coined the term sociobiology), Murray, and Chagnon come to be? Why do many academics and social scientists dislike certain viewpoints — evolutionary psychology in particular? There are a few reasons and depending on the set of circumstances, postmodern thinkers often summon one or more of them in their polemics. Regardless of which criticism is hurled against EP, almost all of them seem to revolve around misunderstandings.

To contextualize this, a brief explanation of what is called the Banker’s Paradox may be helpful. The paradox is this: a banker knows that people who need money the most are least likely to pay it back and people who need money the least are most likely to pay it back. In order to reduce debt risk, the banker will consequently most likely refuse to loan money to those who need it the most.

Albeit disheartening, this should hardly be surprising. So what does the Banker’s Paradox have to do with the often-vitriolic contempt postmodernist thinkers have of EP? It is well known that the political Right (most often orthodox Evangelicals and Muslims) will reject evolution because it threatens their beliefs about intelligent design. However, what is less discussed is why academic social scientists (the majority of whom lean to the Left) reject EP on moral and ethical grounds. After all, it is the Left who are often quick to claim evolution is a fact. If the Left loves evolution so much, why do they hate evolutionary psychologists?

To help understand the Banker’s Paradox in evolutionary terms, imagine you are an ancestral male, alone on the savannah in Africa millions of years ago and you encounter one of two possible situations. In the first one, you see an ancestral female who is old, wounded, and shows signs of disease. In the second scenario, you see an ancestral female who is young, healthy, and shows no outward signs of illness. Simply stated, our ancestors had a similar dilemma that bankers today have: they had to make critical choices about who to help. Since providing aid to a person in need could potentially be harmful to one’s self, if a group of hominids consistently chose to help in cases like those in the former they would have likely failed to become an ancestor of ours.

One of the most common misconceptions about evolutionary psychology lies here. It is the false belief that it somehow intentionally justifies tragic social contracts over more egalitarian ones and thus makes apologies on behalf of Social Darwinism.

The philosophy of Social Darwinism, which is often associated with the philosopher Herbert Spencer, is based on a political orientation that called for fewer government regulations in order to ensure that evolutionary processes would unfold naturally and without obstruction. The belief was that human societies thereby yield the strongest “stock” this way. The premise was that any assistance from the state would interfere with the natural laws of the survival of the fittest and therefore would be a detriment to society’s achievement of perfection. Because evolutionary biology and politics gave birth to Social Darwinism, atrocities (most notably, the Holocaust, the U.S. Eugenics Movement, and slavery) became colloquially associated with evolutionary psychology. The connection seems to have stuck like glue. In fact, despite several decades of clarifications given to their camp, postmodernists, academics, and social scientists have continuously accused evolutionary psychologists for justifying a host of human rights violations. In every case, the finger pointing has been the direct result of at least one or more misunderstandings. This article is intended to discuss these misunderstandings and to offer clarifications.

It should be mentioned right off the bat that there are no credible evolutionary biologists or psychologists who defend or postulate that “the strong survive and the weak die” should be used as a basis for structuring society. In fact, many spend a significant portion of their careers saying the exact opposite by highlighting the difference between biological evolution and cultural evolution.

It is not just social scientists and academics that have grossly misunderstood EP — even the layperson seems to think that if something has evolved it must therefore also be good and moral. It should go without saying (but the fact that there is a need for this dialogue proves otherwise) that just because something like genocide, slavery, or rape may have provided an evolutionary advantage to some of our ancestors in the past does not in any way mean that it is morally appropriate today or that it will be biologically selected for in the future.

Although people like Gwyneth Paltrow may disagree, just because something is natural does not mean it is good or good for you. When people use the term “natural” this way, they likely do so because they incorrectly believe in some form of a Disneyfied version of our past (i.e. that somehow, ancient humans had a loving and halcyon relationship with “Mother Earth” and other groups of humans). If what is natural is, in fact, good, and what is biological is “natural” then (to postmodernists) what is biological is therefore good. On the surface, the logic may look solid, but this error, known as the naturalistic fallacy, is the result of incredibly lazy thinking.

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It’s natural, right?

So when postmodernists hear evolutionary psychologists say, for example, that cross-cultural investigations of subsistence based societies indicate that males who engage in more acts of warfare have more wives and children, they are not saying that mate abduction is a strategy one ought to teach their children nor is it a defense of the patriarchy. Postmodernists seem to think that a biological explanation for human behavior is somehow tantamount to a recipe for constructing society.

There is a difference between explaining an event in the past and telling others how to behave in the future. When a cancer researcher claims to have found a tumor in a chimp’s brain, he is not advocating for the spread of cancer. Similarly, when an evolutionary psychologist says, “females get pregnant and males don’t,” he is not saying men ought to cheat on their partners. When a physiologist explains that Tay Sachs disease is more common amongst Ashkenazi Jews, he is not joyfully celebrating this fact. Similarly, when an evolutionary psychologist cites evidence showing women are more likely than men to be choosier in mates he is not saying it ought to be less acceptable for a woman to engage in a frivolous affair.

A student in one of my classes once raised her hand and said, “The Eugenics Movement was pseudoscience.” My response was, “If eugenics is pseudoscience, then where do you think ripe, juicy tomatoes come from?” As uncomfortable as it may be, the science behind eugenics is sound (see CRISPR cas9 for example). However using this technology as a cultural tool to structure society has proven to have had extremely horrific consequences and could in the future as well (eg: IVF, PGD, and three-parent-baby technology only being available to the wealthy). But the science supporting eugenics itself was not bad. The public policy that guided the Eugenics Movement was.

Much like a microscope does not tell a researcher how to get rid of cancer, evolution establishes absolutely no ethical guidelines on what is good and bad or how to personally live one’s life. Because EP posits no codified principles of behavior, any criticism that it somehow justifies sexism or racism is itself unjustifiable. EP is the use of the scientific method to understand the functions of our evolved psychological mechanisms in order to help provide insight into human nature. It is a consilience between sciences and the humanities. It is an explanatory theory about human nature — nothing more.

Clarification of Misconception #1: Evolutionary theory is descriptive not prescriptive.

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A second critique of EP is that it is guilty of genetic determinism. This is connected to the naturalistic fallacy. When evolutionary psychologists discuss the role of genes in our behavior, they are not saying that the environment has no role. Because postmodernists seem to think EP disregards the role of the environment, it must therefore logically follow that any differences between individuals or groups are the sole result of genes.

The postmodernist thinking goes like this: If there are differences between groups that are solely caused by genes (which is what PoMos think EP says), then the social deficits (including poverty, delinquency, lower IQ, etc.) that these individuals and groups experience must then therefore also be the result of genetics and is therefore, somehow, justifiable.

Obviously this is not the case and no contemporary evolutionary psychologist or biologist is saying that it is. In fact, even Charles Murray has been spending the better part of his career trying to explain the nearly ubiquitous misunderstandings that many people have of his work.

To sum up, the postmodernist accusation of genetic determinism would be operational if evolutionary psychologists were in fact claiming that genes solely determine human behavior — but they aren’t. Evolutionary psychologists have gone to great lengths to show that both genes and environmental pressures have driven our evolution.

Clarification of Misconception #2: Evolutionary psychology supports the idea that genetics as well as the environment helped shape our evolution. Evolution is not just random mutation — it is random mutation plus natural selection. In a sense, it is “epigenetic.”

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Image from Cultural Psychology by Steven J. Heine

In an article I recently published in Areo Magazine, I discussed several pieces of evidence indicating that both ecology and culture are mediating factors in our evolution. Even though I was clear in discussing this, many people who read the article still failed to see that this was mentioned at all.

To reiterate the point made, the more benign the ecologies were that our ancestors evolved in, one would predict that gender norms would be more egalitarian. Juxtaposed to this, in more dangerous ecologies with larger predators or harsher climate, one would predict that there are more “traditional” gender norms. With the exception of the variable of religion (where there is less egalitarianism in Muslim majority areas compared to Christian ones) cross-cultural evidence reliably supports this theory across various ecologies and political systems.

For example, if your ancestors migrated out of Africa to the South Pacific island of Truk, men had to go on dangerous deep-sea fishing expeditions in order to secure food for their families. Consequently, to this day, masculinity, in a traditional sense, is highly prized by the Trukese. Contrary to this, if your ancestors crossed land bridges and sailed to Tahiti where they continued to evolve, the men likely did not hunt. The ecology there did not afford this opportunity the same way it had for men on Truk. Instead, both Tahitian men and women were able to fish in shallow lagoons to provide for their families. As one would predict, Tahitians do not value masculinity the same way the Trukese do and have more egalitarian views of gender.

The problem that postmodernists have when they hear evolutionary psychologists saying that genetics are connected to our psychological traits is that they seem to immediately assume that what is being said (by evolutionary psychologists) is that the environment does not play a role. These outraged postmodernists may be “triggered” but there is no legitimate reason for them to feel that way since their disgust is based on misinformation.

The fact remains that evolutionary psychology is replete with evidence citing that environmental factors have had a strong role in evolution. It should go without saying (and yet it doesn’t) that this is in complete contradiction to the accusations often levied against it.

Related to genetic determinism is the concept of fatalism. Critics of EP will say that any knowledge of evolutionary mechanisms justifies bigotry and aggression. Again, they think that because something evolved it must therefore also be good. This is not necessarily true. Similarly, postmodernists mistakenly think that just because something evolved it won’t or can’t change in the future.

Thornhill and Palmer’s A Natural History of Rape has unfortunately achieved the status of an iconic symbol of evolutionary psychology and has found itself in the cross hairs of many postmodern thinkers.

We are still evolving and just because something like rape may have worked in the past for some individuals or groups doesn’t mean it will or must work in the future. Postmodernists seem to think that a genetic explanation for behavior is the same as saying that that behavior is resistant to change and therefore knowledge about it could be potentially harmful. To them, since a biological explanation is the equivalent of being irredeemable to change, any attempt to reduce incidences of rape would be ultimately futile. Their conclusion: since EP cites biological factors in rape, it justifies sexism and assault. But since EP does in fact cite environmental and cultural components, their critique is unfounded.

Consider the following example: males are more likely than females to misinterpret a smile for sexual intent. When a woman smiles at a man, he is more likely (than when a man smiles at a woman) to think that a sexual opportunity is being indicated. This is likely an evolved mechanism related to the size and number of gametes between the sexes (yes, all two of them). Knowledge of this sexual over-selection bias can help society. For example, men educated with this knowledge may reduce the number of times they incorrectly act on their erroneous assumptions and thereby reduce the number of unwanted sexual advances towards women.

Knowledge about our ancestral physiology may help us reduce stress and increase longevity as well. Our sympathetic nervous system evolved as a flight-or-fight response mechanism to stressors in the environment. Ancestral humans would release the stress hormone, cortisol, into their blood streams when they were attacked by, say, a prehistoric tiger. After the event, cortisol levels would return to base line levels. Modernity does not afford humans enough time to allow for cortisol levels to return to normal levels the way it did for our ancestors. We evolved to deal with a stressor and to enjoy the fruits of the stressor disappearing. Today, we’re too busy with rush hour traffic, dealing with business meetings, and angry spouses to have the opportunity for the parasympathetic nervous system to properly return the body to homeostatic levels. Knowing that our bodies are not that different than our ancestors’ but that our environment drastically is, can help us navigate through life in a healthier way.

Clarification of Misconception #3: Knowledge about our evolved psychological mechanisms can give us more capabilities to positively impact people’s lives.

Another misconception about evolutionary psychology seems to revolve around humans’ evolved inability to comprehend vast amounts of time. Because EP discusses human nature in terms of events that happened in the distant past, critics will often claim that none of the hypotheses can be properly tested. While it is obviously true that we can’t go back in time, what isn’t true is that we cannot know how something that happened in the past impacts us today. If something is dismissed simply because it occurred in the past and cannot be directly tested (as the postmodernist critique goes) then the criminal justice system as well as our understanding of dinosaurs needs to be thrown out – after all, you can’t go back in time and test your hypothesis. Clearly, we know full well that conclusions can be drawn from examining various pieces of evidence in multiple disciplines (including, but not limited to, physics, chemistry, genetics, and astronomy).

For reasons mentioned above as well as in my previous article, postmodernism seems hell-bent on obfuscating or ignoring the role of biology because it views any innate talent to be a threat to equality. But since biology is the result of physical and chemical processes that began billions of years ago and is intimately connected with all of life, a good theory of human nature must obviously take it into account. When postmodernists rest their theory on the idea that culture is essentially nothing more than a ghost inserted into a machine they are ignoring that modern EP is a consilience between proximal factors (i.e. social role theory) as well as distal factors (physics, chemistry, and biology).

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The Spanish invasion of the Americas

For example: Pizarro and his men, as Jared Diamond has discussed, defeated the Incan empire because of proximal resources that the Incans lacked: guns, steel swords, and horses. Postmodernists love to assume the myth of the Noble Savage and assert that the reason the Incans didn’t kill the Spaniards was because they were more peaceful and attuned to Mother Earth — nonsense! The Incans were as warlike as any other civilization (if not more so). The reason why the Spaniards invaded the Americas and not the other way around was because of distal factors. The ancestors of the Spaniards evolved in a part of the world whose ecology (i.e. the presence of wheat, barley, and domesticated animals) provided the evolutionary affordances to eventually give rise to guns, germs, and steel — the Incans did not.

The origins of our inequalities do not come from differences in present ideologies, but rather from variations in ancestral ecologies.

Clarification of Misconception #4: A discussion of distal factors is not the same as negating proximal ones. Our understanding of psychological adaptations does not need to belie the enormity of the cosmic timescale.

The take home message is this: if one wants to have a theoretical framework to ameliorate human suffering where a substantial portion of the data (like biology) is willfully obfuscated, the theory will pale in comparison to another one that takes into account more or most of the data. In our endeavor of attenuating suffering we must also be intellectually honest: our anatomy is an archive of our ancestral past and can provide clues to human nature, and, quite possibly, our ability to overcome ethnic and ideological hatreds. However, if we choose to ignore the role that biology plays in our being human we will necessarily fail in finding solutions to social problems.

Our ancestors’ adaptations have ensured our survival up to this point. Saying this does not mean that adaptations must continue or that they will work at all in the future. Cultural views can and do change, and when they do, a different set of selective pressures will be present in the environment. Even though the genes made it, the cultural horse is pulling the genetic cart.

Reza Ziai

Reza Ziai has a master's degree in psychology and is currently an adjunct lecturer at the City University of New York. He is also a writer and a free thinker. His interests include dissonance, music, and evolution.
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Reza Ziai

Reza Ziai has a master’s degree in psychology and is currently an adjunct lecturer at the City University of New York. He is also a writer and a free thinker. His interests include dissonance, music, and evolution.

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