Interesting and somewhat critical ;^> article in The New Republic, a leading
center-left, neoliberal political-intellectual journal.
The fairy tales of evolutionary psychology.
Of Vice and Men
By JERRY A. COYNE
Issue date: 04.03.00
Post date: 03.26.00
A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion
by Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer
MIT Press, 272pp.
In science's pecking order, evolutionary biology lurks somewhere near the
bottom, far closer to phrenology than to physics. For evolutionary biology
is a historical science, laden with history's inevitable imponderables. We
evolutionary biologists cannot generate a Cretaceous Park to observe exactly
what killed the dinosaurs; and, unlike "harder" scientists, we usually
cannot resolve issues with a simple experiment, such as adding tube A to
tube B and noting the color of the mixture.
The latest deadweight dragging us closer to phrenology is "evolutionary
psychology," or the science formerly known as sociobiology, which studies
the evolutionary roots of human behavior. There is nothing inherently wrong
with this enterprise, and it has proposed some intriguing theories,
particularly about the evolution of language. The problem is that
evolutionary psychology suffers from the scientific equivalent of
megalomania. Most of its adherents are convinced that virtually every human
action or feeling, including depression, homosexuality, religion, and
consciousness, was put directly into our brains by natural selection. In
this view, evolution becomes the key--the only key--that can unlock our
Unfortunately, evolutionary psychologists routinely confuse theory and
speculation. Unlike bones, behavior does not fossilize, and understanding
its evolution often involves concocting stories that sound plausible but are
hard to test. Depression, for example, is seen as a trait favored by natural
selection to enable us to solve our problems by withdrawing, reflecting, and
hence enhancing our future reproduction. Plausible? Maybe. Scientifically
testable? Absolutely not. If evolutionary biology is a soft science, then
evolutionary psychology is its flabby underbelly.
But the public can be forgiven for thinking that evolutionary biology is
equivalent to evolutionary psychology. Books by Daniel Dennett, E.O. Wilson,
and Steven Pinker have sold briskly, and evolutionary psychology dominates
the media coverage of the science of evolution.
Thornhill and Palmer's attempts to gain control of rape counseling, laws,
and punishments, despite the weakness of their science, reveal their larger
goal: the engulfment of social science and social policy by the great whale
of evolutionary psychology. This attempted takeover is not new. It was first
suggested in 1978 in E.O. Wilson's On Human Nature, and more recently in his
Consilience, Wilson extended the program to nearly every area of human
thought, including aesthetics and ethics. We are witnessing a new campaign
for the Darwinization of Everything. Thornhill's and Palmer's theory of rape
is just the most recent attempt at the annexation of all human experience to
After all, if one can give a believable evolutionary explanation for the
difficult problem of rape, then no human behavior is immune to such
analysis, and the cause is significantly advanced. The apocalyptic tone that
pervades Thornhill and Palmer's book reveals the party to which they belong:
"The biophobia that has led to the rejection of Darwinian analyses of human
behavior is an intellectual disaster." And "in addressing the question of
rape, the choice between the politically constructed answers of social
science and the evidentiary answers of evolutionary biology is essentially a
choice between ideology and knowledge."
Let us be clear. It is not "biophobia" to reject the reduction of all human
feelings and actions to evolution. Quite the contrary. It is biophilia; or
at least a proper respect for science. The "choice between ideology and
knowledge" is a real choice; but it is Thornhill and Palmer and the
doctrinaire evolutionary psychologists who choose ideology over knowledge.
They enjoy the advantage that people seem to like scientific explanations
for their behavior, and the certainty that such explanations provide. It is
reassuring to impute our traumas and our misdeeds to our savanna-dwelling
ancestors. It lessens the moral pressure on our lives. And so the
disciplinary hubris of evolutionary psychology and the longing for certainty
of ordinary men and women have combined to create a kind of scientistic
cargo cult, with everyone waiting in vain for evolutionary psychology to
deliver the goods that it doesn't have.
Amid this debacle--for A Natural History of Rape is truly an embarrassment
to the field--I am somewhat consoled by the parallels between Freudianism
and evolutionary psychology. Freud's views lost credibility when people
realized that they were not at all based on science, but were really an
ideological edifice, a myth about human life, that was utterly resistant to
scientific refutation. By judicious manipulation, every possible observation
of human behavior could be (and was) fitted into the Freudian framework. The
same trick is now being perpetrated by the evolutionary psychologists. They,
too, deal in their own dogmas, and not in propositions of science.
Evolutionary psychology may have its day in the sun, but versions of the
faith such as Thornhill and Palmer's will disappear when people realize that
they are useless and unscientific.
JERRY A. COYNE teaches in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the
University of Chicago.
This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Tue Apr 04 2000 - 07:41:21 EDT