Why I find evolutionary psychology iffy
Evolutionary psychology is one of those branches of cutting edge science that leaves me thinking about how the cutting edge tends to be the thinnest part of a blade.
That isn’t to say it is entirely without merit, but rather to say one should view it with caution.
The core idea sounds plausible, that certain mental behaviours may in fact be evolved responses to our environments and that may explain some aspects about society.
The trouble is when you get down to specifics, and how you figure out if a behaviour is a result of larger culture or something biologically ingrained into us.
What is a difference born of stereotyping, and what is a result of actual biology?
To take an example, let’s take the established gendering of the colour pink. Recently someone tried to explain this preference as some sort of caveman holdover of some sort, except of course pink only became a specifically feminine colour about seventy years ago.
In the early 1900s, pink was often seen as the boy’s colour because it was related to red, and blue was the girl’s colour because of traditional portrayals of Mary being in blue. Before that, children up to the age of five were mostly dressed in white.
A study was once conducted in which women were all given the same test, but some of them were told that women tend to do worse in it than men. These women proceeded to do worse than the ones who weren’t told that. The result led to the coining of the term “stereotype threat” and is a very important concern in any study of social difference.
We tend to conform to the expectations society thrusts upon us, which makes it extremely hard to find biological routes to behaviours because how much of that is a real difference, and how much of it is simply people doing the expected?
You could possibly limit the effect of tester bias by double blinding, but how do you account for biases held by the person being tested? And how do you make sure unconscious biasing factors (Like the example last year of an exam asking kids about their favourite soap operas biasing against kids with no access to soap operas) aren’t in play?
In order to actually eliminate cultural effects, you need to eliminate a lot of the social pressures that biology based evolutionary psychology is trying to explain. Otherwise you have too much noise from alternate hypothesis.
Now this is of course not to say that how our society has developed is free of evolution, complete with some of our behaviours, but rather that evolutionary psychology needs to tread very carefully before it becomes discredited in much the same was as eugenics was – as simply a sciencey sounding excuse rather than a solid scientific explanation.