Would Darwin Date an Evolutionary Psychologist?

This week we linked to an article by Dan Slater in the New York Times entitled “Darwin Was Wrong About Dating“. It’s an attempted takedown of evolutionary psychology using current social science research to debunk some stereotypical ideas about the differences between men and women. In response, James Taranto, columnist for the Wall Street Journal, wrote a pretty brutal counter-takedown. Taranto’s subtitle for his piece: “Feminism is the new creationism”.

Sigh, so that’s how it’s going to be. Just for a minute, though, let’s rise above the cheap shots and wild inflammatory claims….

The context for these articles are the explanations offered by evolutionary psychologists for purported differences between men and women. Curtis Forbes wrote a nice introduction to this topic for The Bubble Chamber.  As Curtis explains,

The disciplines of evolutionary psychology and sociobiology aim to explain psychological and sociological facts on the basis of evolutionary principles, and are often concerned with formulating and defending evolutionary explanations about perceived gender differences in humans.

Evolutionary psychologists aren’t concerned solely with explaining gender differences according to evolutionary principles, but such explanations are a large part of the field and the part that has gotten the most public attention.

Cordelia Fine’s popular Delusions of Gender (2010) is an all-out, relentless, mind-blowing assault on evolutionary psychologists and their popularizers who have sought to explain perceived differences between males and females. Fine not only exposes the flawed methodologies and exaggerated conclusions of many studies in evolutionary psychology, but, more worryingly, documents how harmful our perceptions of gender difference are, particularly to children.

Concerning the former, she relates a battery of studies showing that differences between males and females in such tasks as math tests or spatial reasoning are highly sensitive to framing effects. For instance, just having female subjects imagine themselves as male before writing a math test will largely eliminate any gender differences in performance.

Concerning the latter, two studies have stuck with me. Firstly, there is a study where parents are asked to adjust the incline of a ramp that their toddlers are to crawl up. Parents of females consistently underestimate the maximum incline their child will be able to crawl up, while parents of males consistently overestimate it. I have nightmares over what this implies about parenting. Secondly, when females are asked to recall their test scores on past math tests they consistently underestimate their scores, while males consistently overestimate theirs.

These studies make it abundantly clear that not only are gender differences in mental tasks exaggerated, our social perceptions of gender difference are actively harmful. As Heather Douglas argues in Science, Policy, and the Value-Free Idealscientists are inevitably forced to employ social values in making scientific claims. Given the potential harm of incorrectly attributing perceived gender differences to evolutionary, and thus biologically-ingrained, causes, it seems obvious that the significance threshold for such claims should be extremely high. And yet, as Fine demonstrates, the reverse is true: evolutionary psychologists routinely draw conclusions about men and women based on scant evidence.

Although Slater does not cite Fine, he is clearly trying to make the same argument that she does. Most of the space in his article is devoted to explaining tests from social psychology that appear to overturn long-cherished classics of evolutionary psychology that purport to demonstrate gender difference. For instance, one classic study had attractive college students approach other students on campus and ask them to have sex. That study found that zero women agreed to this proposition, while 70% of men did. This apparently confirms that men are more promiscuous than women, and evolutionary psychology can offer a story explaining why: men can father an essentially unlimited number of children while women can only give birth every nine months at best, so natural selection favours promiscuous men but not promiscuous women. Slater, though, cites a study which asks men and women to imagine having casual sex with close friends or attractive celebrities, and in this case the difference dissolves. Like Fine, Slater is arguing that these purportedly biologically-based differences are actually highly susceptible to context and thus probably have little to do with evolution; the explanations offered by evolutionary psychologists must be false, because what they are trying to explain does not exist.

Faye Flam of the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT objects to Slater’s shallow presentation of evolutionary psychology and his equation of evolutionary psychology with Darwinism. Flam is right that Slater awkwardly slides from “evolutionary psychologists” to “ultra-Darwinians” to just “Darwinians” in his article. By the end, he sounds like he thinks his examples should trouble everyone who accepts evolution by natural selection. However, if we take Slater charitably, it’s pretty clear that by Darwinians he means the sort of pan-adaptationist Darwinians that Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin targeted in their classic “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme” (1979).  And Slater is correct to think that his examples are relevant to refuting those sorts of Darwinists, especially when they attempt to claim that, say, men’s promiscuous behaviour is due to it being adaptive. Slater’s argument is awkward, but the pieces are there.

Now for Taranto. If Flam is overcritical, Taranto is ready to burn Slater at the stake, along with anyone who would dare suggest that our society is anything but the natural and inevitable product of Darwinian evolution. Here are Taranto’s final paragraphs:

Why would the New York Times, which scoffs at creationism, publish such an intellectually slipshod attack on evolution? Because evolutionary psychology contradicts the feminist dogma that the sexes are created equal, that all differences between men and women (or at least those differences that represent male dominance or superiority) are pure products of cultural conditioning.

Feminism is the new creationism. The left loves to scoff at people who believe that Genesis is literally true, but these days feminist beliefs are a lot more influential.

These paragraphs are stunning for their density of ridiculous. First, while the “blank slate” view of the human mind was held by some social scientists in the past, it is doubtful that it is held by a significant number today, if any. There is a very long way between “biological evolution has absolutely no relevance to human behaviour” and “biological evolution can explain all aspects of human behaviour”.

Second, Taranto imputes to feminists the belief that the differences between men and women that represent male dominance and superiority are products of cultural conditioning. So feminists think that males are superior, but it’s because of cultural factors? I think most feminists would say that men being in a dominant position in society has nothing to do with the differences between individual men and women, and everything to do with history. Perhaps—perhaps—we can tell an evolutionary story about how men got themselves into a socially-dominant position in the distant past and that position became entrenched through cultural evolution. And yes, Fine does argue that the better performance by men for some (contingently) socially-beneficial abilities like mathematics is largely do to cultural factors. But this is aeons from the claim that men have traits of any sort that are responsible for our “dominance and superiority”.

Third, creationism.

Fourth, feminism is more influential than Biblical literalism. If only.

The body of Taranto’s article is devoted to debunking some of Slater’s case studies. To be fair, as Flam points out, some of Slater’s case studies don’t show what he thinks they do. But both Taranto and Flam are too quick to dismiss these. Take the college example above. Taranto and Flam both note that there is a big difference between being asked by a stranger to have sex tonight and imagining having sex with a celebrity. Sure, of course. But which study gets at the underlying question better—which measures men and women’s desire to have casual sex? The problem with the first study that the second study eliminates is that many women probably wouldn’t feel very safe meeting a perfect stranger for sex. The failure of women to accept any such offers in the study might not be because women don’t like casual sex, but because women are worried about being assaulted. So the second study takes away that worry—it removes a possible confounding variable—in an attempt to measure what the first study attempted to measure: desire for casual sex.

To wrap up, was Darwin wrong about dating? As Flam mentions, Darwin isn’t a major player in Slater’s article. We can trace the implied argument of the title though. At the beginning of the article Slater cites Decent of Man, where Darwin forwarded the idea that natural selection could explain some differences between men and women. Later in the article, Slater cites a study where such percevied intrinsic differences are used to explain why women are typically pickier during speed dating sessions than men. Clearly Slater means the argue that, if Darwin were to explain speed dating, he would give the wrong explanation. The right explanation, according to Slater, is that it is all context. It is all about who is sitting and who is approaching. So although Darwin never said anything about speed dating, if he had he would have been wrong.

And would Darwin date an evolutionary psychologist? I don’t know, but I’d like to imagine that after considering what he had to say about men and women in Descent of Man for the 152 years since its publication, he would have revised his position. And then he’d try to convince his date that maybe the differences he or she was trying to explain through natural selection are just self-perpetuating phantoms that will melt away when viewed with a critical eye.


  • Bernhard Isopp Reply

    That was great. I don’t mean to add to the hyperbolicness of Taranto’s comparison and argument, but it’s probably more plausible to say that the brand of reductionist evolutionary psychology that Taranto and others support is a better comparison to creationism, if by making such a comparison one is trying to insinuate the deeply ideological and faith-based commitment to such a belief, in spite of a lack of convincing evidence for the fundamental tenets of that belief.

    (Actually, this kind of evolutionary psychology is probably closer to intelligent design, because it purports to be incontestably supported by science.)

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