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14Jan 2013

Was Darwin Wrong about Dating or Was the New York Times Wrong About Evolutionary Psychology?

Venus and Mars, perhaps not so different

The headline “Darwin was wrong about Dating” was an ill-conceived choice for the centerpiece story in the New York Times SundayReview section this week. The piece only includes a single Darwin quote and it’s not about dating. It’s the old line from The Descent of Man, often trotted out by creationists, in which Darwin says men are more “inventive” and women more “nurturing”.

The piece itself isn’t really about Darwin, who reportedly wasn’t much into the 19th century version of the dating scene. (He devoted his youth to his work and in his 30s decided to marry his cousin.)

Instead, the piece is about sex differences and a batch of newer studies suggesting men and women are more alike than scientists had assumed – especially when it comes to promiscuity and pickiness. This should have been a great story. There’s a rich body of ongoing work and debate over sex differences and the roles of culture and biology in shaping human sexual behavior.

But the author, Dan Slater, tries to turn these sex difference studies into an attempted debunking of evolutionary psychology. The piece not only fails to make a compelling case but gives only a superficial treatment of the science presented.  

Slater names three influential figures in shaping and popularizing an evolutionary view of human behavior – Robert Trivers, David Buss and Steven Pinker. But his characterization of their views is so shallow and thin that it seems like he’s criticizing a caricature of evolutionary psychology. There’s no evidence in the piece that Slater spoke directly to any of them, though he apparently exchanged email with Pinker. What do any of these scientists think of Darwin’s sexist gaffe? The piece doesn’t say.

The piece also tries to make the case that a more symmetrical view of male and female sexual desires would somehow disprove the role of evolution in human behavior. But why? In many animals, the males and females are quite parallel in choosiness and promiscuity. That’s particularly common in animals that show a lot of pair bonding and paternal care. Are those animals shaped any less by evolution? Would we be less influenced by evolution if our behavior turned out to resemble that of penguins more than, say, alley cats?

The piece also creates a false dichotomy between evolution and culture, as if we can only be shaped by one or the other. But do evolutionary psychologists really discount the role of culture? Matt Ridley, who was an early popularizer of evolutionary psychology with his book The Red Queen, also explained the tangled relationship between genes and environment in an eye-opening but lesser-known book called Nature via Nurture.

The Times piece might have worked had it just discussed sex differences in mating behavior. But even that part of the story was confusing because Slater tries to refute sex differences in the number of partners people desire by citing a new study on how many partners people actually get. Of course those results would be different – as the song says, “You can’t always get what you want.”

Conflating how much sex people want with how much they actually have is like confusing how much money people want with how much they make. Or for others, it’s like mixing up how many cookies/cupcakes/glasses of wine we wish we’d consumed with how many we actually consumed.

Slater uses the label “Darwinists” to characterize the evolutionary psychologists. That term is popular among creationists, since it implies the acceptance of an established scientific paradigm is some sort of ideology. But here, there’s no evidence that the scientists behind the new studies are any less Darwinian in their thinking than are Trivers/Buss/Pinker. There are scientists with different views on human sexuality: Behavioral ecologist Bobbi Low, and anthropologists Sarah Blaffer Hrdy and Own Lovejoy. But there’s no reason to think they are any more or less “Darwinist” than are evolutionary psychologists. They certainly aren’t creationists.   

What would Slater have as a viable alternative to “Darwinism”?  Perhaps he’d favor the notion that the human mind is a blank slate entirely shaped by culture.  That’s just the view Steven Pinker refuted in his book, The Blank Slate.

Pinker wrote a response to the Times story, and that made the rounds over the weekend. In it, he pointed out a number of obvious differences between the way men and women behave in our society. You can attribute those differences to culture but it’s hard to make them disappear (And Hugh Grant will never live down that incident with the prostitute in the car).

Slater did quote Pinker making an excellent point:

“A study which shows you can push some phenomenon around a bit at the margins is of dubious relevance to whether the phenomenon exists.”  

Citing studies that push things around at the margins is also a popular tactic among creationists and global warming deniers. They grasp any little flaw in a single study as an excuse to claim the whole paradigm is wrong. Another popular creationist error is to assume that a problem with theory A automatically adds credibility to theory B, even if B is something nutty like Intelligent Design.

There’s a good piece to be written on these newer sex difference studies and the possibility that men and women are more alike than we think. But this wasn’t it.

 

Comments

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Right on, except for slandering alley cats.

The piece begins by referring to "a couple of evolutionary psychologists" who wrote a book called Sex at Dawn. That would be my wife, Cacilda, and me. While I'm a psychologist (though not evolutionary), she's a psychiatrist. 0 for 2. And our book is largely a debunking of many of the claims central to evolutionary psychology. So Slater's piece began with a thud of inaccuracy and went downhill from there.

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