KSJ Tracker September 21, 2012

New Yorker Pans Evolutionary Psychology; Scientific American Jumps to the Field’s Defense

Evolutionary psychology traditionally gets a lot of flak, and journalist Anthony Gottlieb packed all the most common criticisms of the field into one New Yorker review panning a book titled homo Mysterious: Evolutionary Puzzles of Human Nature.  What makes the review interesting is that it aims its criticism not at this one book but at pop evolutionary psychology in general. That also made it a little unfair to the book’s author, University of Washington professor David Barash.  

Barash wrote this rebuttal in the Chronicle of Higher Education. But he shouldn’t feel too upset: I still wanted to read his book. And then Ferris Jabr wrote a rebuttal for Scientific American, reprinted in Salon.com. All the back-and-forth should ultimately help Barash’s sales.  

Disclaimer: Anthony Gottlieb was my editor when I was an intern at The Economist. He’s also a friend and he read an early draft of my book and gave me lots of helpful advice and encouragement.

Gottlieb started out with one of the oldest criticisms of the field – the accusation that evolutionary psychologists are spinning “just so” stories.  He did a nice job of explaining where this expression came from, what it means, and its long history. Stephen Jay Gould, we’re told, used it back in 1978 against the predecessor of evolutionary psychology – sociobiology.

Since then, however, a number of biologists have rebutted Gould’s “just-so story” admonition. See here, for example.

There’s no question that evolution shaped our behavior the same way it shaped the behavior of all other animals. The Scientific American/Salon piece lays out what Jabr considers inescapable facts:

“some of the simplest and oldest single-celled organisms use the same chemical messengers that our own brain and nervous system depend on. Sponges, one of the earliest groups of animals to have evolved, do not have nervous systems, but they do have some of the same genes and proteins that are essential for the construction of neural connections in our brain."

This is all inescapable, though the New Yorker review is less a critique of the science than of the way that science has been marketed, especially in books that offer sweeping generalizations – we’re all hard-wired to sleep around, or eat junk food, or believe in God. Such treatments rarely explain why many people are not overweight, never cheat on their spouses, and/or don’t believe in any gods. Why spoil the fun with all that complexity?

Gottlieb takes pop evolutionary psychology to task for assuming too readily that our behavior is all shaped by the selective pressures on our stone-age ancestors. Some may be, and some may not be. He points out that evolution works with what’s available:

"The trouble is that evolution has to make compromises, since it must work with the materials at hand, often while trying to solve several challenges at once. Any trait or organ may therefore be something of a botch, from the perspective of natural selection, even if the creature as a whole was the best job that could be done in the circumstances. If nature always stuck to simple plans, it would be easier to track the paths of evolution, but nature does not have that luxury."

This harks back to a point that paleontologist Neil Shubin made in his excellent book “Your Inner Fish”, and while Shubin’s book dealt with the human body there’s no reason to suspect that human behavior doesn't work the same way. And in his rebuttal, Jabr agrees that we are the product of the entire history of our evolution, going back further than the humble sponge.

In the end I wasn’t convinced that the complaints voiced in the New Yorker review applied to the book in question. Barash doesn’t appear to make any wildly unsubstantiated claims. His title even says he’s exploring the unanswered questions. In discussing female sexuality, for example, he offers, as the review notes, “a romp through eleven evolutionary theories about the “biological pay-off” of the human female orgasm, which unfittingly comes to no gratifying conclusion.”

That seems honest of Barash, unlike, say, Naomi Wolf’s treatment. If the reviews are to be believed, she cherry picks through hypotheses to find those that best back up her idea that women are goddesses and our genitalia part of our sacred souls, or something like that.

And so, despite the negativity of the review, I decided to order a copy of homo Mysterious: Evolutionary Puzzles of Human Nature. I’m looking forward to reading it.


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