David Sloan Wilson] <>
 David Sloan Wilson <> Posted:
June 25, 2009 12:13 AM
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  Evolutionary Psychology and the Public Media: Rekindling the
 *Read More:* Evolutionary
Newsweek <>, Science
Sharon Begley <>, Media

 Evolutionary psychology, once the darling of the public media, has been
dumped in a recent Newsweek
article<>by journalist Sharon
Begley<http:[log in to unmask]>.
Return accusations are beginning to fly from evolutionary psychologists, who
accuse Begley of willful distortions and scientific incompetence
(e.g., 1<>
,2 <>).

As usual for romantic quarrels, there are legitimate grievances on both
sides that get lost in a hail of recriminations. I have always had a
love-hate relationship with the school of thought that most people associate
with the term "evolutionary psychology." When it appeared in the late
1980's, it made some great points but also got other things profoundly
wrong. Begley's article made some cheap shots but it also made some
*fair*shots about evolutionary psychology that need to be

As for the public media, covering science must be one of the toughest
journalistic assignments. First, one must understand the nature of the
scientific process in general terms. Then, one must master the specific
topic that is being reported. Finally, one must convey what is genuinely
newsworthy to a general audience--the fair shots--while avoiding the cheap
shots that get people's attention but become part of the problem in the long
run. Judged by these standards, the *Newsweek* article scores rather low.

Here are some issues that need to be resolved to get the romance between
evolutionary psychology and the public media back on the right track.

*Take back the terms!* Terms such as "sociobiology" and "evolutionary
psychology" have straightforward meanings: Sociobiology is the study of
social behavior from an evolutionary perspective. Evolutionary psychology is
the study of psychology from an evolutionary perspective. Unfortunately,
there is a tendency for these terms to become associated with *particular
schools of thought* and endorsed or avoided accordingly. Thus, the study of
social behavior from an evolutionary perspective has never been more active,
but the term "sociobiology" is avoided because of the controversy
surrounding the publication of E.O. Wilson's
* in 1975. The study of psychology from an evolutionary perspective has
never been more vigorous or rigorous, but the term "evolutionary psychology"
is avoided by those who disagree with the particular school of thought that
arose in the late 1980's.

It is a natural human tendency (innate, even?) to avoid being stigmatized.
We understand when someone conceals their relationship with an ancestor who
committed a heinous crime, but scientific inquiry must strive for higher
standards. I therefore propose the slogan "Take back the terms!" to restore
terms such as "Sociobiology" and "Evolutionary Psychology" to their proper
broad definitions. David Buller <>, for
example, who is featured prominently in the *Newsweek* article as a critic
of evolutionary psychology, is happy to call himself an evolutionary
psychologist writ large; his book *Adapting
* (2006) merely takes issue with the claims that were advanced by an
influential book published in 1992 titled *The Adapted
*. For more on this topic, I recommend an edited book titled *Evolutionary
Psychology: Alternative
* (2002), which includes a chapter by myself titled "Evolution, Morality,
and Human Potential"<>

*The difference between behavioral ecology and evolutionary psychology*:
According to Begley, "evolutionary psychology" is being replaced by another
field called "behavioral ecology." Actually, behavioral ecology came first
and there is an important distinction that continues to be highly relevant.
Everything that evolves requires two explanations, one based on survival and
reproduction (ultimate causation) and one based on the mechanisms that cause
the trait to be expressed (proximate causation). Prior to the 1990s,
behavioral ecologists studying all species tended to rely excessively on
ultimate causation--predicting how organisms should behave to maximize
fitness in their current environment--while largely ignoring proximate
mechanisms. The first people to use the term evolutionary psychology
criticized this position, arguing that organisms do not directly perceive
and maximize biological fitness. Instead, they are directly motivated by
such things as hunger, desire for status, desire for sex, avoidance of
danger, and caring for one's young, which reliably increased biological
fitness in the past. Furthermore, proximate mechanisms that work well in the
"Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness" (EEA) can go spectacularly wrong
in a different environment. No one expects a lizard species that evolved in
the rain forest to behave appropriately in the desert. Similarly we can't
necessarily expect our genetically evolved adaptations to work well in
modern environments. These points are as relevant today as they were back

*Where evolutionary psychology went wrong*: To proceed with their agenda,
evolutionary psychologists needed to identify the actual proximate
mechanisms that evolved by genetic evolution to motivate human behavior. Leda
Cosmides and John Tooby <> offered a
blueprint for the field that most people associate with the term
"evolutionary psychology." It became highly influential but was *never* the
consensus view among the entire community of scientists studying human
behavior from an evolutionary perspective. My own critiques began in 1994
with an article titled "Adaptive Genetic Variation and Human Evolutionary
Psychology" and continue to the present (see my
selected examples). Robert
Boyd <> and Peter
a very different blueprint in their 1985 book
*Culture and the Evolutionary
*, which received much less publicity but is now increasingly occupying
center stage, as described in their more recent book *Not By Genes

How did the blueprint offered by Cosmides and Tooby go wrong? Let me count
the ways: 1) They portrayed the mind as a collection of hundreds of
special-purpose modules that evolved to solve specific problems in the EEA.
2) Their conception of the EEA was limited to the range of environments
occupied by humans during their evolution as a species, which they
acknowledged to be diverse. However, it did not stretch back in time to
include primate, mammalian and vertebrate adaptations; nor did it stretch
forward to include rapid genetic evolution since our hunter-gatherer
existence. 3) They emphasized a universal human nature, or rather separate
male and female natures, while minimizing the importance of adaptive genetic
variation that cuts across both sexes. 4) They dismissed open-ended,
domain-general psychological processes as a theoretical impossibility,
creating a polarized worldview with "Evolutionary Psychology" at the
positive end and "The Standard Social Science Model (SSSM)" at the negative
end; 5) Their blueprint had almost nothing to say about culture as an
open-ended evolutionary process that can adapt human populations to their
current environments. They did not deny the possibility of transmitted
culture, but they had almost nothing to say about it. Their most important
point was that what seems like transmitted culture can instead be an
expression of genetically programmed individual behavioral flexibility
(evoked culture).

I know the field of evolution in relation to human behavior as well as
anyone, including colleagues who identify with the term "evolutionary
psychology" and others who avoid the term. By my assessment, a large
majority agrees that the claims listed above are in need of serious
revision. Some people never agreed with them in the first place. Others
began as enthusiasts but have changed their minds--which is a virtue in
science. It is important for these changes to be acknowledged by scientists
and communicated to the general public as a form of progress, without making
it sound as if the field as a whole is on the verge of collapse.

*Capturing the middle ground*: At the most recent annual meeting of the
Human Behavior and Evolution Society, the first plenary speaker was Joseph
Henrich <>, who obtained his PhD
with Robert Boyd and whose address was titled "Culture and the Evolution of
Human Sociality." Henrich also spoke about proximate psychological
mechanisms that evolved by genetic evolution, not as adaptations to specific
adaptive problems, but as adaptations that enable individuals and groups to
adapt to their current environments in a rapid and open-ended fashion. For
example, a "prestige bias" causes us to grant status to individuals who have
something to offer and to use them as role models. A "conformity bias"
causes us to copy the most common behavior in the absence of other
information. "Strong reciprocity" impels us to uphold norms and punish
transgressions, even at our own cost. These are the social equivalents of
what B.F. Skinner called "reinforcers," which guide open-ended individual
learning. Henrich's talk represents what I regard as the most newsworthy
development in the field of evolutionary psychology writ large. The headline
should read "Evolutionary Psychology Captures the Middle Ground!" There is
something between the Cosmides/Tooby blueprint and the Standard Social
Science Model that we are beginning to articulate, which is richly innate
and richly open-ended at the same time.

*What Begley and Newsweek got wrong*: So much for the strengths and
weaknesses of evolutionary psychology. How about the journalistic acumen of
Sharon Begley and *Newsweek*? I was surprised to learn about the "ashes of
sociobiology"--did it burn down? They get some aspects of the Cosmides/Tooby
blueprint right but don't distinguish it from evolutionary psychology writ
large. They seriously mangle the moral implications of evolutionary
psychology. *Most* behaviors that we call immoral benefit the immoral
individual. Why else would anyone be tempted to misbehave? Behaviors count
as immoral when they cause harm to others and to society as a whole. Immoral
behaviors do not become justified when explained in evolutionary terms, any
more than when explained in terms of original sin. The study of morality is
one of the most exciting growth areas of evolutionary psychology--someone
should write an article about it for *Newsweek*.

Sexual behaviors that benefit one member of the pair at the expense of the
other--and even at the expense of the species as a whole--are a fact of
nature. Get used to it. Blanket statements to the effect that evolutionary
psychology writ large is bad science or intrinsically more difficult than
other kinds of science are dumb; I challenge people who make such statements
to back them up with hard numbers. Labeling current developments "behavioral
ecology" gets the history wrong, as I have already shown. Using the phrase
"it depends" as something that distinguishes evolutionary psychology from
behavioral ecology is seriously muddled. Whatever else one might criticize
about the Cosmides/Tooby blueprint, it is richly sensitive to environmental
context. What's new is to accord more significance to
*open-ended*psychological and cultural processes, which amounts to
taking back much of
what was rejected as part of the SSSM. Martin Daly and Margo Wilson always
characterized homicide as the often unintended consequence of human
conflict, not as a special-purpose adaptation. Even though children are
statistically more at risk from stepparents than from biological parents,
the vast majority of step-children are not abused, which has always been
clear from the data.

It's interesting to read what Begley has to say about the role of the public
media in the history of evolutionary psychology. According to her, the media
has focused almost exclusively on the narrow version for almost two decades,
which remains hugely popular because it addresses hot topics such as sex and
violence. By her own account, the media has failed to report on evolutionary
psychology writ large --which is by no means a new development--and can't
resist pressing the hot psychological buttons of its audience. Regretfully,
she continues the tradition by writing her own article in the style of a
tabloid exposť.

*Rekindling the romance*: Evolution is here to stay as a theory that can
help us understand the human condition, along with the rest of the living
world. With understanding comes the capacity for improvement. This is not
just an idle intellectual pursuit but has consequences for the solution of
real-world problems, so the sooner we can advance our understanding the
better. One reason that we are just starting is because the term "evolution"
became stigmatized early in the 20th century, in the same way that terms
such as "sociobiology" and "evolutionary psychology" tend to become
stigmatized today. This problem can be avoided by distinguishing particular
schools of thought from the more general theory, so that the former can be
accepted or rejected on their own merits without questioning the merits of
the latter. In addition, all theories that lead to action in the real world
need to be scrutinized for their ethical consequences; there is nothing that
distinguishes evolutionary theory from other theories in this regard.

Because we are on the steep part of the learning curve, some ideas that seem
foundational will end up being rejected. Science is a process of cultural
change, not just individual change. Some schools of thought prevail over
others, even though individual proponents might go to their graves without
changing their minds. Journalists working with popular media outlets will
discover much more drama and interest by accurately reporting the issues
than by offering their usual fare.