Is Evo-psych worth saving?

…in which I assert an extraordinary amount of arrogance in order to make sweeping judgments about an entire discipline of study.

The context, of course, is the blog-publication of yet another example of poorly constructed, poorly executed studies from which some rather impressively unimpressive conclusions (which, in turn, are held to disprove the theoretical and empirical claims of feminism while simultaneously misrepresenting and misunderstanding those claims) have been drawn. Elysia, guest blogging at Shapely Prose, and Amanda Hess cover the specifics on this one.

I confess that my knowledge of the academic discipline of evolutionary psychology is pretty much limited to the studies that are popularized, then linked and dismantled on feminist blogs, usually by feminists with extensive backgrounds in science, using explicitly scientific and often even evolutionary terminology and methodology (I have occasionally tried to find the studies themselves and read a bit from the academic journals in which they’re published). Elysia’s post is a particularly good example of this technique, since she is an evolutionary biologist. Throughout her article, she continually acknowledges the limitations of what she knows on this topic, as she is in a different discipline and has a rather different area of interest and expertise. Like most of the other examples I’ve seen of this kind of post, she emphasizes her openness to examples of high-quality scholarship in evolutionary psychology, even though she’s never actually seen any that, as she puts it, get the ‘evolutionary’ part right.

I’m not going to do that here. I will acknowledge that I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, an expert in evolution or even a scientist. I make no claim to understanding all – or really, any – of the nuanced mechanisms of natural selection or finer points of evolutionary theory. I know, understand, and appreciate it entirely in broad strokes. My little corner of academic expertise is language and the diverse socially constituted understandings thereof, and I would be ill-equipped to really address these kinds of studies on their own terms.

But really, I’m coming to believe that those terms are, in fact, the problem. The axiomatic premises from which the entire discipline operates are fundamentally and possibly irredeemably flawed. Those premises, as I understand them, are that human psychology, individual motivations and social actions can be best understood as arising out of evolutionary concerns. At some level, everything that I do – everything that all of us does – is based in our deep-seated desire to reproduce and to do so with the ‘best’ mate possible. And that’s hooey.

Critiques of specific studies often point towards the ways in which certain notions of desirability (which it doesn’t even take Anthropology 101 to recognize as highly culturally specific) are projected onto these analyses and the strange way they seem to take desire/expressions of desire to stand in for actual reproductive results. The frequent pattern of applying macro-chronic concepts to micro-chronic scales is often mentioned, and among other things that happens when you do that, this ultimately requires evolutionary psychologists to apply biological metaphors to social processes. There’s an unquestioned idea that not only do species evolve, so too do cultures.

The layers upon layers of problems with that assumption, from eugenics to the civilizing mission to modernization to uniform teleological trajectories of progress, are well-documented. Which is why it makes me deeply, sincerely sad that evolutionary psychology manages to situate itself within the academy. It seems to me like a way of wrapping up some extremely archaic, easily disproven, old school ideas from physical anthropology in a shiny, ultra-scientific package.

When I say the axioms of the discipline are hooey, mostly what I mean is that they set out to prove themselves. There’s no genuine intellectual curiosity here – there’s an assumption about the underlying motivation for everything (which comes down, basically, to sex), and all behavioural data absolutely must be interpreted so as to support the conclusion that this behaviour exists to make us have more sex/more babies/more viable babies, with no other variables or, really, variation possible. It’s circular reasoning, and it’s hooey.

It’s like the disciplines that studied some of these kinds of questions before – including, why yes, anthropology, among other things – started going in a direction that a certain subset of people didn’t like, so they set up their own club where they could keep talking in terms of ideas, theories, projections and maps that don’t translate all that well into the real world of diversity and complexity and variability. And our knowledge production system, with its rigid compartmentalization and authorization of specific ways of knowing about/talking about/thinking about certain things, lets this happen. Makes this happen.

Hooey, I say. But what do I know? I’m not an evolutionary psychologist.

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