Unreasonable ideas don’t seem to be affected by reasonable argument

Jonathan Marks doesn’t seem to care much for evolutionary psychology, and he has a short list of objections.

My personal favorite is the claim that 37 different cultures attest to the divergent features that men and women like in mates, which can now be safely ascribed to nature – until you control for gendered economic inequality, at which point the apparent divergence disappears. It wasn’t nature at all; it was history and sloppy scientific reasoning.  My second personal favorite is the presumptively evolved disposition for men to be attracted to women with a waist-to-hip ratio of 0.67, the same as that of the stereotypical 36-24-36 Hollywood starlet.  Again, naively cross-culturally supported, until you try to control for familiarity with Hollywood.  Then it breaks down quickly.  Again, history and sloppy scientific reasoning; what passes for cross-cultural generalization in evolutionary psychology tends to appall scholars actually familiar with cross-cultural analyses.

Another problematic idea to students of human evolution is the broad assumption in evolutionary psychology that an evolutionary explanation for any particular feature is ipso facto an adaptive explanation. But again, our knowledge of human evolution tells us that (1) non-adaptive or even maladaptive traits can evolve under appropriate demographic conditions (notably, small population size); (2) those were precisely the conditions under which the great bulk of human evolution occurred; and (3) origin and modern use do not map well onto one another, for either biological or cultural traits.  Consequently, there is not the slightest reason to think that any specific feature has to have an adaptive explanation, much less that we have a reliable method for ascertaining it.  While of course there are features of the human form that are probably the result of adaptive selection – for example the distinctive shape of the human pelvis in relation to the vertical posture of our ancestors – the human mind seems to be characterized by the opposite condition – adaptability, not adaptedness.

Not that it matters. EP seems to have evolved a highly adaptive resistance to the evidence against it — a property that was no doubt greatly advantageous to it 10,000 years ago on the African savannah, when less intransigent theories were withering in shame at all the laughter from the hyenas and other beasts that were clever enough to see through it.


  1. ambassadorfromverdammt says

    “EP seems to have evolved a highly adaptive resistance to the evidence against it — a property that was no doubt greatly advantageous to it 10,000 years ago . . .”

    Who or what did it mate with??

  2. brett says

    Those are some good objections on his part, especially to the “across cultures/universals” point. I’ve always felt a little skeptical of some of the “universal” stuff because these cultures obviously haven’t evolved independent of one another up until today – in fact, they’ve had a huge and increasing sociocultural and economic impact on each other for at least the past 500-1000 years.

  3. Artor says

    If everyone tells the EP’s to go fuck themselves, would that select EP as an adaptive trait?

  4. Great American Satan says

    Have pharyngulites lost the joy of dogging on shitty scientists, or is there an issue with commenting right now?

  5. elementalbrain says

    PZ, is there anything in evolutionary psychology you would consider to be solid science?

  6. says

    Did anyone see the headline, think “Radio Netherlands Media Network,” and find themselves slightly disappointed it wasn’t that Jonathan Marks?