Evolutionary Psychology, the favorite discipline of old white men everywhere

Matt Lubchansky

Well, some old white men, anyway. Jeffrey Epstein loved evolutionary psychology because it was used to justify rapey behavior and abuse of women — it’s good for the species, don’t you know, rich abusers wouldn’t exist if they didn’t have an adaptive advantage. So Epstein threw money at helpful apologists like Robert Trivers and Martin Nowak (boy, did he throw a lot of money at him), and they obliged by rationalizing the worst activities of men. Meanwhile, other hangers-on who did not even like, let alone get paid by him, were still well-pleased by the chauvinism of EP, and heaped praise upon it without even requiring any quid pro quo. I don’t know which is worse.

Pinker is a talented popularizer of science and authored several books on language which were generally well received. He has attracted controversy, however, for engaging with popular debates on evolutionary psychology’s more sweeping claims in the 1990s. His 2002 book The Blank Slate is a sustained attack on those academics, intellectuals, and feminists who weight nurture more heavily than nature in the development of human behavior. While defending the book A Natural History of Rape, whose authors Craig Palmer and Randy Thornhill (a Trivers coauthor on the Jamaican symmetry work) helpfully advise women to wear modest clothing to prevent assaults, Pinker describes typical rapists as “losers and nobodies,” “outcasts,” or perhaps “ethnic rioters.” The billionaire science enthusiast is not included in Pinker’s rapist typology.

Heh, yeah — The Blank Slate is the terrible piece of crap that totally soured me on Pinker. It’s a dishonest polemic contrived to advance a dead perspective by pretending it was obviously true while taking malicious swipes at everyone who had a more nuanced, sophisticated view of the interplay between genes and behavior. I am not surprised that he became a proponent of evolutionary psychology, which was just more of the same old ignorant adaptationist garbage. When I compare the careers of two Harvard professors, Gould and Pinker, one of whom wrote two great books, The Mismeasure of Man and Ontogeny and Phylogeny, and a multitude of essays revealing his fundamental humanism, and the other of whom is a darling of modern racists and rapists, I have to think that the wrong one died early.

There is one thing to do now.

Epstein is dead, and now beyond the reaches of human justice, but it is still possible to hold his enablers and scientific sycophants to account. It is necessary, but not enough, to demand that individuals like Trivers and Nowak and institutions like Harvard and MIT return the millions they received from Epstein. The ideas produced by these scientists also matter. Evolutionary psychologists have naturalized, and even at times excused, male sexual violence, but evolutionary biology is not the sole province of reactionary white men. Those of us working in this field must push back on both the corrupt funding system at elite institutions and flawed ideas these institutions have produced.

If your beliefs require propping up with large amounts of cash from self-serving rich people, then maybe they deserve to be starved for a while. It should cost you credibility to be a recipient of donations from evil men: give the money back, let’s see if your ideas can stand on their own without the support of corrupt processes.


  1. Kagehi says

    Yeah, always telling that when the full breadth of human behavior includes cultures where there can be multiple partners, but failure to get consent will, in many of them, get you beaten to death, or chased out of the tribe, they pick as a focus those cultures which predominantly demand one on one sexual fidelity, then rape people on the side, when that fidelity turns out to not be quite so perfect, or always viable. Because its “rape” that is the adaptive trait, not cooperation and mutual exchange (never mind that no other primate works this way).

    They all could have advocated for something that might actually be biologically plausible, but, nope, lets go with, “I can use my wealth and power to get what ever I want, even if by ‘using my wealth and power’ means buying off, threatening, or worse, my victims.'”, because it helps them defend their own self serving, not even remotely reciprocal, behaviors.

  2. hemidactylus says

    I have issues with Pinker. I think at base he tries to grapple with the inherent darkness of human nature. Realizing we have flaws or vices built in is not a condoning or promotion of said flaws or vices. Hume’s guillotine remains. Pinker’s recent projects were largely a realization of a Hobbesian nature, thus ancaps be damned, where strong states are a necessary evil to balance individual avarice or rapacity. Humans aren’t born good in as in the Romantic view. But Pinker sees some moral escalator working over the course of history following Singer which improves us socially via the smallest things (eg table etiquette) and reading fiction which counter whatever nature-nurture interface he argued in The Blank Slate.

    Yet in Straw Dogs Pinker basher John Gray is telling me morality is a mere ruse and one should read Machiavelli and Hobbes to get the real deal on human nature. Also: “If Nietzsche still has the power to shock, it is because he showed that some of the virtues we most admire are sublimations of motives – such as cruelty and resentment – we most strongly condemn.”

    And Freud spoke to a moral luck where nobody is really responsible for how they turned out. Yipes. Maybe there was a really serious reason Gray was not a fan of Pinker’s recent works.

  3. says

    His 2002 book The Blank Slate is a sustained attack on those academics, intellectuals, and feminists who weight nurture more heavily than nature in the development of human behavior.

    I don’t get why these are always set against each other. Our nature is to be highly psychologically and behaviorally plastic and adaptable, well equipped for learning, and suited to living in cultures. It’s our nature that makes nurture so influential.

    When I compare the careers of two Harvard professors, Gould and Pinker,…I have to think that the wrong one died early.

    What a great loss Gould’s death was.

  4. Owlmirror says

    I don’t understand the call to “return” the money. Return it where? Epstein is dead; where should the money even go? And were he still alive, why would it be better for Epstein to have the money than the institutions that received them, or some one or group more deserving?

    The president of Harvard, Lawrence Bercow, posted this, about the money:

    The majority of Epstein’s gifts were designated for current use, not as endowed funds, and nearly all were spent years ago for their intended purposes in support of research and education. Our ongoing review of these gifts has identified one current use fund and one small endowment designated to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences with a total unspent balance of $186,000. After consultation with the Dean of the FAS, we have decided that the University will redirect the unspent resources to organizations that support victims of human trafficking and sexual assault. This is an unusual step for the University, but we have decided it is the proper course of action under the circumstances of Epstein’s egregiously repugnant crimes.

    (bolding mine)

    Even if you think that the institutions should give up the entire quantity of donations from Epstein, doesn’t it make more sense to donate it to his victims, or to institutions that support similar victims, than to “return” it, presumably to him or his estate to be passed on to his heirs, whoever that may be?

  5. says

    I was just thinking this morning about Elevatorgate and the concept of Schrodinger’s Rapist and how many cis men lost their shit at that, but in how it relates to trans women who just want to pee in peace and how many of those same men want to “protect women and girls” because anyone with a penis is a potential rapist.

    And now there’s this, and I’m curious what the Venn diagram is of those men I mentioned above and the ones who buy into “men just naturally want to rape” nonsense of evolutionary psychology (and I know the response to thoughts like this is “it’s a perfect circle” so I just want to preempt that).

  6. mikehuben says

    Owlmirror @4: Exactly the point I wanted to make.

    PZ wrote: “If your beliefs require propping up with large amounts of cash from self-serving rich people, then maybe they deserve to be starved for a while.” I heartily agree. Short of that, I created my website “Critiques of Libertarianism”. The University of Chicago and George Mason University economics departments should return a vast amount of money.

    I agree that Gould died early, and still could have made some significant contributions. But I doubt it: his writing got so elaborate as he grew older that I found it unreadable. His egotism was amazing. I remember attending a Harvard lecture by a candidate for a professorial opening. After the talk, during the question period, Gould got up and launched into a screed that lasted more than 5 minutes about one of his favorite hobbyhorses and only loosely was relevant to the talk. When he sat down, one of the graduate students yelled out “Could you repeat the question please?” Gould turned purple with fury as the audience laughed at him. Nevertheless, I admired his early writing.

  7. hemidactylus says

    @7- mikehuben

    I found one of Gould’s most recent The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister’s Pox among his best. It treated the same subject as Rock of Ages (ie- magisteria) in a far better manner. He also gives a deeply personal account of the incident where water was poured on proto-EP’er EO Wilson as a protest. Gould felt for Wilson because his cast and admired Wilson’s relaxed reaction: “I cited one of their own supposedly canonical documents against them-Lenin’s Lenin’s pamphlet describing “left-wing communism” (a similar movement of his time, based on silly show rather than serious theory) as “an infantile disorder.” Ed simply wiped himself off and continued his talk. His silent dignity beat my impassioned outrage by an order of magnitude. He was also the target of their attack and had real reason for fear.” and “Now, I am the very antithesis of a violent man, even for such a largely symbolic action. Yet I long for another shot at that moment, so I could act faster and knock that little cup of water right back into that idiot’s face.”

    Of course over 20 years ago there was a polemic back and forth between Gould and EP. His spandrels argument cuts it down to size. Wright, Pinker, and Dennett were his nemeses. I like Dennett, but his treatment of Gould in DDI was quite harsh.

  8. PaulBC says

    People used the phrase “human nature” long before evolutionary biology was even a vague idea, and have generally agreed that it “explains” things like lying, cheating, stealing, murdering for material gain, murder for no gain out of pure malice, enslaving for economic advantage, enslaving at economic cost just because you get a kick of out the power (Adam Smith acknowledges this), and so forth.

    Without even going into the legitimacy of evolutionary explanations for behavior, I’m flummoxed that anyone considers it a justification. People are capable of being awful to each other, and it’s not just a few bad apples. We know all this. The problem to be solved is how to set up an society (inevitably removed from nature) in which bad behavior is minimized for the common good. It’s nice when it can be done with soft measures like incentives, but people violating each others’ rights is an on-going whack-a-mole issue. Simply saying “Because… evolution!” is not a helpful approach.

  9. says

    I cited two of Gould’s early books for precisely that reason — his writing got increasingly baroque as he got older. The Structure of Evolutionary Theory is practically unreadable because of his excesses, although it also has some great stuff imbedded in it. His essays for Natural History at least had some length constraints and held up better, but even there, I could see how he refused an editor’s touch.

  10. unclefrogy says

    I may be the recipient of early indoctrination to believe in the “equality of all men” but it seems to me that few are acknowledging the elephant in the room that is expressed by our ability to co-operate. All the rapey justifications, the dominant authoritarian ideas libertarian none sense are all based on situations where survival is relatively easy post agriculture. put humans in difficult situations and co-operation dominates all members are judged deserving of survival and respect and the use of force between members is rare.
    Class is completely arbitrary and has little basis in any thing outside the culture that assigns it to its members. All of these apologists of the variations of this crap do not question class at all but are the beneficiaries of it or desire to be., Like Dawkins
    uncle frogy

  11. says

    While I have no actual education in the field (not that it would EVER stop a YEC or FE) according to my admittedly rough estimates, those advocating for psychological evolution peg nurture at 37.26% and nature at 62.74% with rape being the natural reaction of a human male to a young, attractive, scantily clad woman. Since this does not explain why older, less attractive, conservatively dressed are also, raped, nor why women dressed head to toe in burqas are also targeted for sexual assault. One would almost think that the rape and domination of women were a legitimate cultural value among those who would argue otherwise.

  12. Kagehi says

    @unclefrogy Exactly. One need only be reminded of the lesson, sadly only recently even recognized, or Jane Goodall’s apes, where in normal, peaceful, non-violent, behavior is replaced by violence and open warfare, not due to a natural cause, but an entirely artificial one of “invented scarcity”. Much of the insanity we see just with immigration is exactly this – the super rich claim that the “money” needed to pay for things is scarce, even though this is purely their own greed, and that this “other troop of apes” is stealing it from us, even though they are, in almost all cases, subsisting on the borders of society, where they have, and likely would never, “see” these supposed benefits, riches, etc. that they are supposedly stealing. They are the outsider group of apes, one or two of which got close enough to see this mysterious “banana” that everyone is so excited about, and which the group hoarding all the bananas is suddenly freaking out about, because, “OMG! They might want one too, and then I might not get one!”

    They have literally created a false scarcity of “money” from “stolen jobs”, which absolutely no one has been willing, or able, to make a living from for most of the last freaking century, and which has only become less and less desirable, or useful. We are being told to fight over the half a banana that 50 apes are all chopping up to share among themselves, by people that own entire banana plantations, and, by the grace of their charity, sometimes let us buy a half dozen, now and then, with money we probably made by selling them to other people in the first place. But, by Zod! that single banana, if it as whole, instead of in fifty different stomachs, would “save the economy and make every ape rich!”

    Probably the surest sign of both our intelligence and stupidity, as a species, is that we, instinctively, understand how this works, and willing do it to ourselves, while, just like Goodall, utterly failing, as a culture, to comprehend why we are baring our teeth, and screaming.

  13. PaulBC says

    After I get the banana, I will be able to calm down and figure out why I am baring my teeth and screaming. Just give me the damn banana!

  14. Kagehi says

    Sorry, you also don’t get the banana. They just converted the job to automation, so now the rich guys get to keep that banana too. ;) lol

  15. John Morales says

    Billy Jones: Yes! We Have No Bananas (1923)]

  16. chrislawson says

    There’s nothing wrong with “naturalizing” rape because it does occur in nature. The problem comes in combining that with the Naturalistic Fallacy. After all, natural behaviours include infanticide, pat/maternicide, enslavement, torture, necrophilia, and eating your own young (animals don’t realise that A Modest Proposal was satire).

  17. Kagehi says

    Love the “occurs in nature” thing. The problems being two fold, in the case of EP – 1. This is like claiming that winning the lotto has the same odds as getting heads in a coin toss, it ignores “how common”, in favor of just saying, “If it happens, it must have a purpose.” And 2, it ignores “border conditions”, i.e., behaviors, like chewing off your own leg, to escape a trap, for which the “adaption” is the ability to chew, not cannibalism or self mutilation. The behavior is an “unintended” consequence of the specific conditions present, and existing adaptations being available to, how ever poorly “solve” a problem (and rape, as one such misuse of existing adaptations, is a damn poor “solution” to the condition of, “I can’t get laid”, with a caveat). That caveat is that you can get mixed adaptations, which create amplification cycles, so.. you could get “emergent” conditions that go one way, and produce feminist, or the same “adaptations” can mix in some other entirely different way and produce Jim Jones. The point being, EP is confusion “emergent properties and behavior” with “adaptations”. The former is the consequence of how adaptations interact, and are not “adaptations” because they cannot be “inherited” in any real sense (though they can be taught by example, learning and mimicry are adaptations). The latter are things that exist, whether they are used or not *regardless” of the conditions that are presented, and cannot be “learned” or “mimicked” in any reliable sense, like a human trying to flap wings, or make noises like a dolphin with their vocal cords. They mechanism needed to even achieve it are not available. But, having mechanisms that “can” achieve something does not make that things itself an adaptation, nor does it “require” that is somehow ever be expressed, never mind learned, found, or reinvented.

    And.. Yeah, something as basic as, “I am strong, and can threaten/hold down someone.”, with, “I want sex now.”, doesn’t require, sadly, a huge leap in invention to get to, “What if I combine these things?” An “emergent” result, not an “adaptation”.

  18. KG says


    Can you cite Nowak ” rationalizing the worst activities of men”? I’d only come across his work on the evolution of cooperation and eusociality, which is generally considered of very high quality, although controversial. His financial and personal connections with Epstein are certainly highly discreditable – as is, in a different way, that with the Templeton Foundation – but I can’t find anything supporting the quoted words.