Tell me again how evolutionary psychology is not a con game

This is how evo psych works: state your hypothesis about past human societies with absolute confidence in the absence of any evidence, and then follow up with how The Lord of the Rings supports your model of a transition from a brutish form to a more gracile, effeminate form. Geoffrey Miller demonstrates:

So, the kill count competition between Legolas and Gimli is easily understood evidence of the evolution of warfare. Does that make Aragorn a transitional form?


  1. Artor says

    “You can be a highly effective archer and not have the classical warrior physique…” I started smelling bullshit at this point. Have you ever looked at the shoulders of an archer? It’s ALL upper body strength. Also, I’m chuckling at the idea of Neanderthals MMA fighting in an octagon. I’m sure that would draw a crowd.

  2. wanderingelf says

    Two thoughts:
    1. Draw weights of war bows frequently exceeded 100 lbs (some English longbows may have exceeded 150 lbs), and thus probably required more upper body strength than most melee weapons
    2. Gimli won the competition with Legolas

  3. tommynottimmy says

    Everything about this clip makes me think it is a parody of an evo psych argument. It would be hilarious to watch a “debate” between “professional” creationists and evo psychologists. I’m pretty sure my poor little brain would dissolve.

  4. says

    Well yeah it’s ridiculous but I’m not seeing the link to evo psych. He’s talking about physiology, not psychology, no? And not even evolution, just who gets to be a warrior.

  5. anthrosciguy says

    The guy is an evo-psych guy; if you’re merely saying he’s pontificating on a subject he doesn’t know, you are correct.

  6. bcwebb says

    I’m sorry, I can’t consider the argument definitive unless he brings in facts and history from the Marvel Universe also.

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    Malcolm Potts & Thomas Hayden’s Sex and War: How Biology Explains Warfare and Terrorism and Offers a Path to a Safer World offers an explanation of “the evolution of warfare” that – though intended for a lay readership – seems worth a look.

    Very briefly summarized: they compare the factors leading to greater aggression in chimpanzees and more cooperation among bonobos, and find numerous parallels between the former and human group interactions (particularly tendencies toward violence in young males in groups). Without digressions into the weeds of sexuality, hierarchy, or the other extrapolations beloved of Robert Ardrey and his successors, they consider this heritage and why it doesn’t prevail in all cultures and individuals, with an eye towards mitigation in our present societies.

    I don’t know enough about the points raised to confirm or contradict their assertions (and would like to hear from those who do), but this book (practically alone in what I’ve read on such questions, except for Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s Mother Nature) made me think not all evo-psych deserves reflexive rejection.

  8. says

    Very briefly summarized: they compare the factors leading to greater aggression in chimpanzees and more cooperation among bonobos, and find numerous parallels between the former and human group interactions (particularly tendencies toward violence in young males in groups).

    Yet, one of the biggest characteristics of humans is that we are not chimps or bonobos. If there are parallel tendencies it could be a learned response, or it could simply be that that’s the best way to handle a certain problem (e.g.: attacking with larger numbers is not just a good idea, it’s always a good idea) The similarities between humans and chimps might be situational, or learned, or perhaps there is some degree of evolved instinct, but it’s going to be a hell of a challenge to pick that apart and say what’s the origin of what, and whether some behavior is built in, or just a natural response to a similar situation.

  9. Pierce R. Butler says

    Marcus Ranum @ # 8: … it’s going to be a hell of a challenge to pick that apart and say what’s the origin of what…

    To a limited extent, the authors do that in the book I linked to (but failed to italicize, damnit!).

  10. kome says

    Evolutionary psychology is to evolutionary theory what creationism is to evolutionary theory: a perspective that creates a wholly distorted caricature of what evolution is, what evolution predicts, and what constitutes evidence for evolution for the sole purpose of spreading a lot of discriminatory nonsensical bullshit arguments. The only real difference is that creationists believe in a god that commands people be racist murderous rape-machines and as such they deny evolution is real, whereas evolutionary psychologists think that people just are racist murderous rape-machines because their stupid-ass caricature of evolution says so.

  11. says

    Yeah, it ought to be just an ordinary rule that if you put forward a situation which exists only in a work of fiction as evidence of a hypothesis about the real world, you should just be considered wrong up-front. I’m sure it’s been going on a lot longer than that, but I remember when Jesse Helms cited characters from the film Boyz n the Hood in support of some racist argument or other and people still took him seriously.

  12. wzrd1 says

    I’ll admit, I didn’t listen or view the video.
    One species, small sample size failure.
    I’ll not even go into comparing fiction to reality, as that’s simply lunacy or idiocy.

  13. chrislawson says

    Pierce R Butler–

    I assume Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s ancestors experienced evolutionary pressure against vowels in their patrilineally-inherited surnames.

  14. cartomancer says

    Massively ahistorical too.

    It might flatter the preconceptions of a society that somehow still maintains the classical and medieval notion of the primacy of close combat weapons over missile weapons, but there never was a time in human prehistory that the vast majority of human violence was conducted with close combat weapons. We’ve always been a ballistic species.

    The bow and arrow is at least 60,000 years old. The throwing spear is at least 400,000 years old. Even some chimpanzees make spears out of stripped-down branches and hunt with them. The spear thrower (a kind of notched block that can use leverage to propel a spear further than it could be thrown without) is similarly ancient. “Prehistoric warfare” is also a bit of a misnomer – there was hunting, and there were very occasional territorial disputes between human groups, but really we tended to get on with our own group business pretty undisturbed. There was more than enough space to go round.

    Why do so many people still have this idea of the primacy of close combat weapons though? That’s a question I find interesting. Several suggestions spring to mind. If you look back at examples of historical warfare, it tends to be that close combat was done by privileged elite classes, while missile weapons were entrusted to less elevated people. Medieval knights fought with swords and lances, while peasants were conscripted to serve as archers and billmen. The Roman legions fought with sword and shield, while archers and sling-men were foreign auxiliaries. In the kind of pitched battles that form the mainstay of such warfare, infantry fighting and cavalry charges tend to win the day, while missile weapons are more of a side-show (exceptions, such as Agincourt, tend to become the stuff of legend). So there seems to be a definite class thing going on here.

    Also, there is a distinctly ahistorical notion of technological progress that comes directly out of whiggish, early modern ideas of historical progress. We have sophisticated firearms now. We had crossbows and longbows before that. Extrapolating back, surely no missile weapons at all was the earliest, most primitive, stage? It’s a common error when modern people try to imagine early history, rather than looking at the evidence – just assume that there has been some kind of linear trajectory from the primitive to the modern running throughout all of recorded time. It’s the same notion that makes people assume that because 1950s attitudes to sex and sexuality were quite repressive, and Victorian attitudes were more repressive, therefore Tudor attitudes must have been even more repressive and Medieval attitudes so unbearably repressive that it doesn’t bear thinking about. Which is absolutely not the case, as one would find out reading Shakespeare or Chaucer, or any other documents of the day that reveal such attitudes.

    There also seems to be this peculiarly gendered idea bubbling away that graceful and elegant is feminine and derivative, while squat and lumpen is masculine and original, but that probably doesn’t need further unpacking.

  15. larrylyons says

    @CARTOMANCER Primitive warfare is no misnomer.
    Going back to the 1970’s Jane Goodall recorded a four year war between two groups of chimpanzees. Since then similar behavior have been found in other groups of chimpanzees in different parts of Africa. Recently, similar evidence has been found in Europe and in Africa during the paleolithic and Mesolithic eras.

    That said evolutionary psych is not the only branch of psych that uses LOTR. I remember as an undergraduate, seeing a dissertation that used Gandalf as an example of a Jungian counselor. I was able to dig up a reference to the dissertation, it’s about as facepalm worthy as I remember. Sometimes I weep for my profession (my PhD is in cognition and neuropsychology).

  16. larrylyons says

    BTW @CARTOMANCER you’re taking a very Western centric view of warfare. Fair warning this is a bit of a hobby of mine.

    The bow, and especially the horse archer has been the main arm of warfare going back to at least Herodotus’ accounts, and probably well before. There are Siberian archaeological sites of nomad tombs where while there are swords, the bows found in these tombs were far more ornate and decorated.

  17. jessem says

    Well, evo psych is not that different from a lot of social psychology research, at least untill the replication crisis ~10 years ago but probably still.

    The method goes: I wonder what the relation might be between X and Y. I make up a theory A that provides a hypothesis B for the relation between X and Y (in evo psych this would be an evo psych theory, although theory is often too big a word). I design an experiment or observational study in a select group of people and, hey presto, it supports hypothesis B (if not I don’t publish). I immediately conclude that B is confirmed not just for my sample but for everyone everywhere (unlikely), and also conclude that theory A is proven, or at the very least supported (ludicrous), neglecting to even mention the many alternative theories that would have lead to the same hypothesis.

    I understand that you focus on evo psych since it attracts such a loathsome bunch of people and overlaps with your expertise. Just wanted to add that it’s methods are not very different from what was standard practice in the field for many years.

    Also, @cartomancer, I love you contributions. I always learn something.

  18. cartomancer says

    larrylyons, #16-17,

    Inter-group skirmishing, even over an extended period, is not really “warfare” in the sense we tend to understand the term though, is it? It simplifies far too much to assume any kind of societal violence is somehow “warfare”. That would be the wrong name to give it, given what the word “warfare” connotes. In particular, hunter-gatherer societies (to say nothing of chimpanzees) have such a radically different view of territory and property than settled peoples that their use of violence is very different indeed.

    And yes, I am aware that there have been other approaches to warfare over the centuries. But I was trying to explain this peculiar societal attitude in this particular context, and the legacy of classical and medieval European warfare seems an entirely reasonable thing to point to for that.

  19. wzrd1 says

    @ cartomancer, #19, being retired military, warfare isn’t about destroying the most soldiers, but about removing the will, due to punishing losses to the adversary’s side.
    Multiple generations ago, that would mean manpower losses, today, not as much as economic losses and social disruption.
    How much do you want your nation to be socially disrupted? Which is, really, what it always all about.
    Killing the other guy, not at all so much. Supplies interrupted to the front, a worthwhile goal, don’t need them destroyed, only more expensive to get them to the front enough so that the supporting populace objects massively and unrest occurs on a regular basis.
    Unfortunately, that still means that war fighters are killed.

    Personally, I loathe war. Was good at it, but it was an utter fucking waste that should’ve been dealt with at a diplomatic table.
    Leaving this veteran to always blame the diplomats and their leadership, overall.
    And also knowing, some assholes are utterly impossible to deal with, so I hung up the phone once, while trying to negotiate and order a JDAM right center of a market bomber maniac’s home.
    Not right, not even wrong, but that’s what we actually, here in the real world, have to deal with.

  20. wzrd1 says

    Oh, the entire hot, steaming mess relies upon:
    I see this, therefore, what we cannot observe happened, for X, Y and Z reasons, because of hand fucking wave.
    Yeah, that shit wouldn’t take a match to burn, despite it being shit, it’s far too wet, due to the inventor’s soaking the head.