What do others think of Evolutionary Psychology?

Over there on Reddit, there is a subreddit called r/evolution for the discussion of evolutionary questions and issues. There is now consideration of a rule to clarify their stance on evolutionary psychology. It’s a good one.

As you know, the moderator team has been considering the possibility of new rules to help improve things around here. And of course, we wanted to get the community’s feedback on the matter before we pulled the trigger. Please, just remember to voice your disagreements peacefully.

  • Rule #X: Evolutionary Psychology. The moderation team takes the stance that evolutionary psychology is pseudoscience. Like any pseudoscience, it starts with a conclusion rather than drawing that conclusion from data; it also tends to ignore or even demonize other fields of science that already provide information about the topics it addresses; and tends to boil personal behaviors and preferences (as well as complicated sociocultural and developmental phenomena) down to a handful of terms it uses as buzzwords to craft adaptationist/bioessentialist just-so stories that are often untested, untestable, or even wildly incorrect. It’s also frequently used to justify everything from preexisting biases all the way to dehumanizing rhetoric. These posts also tend to attract a lot of baseless speculation and experts on these topics are often drowned out by negativity and downvotes, all of which is antithetical to the climate we’re trying to cultivate.
  • Please note that while we discourage evolutionary psychology and pseudoscience in general, simply asking questions about the evolutionary basis for certain human behaviors or cognitive traits isn’t necessarily an issue: there are legitimate scientists in various fields (eg, anthropology, especially evolutionary anthropology, ethnography, behavioral genetics, etc), who study these topics with proper, physical data, and so there is information out there. However, if we feel that a question is better suited for other academics (eg, regular psychologists, historians, sociologists, philosophers, etc), if things start getting pseudoscientific, or if certain lines are crossed, we may choose to intervene.

More pithily, they say the “problem is that evolutionary psychology is science in the same way that Taco Bell is authentic Mexican food.” There is some polite agreement with the statement (I’m not saying anything, because I’d only provide loud impolite agreement) and some polite disagreement. The disagreeable all seem to be quoting Tooby & Cosmides, which to me is just another sign that it’s a cult. EP has existed for decades, and all you’ve got to show for it is a pair of aging, founding authorities and a swarm of lunatics and bad publications? Cut your losses. Treat EP as crackpottery.

As far as I’m concerned, the statement is fair and judicious.


  1. Matt G says

    Not crazy about the Taco Bell analogy. How about “in the same way that ‘trickle down’ is economics”?

  2. kome says

    I find it peculiar that behavioral genetics gets described as a field whose proponents “study these topics with proper, physical data” given its own troubled history of exactly the same problems that evo-psych has been rightfully accused of having when behavioral genetics decides to say anything about the human species. Behavioral genetics is where that spate of GWAS bullshittery with regards to intelligence is coming from, for example, and I’m not seeing much self-policing in that field to try and stop the descent into arguing the same kinds of biologically essentialist, reductionist, and deterministic conclusions that we’ve seen before. I’d say throw them both in the crackpot camp.

  3. hemidactylus says

    “there are legitimate scientists in various fields (eg, anthropology, especially evolutionary anthropology, ethnography, behavioral genetics, etc), who study these topics with proper, physical data, and so there is information out there.”

    I could be wrong but I thought behavioral genetics had the tendency to be cringier than ev psych. Or maybe it’s the historic baggage of eugenics that’s hard to shake.


    Yet: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2805094/

    I recall the kinda interesting orchid hypothesis: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/12/the-science-of-success/307761/

    But prima facie ev psych speculates humans are all more or less the same Flintstones-minded beings mismatched into a modern or dare I say postmodern milieu. Not quite the same as behavioral genetics just as the alleged rise of lactase persistence in traditional dairying populations shows some gene-culture coevolution after the ev psych EEA savannah window supposedly closed shut in the ev psych framing.

    Gould kinda monkey-wrenched, though didn’t completely shatter, that EEA window with nonaptive spandrels and exaptation. That’s for me why ev psych is questionable. It tends to get keelhauled here. I don’t see why the general idea is wrong, it falters in the next to impossible implementation.

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    Thanks to hemidactylus @ # 3 for saying in that final sentence what I wanted to say but couldn’t express clearly!

  5. Pierce R. Butler says

    I would like, however, to solicit comments on Malcolm Potts & Thomas Hayden’s Sex and War: How Biology Explains Warfare and Terrorism and Offers a Path to a Safer World (2010), which I found intriguing and tentatively persuasive – though written by an MD and a journalist.

    They posit a pattern of in-group/out-group aggression directly inherited from chimpanzees and their habitat constraints in the Congo River area, and avoid getting tangled up in the sexual politics where most other EP writers fall on their prats – see my excerpt here.

  6. Doc Bill says

    Yo quiero Taco Bell, Buster!

    How ’bout you diss McDonald’s and, to paraphrase Taylor, “Take your stinking paws off my taco, you damned dirty ape!”

  7. Alan G. Humphrey says

    Matt G @ 1
    Taco Bell is as authentically Mexican as McDonalds is authentically Scottish, food-wise that is…

    … both use USian agricultural wastes industrially reprocessed into corporate profits.

  8. hemidactylus says

    @6- Doc Bill
    You mean this “taco”?

    No thanks. I’m not much for Mexican food but had real tacos at a real Mexican(-Cuban) restaurant not long ago and those were pretty good. The mahi fish tacos were sometimes depending on freshness of fish.

    Now for mismatches. Big Food has hacked our brains with their fat-salt-sugar shenanigans. We didn’t have processed and psychologically engineered food coupled with advertizing back in the EEA. The stuff we crave was important then but ubiquitous now especially given refrigerators and fast food drive thrus. Brain-environment mismatching.

    Paleo is ridiculous. Our ancestors were not particularly long-lived so why pretend to figure out what rotting carrion stolen from a predatory cat they ate and emulate that scavenging practice? No thanks. I’ll pass on the side of flies and maggots. It’s been a while since I read Zuk’s Paleofantasy and she does better than I could, plus other books have perhaps supplanted hers. But that back to our roots approach of paleo kinda mimics ev psych though adds a dietary prescriptive twist.

    People are playing up the Mediterranean diet lately (again). It’s gotta be better than either paleo or keto. Unlike our distant ancestors we can make better food choices than…Doritos tacos. I did love me a spicy chili cheese burrito from Taco Bell back in the day. Or more than one. Maybe three…

  9. says

    I find this whole business unfortunate and a bit puzzling, There’s nothing wrong in principle with the idea of evolutionary psychology. Obviously the human brain is the product of evolution. There are some pretty obvious facts about human behavior as the product of evolution. If most of us didn’t like to have sex, didn’t want to take care of babies, teach children, or work cooperatively, and didn’t learn how to talk, we wouldn’t be here. That PZ is besotted with his grandchildren seems a relevant datum here. Anthropologists have identified many common features of human societies, some that seem to be universal, others that have apparently only rare exceptions or outlier forms. The problem seems to be that a lot of people have started telling Just So stories about certain features of modern societies that are in fact historically contingent cultural products. It seems to me it should be possible to discuss how psychology is the product of evolution without doing that.

  10. hemidactylus says

    Though backing the truck up a bit I might have been too knee-jerkingly dismissive of insects. We already eat arthropods in the sub-branching of crustaceans. Shrimp are high in cholesterol, but all bad? Maybe we should emulate our distant insectivore ancestors. Bypass our paleo ancestors altogether:


    But wait, our paleo ancestors were into bugs?: https://www.vice.com/en/article/78bdeq/the-real-paleo-diet-includes-starchy-grains-and-bugs

    I’ll just pretend shrimp are insects instead.

  11. bcw bcw says

    Clearly, this question won’t be resolved until Jordan Peterson weighs in.

    ducks and runs

  12. wzrd1 says

    @bcw bcw, here, don’t forget your hat!
    A pro always has both hat and coat close at hand at closing time. ;)
    You know, when the fight you just got started gets ready to kick off…

  13. hemidactylus says

    @13 cubist
    And of course Thunderbird or Mad Dog leads one toward Cabernet Sauvignon. I don’t know wines, but just picked that at random by plugging good wine brands into Google.

    Better yet Milwaukee’s Beast leads to Founders Oatmeal Stout.

  14. moarscienceplz says

    Taco Bell is a bastardization of Tex-Mex cuisine, which is a fusion of American cuisine (such as it is) with a small subset of Sonoran cuisine, which is itself a small subset of Mexican cuisine, which is a fusion of … well, you get my point. Back in the early ’70s, their standard taco cost 25¢ and was made with purpose-ground beef. I used to eat them 6 at a time. Not today. Adjusted for inflation, THAT taco should cost about $3.00. Instead of that, TB switched to sweepings from the meat packing floor sanitized with ammonia, and charges $1.69. More like a gateway to the ICU than to real Mexican cuisine.
    However, Taco Bell brand canned refried beans, which you can buy in a supermarket, is a top pick of America’s Test Kitchen, and I can attest that they are delicious.

  15. wzrd1 says

    If going with canned refried beams, I’m more inclined to go with Rosarita brand.
    The best being home made. It’s one of the few things that I make that I do salt.

  16. Doc Bill says

    @8 Hemi !

    I was just messing with PZ and threw in a Planet of the Apes reference just for fun.

    When I was a young’un I worked at a proper Mexican restaurant in Arizona whose owners traveled to Mexico every year meeting with ranch families, learning new recipes to adapt. I wish I had paid attention to the Old Man who prepared the beef and beans, enchilada sauce and other fixings. I have struggled for years, unsuccessfully, to recreate what my memory tells me was The Taste ™.

    At Pepino’s the supreme meal was a deep fried chimichanga, enchilada style, with a “Mexican Flag” of salsa, sour cream and guacamole.

    So, when I lift my pitiful little Taco Bell taco and say, “Alas, poor Pepino, I knew him, Horatio …” I am sincere!

  17. killyosaur says

    Of all the restaurants to be compared to 🤣. Oddly enough I did Taco Bell for lunch today as I arrived a bit early for my haircut. For all the complaints about how terrible it is, I still enjoy it :)

    As far as it being a gateway to anything, not really. Just as people who typically drink something like Milwaukee’s Best (or Busch Light, or Natty Light, or Coors, or Miller Lite, or Labatt’s Blue Light or Carlsbad or the the non-hipsters who drink PBR unironically, I’d add in Strohs as well, although that depends on who produces it), they generally have a specific taste and are not always willing to expand their palates to other foods/beers :P

  18. says

    My Mexicali-born friend in grad school liked Taco Bell, but she said it wasn’t Mexican food: it was its own cuisine. Her husband refused to eat it, so she and their little boys would have it when he wasn’t going to be part of the meal.

  19. Tethys says

    problem is that evolutionary psychology is science in the same way that Taco Bell is authentic Mexican food.

    Here in MN, I grew up being served ‘Tacos’ that consist of a hard yellow corn shell, with greasy spiced meat, shredded cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, onion and taco sauce.

    I won’t eat Taco Bell, or that version of tacos at all, though I do enjoy authentic* Mexican food and have several options within my neighborhood. *Real Tacos= flour tortilla, onion, cilantro, seared beef, salsa.

    One of them does offer the cheddar cheese MN style tacos on its menu, which has the amusing tagline written in Spanish ‘El autentico sabor del Norté!’

  20. chrislawson says


    Take it from someone who agrees with the central tenet of EP (i.e. that aspects of human psychology must be causally related to evolutionary processes) and tried very hard to give EP a chance to prove itself — I no longer believe it to be redeemable. I kept assuming that someone, somewhere would be able to provide me with at least one good, important paper in EP. I have never found it, and the people I used to ask either never gave me an answer, or worse, kept pointing to the infamous Kanazawa study on women being adapted for stay-home domestic duties because they prefer the colour pink as an example of a solid key paper in EP. It’s been 10 years now since I stopped asking EP proponents to show me a good paper. And although of course that means I’m not actively seeking it out, I still read plenty of scientific stories and papers. If there was an important new paper in EP I would expect it to have come to my attention without digging for it. I would be happy to be corrected.

    Now, to be fair, not everyone in EP likes Kanazawa — as you can see if you read this letter from ’35 of the leading evolutionary psychologists and intelligence researchers of our time’ distancing themselves after Kanazawa published a blog post in Psychology Today titled — I kid you not — “Why Are Black Women Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women?” But you might notice that this letter doesn’t address any of the big problems in Kanazawa’s horrifying blog post. The words “racism”, “sexism”, “bias” do not appear at all in the letter. The entire letter is about Kanazawa’s misuse of ‘g’, a theory of general intelligence, coupled with his bubblegum adaptationism. Don’t get me wrong. This is a good point. But if that rarefied error of abstract misapplication is all they could bring themselves to rebut in Kanazawa’s post, then this points to a serious flaw in the field itself, to wit, an outright refusal of its self-identified leaders to even acknowledge the racism and sexism embedded in blatant EP pseudo-justifications of racism and sexism.

    My opinion now is that anyone interested in studying evolutionary psychology needs to develop new investigative tools because the current toolset is worse than useless, and come up with a new name for the field. EP is irrevocably polluted.

    (I say worse than useless, because useless implies lack of function, whereas the current toolset of EP turns out to be very functional when it comes to creating Type II errors that entrench prejudices and oppressive belief systems.)

  21. John Morales says


    It seems a Western European cultural thing not to eat insects, etc.

    etc including Soylent Green.

  22. says

    @15 moarscienceplz mentioned taco bell canned refried beans.
    I reply: yes, they are simple rather clean and you can embellish them any way you like. Sadly, the two major supermarkets in our area have stopped carrying them.
    As for Evolutionary Psychology, I’m not that well informed. But, it seems that PZ is indicating that almost all areas of science are being polluted with ‘pseudo-sciency’ crackpot’s ideas. Sadly, so many people don’t seem to bother to research and come to differentiate between what is substantiated by science and what is irrational belief.

  23. John Morales says

    As for Evolutionary Psychology, I’m not that well informed. But, it seems that PZ is indicating that almost all areas of science are being polluted with ‘pseudo-sciency’ crackpot’s ideas.

    It seems to me that PZ is being quite specific, here.
    So how it seems thus to you is left to interpretation.

  24. says

    @23 jrkrideau: I live in Maryland a couple of blocks away from a Mexican restaurant that has grasshopper tacos on the menu. They’re revelatory; roasted grasshopper, properly seasoned, is fantastic food and definitely makes for my favorite taco.

  25. drsteve says

    @24 Over the last 20 years or so, I have: 1) dabbled in neuroscience as one of my undergrad majors and as a postdoc, 2) read The the Mismeasure of Man, 3) read about the fallacy of reification, and 4) had the opportunity to observe up close all sorts of idiotic and maladaptive behavior from professors and other technically brilliant PhDs.
    At this point I would be inclined to view with extreme suspicion anyone who claimed there was even such a thing as a valid use of g. I’m very glad to learn from the linked letter that some potentially more useful models have been proposed in the literature, though.

  26. drsteve says

    And after I hit post I see I just accidentally proved my own point, as I have what the Robot Devil’s old music teacher calls ‘stupid fingers.’

  27. birgerjohansson says

    John Morales @ 25.
    But “long pig” is not economic to breed, and old individuals have little nutritional value so we are not missing anything.
    As for insects, can somebody please remove the legs?
    I know flour always contain a small fraction of insect contaminant, but at that stage of the processing no big pieces remain.
    Nigel Farage made a foolish comment about eating insects, he said EU would permit insects as food. The idiot has been ingested processed insects all his life.

  28. birgerjohansson says

    One aspect of evolution and behaviour – now explained- is “green beard altruism”, named after a gedanken experiment.

    As I noticed in the podcast PZs beard has now achieved a noble elder statesman level of silver.
    Maybe biologists and skeptics of a certain age should color their beards green as an in-joke. And it would be a great conversation starter with the curious.

  29. birgerjohansson says

    Oh shit, now there are allegations that the late John Paul II is implicated in trying to cover up abuse.

  30. StevoR says

    @ ^ birgerjohansson :Disgusted and angry but totally unsurprised.

    @31.birgerjohansson : “Nigel Farage made a foolish comment about eating insects, he said EU would permit insects as food. The idiot has been ingested processed insects all his life.”

    Who has never swallowed a fly?

    Old chlildhood rhyme aside it hasn’t hurt (almost?) anyone and even in that case it was the increasingly hard toswallow counter-measures that eventually did in that old woman!

  31. hemidactylus says

    @35- StevoR
    There’s the observation joke that one can judge the happiness of a motorcyclist by the number of bugs in their teeth.

  32. JoeBuddha says

    This is way off-topic, but my grandfather was a dockworker along with his brother back in the day. They were also dive bar trolls. For entertainment, they would start a bar fight and then sit on the bar and cheer. As the cops came in the front, they would duck out the back. Good times.

  33. chrislawson says


    I agree with you about ‘g’ but didn’t want to get sidetracked from the topic at hand.

    (And yes, it makes it even funnier that those EP advocates were dissing Kanazawa’s misuse of a concept that is highly dubious even when used as intended.)

  34. chrislawson says


    I’m not sure how you got from PZ’s criticism of EP to a broad criticism of all fields of science. The OP doesn’t read that way at all to me.

  35. chrislawson says

    On Nigel Farage and insect eating: Does it surprise anyone here that Farage, well known for his clamorous insistence on Britain hewing to ‘Judeo-Christian ideals’, is ignorant of the well-known descriptions of eating honeyed locusts in the definitive Judeo-Christian book?

    Hilariously imo, an Israeli food manufacturer has produced a locust protein and honey “Biblical Protein – Israeli Locust Nutrition” energy bar.

  36. wzrd1 says

    @JoeBuddha, yeah, been there, done that. At first, accidentally, when someone tried to start a fight with me and an opportune duck resulted in a bystander being struck instead and retaliating.
    The difference is, I never stuck around to watch the floor show, as one never can tell if the cops are close by.

  37. says

    But, it seems that PZ is indicating that almost all areas of science are being polluted with ‘pseudo-sciency’ crackpot’s ideas.

    It doesn’t seem that way to anyone who actually read his comment rather than something on the inside of their eyelids … unless by “is indicating” you are bizarrely referring to the entirety of his writings, but that would call for some citations to that effect.

  38. Owlmirror says

    @Pierce R. Butler, on Malcolm Potts & Thomas Hayden’s Sex and War: How Biology Explains Warfare and Terrorism and Offers a Path to a Safer World (2010)

    They posit a pattern of in-group/out-group aggression directly inherited from chimpanzees and their habitat constraints in the Congo River area

    I would say that’s impossible, given that humans are not descended from chimpanzees. Basic paleoanthropological evolutionary biology: Humans, chimpanzees, and bonobos all descend from a common ancestor, not one from the other. Or is “chimpanzee” meant to be so broadly defined as to refer to the LCA of all three modern groups, and thus inclusive of them?

    It seems to me that ingroup-outgroup aggression is something so common among animals that it’s a trait that appears many times in many groups, not all of them even mammals. You can’t look at chimpanzees, or baboons, or rat colonies, or even lobsters, and say, “Wow, look at all those aggressive dominance interactions! Humans must have inherited those behaviors from those primitive guys!” No. All of those groups of animals, including humans, inherited the behaviors from metazoan common ancestors.