Arbitrarity and evolutionary psychology

by Rob Horning

24 August 2006


Echidne makes a good point in this post, where she indulges in some counterfactual thinking and posits a plausible evo-psych explanation for the opposite of what this widely reported study found, namely that women want sex less as a relationship progresses. The hypothetical narratives constructed to justify findings and tie them to traditional assumptions about gender remain fairly arbitrary, even if they are paraded beneath the cloak of evolutionary psychology, which more often than not is evoked in the popular press as a plank in the fatalistic platform that holds gender behavior to be immutable and tacitly urges us to make no effort to change anything about it, regardless of whatever inequalities stem from it. As many of Echidne’s commenters point out, popular evo psych seems to work backward—it takes a pre-existing narrative and atempts to conform findings to it rather than vice versa, and its reductive storyline (all human behavior is about propagating the species) seems to conform to no one’s experience of actual consciousness. (This Skeptic article, by David Buller, questions the evidence behind some of evo psych’s more-popularized findings.) It garners so much press attention not merely because it aids the antifeminist backlash but because it seems to present a Rosetta Stone for our actions, appealing to the Casaubonian desire many have for a universal grammar, a master explanation for everything that anyone with a free couple of hours can come to master—hence the fads for phrenology and astrology and all manner of pseudosciences over the centuries. Not to say that evo psych is a pseudoscience, but its all-purpose explanatory logic does seem ripe for abuse by agenda-wielding reactionaries.

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