Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Evo-Psycho Stuff From My Archives

Reading most of my evolutionary psychology (ep) posts in order, one after another, is quite an accomplishment.  I needed to do that for another project, but thought that you might enjoy one almost universally shared aspect of the popular media descriptions of various  ep studies:

They tell us that something has either been proven to be an evolutionary adaptation or at least is suggestive of an evolutionary adaptation, when not a single one of those studies can present such a proof, given a) the complete lack of empirical evidence from some misty prehistoric era where our supposedly Stone Age (and now rigid) brains were sculpted by Mother Nature, and b) a comparable lack of actual genetic evidence.

Here are a few examples picked from my old posts (pretty much every single one of them could be added here, sadly).  All the bolds are mine:

Why men prefer to marry their secretaries and not their bosses:

The findings, she says, reflect males' evolutionary need for mates who don't pose the specter of "paternal uncertainty". Men may consider subordinate women less likely to cheat on them, Brown explains, and "female infidelity is a severe reproductive threat to males in long-term relationships."
Note the leap there from "paternal uncertainty" in general to the idea that men "may consider" subordinate women less likely to cheat on them.  One gets these sorts of leaps when proximal explanations are ignored (such as the societal expectation based on Christianity that the man should be the head of the woman).

 Why women's sexual desire diminishes in marriage while men's sexual desire remains constant:

Researchers from Germany found that four years into a relationship, less than half of 30-year-old women wanted regular sex.

Conversely, the team found a man's libido remained the same regardless of how long he had been in a relationship.


Dr Dietrich Klusmann, lead author of the study and a psychologist from Hamburg-Eppendorf University, believed the differences were down to human evolution.

He said: "For men, a good reason their sexual motivation to remain constant would be to guard against being cuckolded by another male."

But women, he said, have evolved to have a high sex drive when they are initially in a relationship in order to form a "pair bond" with their partner.

But, once this bond is sealed a woman's sexual appetite declines, he added.

He said animal behaviour studies suggest this could be because females may be diverting their sexual interest towards other men, in order to secure the best combinations of genetic material for their offspring.

Or, he said, this could be because limiting sex may boost their partner's interest in it.

As I mention in the linked post, it would make equal sense for the results to be reversed, from an evolutionary point of view.  But then most any results could be explained by some story.

On why some men would find dumb-looking women attractive:

Ask a straight man, “How do you like your women?” and it’s unlikely he’ll answer, “Dumb and sleepy.” But according to new findings, these characteristics—and any other traits suggesting that the lady isn’t particularly alert—are precisely what the human male has evolved to look for in a one-night-stand.

This make no sense at all, as an evolutionary explanation, as I explain in the blog post I link to above.  But the alternative explanation, also touched upon in that Slate article, makes excellent sense.   Why then prioritize the explanation based on sexual strategies rather than the more likely one?

And here's one which blames men's sexual instinct for wars:

From football thugs clashing on the terraces to soldiers killing each other on the front line, most conflict can be blamed on the male sex drive, a study suggests.
The review of psychological research concludes that men evolved to be aggressive towards  towards ‘outsiders’, a tendency at the root of inter-tribal violence.
It emerged through natural selection as a result of competition for mates, territory and status, and is seen in conflicts between nations as well as clashes involving rival gangs, football fans or religious groups, say the researchers.

In contrast, they add, women evolved to resolve conflicts peacefully. They are said to have been programmed by natural selection to ‘tend and befriend’ to protect their children.
The article this popularization discusses isn't a study but a meta-analysis of literature and it doesn't prove the evolutionary origins of wars in general or the narrower hypothesis that it's somehow sexual competition between men which causes wars.  The article doesn't say much anything about women, by the way.   But other evolutionary psychology studies argue that women, too, have negative feelings about outsiders.  My guess is that men's sexual instinct is not the best explanation for wars.

In other contexts we learn that women can't read maps because men evolved to read them through their assumed ancient hunting roles (yes, makes no sense), but then we learn that women are better navigators than men but only for high-calorie food because women are assumed to have been the gatherers of ancient times (and I guess meat from hunting is low-calorie food).  And so on and so on.

None of the many studies and their popularizers I have discussed provide any evidence about our evolutionary past.  Yet that assertion almost always appears in the first few paragraphs of the popularizations.  Sometimes it is taken from the study or its authors, sometimes it is an enhancement by the popularizers.

Seeing all those popularizations in a long row made me realize that the final outcome looks like a giant mountain of solid evidence for the evolutionary psychology explanations, because of those common assertions (blabla evolutionary blabla) in all these popularizations.