Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Letters From Vacation: Evolutionary Psychology As Religion

One university in Finland, the University of Turku, is now offering a minor in evolutionary psychology.  The write-up at the university pages tells us weird stuff.  I translate from the statements of Markus Rantala, the guy who is organizing all this:

Evoluutiopsykologiaa sovelletaan laajasti eri tieteenaloilla yhdysvaltalaisissa huippuyliopistoissa, ja Turun yliopisto on nyt mukana eurooppalaisessa eturintamassa tarjoamalla evoluutiopsykologian sivuaineopintoja kaikille kiinnostuneille opiskelijoille, Rantala sanoo.
My translation:
Evolutionary psychology is widely applied in different disciplines at the top American universities, and Turku University now belongs to the European frontier by offering evolutionary psychology studies as a minor to all interested students, says Rantala.


Itse asiassa evoluutiopsykologiaa pitäisi opettaa jo lukiossa, sillä siitä on hyötyä myös käytännön elämässä. Monia sukupuolten välisiä ristiriitoja muun muassa parisuhteessa vältettäisiin, jos ihmiset ymmärtäisivät, miten seksuaalivalinta on muokannut miesten ja naisten aivoja erilaisiksi ja miten se vaikuttaa eri sukupuolten käyttäytymiseen ja ajattelutapaan.

My translation:

As a matter of fact, evolutionary psychology should be taught already in the upper grades of ordinary schools, because it is also useful in practical life.  Many conflicts between the sexes in mating could be avoided, if people understood how sexual selection has modified the brains of men and women to be different and how it affects the behavior and thinking of both sexes.

Rantala also predicts that in a few decades all university students will study evolutionary psychology! 

This smacks of religion more than science, don't you think?  The conclusions have already been made (for instance, that it's sexual selection alone which affects gender differences and not some combination of societal pressures, cultural evolution, sexual selection and so on), and the time to convert all people to the Right Religion is NOW!

One of the new courses in evolutionary psychology at Turku University is about sexual selection!  Yle, the Finnish public television website, chose to write about that course in this context.  The story begins:

Evoluutiopsykologian sivuainekokonaisuus käynnistyy syksyllä Turun yliopistossa. Opintoja vetävä dosentti Markus J. Rantala uskoo, että oppiaine kiinnostaa etenkin nuoria sinkkumiehiä.

My translation:

A minor in evolutionary psychology begins at Turku University in fall.  Docent Markus J. Rantala who leads the studies believes that the discipline will especially appeal to young single men.

Isn't that fascinating?  The reason why young single men would be particularly interested in evolutionary psychology isn't really addressed in the story, except that Rantala believes that young men have been his most eager students because the courses teach you how to find a sexual partner (hint:  sniff at women to find if they are ovulating, measure their waist and hip ratio, go for the youngest women with the biggest rack).*

But surely it is women who are desperate to find a man who will stick around when the children are born?  I thought men just wanted a lot of quick f**ks in the most rudimentary evolutionary psychology?

Never mind.  The only reason I'm writing about any of this is that it presses one of my buttons which is the treatment of what is supposed to be science as religion or something to market.

For instance,  it's utterly unlikely that all university students of the future would take courses in the kind of evolutionary psychology which exists today**, it's not quite true that evolutionary psychology has become a major force in the American universities, many of the studies on which evolutionary psychology bases its sexual selection arguments are about psychology students looking at pictures, and leaping from those choices to evolutionary adaptations is a very very long leap***.

More precisely, academic researchers don't speak like this, as a rule, but tend not to over-generalize, tend to hedge their bets, tend to include opposing arguments and criticisms in their statements.  I've noticed before that evolutionary psychologists of one particular type tend to differ from that general rule.  They are more likely to preach, to act as missionaries and to hint at a future where all humanities and social sciences have been replaced by evolutionary psychology.

This is partly a response, perhaps understandable but wrong-headed, to outside criticisms.  It's wrong-headed, because it is a religious response, not a scientific response, and the same wrong-headedness can be seen in those evolutionary psychology articles which simply ignore all criticism and contradictory findings in their literature surveys, instead concentrating on only a sub-set of findings:  those which agree with the theory that article will proceed to support.  That's how religious dogma is created, not how science is carried out.

But it does tend to suggest a view of the research field as one uninterrupted march of stronger and stronger evidence supporting one simple model or theory!

After all this ranting, it might come as a surprise for some readers that I'm not at all averse to the idea of an evolutionary psychology minor at Turku University.  It's the lack of a minor in the criticisms of evolutionary psychology that I lament, because a proper scientific approach to the kinds of questions the new minor intends to evaluate depends crucially on the inclusion of contradictory theories and findings.
*Sort of joking there, though all the suggestions are based on some evolutionary psychology argument.
**The kinds which are not based on any actual genetic evidence that something IS an evolutionary adaptation.  I notice that Rantala ties genetics with evolutionary psychology in one statement but the two have practically nothing to do with each other today.  And evolutionary psychology of Rantala's type ignores the plasticity of human behavior.
***Not to mention that there are many studies which don't support the simplest evolutionary psychology (Evolutionary Psychology) explanations.