Evolutionary Psych: Too young to be this sexy?

Wasserläufer_bei_der_Paarung_cropEvolutionary psychology is all the rage nowadays. Researchers from around the globe are looking at the interplay between a species’ behavior and its environment, past and present, in an attempt to crack the mysteries of how we came to be as we now are. The appeal is obvious. Darwin seems to have provided a successful explanation of our biological traits. Why not think our psychological traits are to be explained similarly? After all, psychology just is an expression of biology. If reflection on our hunched-back ancestors and their habitat can explain how we came to walk upright, why can’t such reflection also explain our anger over spousal infidelity, why can’t it explain our own infidelity, our altruistic and egoistic behaviors, etc? Last month, op-ed contributor to the New-York Times David Brooks and Sharon Begley from Newsweek argued, independently, that skepticism is warranted. Putting the many substantive arguments to the side, the hype behind evolutionary psychology seems to be overreaching.

The ‘Research Highlights’ section of the latest issue of Nature contains one more contribution to this rage. ‘Evolution: Nice Guys Finish Last’. Here, one thinks is yet another story as to why altruism has low fitness value. The short clip ask as to keep an eye on the soon to be published work of Omar Eldakar, ‘Aggressive mating as a tragedy of the commons in a water strider Aquarius remigis’ (Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology). Eldakar discovered that the aggressive male water striders, a.k.a. Aquarius remigis, had a better chance at mating (and hence, of passing their genes) than their more docile peers. It seems that ‘nice guys’ do finish last. However, as aggression became more prevalent in the population, a tragedy of commons occurred – both the aggressive and the docile males were reproductively harmed.

The research is fascinating, no doubt. But, what about that title in Nature? The title’s style is common when it comes to evolutionary psychology, both in the mainstream media and in journals. It appeals to us by implying that finally we have at our fingertips another piece of the remarkably messy puzzle we call human psychology, sociology, or anthropology. In this case, the title implies that additional data has emerged as to the source of aggressive behavior. It further implies that nice guys, you (or your partner) and I, are sitting at the edge of the gene pool, waiting for extinction to catch up. Yet, we all know, nothing of the sort can be drawn from these other pool waders.

Evolutionary psychology, as controversial a field as it remains, is nonetheless hyped beyond recognition.

Still, doesn’t is sound just lovely? Alluring – yes. Misleading in dangerous ways, as well. If the selling point of an article about water striders is that ‘nice guys finish last’, then something is clearly amiss.

Related articles:

£1.99 - small Ecology, Domain Specificity, and the Origins of Theory of Mind: Is Competition the Catalyst?
By Derek E. Lyons and Laurie R. Santos, Yale University, Department of Psychology
(Vol. 1, August 2006)
Philosophy Compass

Evolutionary Psychology
By John Archer
The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social Psychology

3 thoughts on “Evolutionary Psych: Too young to be this sexy?”

  1. Isn’t the problem that any conclusions we might come to at this point are just ridiculously reductive, almost to the point where the supposed diktats of ‘Fittest Shall Survive’ become something like an equivalent of divine law? The Nazis already tried something like this, followed by various self-serving proponents of a supposedly biologically determined order of things, from social Darwinists insisting on the inherent logic of the free market to guys who think it’s only right that they should cheat on their wives and hang out in strip clubs. Richard Dawkins has counseled against this kind of thinking, not just because it’s dumb, vicious and simplistic, but because there’s at least as much evidence that less Sadean evolved traits such as kindness, empathy, co-operativeness and tolerance have been key to the success of various species, including our own.

    1. Thanks Evolutionist for the comment. Yes, the paper does indeed discuss how ‘nice guys’ can come on top. The fact that the title they chose to use in Nature focuses on the negative rather than the positive possibility is yet another manifestation of the sensationalistic attitude that plagues Evol. Psych.
      However, regardless of which possibility they chose to focus on, the deeper concern is the unwarranted projection of data about the reproductive dynamics of water striders to human psychological mechanisms (and this would be true even if the title were ‘bad guys finish last’). It is a pattern of inference that is all too common in Evol. Psych.

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