Episode 111: Evolutionary Psychology – David Buss Responds to Critics

There has been a lot of criticism of evolutionary psychology lately. How do researchers respond? One of the leading researchers in this field – Dr. David Buss of the University of Texas responds to these critics in part 1 of this 2 part episode. Find out how he responds to these questions: a) is evolutionary psychology sexist?, b) doesn’t evolutionary psychology just give people the ammunition they need to not take responsibility for themselves? c) theories from evolutionary psychology are not falsifiable, this it’s not scientific and d) human society is always changing – it hasn’t been stable enough long enough for any human behavior to have evolved.

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Comments

  1. says

    I’m not sure why I didn’t find David Buss’s answers that satisfying. Not least because I still have questions that just don’t seem to be addressed at all.

    1) First and biggest, why does ev-psych, and it’s older cousin sociobiology focus so intently on dimorphic sexual behaviors in humans? One would imagine from the overall output of Ev-Psych journals (and, lord knows, popular press accounts) that only sexual behaviors evolved. But surely other behaviors have been selected for as well. And so one wonders why, to name just one instance, there isn’t more research into the sometimes intensely strong, cross-cultural affinity between grandparent-aged adults and grandchild-aged children even when they’re not closely related. Even in the field of heterosexual relationships one wonders why, for instance, evolutionary psychologists spend little time investigating theories for the distinct and highly predictable sequences of bonding during relationship formation and maintenance. Despite superficial variations there’s enough deep similarity in these “grandparenting” behaviors and relationship-formations across cultures that they must have evolved components. And yet there’s quite a lot of gnat-straining related to women’s hip to waist ratios. Why is this?

    2) Even a cursory exploration of heterosexual relationships across cultures or even in the same cultures through history shows considerable variation in not only gross behavior but also social narratives about that behavior. What mechanisms does evolutionary psychologists employ to filter for social “noise” in the data in order to determine or confirm that a behavior is indeed heritable rather than cultural?

    3) Related to question #2, in the podcast Michael mentioned “classic” gender differences between his twin son and daughter over the fort, concluding that his son was interested in “fighting” while his daughter was interested in “relationships.” Given that fighting is a form of relationship (not necessarily a very nice one in our opinion but nevertheless a relationship) and given that many indoor relationships involve considerable conflict. Furthermore, boys, and even men, frequently need to cooperate intensely in order to compete while girls may congregate not just to get along but in because of the very real social outcomes of discussions made, conclusions drawn, and “clique” dynamic changes in their absence. Point being that cultural assumptions can affect the interpretation even of clearly gendered behavior. So what are the “best practices” EP employs to filter these assumptions out? (David Buss didn’t mention this in his discussion of either bottom-up or top-down research strategies.)

    4) Many of the conclusions about heritable dimorphism in sexual behavior is modeled on the behavior of young adults (roughly ages 15-30.) See, for instance your discussion about the reliability of male orgasm and unreliability of female orgasm. And yet many of those behaviors merge or even reverse as individuals age. How does evolutionary psychology account for the sometimes pronounced variability of what are claimed to be innately gendered behavior over the lifetime of individuals? And if one were to argue that selection favors changes in behavior in order to maintain optimal reproductive success at different ages then doesn’t that increase the necessary complexity of selective pressure factorially?

    5) Given that for many male animals, including mammals and even primates, the impulse to mount appears to be far more reflexive, and the response to ejaculation much more like the scratching of an itch than the eyeball-rolling (and momentary but real potential for vulnerability to predators) orgasms human males have, why do you think they’re evolutionarily not interesting? They certainly don’t need to be to get the job done. (This is not, by the way, to understate the intensity of an itch — animals that appear to ejaculate almost automatically will go to sometimes-considerable length, and risk, to scratch an unreachable spot.) Also, again based on relationship and sex research while men are supposed to be reliably johnny-on-the-spot for ejaculation during intercourse a considerable fraction have a great deal of difficulty. Similarly other women (roughly 15% if I recall correctly) have no, zero, none problem having orgasms even with sexually inept partners. Returning, I guess, back to questions #2 and #3, what is the risk that cultural assumptions influence the formation of hypotheses and the formation of tests of these hypotheses? More to the point, what might the strong rewards of male orgasm compared to other animals tell us about the adaptive history of male sexual behavior?

    6) Evolutionary psychologists and sociobiologists often seem stung by accusations of sexism, racism, class-ism, and other biases that confirm the status quo. Given that I’m quite sympathetic to the principle of EP (see question #1) I’m sure I’d be stung too if I was trying to do good science. And yet, over and over, you see either journalists hijacking what ought to be non-controversial research, or else nominal “scientists” like Satoshi Kanazawa or David Barash who do indeed make… um… extraordinary pronouncements about gender, class, and race based on data that’s generally… insufficiently granular to support their claims. To the extent that you are stung by criticism these would seem to be the pricks at the source. (Metaphorically speaking, of course.) What, if anything, can be done within your profession to set standards of conduct and/or censure when those standards are violated? This is not a new problem in evolutionary science obviously. Charles Darwin was publicized, yes, by Spencer and other “social Darwinists,” but also frequently embarrassed. The consequences of their agenda-driven popularization still reverberate. What are you doing to mitigate their damage to your reputation?

    Answers to questions like these might help shift my status away from sympathetic but very strong skepticism.

    Sincerely,

    figleaf
    figleaf.blogspot.com

  2. says

    I always enjoy your program. Thank you, first and foremost.

    But your interview with David Buss was barely satisfactory. You claim to play “devil’s advocate” but seem totally in agreement with him, from the start of the show.

    You use your son and daughter as examples early on: your son wants to use the new playhouse for wars while your daughter wants to play house. I’m sure you realize how much social conditioning they’ve already received at this stage of their development. And for the record, as a female, I would have been more apt to play “boy-like” games as a child, as would many of my female friends. We also played house as well. We did both.

    And just because there are female evolutionary psychologists doesn’t mean they’re not sexist! My goodness – I’ve met many sexist females.

    There are just SO many factors that come into play when it comes to female/male dynamics and traits. For instance, if men have been socially permitted to have as many partners as they’d like (which they are, to a large extent) and women are shunned and ostracized if they do, how will you ever get a true indicator?

    On some levels, I understand the premise of evolutionary psychology but have my own spin: in the case of the need for multi-partners, if women have been socially trained NOT to have them and generations go by, sure…they have evolved into monogamy. By social force. Is that their TRUE disposition? Who knows? And who can generalize?

    Men are like THIS and women are like THIS philosophies always feel limiting and ultimately unneeded. And they always seem to serve men better than women. It’s as if we’ve developed a science to support all the myths men would like to believe about themselves. Women are at home, knitting and nesting apparently.

    Too many factors to make generalizations. My upbringing – my heritage, psychology, sociology, current events, etc. are vastly different than your daughter’s. Meaning my “femaleness” will be too.

    Bottom line: if you’re going to play the devil’s advocate, be tougher! WAY tougher.

    Again, my utmost respect to your work and your show. Still a faithful fan…but on the fence after that last interview!

  3. Michael says

    Beth, you make some good points. Here are my thoughts. As far as “not really playing the devil’s advocate”: I suppose you’re right. I’m not really on the fence as far as evolutionary psychology goes. I’ve looked over the literature – Dr. Buss’ as well as others – and their approach to the research rests on solid scientific methods. Their findings are backup up by well conducted cross cultural studies. Since I am, as I’ve said, a strong supporter of good scientific techniques, I do support their work. I hope that I was able to represent the views of those who are skeptical of their findings. I suppose I didn’t do a good job at that.

    I think it was a commenter or emailer who asked the question about whether or not there are female evolutionary psychologists so I thought I’d ask it. I agree with you that being female doesn’t necessarily mean that you are not sexist.

    As far as me mentioning my discussion with my children: absolutely I agree that it’s difficult to know how much of the differences between men and women is due to biological influences and how much is due to socialization, but I guess I didn’t make the point well that there definitely are biological differences between the two. Research has consistently found that for example, a) men tend to do better on spatial tasks and women perform better on verbal tasks, b) women tend to be more attuned to the feelings of others, c) men tend to be outwardly aggressive, whereas women are more indirectly aggressive. In other words, there are differences that we cannot ignore no matter how much we might try to bring up our children (as I do) to be somewhat gender-neutral. There was a belief I think started in the ’60s or ’70s that if we socialized boys and girls the same way there would be no differences between them. As a result of this movement we have found that the differences for example in math ability between girls and boys probably are due to socialization. However, other differences (such as those listed above) do seem to have a biological (and thus possibly evolutionary) root.

    I don’t think these differences necessarily serve men better. My daughter is more attuned to other people’s feelings and I work with my son to better develop this skill as both me and my wife understand the importance of it.

    Well, I hope that response helps. I appreciate your comments and I hope this helps clarify where I stand.

  4. says

    Thanks, Michael. I know this isn’t always the best way to have a discussion but I had some final thoughts, after reading your thoughts, which I’d like to share:

    I thought about the term “evolutionary psychology.” Evolve, movement, change – that’s what I get from the term “evolutionary.” But many of these theories seem very fixed. “This is the way men are” and “this is the way women are.” So where’s the evolution?

    Today, I was walking with two young guy friends on the jetties here at the Jersey shore – big rocks that you can walk on, leading out into the ocean. It gets a little tricky. The rocks get slippery and sometimes waves almost crash on you. It’s dangerous, in short.

    The guys were definitely being more daring than I was. But I pushed past my fears and went right out there with them. Maybe my grandchild if I had one would be a little more daring, based on my courage today. Not just today. But an overall accumulation of risks that I took.

    Maybe one of the reasons I’m more physically daring than many females is because of my foremothers climbed out on their own form of “rocks.” (A long analogy I know, but I hope you understand my point!)

    Women may be more “emotionally sensitive” (which bothers me already. I know many men who are tuned in emotionally and many women who are quite shutdown in that arena. And who is scientifically defining some as elusive as “emotional sensitivity?”)

    Anyway, maybe women have been more emotionally sensitive because they’ve been more housebound for centuries upon centuries. They have to live in closer quarters with people, needing to be more tuned in to others, for the sanctity of the household. So are they “naturally” more emotionally attune?

    So are those predisposed traits or social conditioning, handed down for generation upon generation and TURNING into seemingly predisposed traits?

    And lastly, maybe my evolution as far as emotional/psychology development is radically different than the woman next door, whose grandmothers didn’t climb out on rocks. So one theory may easily apply to her and not to me.

    As well, I’ve noticed that men, during my time on this planet, change because so many of them spend tons of time in front of the computer, or watching sports instead of playing sports.

    In general, people are getting lazier. Are our masculine risk-takers losing some of that manliness that men are known for? In short – if I may be so bold – it seems like men are becoming less physically bold and courageous, not more. But maybe, they are becoming more in tune with their feelings, who knows? (And to clarify – I think we are ALL spending too much times on our butts – not just men! I think we can safely say that doesn’t foster risk-taking.)

    I’ve read parents tend to admonish or worry more about girls playing “dangerously” than boys, where there’s more allowance. Mary gets scolded for jumping off a hill because she might hurt herself. Tommy is not. Parents are not always if ever conscious of this of course, but there’s another kind of conditioning, slipping in.

    I’ll tell you one thing: I tend to cringe whenever someone says “men are” or “women are.” And I think its because it inherently feels wrong – not because I’m afraid I’ll know the cold, hard truth about men and women. It feels like a limit, a boundary – not helpful overall. I like when we’re all humans, with some differences, some similarities and each of us, looked at as every changing individuals.

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