Hello there. Today I’m going to talk about Evolutionary Psychology. To avoid confusion, lets start with a comparison to Evolutionary BIOLOGY. Lets call them EvoPsych and EvoBio for short.
EvoBio is the study of how life has developed on this planet over millions of years. This science uses not only fossils and such, but also the genetic code itself. You know, the genes of our ancestors still live on within us. And we, as a civilization, has the power to map these genes. To study and compare them. The world is full of unambiguous objective resources out there. So there’s really a whole lot to research.
The theory that life on Earth evolved over millions of years is very much like the theory that the Earth is round rather than flat. All evidence is consistent with the theory, and this evidence has been gathered for hundreds of years. It is very hard to argue for creationism or for flat earth theory, without using evidence that is falsified, manipulative non-evidence, or goes against at lest one of the three principles I mentioned in an earlier clip. These principles are that the universe exists, that the universe is not a conspiracy, and that the universe does not revolve around any particular person or group. If you openly state that one of those principles is false, very few will take you seriously. However, people often get away with breaking those principles indirectly.
For example, lets take this argument: “My father, or my church, has told me that life was created rather than evolved. Therefore, life was created rather than evolved.” If I use this argument, than I’m actually claiming that the world revolves around my father or my church. I could also make this argument more personal: “It is my belief that the Earth was created in six days. Therefore, evolution is wrong.” In this version, I am simply declaring that the universe revolves around ME.
It is true that our beliefs and experiences shape our worlds. It is true that each person’s subjective point of view is objectively true… in his or her own personal psychological reality. However, your individual psychological reality is only one of billions on this planet. The physical world exists independently of each of us. By claiming that the history of the physical world should conform to your personal beliefs rather than vice versa, you are claiming lordship over the world and over all the humans you share it with. Just because something is true for you personally doesn’t make it true for anyone else. Or for the world.
EvoBio is important not just for understanding how life developed, but also for understanding how it keeps developing. Which it does, all the time. That is the reason why you need new flu shots every few years, among many other things.
So, lets move on to EvoPsych now. The basic idea of EvoPsych is that our brains have a long development history. Our instincts and other basic reactions may sometimes be more adapted to the lives our distant ancestors lived than the lives we live now.
[Disclaimer: Please note that the EvoPsych I’m talking about is limited to understanding humans based on how our stone age ancestors (and their primate ancestors) lived. Some people use a MUCH wider (or otherwise very different) definition of Evolutionary Psychology than I do of “EvoPsych”. The critique in this video does not apply to them.]
This BASIC idea of EvoPsych is quite undeniable. Different parts of the brain has developed during different stages of our evolution. We sometimes react if we were animals in the wilderness. Basic flight-or-fight reactions are often quite out of place in our modern world. One might say that we are not as inherently civilized as we would like. However, we are also more inherently civilized than one might think. You see, our ancestors started using fire and simple tools a long time ago.
A VERY long time ago. Long before they could be called humans. They were Homo Erectus, not Homo Sapiens. In other words, there has never been a human who didn’t use technology. Well, maybe one individual human here and there, locked in a room, left in the woods or born with some defect.
But mankind as a whole has always used tools. To use and develop technology was the ecological niche for which we evolved. Using technology is entirely natural. If we are going to divide into natural and unnatural, then using technology is the natural – while ABSTAINING from using technology is the unnatural.
Making such a division at all is not a good idea. Human beings are natural creatures, and human behavior is by definition natural behavior. The concept of something being “unnatural” is a matter of superstition, not philosophy or science.
On a broad sweeping level, EvoPsych can be really good. It help us understand our place in the world. The basic fact that we are a part of nature. Our instincts come from nature, not from some sinfulness inherited from a man made of clay and a woman made of a rib. Our technology comes from our very nature as human beings, not from any deviation from some pre-planned garden.
However. EvoPsych is not science. Yes, yes, it do have two very sciency words in it. Evolution sounds very scientific, and so does psychology. Far more importantly, the BASIC premise for EvoPsych is based in scientific evidence and sound scientific theories.
When you move into the realm of actual research, however, EvoBio and EvoPsych part ways. Fossils, genes and biochemistry can be cataloged and studied in a fairly objective manner. Emotions and instincts cannot.
We, as a civilization, know very little about how emotions and instincts works today. We know enough, however, to realize that the simple explanations are mostly bullshit. Does genes matter? Of course they do! Does hormones in the womb matter? Of course they do! Does the social structures we encounter in our lives matter? Of course they do! It is not nature OR nurture, it’s an eternal interaction.
Here’s a fun fact: If you work out physically, the muscles in that part of your body grows. Likewise. If you work out mentally, the brain center for whatever you are doing grows. The mind and the biology of the brain are not separate from each other. Even if it was possible, it would not be ethical to grow human brains disconnected from the rest of mankind. Therefore, we cannot know where genetic heritage ends and social adaptation begins.
Also, keep in mind that evolution loves diversity. You see, evolution is BLIND. It cannot plan for the future. That is, it cannot foresee or plan for any specific events in the future. What it can “plan” for, however, is that unforeseen changes has always happened in the past, and will most likely always happen in the future as well. Having a diverse gene-pool does therefore maximize a population’s chances of surviving in the long run. In other words. Our evolutionary background is likely to give us predispositions for having a wide and diverse range of instincts, emotions and capabilities.
We, as a civilization, know very little about how emotions and instincts works today. We know even less, however, about how they worked in the past. Yes there are still some tribes of hunters and gatherers out there. But they are quite diverse, and they have had many millennia to absorb influence from agricultural civilizations. Genetically as well as culturally. What we DO know, however, is that our present culture has several centuries of misconceptions about the stone age as well as about nature in general.
When people talk about EvoPsych, they often talk about a pseudoscience of making things up and calling it a biological fact. For example, take a stereotype about men and women. Based on this stereotype, make two assumptions: Decide that men and women are really like that now, and decide that men and women were really like that during the stone age. When you want to “prove” one of these two assumptions, just use the OTHER assumption as your so-called “evidence”.
How do we know that the gender roles of American sitcoms from the fifties are the TRUE gender roles? Simple, that’s how Fred and Wilma Flintstone lived! Like it was in the stone age, so are our brains programmed to be today! And… how do we know that the actual people of the actual stone age lived like the fictional characters in The Flintstones? Well, those are the NATURAL gender roles, so that MUST be how they lived. All of them.
One might think that documentaries and history books would give a more accurate view of life during the stone age than cartoons such as The Flintstones. However, they are often equally bad. When a show gives a detailed description of the stone age social structure and lifestyle, these descriptions are educated guesses at best, and pure propaganda at worst.
Until recently, the documentaries about nature, animals and and stone age humans did not even try to make educated guesses. Instead, they simply pushed a heteronormative agenda on the audience. Teaching that the then contemporary but now outdated Christian morality about gender and sexuality was not only God-given, but also inscribed into nature itself. This vision was always a guess based on wishful thinking when it came to the stone age humans, and it was always a pure lie when it comes to animals. If you want to know more, I strongly recommend the book “Biological Excuberance”. I’ll link it in the description.
Generally speaking, EvoPsych works best when it stays on a very abstract level. Or is restricted to generate hypothesises to inspire actual scientific research. Or is used as a metaphor, to point out that whatever feelings and instincts a humans may have, these feelings and instincts are natural.
This works both ways: While it relive us of the shame imposed by certain dogmas, it also show us that “good” and “natural” are two entirely separate things. With even the most heinous acts being “natural”, we will just have to look for our morality elsewhere.
EvoPsych is NOT credible when it’s used to impose dogmas. Please activate your bullshit detector when someone try to elevate a certain set of stereotypes about race, class or gender to be universal biological truth.
Specifically, EvoPsych is often misused to fuel sexist beliefs that one gender is better and more moral than the other. Around the fact that women give birth and men don’t, one can spin fantasies about male or female nature. Tales where men are presented as inherently designed to exploit women FOR their wombs, or where women are presented as inherently designed to exploit men THROUGH the limited access to their wombs.
This sexism can be purely misandric or misogynistic, but it’s often both. Demeaning men and women alike, instead of merely one of the genders. In regards to actual science, these projects amounts to making a very big and aggressive hen out of a very small and inert feather. Invoking Evolution may sound more scientific than invoking God. And it might even get you closer to something that contain a grain of truth. Still. Invocations are not science, no matter what you invoke.