[Marxism] WSJ columnist exposes evolutionary psychology

acpollack2 at juno.com acpollack2 at juno.com
Tue May 3 16:35:43 MDT 2005

April 29, 2005 
Evolutionary Psych May Not Help Explain Our Behavior After All
April 29, 2005; Page B1

Like almost everyone else, David J. Buller says he was "completely 
captivated" by evolutionary psychology, and no wonder. This field claims to 
explain human behaviors that seem so widespread we must be wired for them: women 
preferring high-status men, and men falling for nubile babes; stepfathers 
abusing stepchildren. Even the more troubling claims, such as one saying rape 
gave our male ancestors a reproductive edge, have caught on, as laypeople and 
scientists alike say, yeah, that makes sense.

In a nutshell, evo psych argues that Pleistocene humans who engaged in certain 
behaviors left more descendants than did contemporaries who did not engage in 
those behaviors. As a result, we, their descendants, are wired for the 

But as Prof. Buller, a professor of philosophy at Northern Illinois University, 
dug deeper, he concluded that the claims of evo psych are "wrong in almost 
every detail" because the data underlying them are deeply flawed. His book 
"Adapting Minds," from MIT Press, is the most persuasive critique of 
evo psych I have encountered.

Take the stepfather claim. The evolutionary reasoning is this: A Stone Age man 
who focused his care and support on his biological children, rather than kids 
his mate had from an earlier liaison, would do better by evolution's scorecard 
(how many descendants he left) than a man who cared for his stepchildren. With 
this mindset, a stepfather is far more likely to abuse his stepchildren. One 
textbook asserts that kids living with a parent and a stepparent are some 40 
times as likely to be abused as those living with biological parents.

But that's not what the data say, Prof. Buller finds. First, reports that a 
child living in a family with a stepfather was abused rarely say who the abuser 
was. Some children are abused by their biological mother, so blaming all 
stepchild abuse on the stepfather distorts reality. Also, a child's bruises or 
broken bones are more likely to be called abuse when a stepfather is in the 
home, and more likely to be called accidental when a biological father is, so 
data showing a higher incidence of abuse in homes with a stepfather are again 
biased. "There is no substantial difference between the rates of severe 
violence committed by genetic parents and by stepparents," Prof. Buller 

On a lighter note, evolutionary psychology claims that men prefer fertile, 
nubile young women because men wired for this preference came out ahead in the 
contest for survival of the fittest. The key study here asked 10,047 people in 
33 countries what age mate they would prefer. The men's answer: a 25-year-old.

But the men were, on average, in their late 20s. One of the most robust findings 
about human behavior is that people prefer a mate who matches them in education, 
class and religious background, ethnicity -- and age. The rule that "likes 
attract" is enough to explain why young men prefer young women. Besides, if 
you scrutinize the data, you find that 50-ish men prefer 40-something women, not 
25-year-olds, undermining a core claim of evo psych.

The argument that Stone Age women preferred good providers, and that today's 
women are therefore wired to see a big bankroll as the ultimate aphrodisiac, is 
also shaky. Among some hunter-gatherers today, young mothers receive more food 
from their mothers than from their husbands. That makes even the theoretical 
basis for the claim -- that women who sought good providers had an evolutionary 
edge -- problematic.

The empirical basis is no better. On average, 25-year-old women say they prefer 
28-year-old men, even though 50-year-old men have much more of the high status 
and resources that evo psych says they are wired to lust after. Again, likes 
attract more than "good providers" do.

In defense of the "good provider" theory, evolutionary psychologists 
cite studies of female college students asked to choose their ideal mate. Shown 
photos of young men -- one in the uniform of a fast-food worker, one looking 
like a middle manager, the third like a CEO -- they indeed choose one of the 
latter two. But just as people prefer to marry someone near them in age, they 
prefer to marry someone like them socioeconomically. The fact that female 
college students, usually middle- or upper-class, prefer medium- or high-status 
men could simply reflect their preference for a man who looks as though he comes 
from the same socioeconomic background, Prof. Buller points out. Also, earning 
capacity is a sign of other traits, such as education level and socioeconomic 
background. So although it seems that the women are being asked how important 
their mate's income is, they are likely using income as a sign of the other 
things they care about.

Evolutionary psychology has a more fundamental problem than the shakiness of its 
data and the fact that the data can be interpreted in more than one way. Why, if 
child abuse by stepfathers is such a great evolutionary strategy, do many more 
stepdads love and care for their stepchildren than abuse them? And why, if rape 
is "such an advantageous reproductive strategy, [is it that] there are so 
many more men who do not rape than who do," asks primatologist Frans de 
Waal of Emory University, Atlanta.

After "Adapting Minds," it is impossible to ever again think that 
human behavior is the Stone Age artifact that evolutionary psychology claims.

• You can e-mail me at sciencejournal at wsj.com.
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