Bad Evolutionary Psychology

I’ve sometimes been asked by people working in evolutionary psychology to explain why so many feminists hate the field.  It’s an understandable question, from a careful scientist doing serious work on (say) concepts, or the evolution of language, or vision. There’s a lot of completely legitimate good science done by evolutionary psychologists. But then there are the people out there giving the field a bad name:

(1) The folks making claims about innate sex-based colour preferences, based on studies of adults. 

(2) The folks making claims about innate sex-based food-finding abilities, based on a small study of shoppers at a farmer’s market.

It doesn’t take a degree in  women’s studies to make one think there might be some alternative, culture-based hypotheses to rule out in these cases.  At least make an effort– Geez, study babies for the colour preferences.  It won’t be perfect, since the girls will already have spend nearly every minute of their lives swathed in and surrounded by pink.  (I really never appreciated how strong and immediate all the colour-coding was until I became a parent and tried to not play the game.)  Maybe control for how much food-shopping individuals do for the second– perhaps with a cross-cultural study, as The F-Word suggests. Do SOMETHING!

There’s an excellent critique of the colour preference study at the Guardian’s aptly-named Bad Science column.  (Note, by the way, that the Guardian itself is what I linked to for breathless reporting of the study. Though I could have chosen from hundreds of options.) Bad Science points out, among other things, that pink was considered the boy colour until the 1940s.  A quote from Ladies Home Journal, 1918:

“There has been a great diversity of opinion on the subject, but the generally accepted rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl. The reason is that pink being a more decided and stronger color is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” 

Come on, people, stop making your field look bad. And science journalists– what is wrong with you, giving a study like the colour preference one such huge press? The flaws are so obvious that one wonders how this could happen. Gives good support to claims by feminist philosophers of science that it is much harder than one might think to correct for pernicious biases.

14 thoughts on “Bad Evolutionary Psychology

  1. Thud! How could someone possibly study the (alleged) innateness of pink/blue preferences without acquainting themselves with the history?

    Thanks for directing me to this excellent assignment material for the critical thinking course I’m about to teach.

  2. Thanks for reminding me that this should get into the “critical thinking” category, too. If anyone wants more critical thinking material, just click on that category!

  3. It seems to me that this post doesn’t actually address the question of why feminists are wary of evolutionary psychologists. Even if we accept your critique of scientists “giving the field a bad name,” this question remains. After all, surely evolutionary psychologists are not the only scientists or researchers who use questionable methods; why are feminists incensed by evolutionary psychologists in particular? Why single them out?

    What’s not been made explicit in any of this is that if certain evolutionary psychologists were right, their findings would detract from a lot of feminist theory which relies on socialization (as opposed to biology) as the source of gender roles. It’s not just that these evolutionary psychologists are arguably wrong, it’s that feminists have an interest in their being wrong.

  4. Joba,

    I’m looking at your comment

    It’s not just that these evolutionary psychologists are arguably wrong, it’s that feminists have an interest in their being wrong.

    I think that many feminists become aware of the many ways in which seemingly universal and innate roles are actually constructed and assigned by societies; they do so through a great deal of thought and critical scrutiny. From this perspective, the rejection of evolutionary psychology is not really a matter of doctrine. Rather, it’s the product of discovery.

  5. I think there is a lot of antipathy amongst feminists to biological explanations of psychological and behavioural differences between men and women. Some of this may be dogmatic (every movement has its dogmatists!), but JJ is right that for many feminists this is based on evidence. Speaking for myself, I’m open to claims of biological bases for differences, but I do require very strong evidence– it’s incredibly hard to get evidence that really supports biological bases for differences when there are such strong social forces as well.

  6. If you decide to parse issues into biological forces and social forces then you simply haven’t understood evolutionary psychology. It clearly takes the position that the social is mediated by the biological and vice versa meaning that the nature nurture dichtomy that you seem to use as a critiuqe of evolutionary psychology is fundamentally wrong.

  7. Martin, if you go to the first linked story, this is the second quotation from one of the authors of the study: `They appear to give biological and not simply cultural substance to the old saying: pink for a girl and blue for a boy.’ Maybe the Guardian is quoting out of context, but it sounds like Prof. Hulbert is the one deciding to parse issues into biological forces and social forces and leaning heavily on a simplistic nature/nurture dichotomy.

    And, for anyone who wants to know why feminists get so annoyed at things like this, just look at the opening line of the second article: `Men who hate supermarket shopping now have the ultimate excuse to leave it to their mothers, wives or girlfriends.’

  8. […] Feminist blogs have been bashing evolutionary psych lately, and for good reason. The pseudoscientific evolutionary psych findings reported and promoted in the mass media provide a seemingly endless series of “just so” stories to support the Status Quo, and they have been particularly bad in the area of gender. Lately pop evolutionary psych proponents have been claiming that women are “naturally” better shoppers because they have had, in our prehistory a (completely unconfirmed and probably imaginary) primary role as “gatherers” (as opposed to those he-man hunters); that they prefer “pink” (they actually, like men, prefer blue) for the same reason; and, most lately, that, “like the Neanderthals” (more made-up stories of our prehistory) women look for security and commitment in a mate while men look for beauty. […]

  9. I think the mistake being made is not understanding/admitting that Bad Pop Evo Psych does not equal the concept of Evolutionary Psychology or its scholary foundations. This was a common issue with the conflation of original Darwinian Natural Selection and “Social Darwinism” which was a “pop” misuse the idea of selection.
    The other issue is there seems to be undo faith in the notion of the primacy of “Social constructs” in human consciousness. Modern Linguistics has shown that language and grammar has its basis in innate structures of the brain. This is established fact This is in contrast to the older notions of language which dovetail with similar “Blank Slate” models of human knowledge and language acquisition that attributed everything to socialization. This means that the fundamental language functions/abilities are innate, which is analogous to Evolutionary Psychology, but specific languages and grammars differ, i. e. are “social constructs”. Which is more important? Depends on the context. But the modern study of language acquisition is incoherent without the understanding of innateness.

    The upshot is: if Evolution is correct, then the concept of Evolutionary Psychology must be valid to some degree.

  10. So perhaps one might point out as well that pink was seen as a manly color only during a short time period in the late 1800s and early 1900s in great britain. And only because adult men wore red, and boys were expected to dress in a lighter shade of their fathers colors. Before that pink was a pretty rare color in general, and I don’t know if there’s any evidence that it was asigned to any particular gender at all. While I don’t believe that the “berry-picking hypothesis” is any conclusive evidence for anything, I also don’t see how it’s a bad hypothesis. It seems perfectly plausible to me, and I don’t see why anyone should be so quick to dismiss it.

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