on the robustness of evolutionary explanations

I just finished reading Rosemary Hopcroft’s interesting article, Gender Inequality in Interaction – an Evolutionary Account (Social forces 87:4, June 2009). If I understand the article correctly, it argues essentially that frequent female deference to men is (a) well demonstrated; (b) subconscious; and (c) the result of evolutionary pressures. There’s an interesting spin, which is that because these preferences or behaviors are subconscious, feminist approaches like consciousness raising might work to change them. But otherwise the article strikes me as open to several important alternative hypotheses.

The principal alternative hypothesis results from the time problematic. Like other studies based on evolutionary psychology, the article is premised on behaviors having emerged during the Evironment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA), a period of historical development in which human genetic characteristics are said to have become relatively fixed. But there are important differences in gendered behavior, including sex deference, sexual preferences, and male “control” of female mates, across the historical time period that comes after the EEA. Thus the constant the article seeks to explain really isn’t a constant at all!

This is true synchronically as well as diacronically. The studies cited, as is common in psychology, are based overwhelmingly on US college students from the late 20th and early 21st centuries. This may be less of a problem in standard psychological studies (though of even that I’m not convinced) but it’s a huge problem when what you want to demonstrate is that something is a human constant!

If, in fact, male sexual domination is essentially a variable instead of a constant, it follows that whether it is conscious or subconscious, it can’t be explained by a constant (fitness during the EEA).

It seems to me that the only way an article like this can be said to demonstrate its claim is if we take that claim to be a valid premise–that is, if we begin with the assumption that humans are essentially evolved actors, their behavior a more-or-less clear reflection of adaptation during the EEA, then we can arrive at that conclusion as well. But if we allow even the possibility that culture is an independent force of its own, distinct from the individual predispositions inherited from the EEA, I don’t see how we can arrive at the point of understanding evolution during the EEA as the essential cause of human behavioral patterns.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

15 thoughts on “on the robustness of evolutionary explanations”

  1. By my reading of the article, the evidence as presented could just as easily lead to the conclusion that God created the behavior as Evolution. I guess the scientist (trapped) in me is glad the default is to attribute common traits to Evolution instead of God.


  2. I guess I’m not convinced of the relative supremacy of one faith-based explanation over another. It’s not that I particularly dislike the evolutionary explanation, but rather that: (a) I’m not convinced that the explanandum exists; and (b) I don’t think “If we assume an evolved actor, we can arrive at an evolved actor” is a very useful statement.


    1. (a) I’m not convinced that the explanandum exists
      (b) I don’t think “If we assume an evolved actor, we can arrive at an evolved actor” is a very useful statement.

      Thank you.


  3. I think you’ve hit on an important point about the EEA being a grossly over-simplified construction. I like these reviews of some of the reasons why:
    Irons, W. Adaptively relevant environments versus the environment of evolutionary adaptedness. Evolutionary Anthropology 6, 194-204 (1998).
    Hawks, J., Wang, E. T., Cochran, G. M., Harpending, H. C. & Moyzis, R. K. Recent acceleration of human adaptive evolution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104, 20753-20758, doi:10.1073/pnas.0707650104 (2007).

    However, I am less sure about why you are presuming that cross-cultural and diachronic variability precludes past selection on physiology and behavior having a contemporary influence? Does a variable really need to show a perfect correlation in order to make a case for an effect? It is not at all surprising that the cultures we create mediate a tremendous variety of behaviors–however it is not clear why this precludes the influences of past evolutionary pressures? Why does “the possibility that culture is an independent force of its own, distinct from the individual predispositions inherited from the EEA” preclude evolutionary causes of human behavioral patterns?

    Further, I wonder if the variability of human sexuality is often assumed rather than empirically examinded, and this variability often somewhat over-stated. For example, take the work of David Schmitt (http://schmitt.socialpsychology.org/), which seems to show far less variability than many would predict.


  4. It’s not that culture as an independent force precludes evolutionary causes — it’s that it precludes demonstrating that evolutionary causes are the essential or fundamental cause of these behavior patterns. Following Turkheimer, I don’t doubt that these behaviors, like virtually all others, are to some extent heritable and evolved. I doubt that the heritability and evolution are as straightforwardly linear as is implied by the “subconscious” mechanism, and I doubt that they are fundamental in the sense of more real or more basic than post-EEA cultural effects.


  5. Looks like we are essentially in agreement then. I add that, depending on one’s research interests, some types of effects are more likely to be more fundamental or more likely to be fundamentally interesting.

    Evolutionary Psychologists do often seem to be guilty of promoting their pet effects as if they were “the fundamental” effect (I’m not sure if they are more guilty of this than peoples in most other fields of science though).


  6. Given the very ugly history of “naturalizing” inequality through ascribing biological or evolutionary origins to social problems- I approach these kinds of hypotheses with some discomfort.


  7. @ hoosierbluesman – do political sensibilities trump considerations for what makes a plausible social scientific hypothesis?


  8. do political sensibilities trump considerations for what makes a plausible social scientific hypothesis?

    @hoosierbluesman wasn’t didn’t people shouldn’t do this kind of work or that it should be banned, just that he had reason for approaching it with suspicion. While it’s fun to think of oneself as bravely confronting the PC orthodoxy with Science, a relevant consideration for “what makes a plausible social-scientific hypothesis” is the past performance of theories of more or less the same form. “Didn’t this turn out to be an ugly, dead-end waste last time round?” is a reasonable question. You might think that the EP program avoids the problems of its precursors. Maybe it does. You might believe that it’s the true future of social science. Maybe it is. But given the long history of intellectually shonky and, yes, politically repellent efforts in this vein, you can hardly pretend that the burden of proof is on other people to prove you wrong.


  9. You just can’t make this stuff up: “The evolution and neurobiology of mammalian visual processing- and recent findings on sex-dimorphic toy preferences in nonhuman primates-suggest further that an innate bias for processing object movement or color/form may contribute to behaviors with differential adaptive significance for males and females. In this way, preferences for objects such as toys may indicate a biological preparedness for a ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ gender role” (“An evolutionary perspective of sex-typed toy preferences: Pink, blue, and the brain,” by G.M. Alexander, ARCHIVES OF SEXUAL BEHAVIOR [2003] 32(1):7-14.”


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