"Is evolutionary psychology a dubious science?" and other battles…

This coming weekend, the fourth annual Battle of Ideas takes place at the Royal College of Art in London. Launched by the Institute of Ideas think tank, the Battle of Ideas aims to “make virtues of free-thinking and lively exchanges of views”.

Several of the planned Battles have a psychological slant. For example, the Battle for Intelligence on Saturday will feature Prof Colin Blakemore and others discussing the scientific merit and ethical issues regarding cognitive enhancement.

The live Battles are also complemented by a number of “Battles in Print”, one of which caught my eye. Carl Ratner, Director of the Institute for Cultural Research & Education in Trinidad, California, has written a provocative essay entitled “The dubious science of evolutionary psychology.”

Ratner’s essay takes aim at what he claims are the two central tenets of evolutionary psychology: 1) that human psychology/ behaviour evolves according to the same genetic principles that govern physical evolution and 2) that adult human psychological mechanisms are determined by the same biological functions that govern animal and infant behaviour.

This is not the appropriate forum for a detailed response to Ratner’s arguments. However, in the spirit of the Battle of Ideas, I can’t resist taking a pop at a few of his claims. To begin with, he seems to have created a straw man that bears little relation to the true assumptions made by evolutionary psychologists. Surely the basic premise of evolutionary psychology is not that behaviour is governed by principles of genetic mutation, but rather that behaviour is governed by an interaction between the environment and our physical selves, which have been shaped by evolutionary forces. Similarly, although adult psychological mechanisms are not exactly the same as infant or animal psychological mechanisms, they surely do share the exact same quality of being a product of our biological brains.

All this becomes somewhat clearer if we examine one of Ratner’s own examples. To demonstrate that adult psychology is qualitatively different from infant and animal psychology, he cites the example of an adult newspaper reader becoming anxious and fearful upon reading about the looming recession. This anxiety, he says, “depends upon (is mediated by) a host of conscious, symbolic understandings of what a recession means and the ways it could affect one’s family and one’s country. Infants and animals are incapable of such an emotion because they lack the cultural and mental factors that make it possible. The fear that an infant or animals experiences when hearing a loud noise is obviously based on an entirely different mechanism.”

Ratner seems to have confused the mechanisms involved in the perception of danger with the fear response itself. Of course babies and animals won’t get anxious about a newspaper report on the recession because they can’t read and they don’t understand what a recession and its consequences are. So this is a question of perception, understanding and cognitive appraisal. Like an animal or infant, an illiterate adult, or an adult with infinite monetary resources, would also fail to be moved by the news story. Crucially, however, the fear response that the article triggers in some adults will share many features with the fear response of an animal or child to a loud noise: increased heart beat, sweaty palms, extra activity in the limbic system of the brain.

Why, we might sensibly ask, does the adult newspaper reader show these physiological responses to the threat of financial meltdown? It makes sense for the animal or infant to escape the danger of a loud noise, but running faster won’t help the adult elude their debts. This, of course, is where evolutionary psychology comes into play. By recognising that our mental lives are played out in a body that has been shaped by evolutionary forces through the millennia, we can come to a fuller understanding of why we behave the way we do. No matter what the perceived threat, we have but one phylogenetically old fear response that’s changed little for many thousands of years.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Link to the Battle of Ideas.
Link to essay on evolutionary psychology.