The Limits of Evolutionary Psychology

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Our brains evolved, but they also evolved a consciousness.

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Evolutionary psychology is the theory man has evolved an innate drive to gain status and mating opportunities. But you already knew this.

The theory explains why a young man risks his life to snowboard off a cliff. Or why a slightly older man risks his financial stability to build a company. Or why an even older man risks his happiness to marry a woman who’s too pretty.

But what about the young man who joins the seminary and takes a vow of celibacy? Evo psych says he’s still gaining status, even if it’s in a community of religious people. And though he promises to be an evolutionary dead end, he’s subconsciously betting there are lonely divorcees in his future. Or what about the proverbial comic book guy who secludes himself and hoards trivialities? Evo psych says he’d gaining status albeit in a niche sparsely populated by girls, which may be the best bet for him since guys who look like Tyson Beckford don’t become comic book guys. Or what about smoking cigarettes? Evo psych says the habit, no matter how much of a turn-off it can be to some, signals fitness to others. If our lungs can handle tarred smoke, then we’ll be able to produce sturdy offspring. Or what about when men cut off their own penis in a psychotic rage? Evo psych says this man’s mental illness that put him in the running for the Darwin Award could present itself as a fitness indicator in another man.

Evolutionary psychology has an explanation for everything. It can explain why we dress up or dress down, why we make money or remain poor, why we fight or submit, why we vote democrat or republican. As such, the field has become like the prison system—a tool that’s useful in certain contexts, but it’s accumulated too much jurisdiction because it provides cush jobs for guys who get off on bossing people around.

In using evo psych to explain every reason for every behavior, psychologists commit the fallacy of begging the question. The premise that brains evolved to increase status and mating opportunities is used to prove our brains evolved to increase status and mating opportunities.

Begging the question is the same fallacy behind psychological hedonism, which holds every man is motivated by his desire to increase pleasure and decrease pain. We may as well argue for psychological foodism, which holds man is motivated to eat as much food as possible.

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The truth is evolution only influences our psychology to a certain degree. To the exact degree no one yet knows for sure, so it’s not worth arguing. But the sober claim is it’s to the same extent biology influences our psychology in other ways. The inherited aspects of depression have been studied extensively—we know the neurotransmitters that cause depression, and we’ve pinpointed the genes that influence these neurotransmitters, and we’ve demonstrated how this aligns with the heritability patterns of physical traits. From this, it’d be difficult to find a psychologist who denies that about 50 percent of depression is determined by genetics, 10 percent is determined by environmental factors, and 40 percent is determined by free will, which includes focus and emotional regulation. Some of us aren’t going to be as happy as others no matter what we do, but there’s still quite a bit we can do to be happy, or at least not miserable. Consult your local positive psychologist to learn how to distract yourself from misery.

However, evolutionary psychologists rarely present the field with this limited view, and many of the ideology’s prominent adherents—like Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne, and Steven Pinker—are self-proclaimed determinists. Their caveman reductionism leaves even smart people confused about our complexity.

I was at my book club recently and a story came up about a guy who became rich in his 40s and then left his wife for a younger women. The consensus was this is what happens when a guy gets rich—he inevitably begins making different decisions. The group failed to grasp how this man’s newfound ability to bed his secretary only accounts for part of the reason why he chose to do so. It definitely influences his behavior, but to gloss over the 40 percent of his behavior that can be of his own doing seems like willful evasion for the “hey watch me sit back and deconstruct the world” points.

It’s funny when Chris Rock says a man is as loyal as his options, and it’s funny because it speaks to a truth, but the truth is only part of the picture. In most cases when a man cheats, he has other issues besides opportunities. Usually it’s an attachment disorder pulling the strings, and a secretary is a convenient excuse to avoid intimacy. When I offered this explanation to my book club, their rejoinder was the credulous look. And these are guys who use their free time to learn Plato, so it’s not like they don’t understand the importance of thought.

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It’s accurate and so helpful to view our own lives in this way. I notice how my programming to seek a healthy mate influences my behavior, but I also notice how my values influence that same behavior. I began dating my girlfriend when she was 24-years-old. My biology wants me to date a younger girl, but my chosen values want me to date someone who isn’t Snapchatting every two seconds. My previous girlfriend was 21-years-old, so if evo psych was true to the extent most of us believe, leaving a younger girl for an older one would be an improbable if not impossible scenario except if my previous girlfriend was fat (she wasn’t). Sure I probably wouldn’t have began dating my girlfriend if she was 37, but if psychologists want to understand humans better they too need to embrace nuance. Of course, our psychology evolved, but more importantly it evolved a consciousness.

Consciousness may not be automatic but neither are maidens. They’re both values. We must fight for the former as we must fight for the latter.

Since technology metaphors have always been employed to understand psychology, consider the computer you’re reading this on now. The computer has certain functions we cannot ignore, certain rules we cannot get around. But what we do with these rules, this programming, is entirely up to us. We can use it to build a business and connect with a friend, or we can use it to watch porn all day and numb out on social media.

Feminists and other Marxists deny the importance or even the presence of the computer when they claim gender is a social construct. To parrot this narrative, they willfully ignore the distinct hormonal makeup between men and women, a hormonal makeup that informs our thought and behavior. To deny the existence of our computer is to deny who we are and so inevitably leads to gratuitous struggle and shame. This is the firefighter woman or the stay-at-home dad. But it’s just as unhealthy to even imply humans have no free will because of the computer’s natural access to Twitter and Pornhub.

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Aristotle developed an apt framework we can use to help us understand how evolution affects our psychology. He categorized entities into form and matter. Form is a certain kind of entity (such), and matter is an individual entity (this). An idea of a table is a form, the specific table in your dining room is the matter. Evolution gives us the form of our psychology, but consciousness gives us the matter. A necessary—though not sufficient—condition for mental health is recognizing the form of our psychology and using it to construct the matter of our psychology.

A woman may be able to grasp the content of what it means to be a good lawyer. She understands higher-order concepts and applies them to specific cases. But she’s unable to compete with men on the form of being a lawyer. There’s little drive for her to be a partner in a law firm because in the long run it doesn’t satisfy her biology by making her more attractive—and, if anything, it makes her unattractive. Evolution is responsible for lower-level functioning; consciousness for higher-level functioning. The noble soul, as Nietzsche and Captain Kirk say, commands the attention of one to embrace the other.

Many factors influence our behavior: upbringing, temperament, parents, birth order, weight, height, looks, culture, and yes, our archetypal programming imbued by evolution. It’s curious how the factors we can change, like focus and regulation, get brushed to the side by modern psychology—by both the evolutionary psychologists and the postmodernists.

As such, our willingness to believe in the preeminence of puppet-master theories like evolutionary psychology says more about us than evolutionary psychology ever could.