Evolutionary psychology and the left

Belief in evolution is often considered the domain of “the left”. Apart from being true, evolutionary theory provides a ground for opposition to creationists. It is often used to argue that competition can be wasteful and that self-organising systems (such as the economy) do not always operate for the good of society. However, evolutionary psychology has not been embraced to the same extent. Ever since Gould and Lewontin led the sociobiology wars against E O Wilson and others, the concept that evolution shaped human minds has faced much opposition, even among those who otherwise accept that evolution is true.

In support of my sweeping statements, in an article published this month in the Journal of Social, Evolutionary and Cultural Psychology, Andrew Ward and his colleagues report on a study of attitudes to evolution and what the authors describe as some key tenets of evolutionary psychology (also blogged on by Robert Kurzban). Those tenets included that men are more interested than women in one night stands, men are more interested in attractiveness, and women value good financial prospects in a mate more than men do.

I feel that Ward and colleagues chose the topic of human mating specifically to get the paradoxical result. As the authors note, there would be value in also testing attitudes to evolutionary explanations for cognition, perception, or language, which I would expect would have a higher level of acceptance for many people.

Ward and colleagues tested 99 participants at a train station for their attitudes to evolution and the implications of applying evolutionary concepts to human mating. They then tested a similar set of questions (with a more generic definition of evolution) on 452 participants from a train station, a college and two churches.

In both studies, the opponents of evolution, who were generally older and more conservative, were more likely to endorse the evolutionary implications on human mating systems. Interestingly, when half of the survey respondents in the second survey were explicitly told that the evolutionary psychology questions were “based on the THEORY OF EVOLUTION, as applied to the fields of psychology and biology” (actual text from survey), it reduced the level of support from evolution opponents but made no difference to the response of evolution supporters.

The most obvious explanation for this is that the evolution supporters simply disagree that the mating differences are a consequence of evolutionary psychology and they have rationalised a reason for this. However, this only raises a follow-up question about why they would consistently create this reason, while the creationists remained happy to support the statements (although to a lesser extent), even when told that the statements were based on the theory of evolution. Further, as noted by Ward and his colleagues, it is unlikely that many of the evolution supporters that were surveyed would have actually thought about and rationalised through this process.

The slightly dissatisfying thing about this study is that, while showing an interesting paradox, it does little to explore the foundation for the paradox or whether there are any conflating factors such as education. That will be left for future studies. For now, the authors leave us holding the aphorism: “Never let the data get in the way of a good theory”.

8 thoughts on “Evolutionary psychology and the left

  1. Interesting post, Jason, as always.

    I’ve often marvelled at how evolutionary thinking can be labelled both progressive and arch-conservative. I wrote a book chapter about how both fundamentalists on the right and social constructionists on the left are deeply threatened by evolutionary thinking, but then the book project didn’t go ahead. So I posted it here: http://www.robbrooks.net/rob-brooks/832 but it is rather long and verbose.

    Since then I’ve come across Sloan Wilson’s wonderful perjorative for the most hardcore social constructionists = “cultural creationists”.

    I think the most exciting thing that has happened recently in terms of the politics of evolution is that some great thinkers have sought to explore evolution and what it means for progressive thought. I think that whole Lewontin-Gould-Rose-Kamin generation who simply waved the white towel and let the social sciences off the hook (“you don’t need to learn any biology, dears”) has been and gone, and there is place for a progressive biology that knows how to avoid naturalstic and moralistic fallacies.

    1. To me, one of the more interesting suggestions that progressives explore Darwinian thinking (or at least, a non-blank slate approach) was by Herrnstein and Murray in The Bell Curve. They suggested that there was an opportunity which had not yet been filled (I don’t recall their exact phrase as I don’t have a copy of the book handy). I expect that we are about to see some interesting debate between conservative, progressive and libertarian thinkers to claim evolutionary thinking as their own. My hope is that it permeates through all ideologies – we can’t be any worse off through having a common basis in evolutionary biology.

  2. Doesn’t seem that hard to understand, and I suspect you’re being a little facetious. People believe what they want to believe, and justify it in a way that seems right to them. Evangelicals are going to believe the old, pre-fifties wisdom on men and women (itself based on hundreds of years of empirical observation), whereas modern liberals are going to believe PC blank-slatism. These things are more important to their view than what some scientist might say, although given the odium the evangelicals feel, their support slackens a little if they believe they’re giving aid and comfort to evolution. If I told you group selection was supported by Nazi views on competition of races, most people wouldn’t feel just a little guilty for supporting it?

    Argument ad hominem, I know, but that’s actually a fairly natural error to make. In the absence of logical evidence one way or other, it makes sense, particularly in a tribal context, to judge an argument based on who’s making it.

  3. Actually, Steve Sailer’s taken up the evolutionary-conservative line of thought, but he’s so politically incorrect nobody wants to go near him. I think he’s probably found a niche serving paleocons and white supremacists, but it keeps other conservatives from going anywhere near evo-bio. Similarly, Roissy talks about this stuff all the time, but he’s so gleefully immoral nobody wants to cite him.

    1. I wrote a closing paragraph suggesting that people will believe whatever they want, but when I thought about it, decided it didn’t need saying. There is also a small part of me that thinks that the right answer must count for something – even if we get there funeral by funeral.

      On the conservative side, Larry Arnhart also has a crack at it, although he often appears more classical liberal than conservative.

  4. Social Darwinism, which was pretty much an early misstep in the direction of evolutionary psychology, was an urban conservative ideology.

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