Biological determinism and evolutionary psychology

J Michael Bailey is a psychology professor at Northwestern University who has written a highly defamatory book on transsexualism called The Man Who Would Be Queen: The Science of Gender-Bending and Transsexualism. It is an extension of his belief in biological determinism, as expressed in the school of thought called evolutionary psychology.

Below is an interesting article on biological determinism, specifically evolutionary psychology.
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Volume: 3  Number: 2
ideas and activism

"There is another way to explain the appeal of evolutionary psychology. Like Social Darwinism before it, evolutionary psychology serves to legitimate current social formations by giving them a genetic basis."

"Evolutionary responses to social problems tend not to be answers, but rather justifications for the social formations that created the social problems."

March 2002

Social Darwinism, take two
the dangerous allure of evolutionary psychology

Bret Harper 

Charles Darwin may have been the greatest natural scientist of the modern era. Unfortunately, the subsequent perversion of Darwin's ideas under the name of Social Darwinism quickly emerged, constituting the intellectual backdrop for a regime of racism and sexism in the western world for more than fifty years. It once seemed the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust, with Hitler's claims of innate biological superiority and his scientists' blood-curdling eugenics experiments, cast permanent skepticism on claims of biological superiority and evolutionary divides between human beings. After all, these claims did facilitate genocide. However, Social Darwinism is back, and it can be found in a university classroom near you. It lurked about in popular social theory for most of the twentieth century without enjoying much academic or popular sway. But by the 1970s a new brand of biologist emerged: the sociobiologist. These writers, notably Harvard's E. O. Wilson and Oxford's Richard Dawkins, once again took up the line of biological determinism. However, the sociobiologists mostly steered clear of the social implications of their work. The true legacy of the Social Darwinists re-emerged more recently, finding purchase in psychology departments in England and the United States. The new Social Darwinists are now called "evolutionary psychologists". 

In the relatively slow-moving academic world, evolutionary psychologists emerged with lightning speed. Even more surprisingly, their ideas reach audiences far beyond those typically interested in psychology experiments. By 1995, an academic discipline that was discredited to the point of non-existence for much of the twentieth century mustered enough influence to have a news special on ABC called "Boys and Girls are Different". The program announced evidence for the highly contestable claims of evolutionary psychology, such as the existence of innate differences between men and women; claiming that women, for example, are better nurturers but inferior at mathematics.  A torrent of books has arrived during the last two decades, treating complicated social issues such as sexuality, family structure, and even rape from an "evolutionary" perspective. How did these seemingly dead issues re-emerge so quickly? What accounts for the seemingly intuitive applicability of Darwinian concepts to contemporary social relations? How do the "scientific" claims of psychologists so easily trump work on the same topics by cultural theorists, sociologists, historians, and others? These are questions that need answering in order to understand the meaning and potential impact of the newly styled brand of Social Darwinism known as evolutionary psychology.

The greatest difference between evolutionary psychology and the outmoded Social Darwinist outlook lies in the new tool of genetics. Science and technology played a major part in evolutionary psychology's Darwinian project by uncovering the mechanics of the gene. The gene and DNA provide evolutionary psychologists with a seemingly immutable and uncontestable basis for human behavior. The answer to every question can be answered for the evolutionary psychologist with a quick reference to the tangled band of sugar molecules found in every cell. The gene provides a scientific basis for claims about each individual's destiny. It is a tool that the Social Darwinists lacked, and one that the evolutionary psychologists have eagerly latched on to. Unlike most scientific concepts and theories, genes provide a strong basis for human behavior. From this scientific basis, one can make claims about meaning that once belonged squarely within the realm of philosophy, religion, literature, or the "softer" social sciences. Genes give scientists their own metaphysics, an ultimate ground of nature. How were humans meant to interact? Well, it's all right there in the gene. Evolutionary "fitness" can now explain every question that needs answering. 

Evolutionary psychologists have even recently published books giving a genetic basis for successful business practices and warfare (is Osama bin Laden genetically superior to his pursuers?), in addition to the standard topics of sexuality, race, and gender. And the often vexing questions of social organization are now well within the purview of science: organizations that work are those that put people in their proper, genetically determined capacity.

Even the rhetoric of evolutionary psychology has assumed the pseudoreligious self-importance gained from the "revelation" of the gene. Assured that the tale of the gene will finally put human uncertainty about their place in the world on sound, scientific footing, they lash out at unbelievers with hostility reminiscent of earlier Darwinist battles. Those unwilling to accept the preeminent importance of the gene are, as prominent evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker claimed, guilty of a "tribal devotion to past masters and ideological commitments" with a "left wing political axe to grind."

With such harsh rhetoric, one might expect Pinker to be defending a theory that enjoyed widespread acceptance and ample documentation. Yet Evolutionary psychology has neither of these. The evidence for behavioral genetics is scarce and highly conjectural, and the flagship studies in evolutionary psychology face numerous critics from across the academic spectrum. Instead, all that the evolutionary psychologist offers is a narrative of human evolution that even E. O. Wilson admits suffers from "a scarcity of information." It is a narrative that does a poor job of describing the vast and complicated landscape of human social evolution and interaction. But why is this story so compelling? One charitable answer to this question is that people desire fixity in the world. The shifting identities found in post-modern theorizing do not assure people of their place in the world. Once everything becomes contingent, everything also becomes uncomfortable. But the gene offers a secure basis, a rock on which to build an understanding of human interaction. Scientific rationality offers evolutionary "fitness" as the supreme test and the gene as the supreme basis. This view of the world offers comfort and definitive answers for people at a time (in the United States at least) when religion and politics are becoming increasingly compromised and losing their explanatory power.

There is another way to explain the appeal of evolutionary psychology. Like Social Darwinism before it, evolutionary psychology serves to legitimate current social formations by giving them a genetic basis. What is the consequence of determining a genetic basis for male superiority in mathematics? Well, such information can be used to justify inequalities in schools that give males an advantage in learning mathematics. 

Evolutionary responses to social problems tend not to be answers, but rather justifications for the social formations that created the social problems. It should not surprise us to note that the political recommendations of many evolutionary psychologists fall to the right on the political spectrum. Who could forget Herrnstein and Murray's book The Bell Curve (1994)? After asserting that each race stood somewhere different on "the bell curve" of intelligence, the infamous duo went on to suggest that the U.S. government stop spending so much money on those students genetically destined to fail. 

Fortunately, it seems that race is no longer the primary target of evolutionary psychology's conservative claims. Recently, gender and sexuality have emerged as the most significant areas of inquiry in the field. While psychologists are working out disturbing conclusions on a number of issues, looking deeper into one recent book shows the potential danger of these studies. Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer's book titled A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion (2000) provides an alarming example of how evolutionary psychology can function to stifle attempts to eliminate even something as ghastly as rape. 

Thornhill's central claim is that rape is an evolutionary, adaptive strategy to produce offspring. It follows that rape is an inevitable, indeed genetically determined, part of human society and that attempts to eliminate it will prove fruitless. Thornhill extrapolates this conclusion from studies on forced sex among scorpion flies (apparently the evolutionary link to humans should be obvious). And he ignores the obvious theoretical problem of rape victims that are either too old or too young to reproduce, not to mention the numerous motives/pathologies identified in more insightful inquiries into the social phenomenon of rape. 

Other evolutionary psychology researchers, such as Northwestern's own associate professor of psychology J. Michael Bailey, focus their genetic spotlight on sexuality, trying to place it in an evolutionary context. This method depends heavily on the almost singular influence of the genome on human development, a practice long eschewed by theorists of sexuality from other fields. The trend among other social researchers is an attempt to move beyond the cliched nature/nurture debate. In sharp contrast, evolutionary psychologists address the question by wholly collapsing nurture into nature. While the discipline of psychology has never been kind to non-heterosexuals (in the í50s) shock treatment was often employed by psychologists to "cure" gay people) the new approach of evolutionary psychology is particularly dangerous. Locating sexuality in the genome forces one to accept that there is such a thing as immutable sexuality. This suggests that gay people, for example, are essentially or genetically different from heterosexuals, laying fertile groundwork for discrimination, or worse. In reality, genes do a very poor job of characterizing the behavior of homosexuals, which drastically changes between cultures and is highly subject to the choices, practices, and "performances" of individuals. Evolutionary psychology, as a method, is hopelessly reductionist. It cannot account for the multiform complexities that shape and reshape human interaction. The story it provides is simple to the point of absurdity. It is a linear story of "fitness" and "competition" that neatly lands us at a necessary present. Most of our problems, the story goes, are not really problems. Instead they are the result of evolution. The other problems, of course, are best addressed with reference to the certainties of the genome. 

The narrative also marshals an appealingly solid basis for social science, especially if you find yourself at the top of the evolutionary pile. The story finds easy acceptance and the complex critiques that poke holes in its theory get lost in the simplified world of mass media and best-selling books. Evolutionary psychology and its Social Darwinist undertones will not easily disappear. Its very method supports the entrenchment of the dominant social structures, ensuring its political support and applicability. 

What is the alternative to the strictly evolutionary narrative of human history? One possibility is to simply present a more nuanced version of our evolutionary past. Biologists, beginning with Darwin himself, have consistently criticized the reductionist view of evolution employed by evolutionary psychologists. Darwin frequently emphasized that the changes in a species are not always determined by selection. This realization helps account for the abundant diversity in the human gene pool, most of which does not influence human survival (such as skin color, height, or nose shape). 

This puts the onus on evolutionary psychologists to provide compelling evidence from the archaeological record as to how, specifically, biological attributes resulted from, or influence, human evolution. In fact, they often base their claims on extrapolations from other species or from limited observations of social structures in the modern context. 

In addition to complicating the picture of evolution, it is also helpful to point out the significance of social structures in determining roles for people based on gender, race, or sexuality. Comparative evaluations help demonstrate how easily biological attributes can shift meaning in different social situations. The meaning attached to being "gay" in the United States does not correlate with the manifestations of homosexuality in other cultures. 

The stereotype prominent in the United States that gay males naturally act more effeminate is not a worldwide phenomenon. Researchers like NU's Bailey (who is currently attempting to ground the effeminate gay identity in biological fact) might be surprised to learn that the effeminate gay person cannot be found in some other cultures. Instead, homosexuality is represented differently or not represented at all. Even within the United States there are various gay identities available, such as "macho" gay men, which contrast the effeminate image. This evidence suggests that the society has enormous influence over how biological traits manifest themselves. Evolutionary psychologists, however, exaggerate the influence of socially constructed identities by giving undue primacy to the gene. Other academic disciplines no longer treat issues such as race, sexuality, or gender by grounding them in biology. Instead they recognize the contingency of these categories and treat them as identities rather than determined biological fact. Race, for example, does not exist as a biological fact (which explains why "white" people can act "black", or "gay" people can act "straight"). Instead, it is created and mediated primarily by social interaction and identity formation. This explanation for difference better fits the evidence, and does not rely on spotty evolutionary speculation. Most importantly, we must work to break down the faulty claims of evolutionary psychology and all forms of biological determinism, so that individuals may be truly free to define their own selves.

created in 2002, copyright-free