Why many scientists don't trust evolutionary psychology

human touching ape evolution
© David Carillet/Shutterstock

Evolutionary scientists and social psychologists are at war.

Nature and nurture are at it again, folks. Evolutionary scientists and social psychologists are at odds over human nature. Two evolutionary psychologists conducted a survey of 335 social psychologists. The survey found social psychologists are biased against evolutionary explanations for human behavior.

This survey highlighted an underground war between social scientists. Evolutionary scientists claim social psychologists often unscientifically reject evolutionary science. For instance, social psychologists refuse to believe humans might be inherently violent, or that genetic difference could be responsible for some gender differences.

"They dislike the implications regarding the dark side of human nature," suggested David Buss and William von Hippel, the evolutionary psychologists who conducted the survey.

Buss and von Hippel think social psychologists have four main problems. According to these two scientists, social psychologists:

1. Tend to be liberal
2. Think of humans as blank slates corrupted "solely by the ills of bad environments"
3. Reject scientific views contradicting this blank slate view (Seems like a continuation of #3, but hey, I don't judge.)
4. Care more about gaining prestige and looking good to other social psychologists than they do about seeking truth

Buss and von Hippel make some good points. If you assume humans are never inherently violent, even if they sometime are, then it's tough to come up with strategies to deal with violence. After all, evolutionary science doesn't prove humans have to act according to some of their worst natural tendencies. It merely acknowledges those tendencies exist. Knowing the problem makes it easier to fix the problem.

Or does it? Sometimes, I wonder if finding a scientific explanation for bad behavior just turns into an excuse. I knew a girl who threw violent rage tantrums every time she was in a bad mood. Afterward, she blamed her emotions, rather than herself. According to her, she was made with those emotions, so she was blameless, no matter how many people she hurt.

Besides, scientists are only human, and humans often come up with explanations that match their beliefs ... especially if those beliefs favor the powerful people funding them. The Nazis, for instance, were very into evolutionary science. But they distorted the science to come to conclusions they already had — that they were evolved to be a superior race, for instance.

That's an extreme example. But it's always been easy for the people who have historically been in charge of scientific institutions to find evolutionary reasons to justify their own power. I've heard people say men rule over women as part of some natural order. Others claim white people conquered much of the world thanks to survival of the fittest. Still more say humans will always abuse their environment thanks to some quirk in our brains.

These arguments are circular — they look at their societies as they are and say there could be no other way, despite a wealth of anthropological evidence to the contrary. There have been gender egalitarian societies. In previous eras, white people were all living in tribes while other groups were building empires. Plenty of civilizations have found some sort of balance with nature.

A philosophy keeping the top in control puts power in the hands of few, which can explain a lot of today's problems. 70 percent of Americans believe protecting the environment is more important than growing the economy. But since power is in the hands of a small number of people, what most Americans want doesn't necessarily matter.

Evolutionary psychology is an exciting new field and offers us the potential for amazing insights into our nature. If used properly, it could even help us find realistic solutions to inequality and environmental problems. But as social psychologists seem to suspect, we must tread carefully with this new tool. Just as kings thought the gods gave them their thrones, modern leaders may use evolution to justify their right to rule ... And claim others, human and otherwise, were born to serve.

Why many scientists don't trust evolutionary psychology
Evolutionary scientists and social psychologists are at war.

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