There’s a well-known quote that was said to be uttered when someone heard about Darwin’s theory of evolution for the first time: “Let us hope it is not true, but if it is, let us pray it does not become widely known”. Darwinian theory was certainly not the first theory that got people worrying about the implications of it being true, nor will it be the last. Pascal’s wager, for instance, attempted to suggest that belief in a deity would be a fine one to adopt, as the implications for being wrong about the belief might involve spending an eternity in torment (depending on which version of said deity we’re talking about), but believing incorrectly that a god exists doesn’t carry nearly as many potential costs. More recent worries have suggested that if global warming is real and caused by human activity, then we might want to knock it off with all the fossil fuel burning before we do (anymore) serious damage to the planet; others worry about the implications of that belief being wrong, suggesting it might harm the economy to impose new regulations on business owners over nothing. While we could document a seemingly-endless list of examples of people worrying about the implication of this or that idea, today we actually get a rare chance to examine whether some of those worries about the implications of an idea are grounded in reality.
“I don’t believe in your academic work….because of the implication“
Now, of course, the implications which flow from a belief if it were true in no way affect whether or not the belief happens to be true. Our Victorian woman fretting over what might happen if evolution is true in no way changed the truth value of the claim. Given that the truth value isn’t affected, and that we here in the academic portion of world might fancy ourselves as fighters over truth of a claim, the implications which flow from an idea can be shrugged off as matters that don’t concern us. Still, one might wonder what precisely our Victorian was wringing her hands about; what consequences the world might suffer if people began to belief evolution was true and behaved accordingly. If she’s anything like some of the more contemporary critics of evolutionary theory in general – and evolutionary psychology in particular – she might have been worried that if people believe that the theory is true, then people have no reason to avoid being amoral psychopaths, killing and raping their way through life. The argument, I think, is that people might begin to justify things like rape and murder as natural if [behavior is genetically determined in some sense/God didn't create people and care very deeply about what they do], and therefore justifiable. If one is interested in avoiding nasty the consequences of beliefs, well, all that rape and murder might be a good one to avoid.
On a philosophical level, I happen to think that such a concern is rather strange. This strangeness arises from the fact that if, say, rape and murder are natural (and therefore justifiable, according to the argument), condemnation of such acts is, well, also natural and therefore acceptable. I’m not sure that this line of argument really gets anyone anywhere. It’s the same kind of reasoning that crops up concerning the issue of free will and morality: in short, when confronted with the idea of determinism, people seem to feel that acts like murder don’t require a justification, but acts like morally condemning others for murder do, leaving us with the rather odd situation where people feel it wouldn’t be justifiable to condemn someone for killing another person, but the killing itself is fine. Why people attach so much importance to trying to justify their moral judgments like that is certainly an interesting topic, but I wanted to bring the focus away from philosophy and back to the implications of evolutionary theories.
Some people have made the argument that if people believe in an evolutionary theory, then they will subsequently fail to condemn something the arguer would like to condemn. Foregoing the matter of whether the evolutionary theory in question is true, we can consider whether the concern about its implications is warranted. This is precisely what Dar-Nimrod et al (2011) set out to do. The authors set out to examine whether exposing male participants to different explanations for a behavior – specifically, an evolutionary explanation and a social-constructivist one – led to any changes in their condemnation of sex crimes, relative to a control condition. If evolutionary theories are used, even non-consciously, to justify certain behaviors morally (what the authors call a “get-out-of-jail-free card”), we should expect that evolutionary explanations will lead people to be less punitive of the sexual crimes. In the first experiment, the authors examined men’s reactions to an instance of a man soliciting a prostitute for sex; in the second, they examined men’s reactions to an instance of rape.
“Participants were subsequently followed to see if they sought out prostitutes”
The first study only made use of 58 participants (two of which were dropped) across three conditions, which makes me a little wary owing to small sample size concerns. Nevertheless, the participants either read about a social-constructivist theory (stressing power structures between men and women in relationship to sexual behavior), an evolutionary theory (stressing parental investment and reproductive potential), or neither. They were subsequently asked to suggest how much bail a man (John) should have to pay for attempting to solicit a prostitute that was actually an undercover policewoman (anywhere from $50-1000). After controlling for how much bail the participants set for a shoplifter, the results showed a significant difference between the conditions: in the control condition, men set an average bail of $267 for John. In the evolutionary condition, the bail was set around $301, and was around $461 in the social-constructivist condition. This difference was significant between the social-constructivist position and the evolutionary condition, but not between the evolutionary and control conditions.
In the next study, the setup was largely similar. Sixty-seven participants read about an evolutionary argument concerning why rape might have been adaptive, a social-constructivist argument about how more porn in circulation was correlated with more rape, or a control condition about, I think, sexual relationships between older people. They were asked to assess the scientific significance of the evidence they read about, and then asked about the acceptability of the behavior of a man (“Thomas”) who persisted in asserting his sexual desires on a woman who willingly kissed him but explicitly objected to anything further (date rape). The results showed that men rated the scientific significance of each theory to be comparable (which, I should note, is funny, given that the relationship between porn and rape goes in the opposite direction). Additionally, those reading the social explanation thought men had more control over their sexual urges (M = 5.4), relative to the control condition (M = 4.6) or evolutionary condition (M = 4.2). Similarly, those in the social condition rated sexual aggression less positively in the social condition (M = 3.0) relative to the evolutionary (M = 3.8) and control (M = 3.6) conditions. Finally, the same pattern held for punitive judgments.
Summarizing the results, then, we get the following pattern: while exposure to a certain social theories enhanced people’s moral condemnation of particular criminal sex acts, relative to the control condition, the evolutionary theories didn’t have any effect in particular. They certainly didn’t seem to justify sexual assault, as some feared they might. Precisely why the social theories enhanced condemnation is a separate matter, with the authors postulating that it might have something to due with the language and variable-focus that they used and note that, with different phrasing, it might be possible to eliminate that difference. The important point as far I’m concerned, though, is that evolutionary explanations (at least these ones) didn’t seem to lead to any of the horrific consequences detractors of the field sometimes imagine they would. In other words, if the evolutionary theories are true, we need not pray they do not become widely known.
So we can all safely move onto the next moral panic
Given that many critics of evolutionary psychology have made reference to this get-out-of-jail-free concern, it seems plausible that their worries are based on some misunderstandings of, or misinformation, about the field (or, more generously, a concern that other people will generate such misunderstandings intuitively, even though the critic is in masterful command of the subject himself). That is to say, roughly, someone says “evolutionary” and the receiver hears “genetic”, “predetermined”, and/or fears that other people will. However, if that explanation is true, I would find it curious that it didn’t seem to show up in the results. More precisely, if people substitute “genetic” for “evolutionary”, we might have expected to see the evolutionary explanations reduce judgments of condemnation, rather than do nothing to them*. It is possible that the effect could be witnessed in other topics than sex, perhaps owing to people treating sex differences in behavior as intuitively genetic based, but I suppose only future research will shed light on the issue.
*(For some reason, genetic explanations seem to reduce the severity of moral judgments. I would be interested to see if participants reading about how moral condemnation is genetically determined subsequently condemn more or less than others)
References: Dar-Nimrod, I., Heine, S., Cheung, B., & Schaller, M. (2011). Do scientific theories affect men’s evaluations of sex crimes? Aggressive Behavior, 37, 440-449.