Are We The 99 Percent?

Amidst the protests of the Occupy Wall Street crowd, the refrain of “we are the 99 percent” seems to be thrown around like “devil horns” at any metal concert; it’s frequent, and it’s annoying. Without getting too much into personal politics, I will say I don’t appreciate a small group of people who presume to speak for much larger group of people, especially when the view points of that larger group are quite diverse.

A notoriously diverse group of people

Which is why it particularly irks me whenever I read any variant of the following thought: According to Evolutionary Psychology… 

When I was last grading papers for an undergraduate evolutionary psychology course, I can’t tell you how many times I saw that phrase in papers. Despite my frequent red-pen correctives, it was an error that persisted until the end of semester. Unfortunately, it’s not an isolated thought; if you type “Evolutionary psychology is” into google, you’ll notice one of the most frequent search results ends that phrase with “bullshit”. Go ahead and read over each article on the first page of results and their comments sections and count how many times that error is made. You’ll notice the error rate is somewhere between almost all the time to actually all the time. 

You’ll also notice that almost every page refers to this man. Behold the face of evil.

The very basic mistake that’s being made whenever the phrase is uttered is that evolutionary psychology is not a theory, and as such it makes no specific predictions. Rather, evolutionary psychology is a research framework that uses evolutionary theory to help both derive predictions and understand results concerning human psychology and behavior. If you were hoping for something a bit more sinister about oppression and hatred of people who aren’t white males, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. One of the downsides of this very basic mistake is that it leads some people to say – in a no doubt cocky tone – things like, “Is evolutionary psychology total utter and dangerous bullshit?” or, “Evolutionary Psychology is a load of fucking shit” all without actually discussing the underpinnings of the field (which is really a shame, as I’m sure these thoughtful and eloquent people would have a lot to add). As I mentioned last time, people don’t seem to have a problem with the use of adaptationist logic so long as it comes to the conclusion they’d prefer to hear.

Just imagine how well this one went over.

Much like Satoshi Kanazawa, the book pictured above generated a fierce amount of controversy for all the standard, muddle-headed reasons. Among other statements about why the book proved that evolutionary psychology is a bunch of misogynistic bullshit, one of the claims of the critics went something along the lines of “Thornhill and Palmer said rape was an adaptation”. What almost all the critics forgot to mention (or didn’t know) is that Palmer – one of the two authors – argued that rape was a byproduct. (Putting aside for minute the fact that the book was ended on the note that the case for adaptation or byproduct was left open…)

So Palmer’s views got (basically) ignored and he got lumped in with Thornhill through some misguided guilt-by-association. Similarly, almost every site that turned up on the “evolutionary psychology is bullshit” search – on top of blatantly misunderstanding the issue – attempts to make Kanazawa (and sometimes Thornhill) the face of what evolutionary psychology “says”. He is most definitely not the 99%, and evolutionary psychology as a framework is not the problem.

It can be hard to take critics seriously when they can’t demonstrate they know what it is they’re criticizing.

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