Battle in Print: The dubious science of evolutionary psychology

Carl Ratner, 7 October 2008

Evolutionary psychology prides itself on being a valid, scientific account of human psychology (and behaviour) by tying itself to the scientific theory of natural evolution. But evolution is an explanation of physical, anatomical traits. These include anatomical organs such as long necks and wings, and they include behaviours determined by biological mechanisms, such as the hummingbird flying to the red colour of flowers, or the male dog becoming sexually aroused by the scent of the female. The plausibility of evolutionary psychology rests on the question of whether psychological attributes (patriotism, altruism, romantic love, aesthetic judgments, logical reasoning, recollecting your grandmother’s birthday, and studying to get into college) are analogous to anatomical structures in their origins and in their functioning. If they are not analogous, then it is a mistake to explain them in terms of evolutionary theory which explains physical, anatomical features determined by biological mechanisms.

Evolutionary psychologists never address this pivotal question. They simply assume that the analogy holds. They make two specific assumptions. The first is that human psychology is based on our biological nature, which evolved in the Pleistocene period. The second is that adult human psychology is of the same basic nature as infant or even animal ‘psychology’. Below, each is dealt with in turn. 

Assumption 1) Evolutionary psychologists assume that human behaviour/psychology evolves according to the genetic principles of random mutation and natural selection that govern physical evolution: ‘Natural selection takes hundreds or thousands of generations to fashion any complex adaptation. The brain/mind mechanisms that constitute human nature were shaped by selection over vast periods of time in environments different in many important respects from our own, and it is to these ancient environments that human nature is adapted’ (Barkow, et al., 1992, p138). Evolutionary psychologists argue that human nature is adapted to Pleistocene conditions that existed between 1.8 million and 10,000 years ago.


Since we no longer live in those Pleistocene environments, almost everything about our brain and mind must be maladaptive to our current life in complex culture. As used by evolutionary psychologists, Darwinism becomes a theory of maldaptation rather than adaptation! This stands Darwin on his head! An additional refutation of this point is that there have been few changes in the human genome or anatomy over the 40,000 year history of Homo sapiens sapiens, yet enormous psychological and behavioural variations have occurred.

One attempt to extricate the theory from this conundrum is to claim that what is inherited today are general behavioral tendencies rather than specific abilities. For example, social stratification, especially an enduring class structure, is a recent historical phenomenon (arising 12,000 years ago) and could not have been selected for through genetic mutation. So evolutionary psychologists explain it as an epiphenomenon of a more basic human tendency, seeking high social rank. ‘Human beings share the general primate tendency to seek high social rank’ (ibid., p632). This general tendency evolved in Pleistocene times. It simply takes on distinctive forms in contemporary conditions.

In particular, about 12,000 years ago, inventions in tools and social organisation enabled humans to produce a surplus of goods. When this occurred, the natural tendency to seek a high social rank kicked in and led some people to appropriate that surplus for themselves. They formed themselves into a ruling class. ‘High relative standing automatically would tend to involve some control over the surplus’ (ibid., p634). Social stratification is thus an epiphenomenon of the universal, natural, general psychological tendency. The tendency will take on different forms in different situations, however these different forms are essentially the same for they express the same core tendency. It is only the expression that varies. 

However, general psychological constructs cannot explain specific historical-cultural phenomena. This is certainly the case with social stratification. A general tendency toward high social status would not necessarily lead to appropriating a surplus. There are many ways that the tendency for high status could be realised in the condition of surplus wealth. One could achieve high status by devising an egalitarian system for disbursing the surplus in a way that would raise the standard of living of the entire group. The group might be so appreciative that they would accord this wise person the highest social status. A general tendency toward achieving social status certainly does not explain the notable varieties in social stratification – the differences between a tribe member who lived in a large house within a village, and an elite aristocratic class living in temples.

Furthermore, genes cannot encode abstractions. There cannot be a program to achieve high status, without specifying how to do it. What would such a general program devoid of specifics look like? What behaviour would it animate? How would the person know what specifically to do to achieve it? The same is true for the other general tendencies. There cannot be a tendency to construct tools apart from a specification of particular tools. What could such a general tendency consist of? How could this tendency know what a tool is, in the abstract? How could it direct us to invent ‘tools’ devoid of any particular features or forms.

Steven Pinker lands in the same conundrum. He admits that specific social psychological traits are acquired by experience and are not genetically determined. However, he insists that ‘traits that reflect the underlying talents and temperaments – how proficient with language a person it, how religious, how liberal or conservative – are partially heritable’ (Pinker, 2004, p14). But these traits cannot be genetic, even in part. Liberalism is a complex social philosophy that includes symbols, understandings, values. These cannot be intrinsic to the genome. Furthermore, liberalism changes its meaning rapidly. It used to denote individualistic ideas of John Locke. Today it denotes social policies that favour government regulation of businesses for the good of the community and the earth. It is preposterous to assert a tendency toward liberalism when it can take contradictory forms. It is even more pretentious to claim that genetic tendencies are so fine tuned that they can partly determine the degree of liberalism (how liberal one is).

In personality research, genetic influences are invoked to explain the similar personalities of separated identical twins who work at the same job, live in houses surrounded by white picket fences, and marry women with the same name. However, there can be no natural inclination to act in these ways, because they are complex, abstractions. No protein could direct one to become a firefighter; this role did not even exist a few centuries ago.

Assumption 2) Evolutionary psychologists claim that human psychological phenomena are natural functions determined by biological mechanisms, by equating them with the behaviour of animals and infants, which are natural functions determined by biological mechanisms. They assert that human men become sexually excited by fragrances and clothing that women wear, which is analogous to male dogs’ sexuality. In addition, human infants become angry and happy, and these are obviously natural reactions; therefore adult psychology is explainable in the same terms.

While these assertions are superficially plausible, they are only verified by examining the actual operations of adult psychological phenomena to determine whether they are similar to those of animals’ and infants’. Evolutionary psychologists never take this crucial step. They remain at the superficial level of appearances. If adult behaviour ‘looks like’ animal and infant behaviour, then it is assumed to really be the same in terms of origins and mechanisms. This is unacceptable.


We can easily see that adult psychology is qualitatively different from the natural behaviours of animals and infants. The anxiety that one feels after reading newspaper reports predicting an economic recession or a war depends upon (is mediated by) a host of conscious, symbolic understandings of what a recession means and the ways it could affect one’s family and one’s country. Infants and animals are incapable of such an emotion because they lack the cultural and mental factors that make it possible. The fear that an infant or animals experiences when hearing a loud noise is obviously based on an entirely different mechanism. To say that adults and infants and animals all become anxious is to obfuscate real and important differences in the processes, origins, and experience.

Human sexuality is similarly a complex, conscious process mediated by cultural symbols, values, ethics, and aesthetics that are not naturally programmed in DNA. An adolescent who becomes sexually aroused by thinking of the romantic feelings and status that would be attained by dating a famous movie star or rock musician is undergoing a different experience processed by different mechanisms than a male dog undergoes when it directly smells an oestrous scent (see Ratner, 2006; Ratner, forthcoming).


Evolutionary psychology’s failure to explain, describe, or predict human behavior was noted a century ago by the famous anthropologist Kroeber. He said, ‘Darwinism is often spoken as allied to anthropological thought. There is no specific connection. The one deals with biological phenomena and processes; the other begins where these leave off. The common element is the wholly generic concept of evolution, equally applicable in astronomy and geology. Organic evolution is essentially modificatory [the organism is modified into a new species], cultural evolution is cumulative [within the same species of homo sapiens sapiens]. The one is bound up with heredity, the other in principle is free from it. The similarity is merely a loose analogy, and the Darwinian point of view has retarded and confused the understanding of culture’.



Carl Ratner PhD is the director of the Institute for Cultural Research & Education in Trinidad, California


Kroeber, A. (1928). ‘The Anthropological Attitude’. The American Mercury, vol. 13, no. 52, pp. 490-496.
Barkow, J., Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (1992). The adapted mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture. New York: Oxford University Press.
Pinker, S. (2004). ‘Why nature and nurture won’t go away’. Daedalus, 133, 4, 5-17.
Ratner, C. (2006). Cultural Psychology: A Perspective on Psychological Functioning and Social Reform. New Jersey: Erlbaum.
Ratner, C. (forthcoming). Macro Cultural Psychology: A Political Philosophy of Mind. New York: Oxford University Press.

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