The other night, I was talking with a group of seven graduate students about sexual fantasies. No, not their sexual fantasies. We were talking about some data about sexual fantasies that I and two of the present students had gathered that showed a very strong and reliable sex difference that, as far as we know, no else had ever found.

I won’t tell you what the result was – we’re still working on the project, and it’s not ready for prime time – but I will tell you why I’m relating the story. One of the comments made by a graduate student caught my attention. As we were explaining the results of the studies we had run to that point, the student – I will call him George – remarked that the pattern that we had found was quite interesting. He indicated that the finding was so compelling, in fact, that he didn’t see why we were so focused on finding an explanation for it. The results, said George, stood on their own. Why, in short, ask why?

This struck me because my understanding of the reason that people choose to go to graduate school – to pursue science– is because of an interest in explanations. I myself grew up reading science fiction, and those explorations led me to science because science was a lot like trying to solve a puzzle – Find the Right Explanation – for which there wasn’t an answer key. The point, I suppose, is that I thought – and, more or less, continue to think – that the whole point of science is coming up with – and, it goes without saying, testing – explanations. Why, I wondered, ask “why ask why?”

I don’t by any means intend this to be a slight. People are entitled to be curious – or not – about anything they wish. Certainly, others have articulated the idea that to explain a thing is to take something vital from it – explanations of jokes have this sort of feel – but I, and I think many others, take the reverse view, that explanations only add to our joy in what we observe. (Aside: Is this why museums provide explanations near their displays? And why so many people consume the displays but eschew the plaques?)

This anecdote is just to say what I take to be the added value of evolutionary psychology: it points to explanations. Or, to go further, a key part of the value of evolutionary psychology is that it points to deep explanations.

In 2011, Edge.org, published a little piece by one of my favorite psychologists, Tim Wilson. Just as TVOL is engaging with the question of just what evolutionary psychology is, Edge, via Wilson, was engaging with the question of just what social psychology is (anyway).

In any case, Wilson’s piece stimulated a discussion on Edge with a number of other prominent scholars, including Steve Pinker, a well-known exponent of evolutionary approaches to psychology. The dialog was illuminating. Briefly, responding to Wilson’s (skeptical) discussion of what evolutionary psychology as a discipline adds, Pinker claimed that evolutionary psychology adds quite a lot indeed, pointing to a paper that listed novel contributions of the discipline. Wilson replied this way:

“I went back and checked … Many of them fail the novelty test in that they were well-known phenomena before evolutionary psychology existed, such as, “Sex difference in opposite-sex friendships.” Does Steve [Pinker] mean to imply that it wasn’t until evolutionary psychology took hold in the in 1970s and 1980s that we discovered that there was such a phenomenon? For many of the items it is not the phenomenon that is novel but the explanation of it.”

This notion that it is somehow damning for a field – or, perhaps, a scientist – to add “only” a novel explanation is, to my mind, singular. Before Newton, pretty much everyone had noticed that things fall. “All” Newton added was an explanation. To take a more pertinent example, before 1859, it was exceedingly well known that plants and animals came in many different types, each with their own traits. “All” Darwin did was provide an explanation for this well-documented phenomenon.

Wilson continued, adding that “Evolutionary psychologists did not discover these phenomena,” and wonders “how much we need evolutionary theory to explain these phenomena.” In the end, he questions why a field such as social psychology “needs to find explanations outside of its own principles and constructs.”

This short essay isn’t the place to get into the details of the explanatory power of the evolutionary approach to (human) behavior. In some sense, I’m happy to say that it’s possible to catalog, count, and codify human behavior, marvel in its wonder, and complacently settle for measuring, rather than understanding.

But I, for one, am not inclined toward such complacency. Neither do I find satisfying explanations that are shallow, if they are explanations at all, such as frequently-repeated one-word proposals such as “learning,” “culture,” or “plasticity.”

What I want as deep an explanation for our new data on sexual fantasies as possible and, ever since Darwin, we’ve known where to start to look for one.


Buss, D.M., & Reeve, H.K. (2003). Evolutionary psychology and developmental dynamics. Psychological Bulletin, 129, 848-853.

Published On: February 22, 2015

Robert Kadar

Robert Kadar

Robert is the founding editor of This View of Life, co-founder of Evonomics, and creator of the children’s book Great Adaptations. Also, he served as Executive Assistant of the Evolution Institute.


  • Brittany Sears says:

    I love the dichotomy of putting up plaques to explain a display… and the museum-goers ignoring it.

  • Thom Scott-Phillips says:

    Excellent post Rob. You’ll be unsurprised to hear that I share your enthusiasm and curiosity for explanation for its own sake. I also share your surprise that this is not more widespread. Many scientists do sincerely appear to care first, foremost, and often only about finding things out, and not so much in explaining why the world is the way it is. Discovery is cool – very cool – but it isn’t everything.

    Next time I have conversations about explanation in science, I will point people to this post.

  • Helga Vieirch says:

    Explanations are always fuller descriptions of phenomena because they add cause and effect relationships to observation, implying time depth and predictability. Human behaviour can be simply described in all its diversity, but this is just mind-numbing unless they are organized in terms of a plausible explanatory framework . The best framework so far is one that is evolutionary, that is framed in terms of the relative adaptive aspects of observed behaviour. So far so good, but terms you mention, like plasticity, learning and culture are not generally offered as explanations without time depth or assumptions about adaption, either. Behavioural plasticity is usually attributed to an evolutionary history where there was positive selection for an individual animal’s behaviour to adjust to variation in environment. Cultural variations are also usually offered to explain differences, between populations, in behaviour even under similar circumstances. The explanation is that learned and shared behaviour (culture) is a normal aspect of social species’ way of adapting: not all behaviour therefore needs to be innate or instinctual. Adding cumulative information to the genetic makes for a more flexible and rapid adaptation to environmental change. So in one troop of macaques where an innovation for separating cereal from sand occurred, it spread through the population and became a normal behaviour within a few years. It was a cultural adaptation to provisioning by humans, who threw cereal grain along the beach for the monkeys.

    It is a normal part of science, implicit in the scientific method, to develop and test hypothesis – which are always statements about a potential cause and effect relationship. Auguste Compte suggested this be applied to the study of human society – he called this empiricism, applied to human behaviour, “positivism” as it did away (he hoped) with the imposition of value and moral judgements and sought, instead, greater understanding. Since Darwin, the models developed have acquired more time depth and have generally assumed a long history of biological evolution that can contribute to understanding human behaviour. the addition of an evolutionary perspective to the study of human psychology is a welcome development, and no doubt will contribute to a convergence of theory and method among the social sciences.

  • Bryan Atkins says:

    Jonas Salk wrote that intuition should lead a respectful intellect.
    After years of science reading, I intuit (and this may only be a descriptive metaphor) that The? fundamental reality component is information (or maybe just A component).
    Salk also wrote: “The most fundamental phenomenon of the universe is relationship.”
    To add complexity: I think Information-in-Relationship is a good description of reality.
    Rocks, humans, viruses, trees, nations, atoms, tribes, are simultaneously nouns and verbs, i.e., aggregate information structures that process relationship information over time. This description integrates physics and evolution: information (physics) processes relationship-interaction information over time (evolution).
    EP explains patterns of long-term relationship processing, or reality navigation, done by human aggregate information structures, explains behavioral apps generated by repeated relationship information processing that facilitate homeostasis, that are similar to, a mere extension of: the generation of a venom or venom antidote; immune systems producing antibodies, etc.
    Developing deception and self-deception strategies is Relationship-Learning that has become physically structured over time, as these processing structures help the larger whole, the human aggregate information structure, maintain its integrity.
    It seems to me: To omit evolution in ANY(?) behavior explanation is to deny both relationship and the phenomenon of information processing over the 4.5-billion-year history of the earth.

  • Paul Gilchrist says:

    Commentators have given examples but at the base all are saying that identifying a phenomenon is a great thing but one must be curious as to “how ?”. Answering that question may lead to new information. Darwin described the “how” of species variation and look where that led. Darwin’s discovery of a phenomenon is but a special case a more general process of descent with modification that is observed in cyclic systems of many types from the universe, through climate, weather, the immune system, the nervous system, thought processes and the learning process that changes cultures.

  • L Meadow says:

    All or most domains of human endeavour are about finding explanations in one sense or another. So for that reason it doesn’t seem to carry sufficient distinctiveness to characterize Science in that way, given the unique nature of science among domains. It’s not really just about creative explanations but actual discovery and immensely high standards of proof. Does you amazingly deep explanation make a non-trivial prediction that really surprises us for being so unexpected. Is its locus somewhere we haven’t thought to look before. Can we go check, and see if it’s there? There’s a real problem at the moment that science is not producing predictions. As a consequence a lot of scientiss are trying to down talk predictions with specious characterizations what it’s about like “predicting without explanation is not what science is about”. Which then they use as a platform to pitch something very different “Science is about explanation not prediction”. But a prediction is nothing other that the reasoning “if you come up with a distinctive and novel discovery about the nature of reality, that extends our hard won incumbent knowledge, then presumably you can tell us something new about the world we can go check”. I’m obviously not suggesting the emphasis on ‘explanation’ here is motivated by nefarious goals of lowering the standards. It’s probably entirely innocent. But on the hand, no one mentioned predictions. I wonder if the author will mention whether he expects his new observation will yield a major surprising prediction.

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