Movements often exceed the expectations of their founders, because after the movement catches on, other people inevitably want to capitalize on the popularity or authority of the movement and piggyback their own ideas on to those of its founder.  The figurehead of an ancient religious movement may have warned his followers, “Take heed that ye be not deceived: for many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ…”  The figurehead of a later political movement may have been so appalled at what the French were doing in his name that he tells someone, “Je ne suis pas Marxiste.”

Both Jesus and Marx are wary of impostors who speak in their name.  We have no record of Darwin actually saying something comparable, but I am pretty sure that if he were alive today, he would be thinking it.

The reason is that every generation of evolutionary biologists has various political ideologies attached to the fairly simple Darwinian propositions that (1) species are genealogically connected and (2) the primary cause of adaptation is natural selection.  How do we know this?  Because every previous generation indeed has tethered their ideologies to their Darwinism.

Ernst Haeckel, for example, maintained the subhumanity of non-European peoples, and saw evolution as effectively the progression from an amoeba to the Prussian militaristic state.1  You may not like his view, but he was the leading Darwinian in Germany, and he wrote with authority on the subject, so that if you rejected his theory, his followers would accuse you of being anti-evolution.  Eventually, his ideas became inspirational to the German officers in World War I.2

By the end of the 19th century, Karl Pearson could casually invoke evolutionary biology in support of genocidal colonialism, explaining that “a capable and stalwart race of white men should replace a dark-skinned tribe which can neither utilize its land for the full benefit of mankind, nor contribute its quota to the common stock of human knowledge.”3  Once again, the issue is not the political idea itself, but the scientific authority with which it is espoused.  And once again, you may disagree with it, especially with the aid of over a century of hindsight, but Karl Pearson was the leading evolutionary geneticist in England.  What are you?

And a generation after that , the leading human geneticist in America explains that urban crime is a holdover from Homo erectus, because “the traits of the feeble-minded and the criminalistic are normal traits for infants and for an earlier stage in man’s evolution”.4  And once again, if you chose to challenge the veracity of that statement, you would be accused of being anti-Darwin.

That is the historical intellectual context within which I see evolutionary psychology.  It’s presumably better than creationist psychology, but nobody practices creationist psychology – so presumably the word “evolutionary” is doing a bit more work here than it may seem at first blush.  Indeed, the word seems to encode, in this context, a series of propositions that most people actually working in human evolution believe to be false, if not ridiculous.  Foundationally, where students of human evolution have generally emphasized the adaptability of the human mind, evolutionary psychologists have rather attempted to call attention to the adaptedness of the human mind.

From these opposed starting points, other divergences quickly accumulate. For example, the idea that there is an instinctual  “human nature” that is analytically separable from human culture.  Whether or not you believe it, the idea has far stronger roots in Aristotle than in Darwin. But what our knowledge of human evolution tells us is that even our most fundamental evolutionary instincts, walking and talking, are  also learned and highly cultural.  Moreover, any familiarity with the history of the subject can show that assertions about “human nature” have a great deal of political valence.  They consequently must endure high degrees of scrutiny to be taken seriously; the propositions that regularly emerge from evolutionary psychology tend to wither under the merest criticism.

My personal favorite is the claim that 37 different cultures attest to the divergent features that men and women like in mates, which can now be safely ascribed to nature – until you control for gendered economic inequality, at which point the apparent divergence disappears.5 It wasn’t nature at all; it was history and sloppy scientific reasoning.  My second personal favorite is the presumptively evolved disposition for men to be attracted to women with a waist-to-hip ratio of 0.67, the same as that of the stereotypical 36-24-36 Hollywood starlet.  Again, naively cross-culturally supported, until you try to control for familiarity with Hollywood.  Then it breaks down quickly.6  Again, history and sloppy scientific reasoning; what passes for cross-cultural generalization in evolutionary psychology tends to appall scholars actually familiar with cross-cultural analyses.7

Another problematic idea to students of human evolution is the broad assumption in evolutionary psychology that an evolutionary explanation for any particular feature is ipso facto an adaptive explanation. But again, our knowledge of human evolution tells us that (1) non-adaptive or even maladaptive traits can evolve under appropriate demographic conditions (notably, small population size); (2) those were precisely the conditions under which the great bulk of human evolution occurred; and (3) origin and modern use do not map well onto one another, for either biological or cultural traits.  Consequently, there is not the slightest reason to think that any specific feature has to have an adaptive explanation, much less that we have a reliable method for ascertaining it.  While of course there are features of the human form that are probably the result of adaptive selection – for example the distinctive shape of the human pelvis in relation to the vertical posture of our ancestors – the human mind seems to be characterized by the opposite condition – adaptability, not adaptedness.

In fact, students of human evolution have found it difficult to detect any influence of selection acting even upon the shape of the human face.8  The assumption that selection would tightly constrain any particular human behavior – given the flexibility of human behavior compared to the flexibility of human faces – simply does not easily harmonize with what we know about human evolution.  Consequently, any work that posits an adaptive explanation for a feature, but calls it an “evolutionary” approach – much less “the” evolutionary approach – is likely to be of greater value to the study of rhetoric or narrative in human evolution9 than to the study of human evolution itself.

Is religion an adaptation or an exaptation?  There are an awful lot of prior assumptions packed into that evolutionary psychology question. Of course, we have learned a lot about religion, both functionally and cross-culturally.  First, there is (cross-cultural) difficulty in bounding or defining “religion” rigorously, since at the very least, magical thought is ubiquitous.10,11  That in turn suggests that “religion” is a reification, and is only a “thing” in a very narrow and localized sense.12  Second, what we experience as religion is complex and has social, intellectual, emotional, and normative aspects.  There is no firm reason to consider any particular aspect primary or elemental; its moral, affective, rational, and social aspects presumably coevolved with one another.  Religion is consequently easily seen as neither an adaptation nor an exaptation; it’s both.  That is to say, to scholars of religion and to scholars of human evolution, the question of whether religion began as a property that spread over generations because it directly benefitted its possessors, or whether it was a byproduct of something else beneficial, is just a very naively framed question.  After all, we don’t even really know if bipedalism was an adaptation or an exaptation; we like to think that it arose in the latest Miocene as a good way of getting from point A to point B on the ground, but there are people who steadfastly believe that it arose as a consequence or byproduct of persistent wading and swimming, and it’s hard to prove them wrong.

And finally, I can’t shake the feeling that the methodologies I have encountered in evolutionary psychology would not meet the standards of any other science.  For a notable example, it is apparently a revelation to evolutionary psychology that one cannot readily generalize about the human condition from a sample of humans that is Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. Perhaps this was news in psychology – creationist, evolutionary, or otherwise – but, sad to say, everybody else who works with cultural diversity knew that a really long time ago.


[1] Haeckel, E. (1868) Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte.  Berlin: Reimer.

[2] Kellogg, V. (1917) Headquarters Nights.  Boston: The Atlantic Monthly Press.

[3] Pearson, K. (1892) The Grammar of Science.  London: Adam and Charles Black, p. 438.

[4] Davenport, C. B. (1911) Heredity in Relation to Eugenics.  New York: Henry Holt, p. 262.

[5] Eagly, A. H. and Wood, W. (1999) The origins of sex differences in human behavior: Evolved dispositions versus social roles.  American Psychologist, 54:408-423.

[6] Yu, D. W. and Shepard, G. H. (1998) Is beauty in the eye of the beholder?  Nature, 326:391-392.

[7] Fuentes, A. (2012) Race, Monogamy, and Other Lies They Told You: Busting Myths about Human Nature.  Berkeley, CA: Univ of California Press.

[8] Weaver, T. D., Roseman, C. C. and Stringer, C. B. (2007) Were neandertal and modern human cranial differences produced by natural selection or genetic drift?  Journal of Human Evolution, 53:135-145.

[9] Landau, M. (1991) Narratives of Human Evolution.  New Haven: Yale University Press.

[10] Malinowski, B. (1935) Coral Gardens and their Magic.  London: Allen and Unwin.

[11] Gmelch, G. (1992) Superstition and ritual in American baseball.  Elysian Fields Quarterly, 11:25-36.

[12] Armstrong, K. (2014) Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence.  New York: Knopf.

Published On: March 22, 2015

Jonathan Marks

Jonathan Marks

Jonathan Marks is a biological anthropologist whose most recent book, Tales of the ex-Apes, will be published later this year.

Dr. Marks teaches at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and has published widely on human microevolution and macroevolution, and the history and meaning of those sciences.  In 2006 he was elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  In the last few years he has been a Visiting Research Fellow at the ESRC Genomics Forum in Edinburgh, at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, and a Templeton Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study at Notre Dame. He is the author of What It Means to Be 98% Chimpanzee and Why I Am Not a Scientist, both published by the University of California Press.  Somewhat paradoxically, however, he is about 98% scientist, and not a chimpanzee.


  • Michael says:

    Marks’ post here is rather like having a creationist post on an evolution website. On difference is that Marks is a psychological creationist. From where does the adaptiveness of the human mind arise: from psychological adaptations. Contra Marks, cultures and behaviors do not arise de novo, and independent of a brain that evolved.

  • gewisn says:

    So, is evolutionary psychology an unscientific endeavor (i.e. Cannot be pursued via the scientific method) or is it just being done without scientific rigor by people who do not understand modern concepts of evolution beyond the general idea of heritable adaptation?

    I tend to think (by which I mean “hope”) that it is the latter. There are certainly plausible methods for investigating evolution of behavior, as well as physical characteristics, but our understanding of those is still so small and young that attempts to look at such broad behavioral fields as human mate selection are currently beyond our means. In other animals, you can artificially create small populations which never had contact with previous generations in order to try to get a handle on what behaviors are within the potential behavior repertoire vs what local culture dictates, and then look at the neural and genetic correlates that might control such a repertoire.
    When you try to do that with humans, somebody calls the cops.

    Seriously, I hope that evolutionary psychology will one day be an outgrowth of animal behavior, but I guess that’s a loooooong way off.

    • Kagehi says:

      “There are certainly plausible methods for investigating evolution of behavior, as well as physical characteristics, but our understanding of those is still so small and young that attempts to look at such broad behavioral fields as human mate selection are currently beyond our means.”

      Personally, I see most of this stuff as likely to be more statistical, than clearly adaptive. Though, if they didn’t keep babbling about it being tied to genes, their ground would be less rocky. What do I mean by that? Well, genetic adaptation seems to like to come up with things that are “generalist”, in most cases, and in the sense that, when such adaptations are not generalist, the species goes extinct, the moment the environment changes too radically. Humans are the ultimate, so far, “generalists”, even our thought processes and instincts can be warped by experience, to produce drastically different results. There may be perfectly reasonable cases where, say, hydrophobia would be an adaptive survival trait, yet, for our existing environment, its mal-adaptive, simply for being useless. If the environment changed so drastically that being scared to death of significant bodies of water, or even a bathtub, was helpful, it would still not be “instinctive”, or “genetic”, or “adaptive” from an evolutionary standpoint of, “traits passed from generation to generation.”, but, it **would be** in that specific case, adaptive to surviving in the conditions where such a fear makes sense.

      This is where evo-psych goes horribly, disastrously, wrong – it confuses adaptations that are a result of the malleability of the human mind with the genetic underpinning that give us that malleability. Its cargo cult theory. Its claiming, to use an analogy, that because there are, say, e-readers, the only logical reason for inventing paper had to have been arts and crafts, and/or paper airplanes.

      That, in other words, the “visible” conditions of human culture must be “caused” by the underlying genetics, not merely **enabled** by them. And, some days I am not sure whether the correct response to this idiocy is rage, despair, or laughter. But I do know its not any sort of satisfaction in finding real answer. On the contrary, the fact that we are malleable in this respect means that we can, in principle, shred the entire culture we have today, if its not working, and rebuild something better, if such a thing was necessary.

      In their view, half the stuff that can be disproven by just looking hard enough at outlying cultures, and subcultures, if one bothers to do so, are “inevitable”, and “necessary” (such as, for example, rape, which isn’t even a concept in a few of those outlying cultures) – and thus, can never actually be fixed. The suggestion that this is the case, wouldn’t be, frankly, anything but horrific, even if it wasn’t already provable false. Yet, its precisely these sorts of “adaptations” they keep trying to claim are “genetic”, when they can’t even show, in any testable sense, that they are even adaptive (instead of maladaptive, but just not actively lethal to the species, which is hardly a rousing endorsement for trying to explain them as heritable traits).

  • Mark Sloan says:


    Yes, like all good science, Evolutionary Psychology “must endure high degrees of scrutiny to be taken seriously”.

    But neither can your apparent claim be taken seriously that human psychology has no cultural independent basis as implied by “Evolutionary Psychology is neither”.

    For example, so far as I know, people cannot be taught to experience emotions. Experience and culture can mold what circumstances trigger those emotions and their intensity, but that is not remotely the same as those emotions not being products of biological evolution.

    People are motivated to be phenomenally cooperative social animals by a specific set of emotions: compassion, loyalty, gratitude, anger, disgust, contempt, shame, guilt, and ‘elevation’ (a synthesis of satisfaction and pride that reward cooperation), (Haidt 2003). These are the motivating emotions produced by our moral sense, which is at the core of human social psychology. The existence of these emotions is a product of our biological evolution, not culture.

    Would you have us reject the insights that understanding the evolutionary origins of our moral sense, as well as the emotional components of durable happiness (or well-being), because “Evolutionary Psychology is neither”? We risk losing culturally useful insights into cultural norms that will better engage these emotion’s underlying biology in ways that increase human cooperation and well-being

    On the other hand, I would like to see Evolutionary Psychology claims supported by more than plausibility arguments as sometimes seems to be the case. I’d love to see more authors specifically describe or reference 1) the data set to be explained, 2) the available hypotheses, including cultural rather than biological origins, and 3) the relevant criteria for scientific truth such as explanatory power, no contradiction with facts, integration with the rest of science, simplicity, and so forth.

    Haidt, J. (2003). The moral emotions. In R. J. Davidson, K. R. Scherer, & H. H. Goldsmith (Eds.), Handbook of affective sciences. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (pp. 852-870).

    • Chad Nilep says:

      Mark Sloan puts it better than I probably will, but rather than a simple-minded “like” button I guess I am required to make a reasoned response. Oh bother.

      I am entirely sympathetic to (what I take to be) Jonathon Marks’s point: many claims from evolutionary psychology, and particularly those claims that seem to capture popular imagination, are little more than just-so stories that achieve the appearance of plausibility by ignoring competing explanations or potentially problematic data.

      But Marks’s piece — perhaps owing to the requirements of the medium — is really more a broadside against those problematic publications than a thorough-going evaluation of the field as such. As gewisn notes, the question is whether evolutionary psychology is inherently beyond the scientific method, or whether there is simply naive and less-than-rigorous work being done under its banner. Like gewisn I hope it is the latter. I also hope that Marks’s essay serves as a small piece in a larger discussion between evolutionary psychologists and their critics. Preferably, one in which each side resists calling the other “creationists” or “eugenicists”.

      • Kagehi says:

        I read blogs and other things published by actual geneticists, and the like.. I have yet to see *anything* come out of evo-psych that any of these people has not called, as you put it, the contents of, “problematic publications”.

        See, the problem is, even when you want something to be plausible, because it doesn’t seem to be problematic… you still have to show some real, justifiable, cause, for why its an inheritable adaptation, not a cultural artifact. No one has **ever** managed to do this.

    • Lyndon Page says:

      Mark Sloan,
      Your (Haidt’s) stance on the social emotions is precisely the problem. The idea that “shame” stands as some given is dicey, and likewise with most social emotions. Even if there is some strong basic emotion that people feel upon a certain social encounter, we can imagine a cultural world that downplays or systematizes out the responses to those emotional reactions. More still, we can imagine such a world that thoroughly recognizes the manifestation of such emotions within individuals and teaches individuals, as responses but also as social programs, to turn around and shrug off such emotions, and especially not to allow such emotions to create further social programs.

      So, maybe in some bare sense “shame” would still be there, but its effects and lasting cognitive and emotional effects would be far different than under most of what we encompass in our social minds when thinking about shame. But this goes to show that even things like basic emotions are wrapped up in institutions and cultural mediation to produce reactions and further emotions in ways that we often assume are just part of what “shame” has to be. The reflective and social building creatures that we are do not have to pay homage to such emotions. In many ways we have done just that where we see fit. However, I will grant that these emotions have played into the dialectical build up much of our social and personal worlds, and thus into how we feel shame while living in this society.

      You run into troubles by failing to imagine such a differing society, or in claiming that such a society would not be highly productive and enjoyable to live in (moral in your terms). You may be making an argument that you would not want to live in such a society, or think that trying to achieve such a society is dangerous, but your failure in imaging such a world leads to a bad description about human beings.

      The moral of the story is that pretty much any definition or conception of “shame” will not be able to parse out contingent social factors without thoroughly defacing the concept. That is, there is a great difference in the bare mechanisms that exists in the natal brain/body and how that gets played out in any adult. Evo. Psych’s problem is really psychology’s problem. By taking certain “mental traits” as given human qualities, instead of understanding their mechanistic underpinnings, they believe that such mental characteristic are necessitated, when in fact there are many environmentally and culturally mediated contingencies that fold into such expression. Much of psychology, by cataloguing their own personal milieu of “traits” and those in the society around them, take the givenness of those traits as essential. They make this mistake because they stayed far away from actually understanding the mechanisms that give rise to such behavioral expression. And, thus, we end up with traits that are overly salient given the mechanistic underpinning. It is of course then a mess when we turn back to history for an explanation of a given entity that is not as robust a concept as was assumed.

      One of the keys here is the hedge in your fourth paragraph. An emotion is a brain/body process, but you (and Haidt) then want to say that this evolutionary inspired given emotion is what is producing “phenomenally cooperative social animals” in the present day, which has to do with actions taken and events produced. In the end, all thoughts and decisions are emotionally mediated, but there is a gap between a generic emotional tendency (e.g. shame) and the behavior and outcomes manifested by such a tendency. The reason why you can conflate the emotion with the action, and think this is a good explanation of humans, is the failure to imagine the social world that tears the two apart, which may be unlike any society we have laid eyes on. Failing to do this is why psychology now has an empty concept of shame. So, you either have to explain the contingent social factors that fold into shame, or you are left with a conception of “shame” in some bare mechanistic structure that is a shell of our normal use.

      • Mark Sloan says:

        Hi Lyndon,

        The existence of the emotions Haidt describes is due to our biology and independent of culture and therefore necessarily suitable subjects for study in evolutionary psychology.

        How people interpret these emotions and how they are enculturated to react to them, such as suppressing compassion and guilt when killing enemies of in-groups, are irrelevant to the science of those emotion’s origin and function.

        The fact that we can imagine worlds where such emotions do not exist is also irrelevant to their origins and functions in human beings.

      • Carmi Turchick says:

        Lyndon, both you and Marks make an incredibly simple error here of claiming that one evolved psychological predisposition that humans have, conformity, means we do not actually have any at all.

        Do we have great behavioral flexibility? Sure. Do we have the ability to culturally suppress emotions? Yep, and Anthropology has documented cases of it. But it is our evolved conformity that allows for this suppression. Culture can create large variations in behavior because of our evolved psychology, it is not evidence for the absence of what it depends on. And of course the suppression of an emotion does not mean that evolution did not cause it to exist and require suppression.

        Humans evolved to belong to culturally defined groups, and defining a group using culture entails having some distinguishing variation from other cultures, necessarily. To make the absurd claim that these variations disprove evolutionary psychology is to demonstrate a profound ignorance of evolutionary theory. In fact, the general point that variation exists and therefore evolutionary psychology is wrong because the variation must be cultural is absurdly ignorant of the fact that variation is a requirement for selection, and therefore again absurdly ignorant of the basics of evolution.

        As usual, those critics of evolutionary psychology who claim to be authorities on human evolution and state that we are doing it ever so badly then make statements demonstrating their complete ignorance of the topic or, at best, their complete inability to apply their knowledge to their own ideas.

    • Mark Sloan says:

      Thanks for the replies guys. Just FYI, I summarized my above comment on Jon Marks’ facebook page where he had posted a link to the article and got a surprising answer from him.

      I quote: “The question of the origin of emotions is evolution and is psychological, but is not evolutionary psychology.”

      No response yet to my inquiry “How is the origin and function of our emotions not a legitimate area of study for Evolutionary Psychology?”

  • Gabriel Finkelstein says:

    Ernst Haeckel did indeed popularize Darwinism, and according to his biographer Robert J. Richards, he got the theory right. But Haeckel was far from the sole champion of Darwin in Germany. His rival Emil du Bois-Reymond taught the theory before he did, and he taught it in a form that most of us would recognize today. The fact that Darwin’s staunchest converts differed on the social implications of the theory suggests that we should be very careful with extrapolations from nature to culture.

    For more on du Bois-Reymond and Darwin, see my biography, ch. 11:


  • Phil says:

    Are all anthropologists this clueless?

  • David Schmitt says:

    Regarding the specific factual claim that sex differences in mate preferences “disappear” after controlling for gendered economic inequality (Marks, 2015 citing work by Eagly and Wood, 1999), this is simply false. Eagly and Wood (1999) found in only one of four statistical tests that nations with greater sociopolitical gender equity had significantly smaller sex differences in “Good Financial Prospects” preferences, for instance. In only one of four tests. And the sex difference did not disappear, not at all. It just got smaller.

    In a more recent replication, Zentner and Mitura (2012) found sex differences in “Ambition” shrink from a moderate effect size (d = -0.65) in lowest gender equity nations to a still moderate effect size (d = -0.48) in highest gender parity nations (see Schmitt, 2012). Similar results were found for sex differences in desires for Social Status (d = -0.31) and Good Financial Prospects (d = -0.55). Across only the highest gender equity nations, the average sex difference ׀d׀ was 0.42 which places sex differences in long-term mate preferences for resources in the 81st percentile of all meta-analytically documented psychological sex differences (Hyde, 2005). Far from disappearing, indeed.

    More importantly, many sex differences in mate preferences actually get LARGER (not smaller) in nations with more gendered economic equality. Zentner and Mitura (2012) found sex differences in preferences for physical attractiveness increase from a small effect size (d = 0.24) in lowest gender equity nations to a moderate effect size (d = 0.51) in highest gender parity nations (see Schmitt, 2012). Schmitt et al. (2014) also found sex differences in long-term mate preferences for physical attractiveness are largest in nations with more egalitarian sex role socialization and greater sociopolitical gender equity, particularly because women, but not men, reduce their desire for physical attractiveness in long-term mates within egalitarian sex role socialization and greater sociopolitical gender equity nations. These cross-cultural patterns of sexual differentiation in long-term mate preferences for attractiveness strongly disconfirms social role theory. Marks is not just false, in this case of sex differences in mate preferences, he is claiming the exact opposite of what is true.

  • David Schmitt says:

    Regarding the claim that WHRs of .70 are not desired in non-Hollywood cultures, that is a lively area of debate right now in EP. Lots of new studies, most finding .70 is relatively universal, but in some cultures (e.g., cultures in which women have high testosterone as a consequence needing high T sons for warfare; see Cashdan, 2008) men prefer wider waits (indicative of high T).

    Some researchers find BMI is more important that WHR, some finding .70 is preferred by blind men, .70 WHR activates reward areas of the brain that other WHRs do not. The field is active and progressive right now. So Marks is wrong when he cites one study and ridicules the claim as though the debate is over. That’s what a politician would do, not a scientist.

  • David Schmitt says:

    Regarding the claim that evolutionary psychology, at its foundation, ignores culture. Again, simply not true.

    Just as it is important not to falsely dichotomize and essentialize human behavior as either culturally-invariant (and hence, “evolved”) versus culturally-variable (and hence, “learned”), it is equally important not to falsely dichotomize and essentialize “Evolutionary Psychology” as only expecting cultural universals versus socialization approaches only expecting cultural variation. These are pernicious stereotypes that have no basis in science reality (even if believed by many).

    Indeed, the notion that evolved psychological adaptations are designed to produce cultural variation in human behavior, including cultural variation in mating desires and the degree of sex differences in human mating, is and always has been a foundational assumption of evolutionary psychology (Tooby & Cosmides, 1989, 1992).

    It is true that some sex differences in human mating are relatively invariant across cultures (e.g., general sex drive; Lippa, 2009), but most psychological sex differences, including most evolved sex differences, are variable across cultures due to three primary reasons.

    First, some evolved sex differences are specially-designed to be “facultatively-mediated” by local contexts. That is, the sizes of some sex differences are, by design, meant to be “evoked” (either accentuated or attenuated) by local socio-ecological inputs.

    Second, some evolved sex differences are “emergently-moderated” by local contexts. That is, some sex differences are accentuated or attenuated, not by design, but because other adaptations or cultural factors (e.g., religion) have moderating effects on the sizes of evolved sex difference.

    Third, some sex differences are in no way evolved, and are simply the result of entirely arbitrary forms of local sex role socialization and other sociopolitical pressures (and many sex differences are influenced by all these factors; for a more detailed discussion, see Schmitt, 2014).
    Lippa, R. A. (2009). Sex differences in sex drive, sociosexuality, and height across 53 nations: Testing evolutionary and social structural theories. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38, 631-651.
    Schmitt, D.P. (2014). The evolution of culturally-variable sex differences: Men and women are not always different, but when they are…it appears not to result from patriarchy or sex role socialization. In Weekes-Shackelford, V.A., & Shackelford, T.K. (Eds.), Evolution of sexuality (pp. 221-256). New York: Springer. [http://www.bradley.edu/…/965c0b59-3790-40ed-b56f…]
    Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (1989). Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture, part I: Theoretical considerations. Ethology and sociobiology, 10, 29-49.
    Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (1992). Psychological foundations of culture. In Barkow, L. Cosmides, & J. Tooby (Eds.), The adapted mind: Evolutionarv psychology and the generation of culture (pp. 119-136).
    Need more evidence? Well, for those who insist that “Evolutionary Psychology” only assumes cultural-universality and has never addressed issues of adaptive cultural variation, I would humbly suggest reading the following (most of which utilizes concepts such as facultative adaptation and evoked culture):

    To learn more, start with these classics:
    Brown, D.E. (1991). Human universals. New York: McGraw-Hill.
    Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (1989). Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture, part I: Theoretical considerations. Ethology and sociobiology, 10, 29-49.
    Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (1992). Psychological foundations of culture. In Barkow, L. Cosmides, & J. Tooby (Eds.), The adapted mind: Evolutionarv psychology and the generation of culture (pp. 119-136).

    Then move on to some of the other early work on evolutionary psychology and culture, such as:
    Buss, D. M. (2001). Human nature and culture: An evolutionary psychological perspective. Journal of Personality, 69, 955-978.
    Gangestad, S. W., & Buss, D. M. (1993). Pathogen prevalence and human mate preferences. Ethology and sociobiology, 14, 89-96.
    Gaulin, S.J. (1997). Cross-cultural patterns and the search for evolved psychological mechanisms. In G.R. Bock & G. Cardew (Eds.), Characterizing human psychological adaptations (pp. 195-207). Chichester, England: Wiley.
    Keller, H. (1990). Evolutionary approaches. In J.W. Berry, Y.H. Poortinga, & J. Pandey (Eds.), Handbook of cross-cultural psychology, 2nd Edition (Vol. 1, pp. 215-255). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
    Lancaster, J.B. (1994). Human sexuality, life histories, and evolutionary ecology. In A.S. Rossi (Ed.), Sexuality across the life course (pp. 39-62). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
    Low, B. S. (1990). Marriage systems and pathogen stress in human societies. American Zoologist, 30, 325-340.
    Then move one to some more recent work from the 2000s, such as:
    Cashdan, E. (2008). Waist‐to‐Hip Ratio across Cultures: Trade‐Offs between Androgen‐and Estrogen‐Dependent Traits. Current Anthropology, 49, 1099-1107. [http://www.anthro.utah.edu/PDFs/cashdan/whr.pdf]
    Ellis, B. J., Figueredo, A. J., Brumbach, B. H., & Schlomer, G. L. (2009). Fundamental dimensions of environmental risk. Human Nature, 20, 204-268.
    Ember, M., Ember, C. R., & Low, B. S. (2007). Comparing explanations of polygyny. Cross-Cultural Research, 41, 428-440.
    Fincher, C. L., Thornhill, R., Murray, D. R., & Schaller, M. (2008). Pathogen prevalence predicts human cross-cultural variability in individualism/collectivism. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 275, 1279-1285.
    Flinn, M. V. (2006). Cross-cultural universals and variations: The evolutionary paradox of informational novelty. Psychological Inquiry, 17, 118-23.
    Gangestad, S. W., Haselton, M. G., & Buss, D. M. (2006). Evolutionary foundations of cultural variation: Evoked culture and mate preferences. Psychological Inquiry, 17, 75-95.
    Kaplan, H. S., & Gangestad, S. W. (2005). Life history theory and evolutionary psychology. The handbook of evolutionary psychology, 68-95.
    Lippa, R. A. (2009). Sex differences in sex drive, sociosexuality, and height across 53 nations: Testing evolutionary and social structural theories. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38, 631-651.
    Mace, R., Jordan, F., & Holden, C. (2003). Testing evolutionary hypotheses about human biological adaptation using cross-cultural comparison. Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology Part A: Molecular & Integrative Physiology, 136, 85-94.
    Marlowe, F. W. (2003). The mating system of foragers in the standard cross-cultural sample. Cross-Cultural Research, 37, 282-306.
    Nettle, D. (2009). Ecological influences on human behavioural diversity: a review of recent findings. Trends in ecology & evolution, 24, 618-624.
    Nettle, D. (2009). Beyond nature versus culture: cultural variation as an evolved characteristic. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 15, 223-240.
    Quinlan, R. J. (2008). Human pair‐bonds: Evolutionary functions, ecological variation, and adaptive development. Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews, 17, 227-238.
    Quinlan, R. J., & Quinlan, M. B. (2007). Cross-cultural analysis in evolution and human behavior studies. Cross-Cultural Research, 41, 91-95.
    Silverman, I., Choi, J., & Peters, M. (2007). The hunter-gatherer theory of sex differences in spatial abilities: Data from 40 countries. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 36, 261-268.
    Winterhalder, B., & Smith, E. A. (2000). Analyzing adaptive strategies: Human behavioral ecology at twenty-five. Evolutionary Anthropology Issues News and Reviews, 9, 51-72.

    • Kagehi says:

      The problem is not that it “ignores culture”, its that it attempts to codify such culture as something **other** than culture, without being able to provide clear, testable, evidence as to why this should be the case (oh, and, as I said above, it does ignore outlying groups, who get labelled as either statistical anomalies, or some such. Which, is problematic, since, again, you can’t show that the existing prevalent culture isn’t the statistical anomaly, driven by multiple factors, and the outlier isn’t the default you would end up with, without those factors.) And, if you can ‘t even manage that much, you can’t claim to that your made up story about how it got that way is anything but bad fiction.

      • Dave Allen says:

        No, “it” doesn’t attempt to “codify such culture as something **other** than culture”.

        Prevalent culture isn’t privileged in the field in the way in which you describe, rather the phenomena under investigation are examined in such a way as to take into account cultural variation where possible.

        I mean, David’s even given plenty of examples of this, which I notice you have failed to acknowledge.

        Perhaps you’re one of these people who thinks that because a psychological phenomena varies according to culture it cannot have an innate component.

        Whereas most psychologists would concede that many behaviors have multiple facets, each explained best by a particular psychological perspective.

      • Carmi Turchick says:

        The problem you are having, Kagehi, is a common problem of not knowing what evolutionary theory is. It is not just “selection” from some magical miasma, it is selection from VARIATION. Quite often it is asserted that the existence of variation in a trait disproves an assertion that it evolved due to adaptation, when in fact such variation is a requirement (see for example the hilariously bad effort by Buller, “Adapting Minds”).

        As for this frequent complaint about “just-so stories” and “bad fiction” as you describe it: the alternatives are in fact just-cannot-be-so stories, they are evolutionary impossibilities. I think we should prefer possible explanations to impossible ones, especially if we are claiming to favor good science.

      • dab says:


        The sloppy reasoning of the author of this article is debunked here. Please read if you truly believe in the blank slate theory of humanity.

  • David Schmitt says:

    Then move on to work in the 2010s, such as:
    DeBruine, L. M., Jones, B. C., Crawford, J. R., Welling, L. L., & Little, A. C. (2010). The health of a nation predicts their mate preferences: cross-cultural variation in women’s preferences for masculinized male faces. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, rspb20092184.
    Kenrick, D.T., Nieuweboer, S., & Buunk, A.P. (2010). Universal mechanisms and cultural diversity: Replacing the Blank Slate with a coloring book. In M. Schaller et al. (Eds.), Evolution, culture, and the human mind (pp. 257-272). New York: Psychology Press.
    Lippa, R.A. (2010). Sex differences in personality traits and gender-related occupational preferences across 53 nations: Testing evolutionary and social-environmental theories. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 39, 619-636.
    Lippa, R. A., Collaer, M. L., & Peters, M. (2010). Sex differences in mental rotation and line angle judgments are positively associated with gender equality and economic development across 53 nations. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 39, 990-997.
    Marcinkowska, U. M., Kozlov, M. V., Cai, H., Contreras-Garduño, J., Dixson, B. J., Oana, G. A., … & Rantala, M. J. (2014). Cross-cultural variation in men’s preference for sexual dimorphism in women’s faces. Biology letters, 10(4), 20130850.
    Pirlott, A., & Schmitt, D.P. (2014). Gendered sexual culture. In A. Cohen (Ed.), New directions in the psychology of culture (pp. 191-216). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association Books.
    Schaller, M. A. R. K., & Murray, D. R. (2010). Infectious diseases and the evolution of cross-cultural differences. . In M. Schaller et al. (Eds.), Evolution, culture, and the human mind (pp. 243-256). New York: Psychology Press.

    OK, here are a few other good ones:
    Schmitt, D.P. (2005). Sociosexuality from Argentina to Zimbabwe: A 48-nation study of sex, culture, and strategies of human mating. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 28, 247-275.
    Schmitt, D.P. (2011). Psychological adaptation and human fertility patterns: Some evidence of human mating strategies as evoked sexual culture. In A. Booth & A.C. Crouter (Eds.), Romance and sex in adolescence and emerging adulthood: Risks and opportunities (pp. 161-170). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
    Schmitt, D.P. (2014). Evaluating evidence of mate preference adaptations: How do we really know what Homo sapiens sapiens really want? In Weekes-Shackelford, V.A., & Shackelford, T.K. (Eds.), Evolutionary perspectives on human sexual psychology and behavior (pp. 3-39). New York: Springer.
    Schmitt, D.P. (2014). The evolution of culturally-variable sex differences: Men and women are not always different, but when they are…it appears not to result from patriarchy or sex role socialization. In Weekes-Shackelford, V.A., & Shackelford, T.K. (Eds.), Evolution of sexuality (pp. 221-256). New York: Springer.
    Schmitt, D.P., Alcalay, L., Allensworth, M., Allik, J., Ault, L., Austers, I., et al. (2003). Are men universally more dismissing than women? Gender differences in romantic attachment across 62 cultural regions. Personal Relationships, 10, 307-331.
    Schmitt, D.P., Alcalay, L., Allik, J., Angleiter, A., Ault, L., Austers, I., et al. (2004). Patterns and universals of mate poaching across 53 nations: The effects of sex, culture, and personality on romantically attracting another person’s partner. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86, 560-584.
    Schmitt, D.P., Realo, A., Voracek, M., & Allik, J. (2008). Why can’t a man be more like a woman? Sex differences in Big Five personality traits across 55 cultures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94, 168-192.
    Schmitt, D.P., & Rohde, P.A. (2013). The Human Polygyny Index and its ecological correlates: Testing sexual selection and life history theory at the cross‐national level. Social Science Quarterly, 94, 1159-1184.
    Schmitt, D.P., Youn, G., Bond, B., Brooks, S., Frye, H., Johnson, S., Klesman, J., Peplinski, C., Sampias, J., Sherrill, M., & Stoka, C. (2009). When will I feel love? The effects of personality, culture, and gender on the psychological tendency to love. Journal of Research in Personality, 43, 830-846.

    • Mark Sloan says:

      David, thanks for all the references about Evolutionary Psychology’s methods for analyzing behaviors and traits that have mixed biology and cultural components.

      It is a strong rebuttal to some of Jon’s points. But more personally, they are relevant to my own project of understanding the origins and function of the components of our moral sense that has both biological components (our moral emotions) and cultural components (cultural moral codes that can become integrated into our moral sense).

  • Rachel Francon says:

    Bravo…Finally some sensible comment on the lazy armchair couch potato “Evolution Psychology” fetish for glib speaking about two aspects of intellectually guided discourse out which the speaker seem to know very littel It has been my unhappy finding from following the “Evolutionary Psychology” group and posts on Facebook, that I would have to agree that the comments are generally made by those who have NO knowledge either of Pychology or actual nuanced Evolutionary theory.

    Worse still is that something…has convinced the EP crowd they can seek to speak about these two disciplines without ever coming to terms with biological, genetic, neuroscienceand other physiological knowledge that would possiblly enable a less lazy speaker to somehow dance far more gracefully back and forth between these two disciplines of evolution theorizing and psychology. Without the due diligence to actuall come to terms with that broad intermediary realm of “hard scientific” data, the two ‘softer disciplines on either side are an invitation to those who wish to chatter endlessly without any coherent scientific basis.

    • Carmi Turchick says:

      Then go ahead and show us how to do it better if you are so much more informed than we are in all of these fields. Evolutionary psychology is a science and correcting errors is hoped for and welcomed, so if you can correct our errors I am sure any evo psych journal will be happy to publish your paper(s) doing so.

      What is amazing to me is the great number of critics who see so many glaring errors and inadequacies of methodology and knowledge and the grand total of papers submitted by them for peer review and publication to help our science advance is zero.

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  • Katy says:

    If so many human characteristics are attributable not to our inherent psychology but to “culture,” it seems to me we should be looking much closer at this “culture” thing. Where did it come from? Who created it? Why, despite many differences among cultures, are there also many similarities? If cultures are not the product of human psychology then cultures must have been created by some other force higher than ourselves, perhaps some powerful metaphysical being. Maybe this new field could be called cultural creationism.

  • Woosnam says:

    When biologists suggested that the Appendix was a useless remnant to our evolutionary past, there was not a swarm of academics coming out to defend the Appendix from the onslaught of misanthropic evolutionists.

    I find it hard to understand how the roles of other human organs can be adequately explained through evolution and yet the brain cannot.

    The current contempt for evolutionary-psychology is utterly bizarre.

  • David Milgrim says:

    It is very hard to nail down absolutes in EP, and in ANY social “science.” That said, the reason we study all of this is to better understand ourselves so that we may, at some point in the process, apply these ideas to our lives. We are ultimately trying to understand how to live better.

    I think it’s a given that once we come to that lat and most important step of our studies, the only thing we will ever have are suggestions of what might help us live better and what is not as likely to help. We have no choice but to try out ideas in our daily lives and public polices and see how they work. There is little or nothing absolute about being human. And the implementation is as much art as science.

    That said, it behooves us to apply the best scientific methods we have to the tools available to us. EP is radically informative. But we need to be very careful in our methods and even more careful in our conclusions. Anyone who is certain of exactly why we do the things we do is not to be trusted. But dismissing the suggestions of human nature that we gain from EP is equally silly.

    • Paul Scott Pruet says:

      David, you beg the question of what it means to “live better.” But given that you believe that “there is nothing absolute about being human” I think that would be unanswerable for you.

  • Clara says:

    Essays like this are so important to bronedniag people’s horizons.

  • Many have been highly critical of evolutionary psychologists, particularly HBDers (human biodiversity advocates), in their obsession with evolutionary just-so stories. It’s all the ideologically-driven speculation that is so irritating and plainly pathetic. It becomes almost a religion and, if digging into enough data, one can justify almost any belief one has.

    The entire field ignores or dismisses epigenetics. I have yet to meet an HBDer who is even familiar with the epigenetic research. The problem with epigenetics is that it doesn’t fit into the genetic determinism, race realism, and social Darwinism that most HBDers are hoping to defend and prove. I’m not tolerant of the bigoted attempts to justify systemic prejudice and oppression, not to mention group superiority and privilege. Fuck that bullshit!

    But I see the same basic problem of reactionary thought with some on the political left, such as Noam Chomsky in his belief about a linguistic module built into our genetics and biology. This has been contested by Daniel Everett’s study of the Piraha. And this is about the powerful influence of culture, what Everett calls the dark matter of the mind and what his son Caleb Everett studies in terms of linguistic relativity. It also relates to neuroplasticity.

    Obviously, no on is arguing genetics are’t important. Still, everything needs to be understood in the full context of all known factors — causal, contributing, and confounding. It would be one thing if the evolutionary psychologists bothered to acknowledge all of the other evidence and alternative explanations. But few ever do because their ideological investments don’t allow them to. And there is little if any appreciation of the main problem of research and theory as caused by the cultural biases of those involved, specifically what is referred to as WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic; although the latter is questionable in the not-so-democratic United States).

    Even “ancient curses” would be better explained by epigenetics, maybe combined with cultural inheritance. That isn’t to say that genetics doesn’t play a role, but even genetic expression is entirely determined by epigenetics and environment. There is no such thing as genes in isolation of all else. To claim otherwise is a ludicrous doctrine to hold to. All of that said, I’m a big fan of those offering diverse theories. And I’m not opposed to evolutionary psychology on principle. But let’s be intellectually humble and honest with ourselves. Speculation is dime a dozen. To jump from speculation to conclusion is not justified.

  • Mark Devon says:

    The biological benefit of each emotion can be found at: http://www.theoriginofemotions.com

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