11 January 2012

Fixing evolutionary psychology

Story time. Photo by McBeth.
Over at Neuroanthropology, Greg Downey's launching an ambitious project: making evolutionary psychology less ... shitty.

More specifically, and more politely, Downey thinks (as I do) that evolutionary biology can tell use some valuable things about human nature; but he's concerned (as I am) that the most visible representatives of an academic field which takes the evolution of human nature as its central question often apply an impoverished understanding of evolutionary biology to telling titillating (and usually unsubstantiated) adaptive fairy tales. Which fairy tales all seem to take place in a sort of dark Lake Wobegon, where all the women are weak and choosy, all the men are strong and horny, and children are barely more than notches on the bedpost of natural selection.

Against the strong man/choosy woman story, Downey proposes the "long, slow sexual revolution." The central idea is that, as our ancestors' intelligence increased toward modern humanity, their interest in, understanding of, and uses for sex and sexuality changed:

The idea of the ‘long, slow sexual revolution,’ I think, provides a simple and balanced umbrella for pulling together contradictory elements of our sexuality, gender relations, and reproductive strategies. Everyone knows that the more recent ‘Sexual Revolution’ didn’t erase pre-existing sexual mores and patterns, but rather mixed with them, producing a conflicted, sometimes-unpredictable pattern of sexual expression. Starting with a ‘sexual revolution’ rather than the Men-are-from-Mars-Women-are-from-Venus story means less erroneous leaping to stereotypes to undo when we teach or communicate about human evolution. [Emphasis sic.]

In one of many insightful points, Downey draws in Emily Willingham's recent post on family planning before the Pill—humans have had the intelligence, and the means, to use sex for more than making babies since (probably) before the dawn of recorded history.

That's really only the jumping-off point of a post that delves deep into the problems of evolutionary psychology and what might be done about them. And it's the first part in a promised series! So go read the whole thing, and keep an eye out for future installments. I'll certainly be watching with interest. ◼

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