Why We Hate Evolutionary Psychology

There are a few simple, yet pervasive, reasons why we hate evolutionary psychology, and many of those reasons can be neatly placed under some sort of ism that we associate with evolutionary psychology. Those isms are:

  1. Determinism
  2. Reductionism
  3. Egoism
  4. Social Darwinism (or elitism)
  5. Nihilism

In some form or another, one of those world-views are attributed to evolutionary psychology; sometimes rightly so, and other times not rightly so. And I am of the belief that the isms are what we truly hate. Those isms often carry with them assertions about the nature of reality which we struggle to accept, such as determinism supposing we – as in our subjective sense of will – have no role to play in the unfolding of reality. We do not like our will being erased, and so we may attack evolutionary psychology if it smells of determinism while walking through the door at 3am.

But whether it is the isms themselves we hate or not, some people nonetheless argue that evolutionary psychology conceals within it’s axioms the conclusions of world-views like determinism, reductionism, or nihilism. So even if we come to realize our genuine issue is with some kind of ism, we still have to throw away evolutionary psychology since the ism has corrupted the discipline.  That is a point that I find somewhat contentious.

So, even if we think evolutionary psychology is not the proper culprit of our fears, we may think an inoperable tumor has come with evolutionary psychology, and our accepting of evolutionary psychology is much like accepting the inevitable ruin that comes with an inoperable tumor.

But is that really so? Should we genuinely believe that evolutionary psychology has, necessarily, the outcomes of determinism or fatalism? And if that were so, is that really good grounds to hate evolutionary psychology? Let’s try to answer some of those questions.

Why We Fear Determinism

Determinism comes in many flavors. There is:

  1. Causal Determinism: every event is ultimately caused by prior events and conditions. In other words, everything that happens is the result of a chain of cause-and-effect relationships that extend back through time.
  2. Logical Determinism: everything that happens is logically necessary and cannot be otherwise. This means that the laws of logic and reason dictate that events can only unfold in a certain way.
  3. Biological Determinism: human behavior is largely predetermined by biology and genetics. This can include traits such as intelligence, personality, and even political or social beliefs.
  4. Psychological Determinism: human behavior is largely predetermined by unconscious psychological processes and instincts. This can include things like emotions, motivations, and desires.
  5. Environmental Determinism: human behavior is largely determined by environmental factors, such as culture, upbringing, and social conditioning.

Each type of determinism, likewise, comes with a variety of fears and concerns, of which we can direct toward any worldview that hints at supposing any of the above-mentioned determinisms. And in addition to each variety of determinism having a unique issue for us to consider, all the determinisms collectively have category-wide issues for us to likewise consider. Sickness in general is a concern, but sickness caused by cancer or the common cold virus are vastly different; and we do not need to have the same degree or kind of concerns for both.

For starters, causal determinism. Causal determinism removes our sense of will, our sense of having control on any of the outcomes in our life. If we are born poor, then there is not much we can do but get lucky; because we are unable to make any conscious, deliberate effort to bear difference on our circumstances. We are passive observers of our own life in causal determinism – or what is at other times called hard-determinism. As though life were a roller-coaster, we follow the same tracks as everyone else on our ride. To be born on the wrong ride is, unfortunately, akin to a prison sentence.

And being a passive observer can be extremely anxiety inducing, for passive observation comes with no sense of control; we are unable to manipulate anything to fit our wants, and we are unable to decide our own fate. We are expected to enter a room of unknowns, all the while admitting to ourselves that we cannot control through our own efforts the outcomes that will result from our entering said room.

Yet, the worst of all,  and so all the more uncomfortable, with regards to causal determinism is the fall toward the ground after our foundations are removed from beneath us.

Many of us grow up under the presumption of free will; that self-improvement can lead us to health, wealth, and happiness. A naive realism about the nature of free will, we could say. But under the worldview of causal determinism, that foundation is removed entirely from beneath us. And as a result, we become emotionally volatile. While we fall toward the ground, we swing violently at anyone who was involved with the removal of our foundations, or has simply shown nuance or understanding towards those who removed our foundations. We become incredibly unreasonable, in all honesty.

So, when evolutionary psychology comes along, supposing anything about our personhood being shaped by conditions beyond our will, we take no issue with unfairly condemning the field.

If everything we do is genetically determined, where is our freedom? If our every action is simply the inevitable outcome of the interactions of our genes with the environment, then we are robots, not agents. Our choices may be caused by genes, memes, environments, and so on, but they are still our choices. Determinism, whether genetic or environmental, takes this freedom away. – (Consciousness: An Introduction 2003, pg. 103)

Similarly, logical determinism has an influence on us that we do not like, because it places yet another restriction or limitation upon us that we are required to accept, by virtue of axioms.  We could say logical determinism is like entailment determinism, a worldview that deems some entailments as Truth and undeniable, while deeming other entailments as false and unacceptable. A tyranny of proper conclusion arises.

On the one hand, the laws of logic are to be forced upon us, and we are not allowed to use contradictions, or informal argumentation fallacies either. The law of identity must be followed, and circular reasoning cannot be utilized. But we can go one step further. When we say all swans are black, it is unacceptable to go looking for a white swan. And once an entailment has been deemed truth, to the point that entailments deem what the nature of reality is rather than the nature of reality deeming which entailments are proper, we then have logical determinism.

As to why we fear or hate logical determinism, I find rather obvious. We tend to love freedom, generally speaking. And when our ability to say what reality is becomes confined, especially by institutions of knowledge we disdain, we are unhappy. Some of us may want to think it is logically necessary for their to be a God if we are to have any knowledge whatsoever, but some of us may want to reject such notions; and so, attempting to confine humans through entailment, such as supposing knowledge depends on God, can become a tremendous source of sour grapes.

Without God, there can be no objective knowledge. Without God, there is no reason to trust human cognitive faculties. – William Lane Craig

We do not need to venture far to see how some evolutionary psychologists may do exactly the above-mentioned with the axioms of evolution; to place, by entailment, everyone under the care of natural selection and mutation, undoubtedly, ruffles some feathers. Not everyone wants an evolutionary past, or to be subject to natural selection.

Next on our list of determinisms is biological determinism. Though similar to causal determinism, biological determinism is indeed distinct. Consider, with biological determinism we would simply say the composition of who we are is determined; but some compatibilists could proceed to argue that we have a free will, but that our body was built in accordance to natural laws and selection. Put in other words, biological determinism is not necessarily as grand in scope as causal determinism.

We can be biological organisms, thoroughly physical creatures subject to the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology, and yet in some important sense, we can be free, responsible, and autonomous agents… This is the position of the compatibilist, who holds that determinism, including biological determinism, is compatible with free will. – (Freedom Evolves 2003, pg. 4).

Of course, that will all depend on the variety of biological determinism we are dealing with. For the sake of clarity, however, we will consider the kind of biological determinism that supposes something like intelligence is entirely determined by biology.

Perhaps a bit obvious, the reason we fear such a variety of determinism is the implications which it has for both ourselves and society. Why have equal education systems if people cannot become smarter? Would it not make more sense, under such a determinism, to realize the limitations of some people and thus avoid educating them too broadly? Perhaps those of low intelligence would go to minimal education institutions for less difficult jobs, while those of high intelligence would go to intensive education institutions for more difficult jobs. Put otherwise, invest most of our wealth in high-returning assets. Biological determinism of that sort would lead to both genetic and economic stratification.

And it is not too difficult to see how evolutionary psychology, when phrased one way rather than another, can depict such a worldview. A world where we, as a result of who gave brith to us, are placed into the dumb or smart bucket, and treated accordingly. (Not that any of us would really have to worry about being placed into the dumb bucket).

Now let us consider psychological determinism. I personally find that, of all the varieties of determinism, psychological determinism is the most prevalent. Why? Because even the social scientists who follow the standard social science model accept, implicitly so, that their world-views are deterministic in the psychological sense. Their views of child development are not up for debate, children develop in the exact manner that their theories have determined! And we are forever to battle our id and trauma, because their models do not allow for a nature without our doing so.

But cheap shots aside, psychological determinism is something to fear for many because it supposes that how we think, how we feel, and what we believe or perceive are all subject to the dictates of our own cognition and intra-psychic dynamics. We react emotionally and violently to separation because the intra-psychic dynamics of our mind deem those events to be dangerous; we may have thought we had rational, conscious justification for our reaction, but the choice was made much before conscious thought even became a variable to consider in such circumstances. And so we were never given a real choice, nor are we able to be consciously edit those mechanisms that are, on our behalf, making choices since those mechanisms themselves are beyond conscious cognition.

And that, much like biological determinism, can be easily attributed to evolutionary psychology. No doubt, evolutionary psychology can be construed as men seek many women and women seek a few high-quality men; no matter the contents of your conscious mind, you are determined to behave as such. All behaviors and emotions must play a role in adaptation and reproductive fitness! We only pursue education to get resources, and those resources are sought after because we want to mate. No room for purpose or happiness.

The theorem implies that natural selection will tend to favor traits that increase the reproductive success of individuals relative to others in the population, or in other words, maximize fitness.  – (Adaptation and Natural Selection, 1996)

That is, obviously, not what evolutionary psychology argues for; but I would be lying if I said they do not discuss the hidden agenda of some behaviors being aimed at mate selection and fitness maximization. We should be mindful, I will say, of those who conclude fitness maximization as a characteristic of all behaviors, as such a worldview leaves no room for the environment or chance mutations that do not increase fitness. Indeed, we do not need every trait to increase fitness, just a sufficient amount.

The last kind of determinism we must mention is environmental determinism, which has been, as far as I can discern, the least scrutinized form of determinism. Perhaps because the standard social science model argues, in some instances, in favor of environmental determinism; and since the standard social science model has reigned supreme from the 1900s and onward, no doubt has been thrown toward such beliefs.

Let us suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas. How comes it to be furnished? Whence comes it by that vast store, which the busy and boundless fancy of man has painted on it with an almost endless variety? Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge? To this I answer, in one word, from experience. – (Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1690)

But environmental determinism has many skeletons in the closet precisely because it has not been critiqued all that often. Take as our prime example homosexuality. Many have proclaimed homosexuality to be a result of parental strategies; that some types of parenting lead a child into homosexuality, while other types of parenting do not. Obviously, in the context of modern biological research, we know that to be nonsense(1). Or, take as another example, institutions of oppression. Many of such institutions believed they could, by brute force, chisel into the tabula rasa the new foundations for their authoritarian society or belief system; that once an individual has no longer experienced freedom, liberty, and individuality, then so it shall be that their inkling for said things will vanish; and in place of individuality comes collectivism.

So we fear environmental determinism, then, because we are not genuinely blank slates, and we do not want to be chiseled; those who adopt environmental determinism reject any sense of who we are and instead suppose we are only pieces that have been forcefully placed into a puzzle, and that we are now unable to change unless the puzzle maker deems it necessary todo so.

Surprisingly, some forms of evolutionary anthropology, which is attached to the hip with evolutionary psychology, can in fact adopt environmental determinist viewpoints; but in general, evolutionary psychology has not been influenced all that much by environmental determinism.

Now what we can make note of is the category-wide concern for all varieties of determinism. Causal determinism can remove our sense of morality, our sense of responsibility, and our sense of will; but so too can biological determinism or psychological determinism, despite that all of those world-views can suppose different things, even to the point of being mutually exclusive.  Environmental determinism can be used to justify oppression, but both determinism more generally and environmental determinism can contract the size of the individual.

And since we do not like the feeling of being contracted, it ought be no surprise that we attack evolutionary psychology. Too easily can evolutionary psychology be conflated with genetic determinism, with psychological determinism, or with the removal of human agency more generally. When someone supposes all our actions have a motive beyond our own personal ambitions, namely, to procreate, we feel psychologically determined; when someone supposes our intelligence was predetermined by the lineage of our parents, we feel left with fewer options in life. The varieties of determinism frequently associated with evolutionary psychology can lead us to unjustly condemn the field, simply because we do not like determinism in general.

But we should find comfort in the fact that evolutionary psychology does not argue for many of the varieties of determinism people suppose it does. At best, we are psychologically determined insofar as our brains cannot spontaneously change over night; that we will be unable to learn an entire language, fluently, in 3 hours time. We are biologically determined insofar as we cannot fly since we do not have the genes for flight – excluding technology. And we are environmentally determined insofar as our want for conformity and comfort leads us to adopt the cultural practices of our immediate community. And we may even say we are genetically determined insofar as we develop very similar brains in roughly the same timespans as others. But that is the extent to which evolutionary psychology would argue for determinism.

Evolutionary psychology, in fact, adopts a flexibility perspective on human nature; that humans survived for so long because we were flexible. Genes that selected for specific environments may have loss in the evolutionary arms race because that environment disappeared; whereas humans, as far as we can tell, are able to adapt environments to our own needs. We have more flexibility in navigating the world than other species.

The point being, if we ever find ourselves adopting a hostile stance towards evolutionary psychology because of a fear from determinism, whatever the sort, we may want to be cautious of our own sentiments.

Why We Fear Reductionism

There are many forms of reductionism, but we do not need all of them since only a few carry over to evolutionary psychology. The reductionism that does carry over to evolutionary psychology is:

  1. Methodological Reductionism: an attempt to explain events or phenomena in terms of smaller constituent pieces.

And when it comes to methodological reductionism, we can say there is two kinds. One is greedy reductionism, and the other is good reductionism. Greedy reductionism, perhaps what many of us find most terrifying, is when we skip entire levels of complexity, such as jumping from the mind to neural cells; whereas good reductionism, which we fear slightly less, is when we make note of all the levels of complexity, such as jumping from the mind to hemispheres of the brain.

Both greedy and good reductionism can be found in evolutionary theorizing, which may be a factor in our disdain for evolutionary psychology. So why, then, do we dislike reductionism?

Reductionism can be a useful tool, but I think many dislike reductionism because of its ability to reduce humanity.

Take, as a starting point, genes. We can readily find those who have used evolutionary theorizing to suppose we are successful only because of our genes. We outcompeted others because our genes are better than theirs. We may even find people who proclaim to be more interested in our genes rather than our character.

Certainly, that is a form of greedy reductionism, but even good reductionism can be found to reduce humanity. For instance, some medical doctors will look at your genetic predisposition for diseases or personality traits and conclude something about you, without ever consulting you. Whether that is efficacious or not, I do not comment on; but we cannot deny that such an act reduces someone’s personhood to their genes – we ignore their character and experiences and instead focus on their genes and their genetic history.

Another point, the disregard for humanist explanations. A patient who lays critically ill inside a hospital will be monitored by the metrics produced from tools of measurement, not by their subjective experience. In fact, in a book called “the phenomenology of illness,” the author points to a systemic problem of doctors disregarding subjective experience in patient care, to the point of detriment. When we consider health as being composed only of constituent pieces, of which we measure, we can ignore the subjective, emergent experience of the person.

And a similar phenomenon can happen with neuroscience, wherein which neuroscience explanations are adopted to explain ordinary human experience. We all know a person who will say, “you only enjoy that activity because of dopamine”. And then proceed to label us dopamine addicts. It is as though the experience itself cannot be appreciated, and that the only relevant explanation for why we enjoy something is neurotransmitters and hormones.

In addition to that, we are now in a weird area of neuroscience where subjective explanations, in some cases, must fit neuroscience theories; and if a neuroscience theory says otherwise, your subjective experience is rendered obsolete. Independent of any conversations on the epistemic validity or lack thereof for doing that, the mere fact that something like that happens is a testament to how reductionism can replace subjective experience.

The whole tendency of modern life is towards scientific planning and organisation, centralisation, and the diminishing importance of the individual. It is no longer politicians and their armies who rule, but the scientists and their instruments. … Yet, in spite of the radically changed conditions of life and thought, the instinct of self-preservation, which Freud called the Eros principle, still dominates the human psyche. The individual will never be superseded by the collective, but rather should be preserved within it. The goal of the future is full individualisation, which can only come about when cooperation is based on free association and equal participation. (The Undiscovered Self, 1957)

The last point to mention, lack of consideration for context. Although reductionism can be a useful tool, there is a tendency to ignore context. As a great point, if we only study the economics of Canada, and reduce Canada’s economy down to the constituent elements, we may miss trends in the global market that impacted Canada. The economic context that is outside of the country can have an impact.  Or, take as another example, a student who graduates top of their class but fails to find a job. A reductionist would likely look at the student and the institutions constituent elements. But now suppose that student entered the most competitive job market ever to exist. The dynamics of the job market will be more relevant than the constituent pieces of either the student or the educational institution.

So, if we ignore context, we may unfairly critique, condemn, or complain about a person’s outcome in life, when in reality they had very little chance of success from the start since the dynamics of the world made it so.

Now, many of these concerns hold true for evolutionary theorizing. Some evolutionary theorists do engage in greedy reductionism, and some even reduce the breadth of human experience to nothing more than propagation of the gene. I would say, however, that modern evolutionary psychology, although mentions stuff along these lines, argues for a different worldview.

For instance, evolutionary psychologists would be willing to accept that not all behaviors are designed to propagate the gene, that we need to consider the environment in conjunction with the gene, the brain, and even biochemistry. A truly rigorous evolutionary psychologist would not reduce subjective experience to nothing, at worst they would suppose subjective experience is shaped by the brain – which is not to say we ignore subjective experience. After all, introspection can help us understand human preference and desire.

As terrific example, David M. Buss’ book, “the evolution of desire,” routinely relies on introspective reports to confirm theories. And survey data is used in nearly all social sciences, so we should not be surprised when evolutionary psychologists rely on survey data.

Thus, what we have said about determinism likewise holds true for reductionism. We are wise to consider whether our hostility towards evolutionary psychology is caused by evolutionary psychology itself or by a fear of reductionism.

Why We Fear Egoism

There are many varieties of egoism, but we are only concerned with one.  Rational egoism, and others of the sort can be ignored, since only a varied form of psychological egoism is what truly carries over to evolutionary psychology.

  1. Psychological Egoism: the idea that human behavior is motivated by self-interest. That all behaviors and beliefs are meant to reduce pain and increase pleasure.

The varied version of psychological egoism that applies to evolutionary psychology is as follows:

  1. Gene Egoism: the idea that all human behavior is motivated by the self-interest of our genes. That all behaviors and beliefs are meant to increase the number of off-spring we have.

We can call that gene-selectionism as well, but the point of calling it gene egoism is to point out the issues we have with gene-selectionism.

We do not like egoism in general, because it removes the illusion that we all have about our own personhood. We all like to think we are benevolent actors, we have no intention of directly benefiting ourselves when he help someone, and we are capable of doing things for others, not just ourself.

Take, as example, the idea that someone can jump in front of a car to save your life. Many of us want the social credit that comes with such a selfless act of heroism. But an egoist would respond with, “you only did it because you found it pleasurable to be perceived as a hero”. So, the moral and selfless act becomes a self-centered and calculated seizure of an opportunity for fame. It does not take long to see why people become upset with that.

By the same reasoning, evolution supposes that natural selection drives development, and natural selection dictates that only those who can reproduce successfully will continue to exist. And so, some people take that to mean that all behavior is self-interested; that I am only helping another person because my genes will be granted some sort of advantage. Similar to the idea that some people only do charity work to boost the quality of their CV.

Now, in all fairness, evolutionary psychologists do not say much about free will, and many of them seem to think there is a clash between unconscious drives and conscious wants; that some conscious wants are ostensibly non-evolutionary in nature. But I have never seen a truly satisfactory answer to the topic of free will advocated for by an evolutionary psychologist. Many of them agree that gene selection is true, and yet many of them also agree that we can make a choice contrary to our genes (in many cases, without evidence). Or worse yet, I have found that many of them will suppose that evolution does not advocate that we do one thing over another, but then refuse to make any moral prescriptions. As if to say, “evolution should not be source of morality, but we should also not try to create a morality”.

Consider, as an examples, Richard Dawkin’s quotes:

We are survival machines, robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. This is a truth which still fills me with astonishment. –  (The Selfish Gene (1976) preface)

To derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ requires some pretty hefty intellectual acrobatics.  – (The God Delusion, pg.34)

So, perhaps our fears of egoism coming from the gene selection worldview are slightly more warranted than our fears of determinism. Evolutionary theorists often do not say much about will and choice, and they do say much to undermine any notions of will and choice. They will say gene selectionism is true, that our behaviors are programmed to benefit a gene. And they will even tell us morality is meant to benefit the gene.

Morality, in the sense of a set of ideals or principles that motivate people to live cooperatively, can be viewed as a kind of technology for making groups of people cohere and function in coordinated ways. And like other technologies, it can evolve. – (The Evolution of God p. 307)

And so, all the fears of removing our sense of personhood, our sense of non-self-interested behaviors is knocked down, since it is all self-interested for the gene. Now, to be clear, they are not advocating for these self-interested behaviors, directly. But when they say behaviors in general are programmed to benefit the gene, and then do not point out behaviors which are likely not gene-benefiting behaviors, we are left with a piece of bait. We can easily straw-man here.

Robert Wright would indeed argue that we can make choices contrary to our genes, which lessens the fear of egoism, yet never provides evidence. As example:

Human beings are unique in their ability to rise above the deterministic chaos of their genes—to rebel against their genetic history, to carve out new niches for themselves in defiance of their inheritance – (The Moral Animal p. 3)

Again, evolutionary psychologists would very much agree that we should not only adopt the gene’s point of view in our ordinary life, but they always fail to provide an alternative, which makes them seem as though they only advocate for a kind of egoism.

Of course, I will venture to say, we should not worry about this sort of egoism. It can be useful to consider evolution in the sense of gene selection, and I will likewise say, we can safely ignore gene selection for most ordinary affairs. And so, the fear of egoism should not be applied to evolutionary psychology, if you are cautious about how you read evolutionary psychology.

Why We Fear Social Darwinism

Social Darwinism is something we should probably fear, but thankfully no Social Darwinist has had a completely correct assessment of society. The idea behind Social Darwinism is that human societies must adopt the same level of competition found in nature, or that human societies are characterized by the same level of competition found in nature. Which brings with it the same level of inequalities found in nature.

To go back to our famous example of intelligence, if it were the case that some were smarter than others, and as a result they developed a severe wealth inequality over others, then a Social Darwinist would say that such an inequality is fine. Basically, survival of the fittest reigns supreme, as though society were akin to a game with simple, straightforward rules like hockey or soccer.

However, we do not really need to worry about Social Darwinism because it is not matter of fact; they get a lot wrong about the nature of evolution, as well as the nature of societies.

For starters, survival of the fittest does not necessarily mean survival of the smartest, strongest, or healthiest. In fact, it can mean the opposite of that in some cases.  Sometimes being subservient is more advantageous to reproduction since there is too much competition between aggressive males. Put another way:

Natural selection is not about survival of the fittest in any general sense. It’s about the differential reproduction of the genes that contribute to traits that enhance fitness. And fitness, here, is narrowly defined as reproductive success. So it’s frequency selection all the way down. –  (The Evolution of God, 2009)

What is fit depends entirely on the frequency of things. Those who are smart may not reproduce as much, and so would not be classified as fit. So, that is one important misunderstanding found in Social Darwinism.

Another is the plasticity of both humans and other species. Human societies can change, and primate societies have also been noted to change. And they can change in ways that are antithetical to the Social Darwinist worldview. For instance, alpha male guerrillas learning to be peaceful and co-operative, or humans creating more equal societies. (2)(3)(4)

But not everything the Social Darwinist has to say should be dismissed. Albeit, their application of evolution to society is not that well-grounded in evolutionary theory, they nonetheless have a point about inequalities. Sometimes, there will exist merit based inequalities that we should not attempt to fix. I should not be treated as an equal to a heart surgeon, and for good reason. And that sort of inequality fits, slightly more, the Social Darwinist worldview.

At any rate, evolutionary psychology does not argue for Social Darwinism, and in many publications can be found arguing against Social Darwinism:

“The notion of social Darwinism was invented by its opponents to tar it with the taint of the spurious science of biological determinism. The great irony is that real Darwinism — the Darwinian explanation of how organisms evolve — doesn’t support social Darwinism at all. In fact, the science of evolutionary psychology is telling us more and more about the roots of human cooperation, altruism, and morality.” – Robert Wright, “The Moral Animal” (1994)

“The Social Darwinists were mistaken about evolution in general and human evolution in particular. The picture of the natural world they painted was not only incorrect but also invidious. The idea that the fit should not aid the unfit may have been touted as ‘nature’s way’, but it is not a principle of nature. Cooperation and altruism are as much a part of the human condition as competition and selfishness.” – Steven Pinker, “The Blank Slate” (2002)

“The notion that social Darwinism is a viable framework for understanding human society and human social behavior has been discredited by science. Evolutionary theory provides insight into the human mind, including its moral sense and its sociality, but it does not support a view that certain races, classes, or individuals are superior or inferior to others.” – David Buss, “Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind” (2015)

Why We Fear Nihilism

Nihilism comes in many forms, but as with the other isms not all are relevant for our discussion. Here are some that I think are in fact relevant:

  1. Moral Nihilism: nothing is objectively right or wrong, morality is subjective.
  2. Epistemic Nihilism: knowledge is not objective but is instead subjective, we do not have certainty
  3. Existential Nihilism: life has no meaning and we have no purpose

These all come packaged with evolutionary psychology, to some extent. And so, it is somewhat unavoidable to think about these topics when you consider evolutionary psychology. Let’s see how.

Evolutionary psychologists do argue that morality is part of human nature, but their notion of morality is descriptive. They would argue that natural selection has resulted in those who are pro-social and follow tit-for-tat being more successful in reproduction.

The basic idea of tit-for-tat is simple: be nice in the first encounter, then do whatever your opponent did last time. Tit-for-tat is what computer simulations of the evolution of cooperation tend to generate. The reason is that tit-for-tat does well in a variety of settings: it is forgiving, but not gullible; it is not envious, so it doesn’t take more than its share; and it is not spiteful, so it doesn’t cut off its nose to spite its face. And it is easy to recognize, so it can be imitated. Thus, tit-for-tat is evolutionarily stable. – (Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, 2000)

Which means, depending on your view of things, morality is either objective or subjective. On the one hand, it can be subjective insofar as it means it “evolves” and changes, dependent always on a point-of-view rather than an immutable fact. But, on the other hand, it can be objective insofar as we can observe, predict, and verify that humans have rigid moral behaviors. In the same way that I can observe an apple, I can observe human morality. Which is, of course, delving into metaphysics.

The point being, evolutionary psychology might make us think about moral nihilism, and maybe even lead us to conclude moral nihilism. Which is something some people genuinely fear, because they think if morality is not immutable and is indeed subjective, then they think we can justify anything. But evolutionary psychologists would likely respond by saying, “you cannot erase human nature, and its’ propensity to be moral, through the wave of a finger”.

Similarly, the arguments for moral nihilism carry over to epistemic nihilism. If humans have evolved, then evolution must apply to the mind. Meaning, our capacity for knowledge must be creative. The beliefs we have about the world are a result of some non-conscious, creative process producing tools that help us reproduce, not creating tools that help us discover Truth. Fair enough.

The only response I would have to that is akin to internal realism:

Internal realism is the view that what science describes are real patterns, structures, and processes in the world, but that these patterns, structures, and processes are themselves in part the creations of our conceptual and linguistic activities. The world, so far as it is independent of those activities, is not directly accessible to us; we can never say what it is ‘really like,’ apart from our conceptualizations of it. –  (The Threefold Cord: Mind, Body, and World, 1999)

So, we may not have objective, mind-independent truth about the world, but I know it is true that every time I eat a cookie my dog wants a bite, for sure. Whatever my dog is in-itself, internal realists do not care, they only care that my dog comes for a bite.

Which means, evolutionary psychology can be accused of epistemic nihilism, but that does not mean they do not pursue knowledge; instead, they pursue what is internally true. Similar to the idea of trying to figure out the rules of a game while wearing a virtual reality headset. The game rules are not the rules of reality itself, but they are the rules that govern the internal world.

The last one worth mentioning is a fear that we cannot have purpose because our genes will usurp our destiny and force us to do things we never really wanted todo. To be frank, as far as I can tell, evolutionary psychologists do not accept a one-to-one relationship between genes and behavioral output. But that doesn’t mean there is no relationship. The truth is likely in the middle on this topic, but we do not have enough scientific evidence to be conclusive.

Yes, there are twin studies wherein which twins separated at birth, raised in different environments, and then come back together later on still turn out to be highly similar in some traits. But, the separation does occur after birth, and so there was still shared environment; and even then, those studies do not really answer to what extent their behaviors were controlled by genes. At best, it only says that some traits are highly influenced by hereditary factors.

So, existential nihilists of this sort, as far as I can tell, presuppose too much about the science of behavioral genetics and conclude doom and gloom. But, since the science does not support their claims, and nor am I one to prefer doom and gloom, I think we can ignore the existential nihilists for now. Which is not to say they make no good points, I have read them and I do think their points are intriguing. But we are not at the point where we can verify this kind of concern, yet.

Conclusion: why we hate evolutionary psychology

For many reasons, we dislike evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychology can force upon us a kind of nihilism, though not the worst kind; evolutionary psychology can force upon us a kind of determinism, though not in the ways many people think; and evolutionary psychology can shrink our sense of personhood through reductionism. Of course, our hate is not with evolutionary psychology itself, but can such busy emotions truly come to so nuanced a viewpoint? I do not know.

I would say, then, that our truth is in the middle. And reasonable folks should not hate evolutionary psychology anymore than we hate naturalist philosophy or engineering. Determinism, reductionism, and nihilism can be found in nearly all disciplines, if we go looking for it. And so, to hate evolutionary psychology because of determinism or reductionism, I find, to be silly and unfair.

In all seriousness, ordinary people probably argue for determinism or nihilism, unwittingly, three or four times a day, through presuppositions alone. For instance, “it was just his time to go,” sounds fairly similar to hard determinism if you ask me, and said statement is used incredibly often in ordinary life. So, let’s avoid unreasonably attacking evolutionary psychology for things we all use, anyways.


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$20,000. That is what I wasted on university before realizing my passion is just to read, write, and think.

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