This study is so bad, it’s actually making me angry. There is nothing whatsoever in that study that even remotely hints at identifying biological paternity, not in the present and certainly not in human history in the long term. Here’s the actual explanation of the results: in our culture, we assume that a man who financially supports a woman is in a monogamous sexual relationship with her, so if she’s having sex with other partners, then she’s cheating and cheating is bad. THAT’S WHAT THEY ASKED. They basically asked people whether women having several sexual partners is wrong, and then figured out that people who already assumed those women were in marriages or committed monogamous relationships thought it was. Surprise?
It just…there’s no connection to biology or evolution or genetics at all. I can’t imagine a first-year anth major getting that past a professor; how in the world does it get published in a science journal?
My graduate school had an evo-psych wing to the anthro department, and, as a result, I frequently ended up both reading evpsych material and talking with the faculty and students. What always struck me, and what I find striking in this case, was that many of the basic errors that these researchers would make in their thinking were identical to the errors that many paleoanthropologists made when studying pre-anatomically-modern humans: a favoring of simplistic models (often based on useful but uncritically-used economic theories) and a tendency to see 20th Century U.S./European culture as the default.
I always found it frustrating. When I would try to point this out, I was invariably told that as a lowly archaeologist, I was incapable of understanding the explanatory power of evolutionary psychology. Which, I don’t know, might be true, but I never could get anyone to try to explain why what was poor thinking in paleoanthropology was brilliance in evpsych.
As is true of many fields, there was some very good and very interesting work being done, but it tended to not grab headlines, and tended to not absorb the attention of the people not directly involved in the less “sexy” research. If Evpsych actually sticks around as a field (rather than being absorbed into something else) and develops into a stronger arena for scientific research, it’s likely to be this less sensational but quieter work that really builds it up.
Hahaha, I’ve been told similar things, as the lowly cultural anthropologist. It is quite irritating, but also if that’s the best they can do to try to dismiss critiques about their work, it makes me think I’m doing something right.
Evopsych is here to stay. As the human brain is more understood “technically”, evopsych will begin to get more things right than wrong. It seems inevitable that the last million years must have had some evolutionary impact on how we think and relate genderwise considering the way natural selection works. It may well be a small impact tho… easily overwhelmed by social culture. But until the brain is better understood, better to stand in doubt by most of its claims.
Evopsych is here to stay.
I refuse to take up such a pessimistic view. I mean, phrenology fell out of favor!
As the human brain is more understood “technically”, evopsych will begin to get more things right than wrong.
This is based on accepting the premises of evo psych are sound, which I remain skeptical about.
The problems in the field are deep and pernicious. Since I’m a layperson, I’m sure I don’t have a good understanding of where the baby ends and the bathwater begins. But we don’t even have a great understanding of *modern* psychological conditions and behaviors. Until evolutionary psychologists are talking about inherited genetic markers, I’ll continue discounting its’ findings. There’s only so much incredibly sexist pseudoscience I can take. And this field, in particular, has produced some breathtakingly bigoted, unscientific bullshit.
Well, it recognized the existence of bisexuality, which may be a first for evopsych.
In Lakota, father’s brother, mother’s sister’s husband, and father are the same, but mother’s brother and father’s sister’s husband are different. And the inverse.
Now here’s where evopsych fails: We’ve known this for over a century. Also, the fact that apparently even the ability to conform is genetically predetermined, meaning the entire concept behind evopsych is untestable. (Which is…interesting. I can test natural selection, the laws of thermodynamics, Avogadro’s constant, the central dogma of molecular biology, and any other central theory of a given field. I can think of things that would happen if these things were false. Those things don’t happen, though, which is why I continue to accept them as fact, until one of those things does happen. But I cannot test evopsych.)
Very interesting dissection of the argument, thanks!
From a biological perspective, there’s a number of holes in their reasoning as well. For example,
One of the premises of the research is that “in order for a man’s parental investment to benefit his offspring, he must know who his offspring are and establishing paternity was probably a major adaptive problem for ancestral humans.”
This is the kind of premise that makes sense when you have a basic understanding of evolutionary theory but falls apart once you have more in-depth knowledge of the actual complexities of the natural world. (FWIW, I think this is the core problem with a lot of evo psych hypotheses.) For example, many passerine songbirds are well known for having biparental care of offspring, and form socially monogamous pairs for raising nestlings. It was long assumed that in order for this system of social monogamy to be evolutionarily stable, sexual monogamy was also critical, but over the last few decades genetic studies of nestlings have been done in a wide range of songbird species, and it’s been found that so-called “extra-pair paternity” — i.e., the genetic father of a nestling is not the social father, is extremely common. One genus in particular, the fairy wrens, frequently have EPP rates greater than 50%, meaning on average less than half the nestlings a male raises will be “his”. (For a published example, see this table, and check out the line “% EP offspring” — one fairy wren species, M. coronatus has low EPP rates, but the rest have rates greater than 50% in some cases.) How such a system evolved remains an open question (though I’m not enough of an expert in this area to know the state-of-the-art), but it seems clear that even in a species where male parental investment in offspring is very significant, the problem of “establishing paternity” is not so critical that it inevitably leads males to pursue obvious strategies of reducing EPP in their own pair unit. (In fact, I believe one hypothesis goes that males seem to tolerate females on their territories that they’ve previously mated with, presumably because she’s taking resources for offspring that might be “his” genetically, and so there’s selective pressure on females to seek out extra-pair copulations from all the neighboring males in order to gain the most resources for her offspring — suggesting that social monogamy and male territoriality may actually favor female promiscuity.) So from our knowledge of other species, the requirement that “in order for a man’s parental investment to benefit his offspring, he must know who his offspring are and establishing paternity was probably a major adaptive problem for ancestral humans” is evidentally false.
In a section of the paper where they review some of the literature on mating strategies “across species and cultures,” they use the words “monogamy,” “polygyny,” and “polyandry.” Certainly in biological or zoological settings, those words may be used to refer to mating strategies. But in anthropology, those words refer to types of marriages, not necessarily to mating strategies.
Actually, in biological or zoological settings, the usage is often similar to what you described for anthropology! When I was talking about fairy wrens above, I used the term “socially monogamous”, which is the generally accepted technical term now that we know the high frequency of extra-pair copulations and extra-pair paternity among many animals we previously described as “monogamous”. That is, monogamy, polygyny, polyandry, and more promiscuous social systems should in most cases be understood as part of a species’ social organization, not necessarily just a “mating system”. Of course, the two are certainly interdependent, but hardly inextricably linked, as we saw with the fairy wrens. Certainly the question of mating(-as-in-copulation) system and genetic paternity is also of great importance in biology, since for evolution we are ultimately interested in the transmission of genes from one generation to the next, but social organization is (for many behavioral biologists at least) of equal importance. My point being that once again, even just from a biological perspective, the kind of reasoning about mating and social systems on display in this study is simplistic. Biologists should be able to think about mating and social systems in more nuanced ways than this.
I should say, though, that I feel a bit of a weird urge to defend evolutionary psychology here, even though I’m generally pretty happy to crap on it. Although I wouldn’t call the work I do “evolutionary psychology” per se, that’s in part because I want to avoid association with what I feel is a tainted label. I think of myself as a biologist trying to understand the mechanisms underlying cognition and complex behaviors in animals (with humans being a particularly interesting animal, rendered frustratingly more complex to understand by our possession of culture), and thinking about evolution is an absolutely critical element of that process. I study non-human animals, but I do believe that my work has implications for understanding human behavior as well. What frustrates me about much of the evo psych literature is not that the notion that evolutionary thinking can inform psychological understanding is wrong, but that so much of what is published under the banner “evolutionary psychology” displays simplistic evolutionary thinking, ignorance of real-world biological complexity in other taxa which should serve as models for the evolution of certain behaviors, hyperadaptationist just-so stories, a willingness to ignore the incredible variability of human behavior across cultures and instead take WEIRD subjects to be representative of all humans, a propensity for advancing sweeping hypotheses on the basis of utterly inadequate evidence, and a general disregard for even considering mechanism. (Not to mention the occasional overt racism — I’m looking at you, Satoshi Kanazawa.) Yet I remain convinced that biologists, informed by a more sophisticated understanding of evolutionary theory, proximate mechanisms, and real evidential “ground-truth” in other taxa, can work alongside anthropologists, psychologists, and experts in other fields to advance our understanding of what it is to be human, so long as all of us are willing to honestly consider the epistemic strengths and weaknesses of our own approaches. I still hold out hope one day for an “evolutionary psychology” worthy of the name.
Great comments as always, biogeo.
There’s a difference between people’s beliefs, and information that is relevant to genetic evolution. Scratch out “knowledge”, if you like. It remains the case that paternal investment in offspring could never have evolved in humans — it is one of our least mammal-typical traits — if the behaviour were not, on average, more likely to benefit the male in question’s genes than some other male’s genes. The evolution of human paternal investment predates the diversification of human cultures; therefore, cultural variance in conceptions of fatherhood are not relevant to explaining the behaviour.
I have discussed evolutionary psychology at considerable length on my own blog — http://veryrarelystable.blogspot.co.nz/2014/03/two-cheers-for-evolutionary-psychology.html — and not uncritically, I hope. I just feel that “Not all cultures believe this” is used far too glibly as a blanket dismissal for any biological hypotheses in human behaviour.
You are conveniently ignoring the part where they believe they are getting at paternal investment by looking at discourses about the morality of promiscuity. How in the heck do you think it’s appropriate to use that and simultaneously argue that people’s beliefs are irrelevant?
It remains the case that paternal investment in offspring could never have evolved in humans — it is one of our least mammal-typical traits — if the behaviour were not, on average, more likely to benefit the male in question’s genes than some other male’s genes. The evolution of human paternal investment predates the diversification of human cultures; therefore, cultural variance in conceptions of fatherhood are not relevant to explaining the behaviour.
This is a just-so story par excellence. How do you know that paternal investment did not arise as a spandrel, for example? How could human paternal investment predate human culture, if one of the traits of being human is culture? You’re making a lot of assertions here that, from my perspective, have no grounding.
I just feel that “Not all cultures believe this” is used far too glibly as a blanket dismissal for any biological hypotheses in human behaviour.
My criticism of this paper is not a blanket dismissal for any biological hypotheses in human behavior, it is a dismissal of the idea that you can look at moralizing discourse in Americans and think that that tells us something about the importance of paternal certainty in all humans across time and space. That being said, when looking at human beings, you cannot separate the cultural from the biological. Culture has played a vital role in our biological evolution to the extent that we must consider humans from a biocultural perspective when it comes to evolution. Biological anthropologist Jon Marks has addressed this in detail in this paper.
How could human paternal investment predate human culture, if one of the traits of being human is culture?
Here’s an analogous question: “How could human bipedality predate the enlargement of the human brain, given that one of the traits of being human is the enlarged brain?” Yet we know for a fact, from abundant fossil evidence, that it did. Parental behaviour doesn’t fossilize, of course. But we know that at some point after the moment when our ancestors diverged from those of bonobos and chimpanzees, males started investing in their offspring; and that at some point, humans began to diversify culturally. These things are not the same thing and they are unlikely to have happened at the same time. All I have asserted is that the former happened earlier. Here is my reasoning.
Human cultural diversity seems, from what we can tell from Palaeolithic archaeology, to have gone hand-in-hand with humans settling the more peripheral parts of the Old World. In particular, the ancestors of Aboriginal Australians migrated from Asia to Australia quite early in the period. They appear to have remained largely separate from the rest of the human species from then until relatively recent times. Nevertheless — contrary to certain racist beliefs which were taught in schools until two generations ago and remain, I fear, very much alive today — Aboriginal Australians share every behavioral and cognitive trait common to Homo sapiens, including paternal investment in offspring. Ergo, those traits predate the migration. Indeed, simply because they are shared traits, it is likely that they predate the earliest common ancestor of all living humans. Not certain, but likely. And DNA evidence shows that the earliest common ancestor of all living humans lived tens of thousands of years before there is any sign of cultural diversification in the archaeological record.
I would again recommend the article I linked because it specifically addresses how both bipedality and encephalization in humans are biocultural, not simply biological traits. I’m not going to re-hash Marks’ arguments–I linked to them so I don’t have to.
But we know that at some point after the moment when our ancestors diverged from those of bonobos and chimpanzees, males started investing in their offspring
That’s not the position the authors of the paper take, as they use non-human primates as proxies for explaining paternal investment.
Your entire explanation of archaeological evidence of human cultural diversity seems solely focused on H. sapiens, but that is too narrow of a view of how culture has influenced human evolution. Other species within the genus exhibited evidence of culture, e.g., the Oldowan industry. Your explanation is unconvincing to me, and it’s full of unevidenced assertions and assumptions that I don’t agree with, or at the very least am highly skeptical of.
When speculating about the distant past, I would always like to use a time travelling machine to go back to the point in time when our ancestors figured out that sex and pregnancy are related. That must have been one great big cognitive process, probably several times in different places.
Because one of the things such speculations also always semm to assume is that the people they’re talking about already knew that pregnancy resulted from sex. Heck, there are people in this world today who have been kept so much in the dark that they don’t know. I’ve heard tales from quiverfull christian women in the USA who thought that sex was their duty to their husband and that babies arrived automatically when you were married and “god blessed you” and who didn’t make a connection between the two.
Because it’s not intuitive like the connection between hitting your finger with a hammer and feeling pain.
I’m hardly an expert, but I do like reading books about primates and biological anthropology, so forgive my ignorance, but doesn’t the fact that human’s have hidden estrus alone suggest that at some point in our history it was beneficial to not be sure of paternity? Never mind that most of our close primate female relatives are quite promiscuous, and will mate with as many males as they can, even after they have become pregnant. There is more benefit in having five potential dads looking out for you baby than one sure dad. (Or at least, in the case of some species, in avoiding having definite non-dads around the baby, who might seek to harm it.)
My biggest pet peeve with evopsych is that it so often revolves around the idea that males are thinking, even scheming, creatures with agency and genes to pass on, and females are passive gene receptacles to be used by males. One of my (least) favorite claims: human females have permanently engorged breasts because early men found them attractive, and that breasts are a “symbol of fertility”. Biologically, this makes no sense. Most mammals, including most primates (and probably our ancestors), only have engorged breasts while breast feeding. Most breast feeding mammals, including humans, experience amenorrhea during periods of breast feeding, meaning they do not ovulate, and are therefore temporarily infertile. (Not that this is always 100%, and you shouldn’t trust it as a form of birth control without advice from your doctor, blah blah) So, if anything, engorged breasts are a symbol of infertility. But maybe every aspect of human females didn’t evolve simply because it’s what men liked. Maybe breasts are another way humans disguise their fertility status. It’s almost as if we are built to not be quite sure who our dads are, and a great deal of human culture has been shaped around fighting that aspect of our nature.
All great points.
“In a society with such a kinship system, it would be incorrect to make the assumption that “fathers” are particularly invested in “knowing” who the “real” biological father is, because that is not what their kinship system privileges.”
And, of course, there is the glaring problem of actual, existing, tribes that either a) haven’t made the connection between sex and procreation, or b) misidentify it (like the one that thinks sperm, in general, regardless of who it comes from, is necessary to produce a healthy child, and, if anything, have more sex, more often, during pregnancy, because of that), or c) trade off partners, per some system chosen by the women, etc.
Yeah, this is all pretty much what I have come to expect from Evo Psych – a lot of BS just so stories, which ignore outlying evidence that denies their basic premises, stacked up to “explain” the social conventions developed for entirely non-genetic, social, reasons. Color me unsurprised…
Wow, it’s like you were reading “Sex at Dawn” by Christopher Ryan will you wrote this piece! I just finished it myself.
Upon consideration of all above points, I retract “evopsych” is here to stay. For me the question was always “how do we figure out why or how we think/react this or that way?”, but i suppose once/if neuroscience ever gets a comprehensive grip on what and how things happen up here in the brainpan, we’ll know those answers. And at that point we might be able to link the how’s to our past evolution and in that regard the broader idea behind evopsych gets a little nod, but i guess evopsych itself is never actually going to be able to prove anything due to the inherent guesswork required over such a huge field of variation in human existence.
Something LIKE ‘evo-psych’ may linger, or even turn into something closer to a science. At present though, phrenology or psychoanalysis are better comparisons than any science.
Paternity. I don’t have it at hand, but there is a Stephen Jay Gould essay (a 19th century anecdote about a horse was its lead) showing that, in Europe, well into the 19th century, the notion of SPECIFIC, individual paternity was not grasped. It was believed that a horse (or a woman) could bear offspring who were ‘related’ to a previous mate as much as the current one.
‘Sex at Dawn’ has its points. It certainly subjects several evo-psych clichés to critical examination. But the authors cannot stop themselves from committing identical fallacies promoting THEIR notion of ‘natural’ polyamory.’
Not just the persistent existence of gay people, but the vast amount of Important Sex that is NOT reproductive, even in monogamous couples, should put all these gene promoting theories back in the dustbin.
Mate selection should be the area where evo psych works if it works anywhere. And the key point is that to contribute anything it has to say more than we get from animal studies.
Given that we have evidence of human examples of pretty much every animal pattern (and vice versa) the obvious conclusion is that there are multiple ‘innate’ mechanisms and choice between them is affected by genetic and cultural factors.
The fact that cultural factors dominate will be obvious to anyone who has ever dated a born again Christian bought into the celibacy till marriage thing.
But that is not what I was originally thinking about which was climate change. Specifically can anyone point to a case where an academic field suddenly changed thinking and embraced a false new theory based on faked evidence (as the deniers claim).
The patterns that actually emerge are that a field goes from one false theory to another or a new branch is formed.
The thing that made me suspicious about the evo-psych folk in the first place was the constant demands from their supporters for folk criticizing to establish their ‘credentials’. When I turn up and give mine the people making the challenge accuse me of ‘waving them about’ forgetting that they were the ones who initially demanded credentials. Needless to say, they don’t have any credentials themselves.
OK so here is an alternative explanation that rests (almost) entirely on cultural factors that cannot possibly be evolved without invalidating the whole premise of evo-psych.
Observation A: Males like sex, it is their primary evolutionary function, thus engaging in sex will almost always be a desirable activity regardless of species.
Observation B: Females also like sex but there is a risk of pregnancy. Carrying a pregnancy to term is expensive so mate selection is important.
Note that even though these observations are at the core of evo-psych and basically unchallenged, they are in no way unique to humans or represent an evolved behavior of humans. They are thus axioms on which evo-psych attempts to build and therefore not discoveries of the evo-psych field.
Consequence C (from A, B): Men are more likely to be rejected by females than the reverse.
Observation D: Men like to feel important. Rejection makes them feel less important.
Observation E: Humans are adapted to logical thinking. In particular they have a demonstrated tendency to think up explanations that are complete bollox and act on them. So people end up on top of pyramids having their hearts hacked out to ensure the favor of the gods.
Consequence F (From D, E): One way to save the appearances of constant rejection by females is to establish a system of thinking (i.e. more bollox) that explains this rejection by sex being immoral, evil, etc. and promote celibacy as the ideal.
Consequence G (From E, A): When celibate males engage in sex they feel guilty about it and write more long screeds on the evils of sex as ‘penance’. thus every denunciation of sex should be considered evidence of actual or mental nookie. It is obvious what little Ricky Santorum feels the urge to do.
Observation H: in the West we live in a society whose morals strictures have been largely determined by a tradition of celibate priests (i.e. hypocritical lecherous losers) for over a millennia. Males and females are equally indoctrinated.
Prediction I (from H, A, B): Women will be more receptive to promoting the indoctrination than men because the doctrine being promoted is entirely antithetical to the self-interest of males since it reduces the chance of them getting a mate (or as many mates as they would like). For the female the indoctrination is not an obstacle to getting a mate when they choose because there is no shortage of males that reject the indoctrination. Indeed affirming their belief in the indoctrination makes them less available and thus a more attractive prize since men (or at least their thinking parts) prefer what they can’t get.
Note here that the entire argument saves the appearances without any recourse to Plioscene just-so stories. There is no need to theorize about any specifically human genetic adaptations, the effect is purely culturally driven by a bunch of clerical sad-sacks who are jizzed off from not getting any nookie. That does not make it true but it makes it a lot more plausible than the evo-psych nonsense.
Note also that it does not suggest either sex is more inclined to ‘immorality’ or hypocrisy. It is just that there are different interests involved. The real hypocrisy is in the received system of morality. There is a cost to rejecting that morality.
Further evidence that the effects are dominated by cultural values is given by the obvious fact that any survey taken 30, 60 or 100 years ago would have returned dramatically different results for both sexes. It is hardly surprising or even very interesting that one gender would be more likely to throw off the shackles of a bankrupt morality faster than the other, or at least claim to.
At the end of the day for those people who use the word ‘slut’ to refer to others, for women it will always mean another women who has had one more partner than them and for men will be any woman who refuses to sleep with them.
The “Beauty Myth” is No Myth – Emphasis on Male-Female Attractiveness in World Folktales, by Jonathan Gottschall et all. From the abstract: “Across culture areas information on physical attractiveness was much more likely to be conveyed for female characters. Together with other recent studies, these results suggest that the main elements of the beauty myth are not myths: there are large areas of overlap in the attractiveness judgments of diverse populations, and cross-cultural emphasis on physical attractiveness appears to fall principally upon women.”
JG concedes that “Apparently greater emphasis on female attractiveness has also excited sustained interest from evolutionists (for early thinking see Darwin 1871, especially chapters 16 and 20; Ellis 1927; Westermarck 1921). The phenomenon represents a challenging evolutionary puzzle because, in most species where there are differences, principal emphasis tends to be placed on male attractiveness.”
The title is a reference to Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, “How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women”. She argues that sexist men tend to find beautiful things that hinder women and keep women from challenging them. I don’t think that there is any necessary contradiction with JG’s thesis, and the two could be reconciled by supposing that sexist men turn women’s taste for self-beautification against them.
It’s certainly true that many men are concerned with their appearance; there is abundant cross-cultural evidence of male vanity. But many people of both sexes seem more concerned with women’s appearance than men’s.
Looking at the animal kingdom, in solitary species, females are usually larger than males, because they produce larger gametes. This makes female spiders and mantids dangerous to their mates, since they like to eat other arthropods, and male ones look too much like meals to them. In more social species, the lower-investment sex is competitive and the higher-investment sex is choosy. That’s usually male and female, though in some cases it’s reversed. In Australian bush crickets, female ones like to eat the male ones’ sperm capsules, and among phalarope birds, males sit on the eggs and females compete for them. A common sort of competition is being flashier looking, and among birds, it’s usually the male ones that are the flashier sex. Among phalaropes, it’s the female ones.
Looking at our species, several male features fit rather well with the usual social-animal pattern. Larger size, bigger chests, lower voices, facial hair, possibly also baldness. So greater interest in female appearance is an anomaly, and JG concedes that. So I think that it’s a good test of how rigorous evolutionary psychologists are. Do they recognize that this is an anomaly? Or do they invent some just so story and wave it away? Especially a just so story based on WEIRD research-university undergraduate behavior.