Robert Kurzban

The Evolutionary Psychology Blog

By Robert Kurzban

Robert Kurzban is an Associate Professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Why Everyone (Else) Is A Hypocrite. Follow him on Twitter: @rkurzban

Are Creationists More Receptive to Evolutionary Psychology?

Published 17 May, 2011

An interesting paper by three people at Swarthmore (including Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice) was just published in the Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, entitled, “Who Likes Evolution? Dissociation Of Human Evolution Versus Evolutionary Psychology.” Lead author Andrew Ward and collaborators were interested in the relationship between people’s support for evolutionary theory, in general, and the application of evolutionary ideas to people, in particular, human mating behavior.

Specifically, they were interested in the possibility that people who believe strongly in the theory of evolution by natural selection would be more strongly opposed to evolutionary explanations for human mating behaviors – especially sex differences in these behaviors – than people who were opposed to evolutionary theory. They don’t have a theoretical framework to explain why this might be the case but, if it’s true, this would, perhaps, begin to make sense of resistance from people who one might otherwise have expected to be persuaded by evolutionary explanations for human behavior, including some of our friends in evolutionary biology.

Now, one might wonder if the method they used really addresses the issue of how much one likes evolutionary psychology in general. Here’s what they did. First they administered a questionnaire assessing endorsement of evolutionary ideas (e.g., in Study 2, one item was “Humans are the product of evolution,” answered on a nine point scale of agreement/disagreement). They used responses on this questionnaire to identify strong supporters and strong opponents of evolutionary theory. Subsequently, they asked subjects to agree or disagree with items such as, “Men generally value physical attractiveness in a dating partner or mate more than women do,” which they gloss as “endorsement of principles consistent with evolutionary psychology,” but which to me look a bit more like empirical patterns than principles.

The question they posed is whether strong support or opposition according to the first questionnaire predicted the extent to which subjects said that the evolutionary psychology scale items – really, sex differences in mating – were “accurate.”

Looking only at one set of the data (for brevity), and summarizing, as the authors put it, “opponents of evolutionary theory reported significantly higher endorsement of the evolutionary psychology items (Mean composite score = 7.20, SD = 1.31) than did endorsers of evolutionary theory (Mean composite score = 5.30, SD = 1.51), F(1, 246) = 87.51, p < .001.” That is, people who think that humans were created rather than evolved more readily agreed to items such as the one above, that men value attractiveness more than women do in a dating partner.

The authors begin their Conclusion section this way:

A philosopher colleague is fond of quoting the familiar aphorism, “Never let the data get in the way of a good theory” (see also Lord, Ross, & Lepper, 1979). The evolution supporters in our study seemed to hold to this maxim, refusing to alter their relatively lukewarm endorsement of evolutionary psychology even in the face of information linking it to a biological theory they strongly endorsed.

Now, as I say, I think one can worry a lot about the method here. As I indicated above, the dependent measure is assessing agreement with a series of items about sex differences. It seems to me – and the authors seem aware of this – that endorsement of these items isn’t exactly the same as “liking” evolutionary psychology. One might say that believers in evolution are less likely to agree that there are sex differences in mating psychology; can one say a lot more than that?

Well, there does, at least, seem to be a real difference here. The authors allude to an interpretation of this difference in the context of third variables. Suppose that liberals are more likely to believe in evolution, generally (probable), but resist the idea that there are sex differences in mate preferences (plausible).

That could give rise to the pattern of data reported in this paper and could, I suppose, explain why some people who one might have thought would endorse the idea that human mind is the product of evolution by natural selection sometimes seem to be resistant to it…

  • L

    They don’t have a theoretical framework to explain why this might be the case but, if it’s true, this would, perhaps, begin to make sense of resistance from people who one might otherwise have expected to be persuaded by evolutionary explanations for human behavior, including some of our friends in evolutionary biology.

    My take? The main group that is resistant evopsych-type findings are the middle class and intelligentsia. The lower classes seem entirely willing to accept the findings of evopysch and adaptationist type findings in general. To take an example from my own life coming from a relatively rural setting. My sister has a child who likes to pose for the camera. She is the type of girl who likes taking photos of herself and the father of the child is the same way. My mother will, without a moment’s pause, explain the child’s behavior by saying that “[the child] got it from both sides” and this will elicit head-nods of agreement from the other family members. While my mother is of above average intelligence and a voracious reader (I am indebted to her for my high verbal scores on standardized tests), she did not achieve a high level of formal education education. This sort of explanation of behavior by an implicit reference to genetics would never be remotely acceptable at a dinner party in the college town where I live. They’d object that the child was socialized by the parents to display the behavior. Reference to genes would be laughed at. Whereas, it was common place for me to hear older folks explain a young person’s wild behavior by referencing how wild the father or mother was at a younger age. I’ve done some very unscientific convenience polling of the people I work with and their experience is similar.

    I have not had much personal exposure to how the elites think about behavior like I have with the lower middle to low classes that I grew up with, so someone with more experience would need to chime in for me to feel comfortable with making a claim about them. Reading about how the elites operated throughout history makes me somewhat comfortable in saying they tend to be more like the lower classes in their acceptance of adaptationist type findings, but not enough to make any firm claims.

    I also do not have enough understanding of how middle classes have thought about such things throughout history to tease out whether this phenomena is explained by some sort of common cognitive trait of those who are of the intellectual middle class or whether it’s due to the modern intellectual climate which focuses on socialization to the detriment of biological factors.

  • chris

    In America, many of those who accept evolution I believe are of a leftist political persuasion.

    In the past: The left accepted evolution because it undermined the foundational myths of Christianity (and hence the Christian moral system) and allowed them to justify their own moral system.

    In the present: The left rejects evolutionary psychology because it undermines some of their foundational myths (blank slate) and hence serves to undermine their moral system just as evolution did to Christianity.

    • http://tijmz.wordpress.com Tijms

      Another way of putting this is that evolutionary psychology tends to confirm (often deeply embedded) conservative beliefs.

      Maybe the beliefs are valid, or maybe the research program is biased. Sociobiology, that previous incarnation of evopsy, suffered from the exact same thing. While it is pretty common nowadays to state that the Left’s response to E.O. Wilson was disproportionate, I do think there’s something to the claim that biology is often used to render cultural constructs absolute, from Plato to Kropotkin to Dawkins.

  • chris

    I should probably qualify my first premise.

    “In America, many of those who accept evolution I believe are of a leftist political persuasion.”

    Instead:
    In America, of those amongst the left, a not insignificant percentage accepted evolution, not purely because of its scientific merits, but because it justified their already held belief system.

  • http://evolvify.com Andrew

    The hollow, but pithy, counter-argument that evolutionary psychology haters will inevitably proffer: this paper is just another demonstration of evolutionary psychology simply reinforcing the status quo of sexist, racist, fundamentalist monotheism.

    Oy vey. The enemy of your enemy is not always your friend.

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Copyright 2011 Robert Kurzban, all rights reserved.

Opinions expressed in this blog do not reflect the opinions of the editorial staff of the journal.

Evolutionary Psychology - An open access peer-reviewed journal - ISSN 1474-7049 © Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young; individual articles © the author(s)
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