Amanda Marcotte’s Ugly PrejudicesPublished 25 October, 2011
Recently there has been some chatter on Facebook about a podcast by Amanda Marcotte on “The Story Collider” called “De-evolutionary psychology.”(Hat tips: several)
One question that came up in the Facebook discussion is whether it’s worth spending time addressing criticisms of the field as bad as Marcotte’s . It’s a good question, but what decided me in this case is that I really like Slate, and I find it annoying that writers at The XX Factor at Slate seem, generally, to dislike evolutionary psychology. Marcotte blogs for XX Factor (occasionally about EP) which makes me more inclined than I would otherwise be to address what she has to say. (People might recall Marcotte from the incident with the 2007 Edwards campaign.)
I’d like to divide Marcotte’s views into two categories. First is her view of evolutionary psychology as a scientific enterprise, and the second is her view of evolutionary psychology’s relationship with feminism.
Starting with the former, Marcotte either doesn’t understand the discipline even a little bit, or she simply chooses to misrepresent it, possibly in the service of her political agenda. Marcotte very clearly views evolutionary psychology as taking one side in the nature/nurture debate, making this explicit in her remarks in the podcast, referring to “the classic nature vs. nurture debate.” (Big hat tip: Amy Kurzban, for transcribing the podcast.) This error infects the way she interprets the primary literature. Referring to Buss’ (1989) 37 cultures paper, she says:
Buss interviewed women from 37 different cultures and found that in all 37 different cultures that women preferred to marry men with a lot of money. He felt that this was solid evidence for a gold-digging whore gene.
In those two sentences, she manages to make four errors. Buss, of course, didn’t interview women, but that’s a minor point, speaking more to her care about journalistic accuracy than anything substantive. The item she’s referring to was one in which subjects ranked the importance of various characteristics, in this case, “good financial prospect” for “someone you might marry.” In all but one of the 37 samples, there was a sex difference. (Spainwas the exception.) And, most emphatically, Buss made no claim at all – let alone a claim about “solid evidence for” – about a putative “gold-digging whore gene.” In the conclusion, Buss writes, “Each of the five evolution-based predictions received some empirical support from these data” (p. 12), a far distance from the conclusion Marcotte hangs on him.
The material in the podcast and some of her writing elsewhere make it clear that her impression of evolutionary psychology is that the enterprise consists of a set of claims about genetically determined behavior, which she sets in opposition to social learning. Here is a comment she made in a discussion about evolutionary psychology that I found as I was looking into her writings. This is Marcotte, quotted by a blogger, Ryan W.:
I read and research a lot of “evolutionary psychology”, and while they are very good at getting people to cop to anti-feminist opinions and sexist behaviors, I have not really seen many—any?—that prove their contention that these behaviors or opinions are encoded in the genes instead of learned from the environment. They simply note people are sexist and claim that it’s genetic. I sense an agenda there, because if you were putting science in front of an agenda, you would acknowledge the huge body of research supporting the idea that we learn our behaviors and beliefs from our environment.
But I’m happy to read studies that prove that sexism is genetic and unchangeable instead of socialized and changeable! I just haven’t seen it in all the years I’ve been writing about this.
She makes this sort of remark again in the podcast, saying, “they never really prove, like, the fundamental thing that they’re arguing. They can measure a behavior, but they can’t prove that it’s genetic and not socialized.” Note the setting of learned against genetic, completely and utterly missing the point that evolutionary psychologists have repeatedly made , as though the last 20 years of progress in development hadn’t occurred. Here is the way that Leda Cosmides and John Tooby put it in their online primer:
Evolutionary psychology is not just another swing of the nature/nurture pendulum. A defining characteristic of the field is the explicit rejection of the usual nature/nurture dichotomies — instinct vs. reasoning, innate vs. learned, biological vs. cultural….For an EP, the real scientific issues concern the design, nature, and number of these evolved mechanisms, not “biology versus culture” or other malformed oppositions.
By the way, it’s interesting what this critique would look like if she did actually understand the field.:
I’ve read in evolutionary psychology, and while they gather data just like other social scientists do, they insist that the mind is likely to consist of a larger number of more specialized computational devices as opposed to a smaller number of less specialized computational devices. How transparently sexist!
In short, Marcotte doesn’t understand the most basic assumptions that underlie the field, which have been made very explicit in many places. Instead, what’s happening here is that she’s relying on her intuitions about what a field called “evolutionary psychology” is trying to do, which is why she thinks it’s about showing that behavior is genetic as opposed to learned. As something of an aside, note that she thinks that psychologists “prove” things, an incorrect impression many of us are able to suppress in our first year undergraduate students in introductory psychology classes. There is a sense in which her ignorance of the way science works, generally, works against her narrower claims because of the credibility that it costs her.
Along those lines, one of the amusing ways she shows her ignorance in the podcast is her discussion of “study” that, she says, purported to show that “men have a genetic predisposition to love blondes. The theory was that women’s hair gets darker as they get older, so men go after blondes ‘cause they’re younger and more fertile.”
I’m pretty sure she’s referring to Ramachandran’s paper which was published in Medical Hypotheses. Not only is Ramachandran not an evolutionary psychologist, and not only was the paper not reporting a study, but the paper was intended as a “hoax.” (See Don Symons’ remarks about this.) She also discusses some work by a certain professor at Florida State, as though she’s attacking someone in evolutionary psychology, which I have discussed before, which again illustrates how little she understands the complexion of the discipline.
What’s galling is that although she clearly has no understanding, at all, about the constitution of the filed, she feels entitled to claim that its practitioners – “psychologists and linguists,” she puzzlingly and incorrectly believes – “don’t know anything about evolution and they don’t know anything about biology.” It’s striking that she feels so confident dismissing the field, and what knowledge is in the heads of the people who do it, while simultaneously illustrating her complete innocence of any knowledge about it.
This intersects with the second point, which is the political angle. After incorrectly characterizing the field, she asserts that evolutionary psychologists “really don’t like feminists.” Elsewhere, she has asserted that the practice of the field “tends to center around reinforcing retrograde gender roles.”
These accusations are, in my opinion, disgusting. Marcotte styles herself a feminist, and I take it that an important part of feminism is the idea that people – men and women – should be treated as individuals, not lumped together into a category and stigmatized on the basis of that categorization. This is precisely what she’s doing here to evolutionary psychologists, branding them all, as members of a category (that she little understands), people who don’t like feminists. I certainly have no such aversion, and indeed consider myself a feminist, though of course definitions vary about what that means. I, and no doubt most if not all evolutionary psychologists, I would guess, for instance, strongly support women’s equality and rights.
There should be no tension between feminism and evolutionary psychology, and what tension there is derives from erroneous views such as those of Marcotte. At its heart, evolutionary psychology uses ideas from biology and other disciplines in the service of trying to understand and explain human behavior. It is, of course, a positive enterprise, and the normative ghosts Marcotte sees are just that, ghosts.
The problem, I think, boils down to this. Evolutionary psychologists say “biology” but what Marcotte hears is “genetic determinism.” Because she is in favor of political change, and because she (incorrectly) understands evolutionary explanations to pull the other way – against change – this causes her to frame us as enemies.
We’re not. Yes, Robert Wright had a few less-than-favorable remarks to make about some branches of feminism, but hardly, as Marcotte says, did he spend half of The Moral Animal on the subject. He did write that “Feminists have written articles and books denouncing “biological determinism” without bothering to understand biology or determinism” (p. 137), but, in his defense, well, it was and, frustratingly, seems to continue to be, true.
But there is no reason, at all, that I can see that evolutionary psychology and feminism have to be enemies. Yes, if you attack the field with inaccuracies and errors, sure, we’ll defend ourselves. If you label us all anti-feminist and accuse us of unpleasant political views, yes, you’ll make some enemies.
A different idea would be to try to understand the work and the concepts that underlie it, and use those ideas to try to develop better models of human nature, which in turn might help you to effect the sorts of political changes you favor.
Added: Note that I made a couple copy edits to this post (see comments), and my attention was called to this paper (available from the Buss lab web page), which is of obvious relevance:
Buss, D.M. & Schmitt, D. P. (2011). Evolutionary Psychology and Feminism. Sex Roles, 64, 768-787.
Buss, D. M. (1989). Sex differences in human mate preferences: Evolutionary hypotheses tested in 37 cultures. Behavioral & Brain Sciences, 12, 1-49.