Like many edited books, the contributors' approaches to the subject matter differ so as to make it difficult to provide an overall review. The editors admit as much, observing that the contributors "do not speak with a single voice" (p9), which seems to a coded admission that they frequently contradict one another. For example, Fausto-Sterling chides evolutionary psychologists for sexism in viewing the female orgasm as a mere by-product (women "did not even evolve their own orgasms" (p176) she complains) while Gould (p103-4) chides them for purportedly viewing every trait as an adaptation and ignoring the possibility of by-products.
Some chapters are essentially irrelevant to the project of evolutionary psychology. One, that of Dawkins-stalker (and part-time philosopher) Mary Midgley, critiques the separate field of memetics.
A singularly uninsightful chapter by 'disability activist' Tom Shakespeare and a colleague seems to say nothing with which an evolutionary psychologist would disagree. Only at the end of their chapter do they make the obligatory reference to 'just-so stories', and, more bizarrely, to the "single-gene determinism of the biological reductionists" (p203). Yet, evolutionary psychologists emphasise to the point of repetitiveness that, while they may talk of 'genes for' certain characteristics as a form of shorthand, nothing in their theories implies a one-to-one concordance between single genes and behaviours. Indeed, the irrelevance of some chapters to their supposed subject-matter makes one wonder whether some contributors have ever actually read any of the primary literature in the field - or whether their entire knowledge (or lack thereof) of evolutionary psychology is filtered through to them via the critiques of their fellow contributors.
Annette Karmiloff-Smith's chapter is a critique of what she refers to as nativism, namely the belief that certain brain structures (or modules) are innately hardwired into the brain at birth. This chapter, perhaps alone, may have value as a critique of some strands of EP. However, the nativist thesis she associates with evolutionary psychology is rejected by many evolutionary psychologists (e.g. Human Evolutionary Psychology
) and not integral to evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychology posits that behaviour have been shaped by natural selection to maximise the reproductive success of organisms in ancestral environments. It therefore allows us to bypass the proximate level of causation by saying that, how ever the brain is structured and develops in interaction with its environment, given that this brain evolved by a process of natural selection, it must be such as to produce behaviour which maximises the reproductive success of its bearer under ancestral conditions. (This is sometimes referred to as the 'phenotypic gambit'). The issue of nativism is therefore bypassed.
Stephen Jay Gould's Deathbed Conversion to Evolutionary Psychology
Undoubtedly the best known contributor is the late Stephen J Gould. Such is his renown that he evidently did not feel the need to actually contribute an original chapter to the volume, but rather felt it sufficient to recycle a NYT book-review. It is a critical review of a book (Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (Penguin Science)
), itself critical of Gould, a form of academic self-defence. Neither the book nor the review by Gould deal primarily with the field of evolutionary psychology, but rather address more general issues within evolutionary biology.
Yet the most remarkable revelation of Gould's chapter - especially given that it appears in a book ostensibly critiquing evolutionary psychology - is that the best-known and most widely-cited erstwhile opponent of evolutionary psychology is apparently no longer any such thing. On the contrary, he now views evolutionary psychology as potentially "quite useful" (p102).
Most strikingly, he acknowledges that "the most promising theory of evolutionary psychology [is] the recognition that differing Darwinian requirements for males and females imply distinct adaptive behaviours centred on male advantage in spreading sperm as widely as possible... and female strategy for extracting time and attention from males" (Ibid.). In other words, he accepts the position of evolutionary psychologists in that most controversial of areas - innate sex differences!
Notwithstanding Gould's arrogant tone (rather than admit he was wrong he instead implies he had maintained this stance all along and even that it was his constructive criticism which led to advances in the field and the development of evolutionary psychology from sociobiology), his backtracking is a welcome development. Given that he passed away only a couple of years after the current volume was published, one can almost characterise his backtracking as a deathbed conversion.
On the other hand, his criticisms of evolutionary psychology have not evolved at all but merely retread familiar gripes with which evolutionary psychologists dealt long ago. For example, he repeats the tired charge of 'ultra-Darwinism', whereby evolutionary psychologists purportedly view every trait as an adaptation (p103-4). This claim is easily rebutted by simply reading the primary literature. For example, Daly and Wilson see the high rate of homicide of stepchildren, not as adaptive, but as a by-product of discriminative parental solicitude, whereby parents care less for such children (The Truth about Cinderella: A Darwinian View of Parental Love (Darwinism Today)
). Donald Symons argues that the female orgasm is merely a by-product of the male orgasm (The Evolution of Human Sexuality
). Similarly, the authors of A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion (Bradford Books)
, are divided as to whether rape is an adaptation or a by-product of men's greater desire for commitment-free sex.
[Evolutionary psychologists generally prefer the term by-product to Gould's coinage 'spandrel'. The invention of jargon to baffle non-specialists (e.g. referring to animal rape as "forced copulation" as the Roses advocate: p2) is the preserve of subjects suffering from 'physics-envy', according to 'Dawkins' First Law of the Conservation of Difficulty'.]
Gould then claims sociobiological theories are inherently untestable. Yet one only has to flick through copies of journals like Evolution and Human Behaviour, Human Nature or Evolutionary Psychology to see evolutionary hypotheses being tested every month. As evidence, rather than citing the academic literature, he cites Robert Wright's claim in a work of popular science, (The Moral Animal
), that our sweet tooth evolved "in an environment in which fruit existed but candy didn't". Bizarrely he chides Wright for citing "no paleontological data about ancestral feeding" (p100), ignoring the fact that Wright is a populariser not an academic. (Gould evidently believes we need "paleontological data" to demonstrate that fruit is not a recent invention and that chocolate bars are.)
Straw Men and Fabricated Quotations
Rather than countering the claims of actual evolutionary psychologists, contributors resort to misrepresenting and caricaturing evolutionary psychology. In the case of co-editor, Hillary Rose, this crosses the line from rhetorical deceit to outright defamation of character when, on p116, she attributes to David Barash an offensive quotation violating the naturalistic fallacy by purporting to justify rape by reference to its biological function.
However, Barash simply does not say the words she attributes to him on the page she cites or any other page in The Whisperings Within
. (I know. I own a copy of the book.) On the contrary, after a discussion of the adaptive function of rape among mallards, he merely ventures tentatively that, although vastly more complex, human rape may be analogous.
This completely fabricated quotation is merely the most egregious example in the volume of the rhetorical tactic of constructing of 'straw man', or attributing to evolutionary psychologists views which they never in fact asserted so as to render the task of attacking evolutionary psychology less arduous.
Is Steven Rose a Scientific Racist?
Finally, I will deal with the curious case of Steven Rose, the book's other editor. Unlike Stephen J Gould, he does not repent his sins and embrace evolutionary psychology. However, in maintaining his crusade against evolutionary psychology and sociobiology and all related heresies, he apparently inadvertently performs a transformation in many ways even more dramatic, and more far-reaching in its consequences, than that of Gould. To understand why, we must examine Rose's position in more depth.
Steven Rose is not a creationist. He is therefore obliged to reconcile his opposition to evolutionary psychology with recognition that the brain is a product of evolution. Ironically, this leads him to employ evolutionary arguments against evolutionary psychology. For example, Rose defends group-selectionism (p257-9). Similarly, he argues that sufficient time has elapsed since the Pleistocene for complex adaptations to have evolved (p1-2). Read more ›