Sign In

Remember Me

“Darwinian Psychologist” Straw Man’s Ass Kicked

Mini-Me would sooner kick Mike Tyson in the shin than I would challenge Cory Doctorow to an intellectual bitchslapfest. But all my fellow fans of evolutionary psychology are emailing me saying, "Well, jokey boy? You gonna take that lying down? Where’s yer yuks now?"

Cory bestowed the Boingboing bump (see Resources) unto Anne Innis Dagg’s book: ‘Love of Shopping’ Is Not A Gene: Problems with Darwinian Psychology, because she attacked what Cory calls "the cherished shibboleths of Darwinian Psychology." What are these? "Rape is genetic" and "Black people are genetically destined to have lower IQ scores than white people." Scientists who say our shared human nature is subject to evolution also countenance "the inevitability of war, the natural subservience of women" and the "ethical absolution for greed and violence."

"Love of Shopping" is Not a Gene by Anne Innis Dagg. Photo: amazon.comGood heavens. I’ve been a full-time student of evolutionary psychology for a decade, and I have yet to stumble upon these shibboleths. Unfortunately, Doctorow and Dagg don’t cite the leading "Darwinian psychologists" who hold these views. In fact, Dagg doesn’t cite very many in her book at all. Check out the "list of evolutionary psychologists" on Wikipedia. Which are the ones with the shibboleths?

Are you back from looking up the definition of shibboleth? Me, too. I didn’t know what it meant, but I knew it couldn’t be good, so I defended against it. Challenging a concept without knowing what it means was my way of seeing if I could fly this article using Dagg’s level of intellectual responsibility. I think I faked it pretty well until this point. Dagg tries to pull it off for a whole book.

But at least I can keep it up for a page. Dagg can’t even manage that. Dagg opens her book quoting pop journalists who make a go at gene-speak. I LOLed at the “coaching gene” and the “non-visiting gene.” Just when I think Dagg is going to be an ally in disciplining these silly people, I read paragraph three where Dagg conflates these unnamed columnists with the entire fields of "Darwinian psychology, evolutionary psychology, and sociobiology."

That was the first of many double-takes that would give me whiplash by page fifty.

At the bottom of the first page, Dagg makes herself clear: "Animals" and "human beings" are two different categories. Oh dear. Should evolutionary psychologists be obliged to explain away the fallacy of this archaic dichotomy… again?

By the time I turn to page two, I’m breathless at her brazenness. Dagg charges into her fray kicking some serious straw man ass with such ninja virulence I’m glad no actual evolutionary psychologist got hurt. Straw flew as she forged onward, bold inaccuracies blazing:

"The view that human social behaviors are correlated with our human genes is largely held by people who are right wing politically."

Make a list of the most prominent evolutionary psychologists and their famous supporters: Steve Pinker, E.O. Wilson, Robert Trivers, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett. Liberals all, some of them flaming. Trivers hung out with former Black Panther Party Chairman Huey Newton.

No reputable evolutionary psychologists have ever taken a position that rape is good, ruthless competition is morally justifiable, women are inferior, whites should rule over people with more melanin. Nor, for that matter, is anyone saying that what is natural is good.

Luckily, the “Darwinian psychologists” are safe from these attacks, because they don’t exist. Left wing cultural relativists made this title up. Steve Pinker and his colleagues call themselves evolutionary psychologists. But you can bet the first scientist who puts “Darwinian psychologist” on his business card will have Dagg to answer to, because she already knows what their Nazi positions will be. Whenever you see the term "Darwinian psychologist," you can bet you’re reading a scholar who’s read the critiques, not the critiqued.

Moral Animal by Robert Wright. Photo: wikipedia.orgDo the critiqued even matter to Dagg? Robert Wright, author of the The Moral Animal: Evolutionary Psychology and Everyday Life, gets no mention in her book. The twin founders of Evolutionary Psychology, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, are ignored. Susan Blackmore? Melvin Konner? Deborah Blum? Pascal Boyer? David Geary? Judith Rich Harris? Howard Bloom? Simon Baron-Cohen? (Yes, Sacha is his cousin) None get a mention.

How about the Big Three researchers who wrote academic books about biological sex differences in cognition? That’s a controversial topic with scads of research Dagg might be inclined to challenge. But Doreen Kimura, Diane Halpern, and Linda Mealy aren’t mentioned. Judith Hall spent decades establishing cross-cultural differences in boys’ and girls’ ability to grok non-verbal cues. Her work is not addressed. Nor do the leading lights William C. Hamilton, Donald Symons, Robert Trivers, Paul Ekman or John Maynard Smith earn a mention in Dagg’s critique.

This is an attack on evolutionary psychology that ignores its luminaries, yet features confused newspaper columnists, even in the book’s title. I can’t find "the coaching gene" or "the non-visiting gene" on Google, so I’ll venture these notions don’t have much effect on public discourse. Dagg says the source of her book title is a Christmas Eve column about shopping in the Toronto Globe and Mail. I can’t find that on Google either.

David Buss, author or co-author of 13 books and about 200 academic papers, is dispatched by Dagg in two paragraphs, where she explains away his evidence that sexual jealousy is an instinct. Dagg manages to cram three misunderstandings into these two paragraphs, one confused conflation, and three wacky leaps of logic. It’s so masterful in its concision, I have the urge to hit my game show wrong-answer! buzzer twice per declarative sentence.

"Our ape-like ancestors probably weren’t much into jealousy," (Ernt!) "since they were polygamous" (Ernt!) "so a gene or genes for this behavior must have mutated during more recent human evolution …" (Ernt!) "… Besides, Darwinian theory pushes the concept of men bedding as many women as possible" (Ernt!) "in the subconscious hope" (Ernt!) "that some of these affairs will lead to children to carry on their genetic inheritance. This theory is the exact opposite of a man being jealous of and obsessed with an individual woman at the exclusion of others." (Ernt!) "Both theories can’t be right."

Ernt, ernt, and ernt! My buzzer finger is getting sore. Chimps are promiscuous and jealous. Long-term pair-bonds occurred among Homo Erectus. Lots of primates are sexually jealous, so your basic jealousy genes probably predate humans. And how is an instinct for male sexual jealousy and an instinct for male promiscuity "exact opposite[s]"? Has Dagg never come in contact with the male double standard? Boinking lots of girlfriends while aggressively stopping other males from boinking his girlfriends is a workable gene-copying strategy for the male gorilla, thank you very much. Instincts for jealousy and promiscuity exist in the same brain all the time. Heck, they exist in mine. Dagg even confuses biological instincts with "subconscious hopes," as if the instinct to boff comes along with some Freudian wish to have more babies. My dog fornicates just fine without the slightest clue as to how puppies are made.

"Love of Shopping" Is Not a Gene…. Hatred of tailgating is not a giraffe.

I just walked you through the first half of page seventy, which I chose more or less at random because it’s where she mentions David Buss. But that’s not even the daffiest half of that page. The rest of page seventy cites evidence that chimps pass on culture, as if establishing that cultural transmission exists proves genetic transmission does not. I’m embarrassed to report this is a common tactic among blank-slaters — pretending some unnamed sociobiologist claims that environment has no effect on animals, and then arguing that it actually does.

Dagg challenges Donald Brown’s List of Human Universals, and picks out the universality of hand gestures used for communication as an easy one to mock. She dismantles this claim by describing the many ways in which the exact same hand gesture can be used in different cultures to evoke different meanings. What you "Darwinian psychologists" think of as the OK sign means six different things! But nobody claims that the middle finger means "stay out of my lane" in every culture. What’s universal is that all known cultures use hand gestures to communicate. Dagg’s objection is equivalent to saying language should not be on Brown’s List of Human Universals because some people speak Sanskrit and others Pig Latin. Just when I come to the end of the paragraph and think she can’t really mean what she seems to be saying, she defines "xenophobia" as "the opposite of ethnocentrism."

Fearing foreigners is not the opposite of believing in the superiority of your own ethnicity. I can sort of see how she can flip the meanings of each prefix and suffix to construct that conclusion, but this weird little semantic cartwheel is a concise example of the dichotomous way Dagg’s thinking works. Her habit of defining orthogonal ideas as opposites runs rampant through her blitzkrieg.

Pair-bonding female birds are coy and choosy. Female birds also sneak behind a bush for an adulterous dalliance. (Actually, most birds of prey really are monogamous, but leave that aside.) Dagg claims you can’t have genetic explanations for bonding and cheating in the same bird, because the explanations contradict each other. But there is a rich body of research showing that who females pair-bond with and who they acquire genes from are separable strategies, and that’s why female birds sneak secret boinks with big-tailed males when they’ve already landed a good provider. The best nest and the best genes don’t always come in the same male. Thus secret boinkage.

The Blank State by Steven Pinker. Photo: mentions in a footnote that she found a partial list of Donald Brown’s Human Universals in the appendix of Steve Pinker’s book, but apparently the book’s title, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, did not attract Dagg to respond to the 434 pages Pinker devotes to demolishing specious attacks like hers.

Richard Dawkins likes to say he answers many accusations against his book by quoting from the book. He also says he wishes he had never called his most famous book The Selfish Gene, having never predicted that the useful metaphor of genes having wills which are selfish would be so widely mistaken to mean that all animals are secretly selfish and that selfishness among humans is good.

How do these scarecrows persist in the corn fields of confusion, such that even a sharp observer like Cory Doctorow will applaud an academic who attacked them in an obscure book five years ago? What we’re seeing here are the crumbled ruins of a tremendous ideological bulwark that was set against biological explications for human behavior way back in seventies. This effort reached its nadir when, during a 1978 symposium of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a member of the International Committee Against Racism poured a pitcher of ice water over the head of genteel E.O. Wilson while the Committee chanted, "Racist Wilson you can’t hide! We charge you with genocide!” I was present when Democrat Wilson, after twenty-plus years of being cautioned not to set foot in Berkeley, approached the lectern at Cody’s Books and said, “It’s good to be home.” Three decades of data accumulation has exonerated Wilson and the field he christened, so why do the misunderstandings persist?


An example: The nature/nurture debate. Have you heard of it? There is no such thing as a nature/nurture debate. It’s something that caught on in the media because it rhymes. You can’t have one without the other. A gene can only work in an environment that triggers it to turn on. An environment can only express its influence through an animal by turning genes on and off.

You can’t impose culture on a rock. You can only impose culture on an animal designed by genes to learn from culture.

Nature via Nurture by Matt Ridley. Photo: firmly in the popular discussion about human nature is a stubborn misunderstanding that "nature" and "nurture" are at odds, when in fact they require each other. Matt Ridley devoted his precious explanatory skills to showing what a paltry dichotomy this is in his book Nature Via Nuture. No blank slate enthusiast who attacks the non-existent position that "It’s all in the genes" seems aware of this international phenomenon which won the 2004 National Academies Book Award from the US National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. Ridley’s four books about evolutionary psychology have been translated into 25 languages and sold half a million copies, and Dagg only mentions one, in the bibliography.

Even the title of her book is baffling: "Love of Shopping" Is Not a Gene. What does it mean to assert that a meaningless statement is not true? Hatred of tailgating is not a giraffe, either. However, could you have shopping without genes?

Genetic algorithms influence how we notice some shapes and not others; how we are attracted to some textures and colors in specific combinations and not others; and smart advertisers play to these preferences. To say Love of shopping is not a gene is an inelegant way to assert: Biological analyses cannot inform human nature, because they might lead to beliefs that are morally wrong —for instance, that bad behavior is "genetically determined." As Dagg challenges on the back of her book: "If crime is genetically determined, did all Nazi Germans have criminal genes?"

I defy any reader to find a reputable scientist who holds the view that any human behavior is "genetically determined." However, some reputable social science academics really do hold the equally absurd view that all human behavior is "culturally constructed." The first position doesn’t exist. It was made up by people who hold the second.

No scientist thinks Michelangelo paints like a mosquito mates, but some scholars really do think human natures are shaped like Michelangelo sculpted. The reason the statue of David doesn’t blush when you giggle at his donger is not because Dave doesn’t have jeans, but because Dave doesn’t have genes.

Smack a stranger on the bus in the back of the head and you can predict a reaction somewhere in the realm of irritation and somewhere not in the realm of dancing the tango.Smack the seat cushion, you can predict no reaction. The difference? One was programmed by genes to react to the environment, the other was not. Genes do this because certain reactions passed on more genes than other reactions. Anger when you got smacked in the head survived better than dancing the tango when you got smacked in the head.

There are biological reasons why a dog finds a squirrel irresistible, and a squirrel does not find a dog irresistible. There are biological reasons why most three-year-old girls can’t resist stuffed bunnies, and most three-year-old boys have conniption fits of joy when the recycling truck arrives every Monday.

Combative Dagg repeatedly tries to show that ideas contradict each other when actually they require each other. The same ape can be both promiscuous and jealous. The same bird can both pair-bond and cheat. Hand gestures can be universal among human cultures while the meanings of particular hand gestures differ. The same animal be can influenced by genes and environment.

However, you can’t contradict an assertion if you don’t understand it. The back cover of Dagg’s book fires off a list of questions meant to be withering challenges to "Darwinian psychology (alias evolutionary psychology, alias sociobiology.)" Each is a doozy. For example:

"Since homosexual behavior is common in hundreds of animal species, why do some assert that it is "unnatural" in people?"

Biological Exuberance by Bruce Bagemihl. Photo: macmillan.comWho is "some"? Certainly not the evolutionary psychologists with all those cryptic aliases. Biologist Bruce Bagemihl exhaustively categorized the creative contortions of the extremely wild kingdom in his book, Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity, which was cited in the U.S. Supreme Court as evidence that homosexual behavior is "natural." This stuff is so mainstream, I published a piece about the biology of transsexuality on SFGate last month, and I’m saddened to report no social conservatives of note yelled at me.

Those of us trying to share our awe for this sublime illumination of human behavior are intimidated and embarrassed by these wacky attacks, which make it almost impossible to eradicate a perceived patronizing tone from a patient explaining that, actually, humans are animals; you can’t have nurture without nature; evolutionary biology demonstrates that racism is not justified; girls and boys really do come into the world with overlapping but distinguishable interests and cognitive tradeoffs which have been traced to sex hormones in the womb and not to the blue or pink towel.

Hop on and watch the kindly old environmentalist E.O. Wilson discuss his Pulitzer Prize-winning book On Human Nature Does he seem like a guy with a secret agenda to justify rape? Are Wilson, Pinker, Dawkins, Wright et al. funded by a secret cabal of right wing conspirators? Or is it the other way around? Maybe it’s not evolutionary psychology, but its critique, that is driven by ideology.

Dagg’s book is published by Black Rose Books, whose stated intent is: "Black Rose Books publishes books that deal with important concerns such as gender equality, ecology, cities and neighbourhoods, and questions of peace, freedom and social justice."

I keep a favorite cartoon on my Powerpoint presentation about evolutionary psychology that I give to college students. It has two panels. In panel one, a scientist is standing over a microscope and saying to his student, "Here are the facts. What conclusions can we draw from them?" In the second panel, a Creationist minister is holding the bible and saying to his student, "Here is the conclusion. What facts can we find to support it?"

Joe Quirk. Photo: joequirk.comWhen you lead with your ideals, sound conclusions will not result. They never do, simply because you decide a position is wrong or right before you learn what it says, and why it says it. When cultural constructivists accuse evolutionary psychologists of secret political objectives, they’re experiencing narcissism. What drives E.O. Wilson to write is not what drives Anne Innis Dagg to write.

Reality doesn’t care about our ideals. We should figure out what the evidence tells us first, then decide how to implement our politics.

Human culture must be built on human nature.

That should be our shibboleth.

Joe Quirk is the author of It’s Not You, It’s Biology: The Science of Love, Sex & Relationships and the philosophical action novel, Exult.