It's amazing how divided opinions are about evolutionary psychology. Some very fine philosophers and cognitive scientists are really big fans of the genre. Other equally fine philosophers and cognitive scientists appear to see little of merit in it. The philosopher of biology John Dupre, who was a guest on our show a few weeks back talking about genetic determinism, says the following about the evolutionary psychology of sex and gender:
... [it] offers us mainly simplifications and banalities about human behavior with little convincing illumination of how they came to be banal. It offers no account of the great differences in behavior across cultures, which is exactly what we want to know if we were interested in exercising any measure of of control over changes in these phenomena. It offers no account of why different people develop such diverse sexual proclivities (notoriously, it has nothing to but the most absurd evolutionary fantasies to offer in explanation of homosexuality). And it offers no account of how complex motivations underlying sexual behavior interact with the pursuit of many other goals that inform the lives of most humans. In fact it offers us nothing, unless perhaps a spurious sense of the immutability of the behaviours that happen to characterize our own contemporary societies. This is scarcely the revolution in our undertanding of human behaviorus so enthusiastically advertized by the exponents and camp-followers of evolutionary psychology.
Though Dupre is perhaps more extreme than many others, he certainly isn't alone in heaping at least some degree of scorn on evolutionary psychology. But I don't think evolutionary psychology is nearly as bad off as its worst critics think.
Some criticisms of evolutionary psychology aren't really criticisms of the research program itself, but are really criticisms of the misappropriation of the results of evolutionary psychology. For example, some people, especially on the political right, think that biology determines appropriate gender roles in some direct and inflexible way. They probably don't think this directly because of evolutionary psychology, but someone with a merely passing acquaintance with the results of evolutionary psychology might think that those results somehow justify such a view. But nothing in evolutionary psychology suggest that biology directly and inflexibly determines gender roles. Certainly nothing in evolutionary psychology suggests anything about what the distribution of gender roles ought to be in twenty-first century cultures.
Some people of a leftist bent tend to think, on the other hand, that gender is socially constructed "all the way down.'" Sometimes such people seem to think that culture floats free of biology. Evolutionary psychology does suggest that this view of biology and culture as really two distinct things, related in only minimally constraining ways, can't be sustained. And here I think the evolutionary psychologists actually get much the better of the argument than their critics do.See also: