June 12, 2005

Sunday Story Time

How many people who complain about the Just So stories of evolutionary psychology actually go to the trouble of writing them? Thus Sharon Begley in the Wall Street Journal:

In the High and Far-Off Times, oh Best Beloved, the Man lived harmoniously with others. Although his heart ached when his Mate fell in love with another, and he raged and cursed love's cruelty, the thought of vengeance never crossed his mind. Seeing his Doormat tendencies, Women scorned his advances, and he never had children. His line ended, Best Beloved.
But the Man lived to see the birth of a New Man. When the New Man grew up and his Mate was unfaithful, he killed her. When his next Mate merely glanced at another Man, he killed her, too. His third Mate, he beat up to keep her too submissive to even dream of looking at another. Women became smitten with his power and status, and his line grew plenteous. His sons inherited his mate-killing instincts, and soon only they — not the Doormats — mated and begot children. And ever since then, oh Best Beloved, all Men have a mind designed to kill unfaithful Wives.
Kipling never got around to explaining how men's minds got wired for uxoricide, but fear not: David Buss, professor of psychology at the University of Texas, Austin, has. In "The Murderer Next Door: Why the Mind Is Designed to Kill," he explains that the male mind "has developed adaptations for killing." (An "adaptation" is a trait that conferred an evolutionary edge; those with it left more descendants than those without it.)

(If you think that's not really suitable for telling your Best Beloved, you should check out what some of the Grimms' fairy tales were like, before they edited out the bits that shocked their sensibilities.) Begley then goes on to give Buss's theory the serious consideration it deserves. (A hint as to her conclusion is contained in her story's headline: "Theory Men Are Wired To Kill Straying Mates Is Offensive and Wrong".)

Of course, the shoddiness of (much of) the sex-and-violence part of evolutionary psychology is quite compatible with (many of) the criticisms of the field as a whole being themselves shoddy as well. Chris at Mixing Memory ("The Best Blog in the World That Is Written By Me"), himself no friend of evolutionary psychology, here neatly vivisects one recent attempt at critique (which was hailed by Brian Leiter as definitive).

(Begley's piece via Darrel Plant, via The Tenth Skeptics' Circle, via Deltoid. Aside: The Murderer Next Door is also the title of a out-of-print mystery novel by Rafael "Abu Matthew" Yglesias, which is a much better book than Buss's sounds like; admittedly I say this without having read the latter.)

The Natural Science of the Human Species

Posted at June 12, 2005 10:39 | permanent link

Three-Toed Sloth