Evolutionary psychology and the left


Jason Collins


May 19, 2011

Belief in evolution is often considered the domain of “the left”. Apart from being true, evolutionary theory provides a ground for opposition to creationists. It is often used to argue that competition can be wasteful and that self-organising systems (such as the economy) do not always operate for the good of society. However, evolutionary psychology has not been embraced to the same extent. Ever since Gould and Lewontin led the sociobiology wars against E O Wilson and others, the concept that evolution shaped human minds has faced much opposition, even among those who otherwise accept that evolution is true.

In support of my sweeping statements, in an article published this month in the Journal of Social, Evolutionary and Cultural Psychology, Andrew Ward and his colleagues report on a study of attitudes to evolution and what the authors describe as some key tenets of evolutionary psychology (also blogged on by Robert Kurzban). Those tenets included that men are more interested than women in one night stands, men are more interested in attractiveness, and women value good financial prospects in a mate more than men do.

I feel that Ward and colleagues chose the topic of human mating specifically to get the paradoxical result. As the authors note, there would be value in also testing attitudes to evolutionary explanations for cognition, perception, or language, which I would expect would have a higher level of acceptance for many people.

Ward and colleagues tested 99 participants at a train station for their attitudes to evolution and the implications of applying evolutionary concepts to human mating. They then tested a similar set of questions (with a more generic definition of evolution) on 452 participants from a train station, a college and two churches.

In both studies, the opponents of evolution, who were generally older and more conservative, were more likely to endorse the evolutionary implications on human mating systems. Interestingly, when half of the survey respondents in the second survey were explicitly told that the evolutionary psychology questions were “based on the THEORY OF EVOLUTION, as applied to the fields of psychology and biology” (actual text from survey), it reduced the level of support from evolution opponents but made no difference to the response of evolution supporters.

The most obvious explanation for this is that the evolution supporters simply disagree that the mating differences are a consequence of evolutionary psychology and they have rationalised a reason for this. However, this only raises a follow-up question about why they would consistently create this reason, while the creationists remained happy to support the statements (although to a lesser extent), even when told that the statements were based on the theory of evolution. Further, as noted by Ward and his colleagues, it is unlikely that many of the evolution supporters that were surveyed would have actually thought about and rationalised through this process.

The slightly dissatisfying thing about this study is that, while showing an interesting paradox, it does little to explore the foundation for the paradox or whether there are any conflating factors such as education. That will be left for future studies. For now, the authors leave us holding the aphorism: “Never let the data get in the way of a good theory”.