Sunday, September 13, 2009

Evolutionary psychology: Getting it all wrong all the time

A friend wrote to ask me about "evolutionary" psychology claims that humans are promiscuous because of our evolutionary history with chimps and bonobos.

I replied:

Those people stoop to just about anything, don’t they?

As per your summary, “Evolutionary biologists consider that bonobos and chimps are the most closest species according to our evolutionary tree or bush, and since both species are very promiscuous, they infer that this behaviour was present in our common ancestor with them, and that promiscuous behaviour among modern humans is therefore an inevitable consequence of our evolutionary history. ”

Let’s picture ourselves in the Toronto Zoo’s primate sanctuary. It comes out that one enterprising bonobo male has impregnated all the females, willing or no. So? It’s inconvenient, because the zookeepers will need to find new homes for most of the expected offspring. If they think it’s a big enough problem, they can always put the females on the Pill hereafter, right? Or put him in a separate enclosure. Otherwise, as we say here, that’s just life wandering its way through time.

Okay, now let’s picture ourselves in a courtroom at the Old City Hall Courthouse. The judge is hearing oral arguments from the defense lawyer for a serial rapist. The defendant's lawyer says that due to the behaviour of chimpanzees and bonobos, “promiscuous behaviour among modern humans is therefore an inevitable consequence of our evolutionary history,” so we should go easy on his client.

I think the judge and the prosecution would be competing to interrupt at that point, and most local jurors and onlookers would be aghast.

What’s missing from the analysis is that lots of characteristics may be part of our evolutionary history, but humans uniquely possess the ability to select among characteristics which ones we think we should encourage.

A guy could be a serial rapist - or he could take a folk dancing class and meet a nice girl. The former choice will likely get him a set of leg irons at the Courthouse and the latter a rental tux and free carnation at the City Hall wedding chamber.

It is not an argument for any form of human behaviour whatever that it may have been in our evolutionary history, because all sorts of behaviour has been in our evolutionary history, including a great many behaviours never practiced by chimps or bonobos.