Magical Scientific Thinking, Cont.


Anthony Gottlieb goes in on evolutionary psychology (specifically around gender), and then extends his critique to its methodology:

...[W]ith one large exception, evolutionary psychology has little to say about the differences among people; it's concerned mainly with human universals, not human variations. Perhaps this is why most psychologists, who tend to relish unusual cases, aren't yet rushing to have their specialties "integrated" by an evolutionary approach. The exception is the differences between men and women: evolutionary psychologists are greatly concerned with sex, and with women's bodies...

A study of attitudes toward casual sex, based on surveys in forty-eight countries, by David Schmitt, a psychologist at Bradley University, in Peoria, Illinois, found that the differences between the sexes varied widely, and shrank in places where women had more freedom. The sexes never quite converged, though: Schmitt found persistent differences, and thinks those are best explained as evolutionary adaptations. But he admits that his findings have limited value, because they rely entirely on self-reports, which are notoriously unreliable about sex, and did not examine a true cross-section of humanity. All of his respondents were from modern nation-states -- there were no hunter-gatherers, or people from other small-scale societies -- and most were college students. 

Indeed, the guilty secret of psychology and of behavioral economics is that their experiments and surveys are conducted almost entirely with people from Western, industrialized countries, mostly of college age, and very often students of psychology at colleges in the United States. This is particularly unfortunate for evolutionary psychologists, who are trying to find universal features of our species. American college kids, whatever their charms, are a laughable proxy for Homo sapiens. The relatively few experiments conducted in non-Western cultures suggest that the minds of American students are highly unusual in many respects, including their spatial cognition, responses to optical illusions, styles of reasoning, coöperative behavior, ideas of fairness, and risk-taking strategies. 

Joseph Henrich and his colleagues at the University of British Columbia concluded recently that U.S. college kids are "one of the worst subpopulations one could study" when it comes to generalizing about human psychology. Their main appeal to evolutionary psychologists is that they're readily available. Man's closest relatives are all long extinct; breeding experiments on humans aren't allowed (they would take far too long, anyway); and the mental life of our ancestors left few fossils.

Gottlieb is reviewing Homo Mysterious: Evolutionary Puzzles of Human Nature by David Barash. Linked above, for only tangential reasons, is an awesome episode of Seinfeld.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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