Some scientists criticize the field of evolutionary psychology.

In The evolution of rape?, PZ Myers writes:

There are days when I simply cannot bear the entire field of evolutionary psychology: it’s so deeply tainted with bad research and a lack of rigor. And that makes me uncomfortable, because the fundamental premise, that our behaviors are a product of our history, is self-evidently true. It’s just that researchers in this field couple an acceptance of that premise to a deep assumption of adaptive teleology, the very thing that they should be evaluating, and produce some of the most awesomely trivial drivel.

I’ve just finished reading an article titled “Darwin’s Rape Whistle: Have women evolved to protect themselves from sexual assault?“, and it’s everything I despise about evolutionary psychology. It’s nothing but sloppy thinking and poor science propped up by a conviction that plausibility is sufficient support for certainty.


Another way to look at it is that they are hypothesizing that women are more likely to behave in ways that invite physical attack and brutal abuse when they aren’t ovulating. That is a remarkable assertion. It also carries the strange implication that the consequences of rape can be measured by the likelihood of immediate fertilization, rather than by the toll of physical injury and emotional trauma, a peculiar thing for psychologists to neglect. Wouldn’t it make more sense to have a general hypothesis that people, men and women, who can avoid violence at any time in their life, are more likely to be reproductively successful and thereby pass on their genes to subsequent generations? That’s all they’re saying, essentially, and the straining to sex it up by tying globally useful behaviors to reproductive cycles is unconvincing.

In Evolutionary psychology for the masses, Jerry Coyne writes:

Now I don’t oppose evolutionary psychology on principle. The evolutionary source of our behavior is a fascinating topic, and I’m convinced that the genetic influences are far stronger than, say, posited by anti-determinists like Dick Lewontin, Steve Rose, and Steve Gould.  Evolved adaptations are particularly likely to be found in sexual behavior, which is intimately connected with the real object of selection: the currency of reproduction.  I’m far closer in my views on this topic to Steve Pinker than to Steve Gould.  And there are many good studies in the field, so I don’t mean to tar the whole endeavor.

But, for crying out loud, let’s have the journalists and scientists show a little more responsibility when reporting on evolutionary psychology.  If there are problems with a study, describe them.  If an idea is pure speculation, say it.  If there are other explanations for a phenomenon, give them.  Let’s not gull the public into claiming that we understand something with near certainty when we don’t.   These lax reportorial standards, pervasive in evolutionary psychology, seem to be much tighter in other areas of science, like physics or molecular biology.  And this despite the enormous difficulty of demonstrating that any human behavior is an evolved adaptation.

Every time I write a piece like this, one that’s critical of evolutionary psychology, I get emails from its practitioners, chewing me out for being so hard on their field.  And my response is always the same: I’ll stop being so hard on your field when you guys start being more critical yourselves.  If you policed your own discipline better, I wouldn’t have to.

Of course, not only practising scientists see the poor logic of many evolutionary psychology arguments. Members of the general public can generally detect the logical fallacy formally known as affirming the consequent.

Women did not evolve against risk-taking and tech startups.

This is cross-posted at Geek Feminism.

There is a common idea that women are underrepresented in tech startups because we are “nurturing and not risk-taking enough by nature”, an idea often proposed and upvoted in Hacker News discussions. Roy F. Baumeister, Professor of Psychology, also argues something similar in his defense of Lawrence Summers’ hypothesis that fewer women than men have high innate ability in science. Professor Baumeister argues that men evolved to take risks, and women evolved to play it safe, because we are allegedly descendants of risk-taking men and risk-averse women.

However, there are a few problems with this explanation of why women are underrepresented among tech entrepreneurs. One problem is that top venture capitalist John Doerr consciously and deliberately invests in tech startups run by white men over women and racial minorities, and even encourages other VCs to follow his lead. Even more, it is understood that this is “the way the venture-capital industry operates”. While other industries call this “stereotyping” or “profiling”, VCs call it “pattern recognition”. In other words, there is systemic discrimination in the tech industry based on gender, as well as race and age.

Another problem with the hypothesis of female risk-aversion is that outside of the tech industry, women have been launching new businesses at twice the rate of men for three decades:

The phenomenal growth of women-owned businesses has made headlines for three decades—women consistently have been launching new enterprises at twice the rate of men, and their growth rates of employment and revenue have outpaced the economy.

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Howto: Stop Worrying About Female Brain Hard-Wiring and Get Smarter

This post was originally published at Geek Feminism.

This Ask a Geek Feminist question is about stereotype threat:

What can I do when stereotype threat is playing games with my head?

To give an example, I once had to take an IQ test at school in seventh grade. One section of the test included rotating three-dimensional objects in your head. The test was designed so that each section starts easy and then gets progressively harder. It is supposed to get so hard that there comes a point where you can’t continue any longer and then the tester stops that section of the test. On that section of the test, I managed to hit a window on the score because I got to the very end, having correctly answered all the questions in the object rotation section. The tester, who did these tests for a living, was astonished and he said he had never seen anyone come close to getting all of them.

As an adult, I heard the stereotype that women cannot rotate three-dimensional objects in their head. I heard it many times. Since I started hearing that, I have lost my ability to do so. I’ve tried some rather basic tests on this skill and I can hardly do any of them.

What can one do about this sort of thing?

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