• Evolved Sex Differences: David Schmitt skewers 10 spurious objections to evolutionary psychology

    Image (c) Comedy Central
    Image (c) Comedy Central

    Men and women are different.

    These five words express one of the most controversial, yet tacitly obvious, ideas in the public discourse. The reasons why have been well articulated by many, perhaps best by Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate. In a nutshell, we fear the idea that men and women are inherently different because purported differences were used in the past to justify repression of women (and of men, too). Carrying the illogic forward into moralistic fallacy-land, if gender* differences necessarily condemn us to repression, then they must be false, because repression is bad.

    Fortunately, all of this is wrong. Men being psychologically distinct from women (from birth) does not condemn us to repression or misogyny any more than different groups of men or women holding different psychological features/traits condemns us to belittle one or another. Quite the contrary turns out to be the case. Repression is unduly culling freedom of choice or action. But this idea only makes sense if people are born with an inalienable desire for things like autonomy, liberty, and self-determination. That is, they must be born with a nature. A human nature, not bestowed by society. If they are blank slates and can be instilled with any values, including servitude to others, no argument for moral harm against them is coherent. Social justice can only matter if evolutionary psychology is right about innate psychology.

    Blank slate ideology can, and has, supported fascistic repression. See Mussolini’s Italy or Pol Pot’s regime wherein programmable people could be made to serve the state as part of a utopian totalitarian order.

    David P. Schmitt
    David P. Schmitt

    So denying innate psychological propensities nets us nothing, morally or politically. Worse, it may fray our friendship with reality. In April, psychologist David Schmitt wrote “Yes, but…” Answers to Ten Common Criticisms of Evolutionary Psychology for D.S. Wilson’s This View of Life website. He focused on sex differences in mate selection, but these criticisms come up when almost any controversial evolutionary psychology theory is mentioned. I invite you to read his extremely well-cited article there. I will whet your appetite with the list of the 10 “Yes, but…’s” Fantastic job, David Schmitt.

    David’s Wiki | Bradley University page

    If you think these are great retorts, prepare to be surprised [Bolding mine].

    1) Yes, but…that is just one study. One cannot trust the results of just one study. Evolutionary psychologists need to conduct many more studies before I am convinced these effects are legitimate, let alone evidence of evolved psychology. I’m sure many other studies wouldn’t find sex differences in mate preferences.

    2) Yes, but…those studies are mostly with college students. People in the real world (e.g., representative samples of adults) won’t display these stereotypical sex differences of youth.

    3) Yes, but…many of those findings are from decades ago. Sex differences in mate preferences are probably not historically stable. They may have existed many decades ago (in the era of Mad Men), but sex differences in mate preferences are surely not present in more recent times.

    4) Yes, but…that is only when you have people self-report their ideal mate preferences from a pre-chosen list of traits given to them. If you ask them what they really want, say at a minimum, or maybe let them freely design their ideal potential partners, status-related traits aren’t emphasized by women more than men.

    5) Yes, but…this is only because women are denied access to resources themselves. If women have higher status themselves, they would not prefer men with high status. It’s just basic rationality, not evolved psychology, causing these sex differences in mate preferences for status.

    6) Yes, but…that is only true in the United States. Americans happen to live in a culture with conspicuous gender stereotypes about mate preferences that the rest of the world does not share. If you look at more gender egalitarian cultures, in Scandinavia for instance, sex differences in preferences for status-related attributes “disappear” (as claimed by Marks).

    7) Yes, but…all these studies showing men and women want different things in potential partners are merely evidence of gendered narratives as measured by self-report surveys. If ever tested in the real world, women would not preferentially choose or be affected by a partner’s status-related attributes more than men.

    8) Yes, but…even though evolutionary psychologists may study real life cognition, emotion, and behavior, they fail to study the most important Darwinian outcome…fertility. If women evolved mate preferences for status-related traits, then women who marry men of high status men should have more children. Evolutionary psychologists haven’t even bothered to look at these outcomes, lazy-headed daisies…

    9) Yes, but…ancestral men were foragers and could not accumulate wealth, so these mate preferences for “good earning potential” are largely irrelevant to evolved mating psychology. Evolutionary psychology findings are extremely limited because they only apply to modern materialistic cultures.

    10) Yes, but…I know so many people who strongly believe that sex differences in mate preferences simply cannot exist. The idea of evolved sexual desires of any kind are a theoretical impossibility from my point of view! Evolved sex differences in mate preferences have to be just a figment of the imagination of evolutionary psychologists bent on maintaining patriarchy. If the evidence is, on balance, supportive of women possessing long-term mate preferences for men with high status, why do so many post-modernists and social constructionists insist evolved sex differences are not, indeed cannot, be real?


    * The title refers to sex differences and this line to gender. Sex and gender are different, however the difference is not necessarily relevant to all discussions.

    See also

    The Gender Binary is Not the Problem

    Category: Critical ThinkingEvolutionary PsychologyfeaturedFeatured Incmoralityscienceskepticismsocial justice

  • Article by: Edward Clint

    Ed Clint is an evolutionary psychologist, co-founder of Skeptic Ink, and USAF veteran.
    • I am wondering if it’s possible that I am mistaking what you are trying to convey in this passage:

      “…Repression is unduly culling freedom of choice or action. But this idea only makes sense if people are born with an inalienable desire for things like autonomy, liberty, and self-determination. That is, they must be born with a nature. A human nature, not bestowed by society. If they are blank slates and can be instilled with any values, including servitude to others, no argument for moral harm against them is coherent…”

      If I’ve read Schmitt’s article correctly, it seemed to me that he was very carefully and clearly arguing that the belief that there is some sort of choice to be made between a biological nature and cultural conditioning, is fallacious thinking. He was explicit in identifying this as a false dichotomy:

      “… Much like partitioning the causes of human behavior into nurture versus nature or culture versus biology or learned versus innate, social constructivism versus evolutionary psychology is a false dichotomy that may feel intuitively correct but should not be utilized very often by serious scientists (exceptions include behavioral genetics studies). As insightfully noted by Tooby and Cosmides[88], “To say a behavior is learned in no way undermines the claim that the behavior was organized by evolution because the behavior was learned through the agency of evolved mechanisms…”

      Yet, (again, if I’m reading your post correctly), here you are apparently framing his entire discussion in exactly those terms.

      What am I missing?

      • When it comes to explanations about why people are what they are, then I quite agree with Schmitt. The part you are quoting is not to do with the explanation, but why this is controversial to begin with: moral and political implications of different types of explanation.

        Many people seem to think evolutionary psychology, if true in its precepts, would condemn us to a 1950’s status quo. I was pointing out that not only is this idea wrong, it’s 180 degrees wrong; Social progress would not be a coherent idea unless those precepts are correct. Knowledge generated by evolutionary psychologists can provide important grounding for social justice, the same way that medical knowledge can ground ethical attitudes toward abortion, smoking, or the use of certain chemicals in manufacturing consumer goods.

        • southern feminist

          It’s shocking that people wouldn’t believe something that seems so evident to others. the whole men and women are the same is baffling as well – i wonder if they are confusing “sameness” with equality. It wouldn’t surprise me, considering that some of these same people confuse the founding of our country with the puritanical cultural establishment in our country.

          • In the past, innate differences (real or imagined) really were used to justify repression and prejudice. But rather than pointing out “that’s a non sequitur, differences don’t make any prejudice OK,” some opted to respond with “there are no differences.” Both undermine the problem, but the second is factually incorrect and morally lazy.

            • Joe E KG

              Wouldn’t knowledge of the moderate to high heritability of individual differences regarding mental illness, addiction, IQ, work ethic, personality traits, ambition, etc. lead to more openness to social welfare programs?
              Some people aren’t able to get by through no fault of their own.