Why I dismiss “evolutionary” explanations out of hand

During a Twitter discussion about the widely-cited study showing that men profess to be most attracted to 20- and 21-year olds well into their fifties while women prefer men approximately their own age throughout their lives, the inevitable happened: someone trotted out the “evolutionary” “fact” that of course men prefer younger women, given that they’re at their reproductive peak. Weirdly, though, my interlocutor’s own stated range for this peak was 14-24, and yet most men I know would find the idea of having sex with a 14-year-old repulsive. He also didn’t have any explanation for why women would prefer men their own age, rather than always prefering the presumably more resource-rich older men at all ages. And never mind the fact that stereotypically rail-thin “hot” physiques for women actively militate against reproduction. No, no — it was evolution that did it! It’s not changeable! We must bravely and grimly accept the cruel biological reality that coincidentally supports an ugly and much-contested aspect of existing power structures.

This exchange led me to declare a universal policy of rejecting out of hand any “evolutionary” explanation for contemporary behavior and social structures. This claim has been much misunderstood, as though I was denying any influence of biology at all. I don’t deny such an influence, but I do deny that we can know where social construction ends and the supposedly “hard-wired” biological impulse begins. We know from every day experience that even the most urgent biological impulses can be put off more or less indefinitely. In the battle between social norms and the need to urinate, for instance, social norms win essentially every time for healthy adults. All the evidence of human history seems to indicate that we evolved to be hugely pliable to social construction.

Obviously I’d be willing to accept an evolutionary explanation for a purely involuntary human response such as the gag reflex or the physical symptoms of stress and anxiety. But any feature of human society that is the subject of considerable debate and struggle — that’s on us. And here we can count debates not only over sex and reproduction, but over eating habits. Saying we evolved to eat meat doesn’t answer anything. If we can call that into question and debate it, we’re responsible for deciding, individually and collectively, how to proceed.

The attempt to reduce some actual-existing position within that debate to a sheer biological fact is always a more or less transparent and conscious attempt to shut down that debate or at least tilt it in favor of one particular outcome. As Schmitt says (and I often remind us), the claim to be taking a non-political position is actually a particularly forceful political move.

48 thoughts on “Why I dismiss “evolutionary” explanations out of hand

  1. You may appreciate this quote from Eva Illouz:

    “Interviewer: It’s very sort of hip now, and you briefly refer to this in your book, to say that the reason the dating scene is the way it is is because of our hunter/gatherer genes. That men need to sleep around as much as possible, it’s their caveman DNA calling to them. You make light of this theory. Can you explain why you think this theory has gained some traction, and why you think there are problems with it?

    Illouz: confess I have never been able to take that theory very seriously, but that is probably because I do not understand or know enough the objections which evolutionary biologists bring to the mass of historical evidence that contradict their claims.

    Think for example of the Christian ideal of monastic life and sexual asceticism: why would the post popular religion of history be so drastically against our genes? We are not talking about a minor religious sect. We are talking about the largest religious movement in history. Or take another example: European aristocracy -– despite its power and privileges — disappeared at a staggering rate from the 18th century onward. Why? Because the inheritance law did not enable many children to inherit enough land to marry a woman that would enable them to keep their patrimony. So more than a quarter of the nobility disappeared because they preferred to enter monasteries or to remain childless (and sexually abstinent). Why would the nobility adopt economic laws that were so evidently against the capacity of the nobles to reproduce their genes? I have no idea.

    So I would say that much of these theories seem to me like a justification of the current state of masculinity than an explanation.”


  2. great post adam!

    i once had someone explain to me that “girls like pink” bc they were the gatherers back in hunter/gatherer days and as such are hardwired to look for berries (which are pink!!). anyone who thinks they can one-up me on this is invited to try.

    (ps – TLP/Alone would say that these OKCupid men are narcissists (surprise!) and they are attracted to such young women bc they believe they can get these women to believe their (ie the men’s) chosen identities or something like that.)

  3. I think many of our behaviors and characteristics have a biological basis, to one extent or another and with all due caution, but as soon as we try to determine which ones and to what extent and base a kind of politics on it, or explain social behaviors with it, we inevitably succumb to ideology. Perhaps we’re “hard-wired” to do so! I can really relate to this post–I’m not a strict social constructionist, but in certain domains it’s best to act like one.

  4. It does not suffice to point to a poor argument made on the basis of evolution to then dismiss all arguments made on the basis of evolution. Yes, we should critically engage these arguments and interrogate their politics, but they don’t float freely from the world as it is.

  5. I’m sure that there are brilliant arguments in the hallowed halls of the scientific journals, ones that would humble me with their rigor and clarity. I’m talking about such arguments as they normally occur in public debate outside that rarefied setting, where I have literally never heard an evolutionary argument that wasn’t transparent ideological bullshit.

  6. I’ve been stuck away from my computer all morning. A few points. So there’s a collection of data, in this case, the data on age groups preferred by heterosexual men and women. You essentially inquired as to a hypothesis explaining this data, and even advanced one of your own, such as it was. An evolutionary hypothesis (in fairly crude form) was also advanced. I think the relative merits of each, examined in the most charitable possible light, are obvious. The roll of the limited reproductive period of women in the general phenomenon of men being attracted to younger women seems like such an obvious point as to be beyond question. Are there other, culturally contingent factors that might skew this phenomenon? Sure. But our urges don’t simply disappear from population level average behaviors because cultural forces militate against them. As an example, surely mere “repulsion” is not an adequate description of the response triggered by our taboo against sex with what we call minors. This is a recent phenomenon, and in some his a historical outlier.

    Evolutionary arguments (good ones) are hypotheses about the forces that might give rise to a non-trivial correlation in a data set. They clearly don’t purport to explain the totality of human behavior in the choice of age in a sexual partner in the 21st century modern west, but clearly, they are an important factor in that milieu, and in most of human history, likely come close to exhaustively explaining our reproductive choices.

    So the value of the evolutionary explanation in this case seems clear. Again, it’s not exhaustive (that’s not the nature of a scientific hypothesis), and indeed, in certain circumstances those forces could be overcome. But it seems to me to be unequivocal that there are forces of natural selection that would be consistent with the observation that men have a higher bias towards younger women. That’s a pretty compelling piece of explanatory power as far as science goes.

    In terms of your reasoning being antiscientific, the inability of a hypothesis to exhaustively explain all data is just an inherent aspect of empiricism, and as I suggested, it’s useful to compare this to arguments against global warming.

  7. And as a practical matter, I’m incredibly suspicious of evolutionary arguments. But I think we have to raise the bar in the extent to which we take them seriously, and on their own terms, to have any hope of combatting the political shit-storm that is sure to come with the explosion of genetic data that will become available in the coming decades.

  8. And to ask some honest questions here: would you accept an argument based on natural selection if it showed that prehistoric man preferred women in prime child-bearing ages? I think it’s perfectly acceptable, if we find the same trend today, to conclude that perhaps we aren’t as pliable as we thought. Or that the pliability manifests itself as a larger distribution around the same norms.

  9. Or perhaps that contingent social formations have allowed men to indulge their baser inclinations more than women. How does evolution explain the result that women’s preferences track closely with their own age (for the same age range in which men uniformly prefer women in their early 20s)? Surely men have a sexual peak, right?

  10. Sure, that is totally fair. But that acknowledges that those basic inclinations are still pronounced social forces. There are surely other forces in play, as well, that may run counter to fertility. In general, it’s not an issue of a peak, but just numbers. Women have a ~20 year range (this is from my wife) where the statistics are good for normal child birth. On average, it wouldn’t surprise me if men double that or more. So fertility of a male mate is just less of an issue, because odds are, he’s fertile. There are reasons, in the era of romantic love, why a partner with comparable life experience (which would correlate with age) makes sense, and if it’s true that questions of fertility are far less relevant in choice of a male mate, then it makes sense that other factors, some of them cultural, would be more significant.

  11. The biological things that have to happen for a male to “do his part” in the conception of a child are just so trivial compared to women. I think it would be naive to ignore that this in itself may be a massive factor in the historical relationship between the sexes.

  12. I think it’s important, to use a mathematical metaphor, to see the observed phenomenon as a composite of many functions, the relative weights of which might change, but aren’t obliterated by each other.

  13. I just don’t find those biological constraints interesting, somehow. Like whatever they would tell us would be trivial and tedious — like that we can’t up and decide to start surviving on paint chips or something. I grant that, yes, but….

  14. Like an object could be stationary because there are no forces acting on it whatsoever, or it could be stationary because there are two massive forces acting in perfect opposition, and anywhere in between.

  15. it seems to me that adam wasn’t suggesting that ev. args. play no role whatsoever… rather he was taking issue with the confidence with which ppl can dismiss something as awful as this OKCupid thing thru some simple biological hand-waving. *even if* they’re very very sort-of correct and ev. actually does play some part in it. (it seems clear to me that it plays a small but not totally trivial role in this thing.)

    hill’s defence seems to come close to “NOT ALL ev. psych. arguments!”

    i also dismiss just about all ev. arguments w/o much thought (i used to dismiss them after a lot of thought and then after not that much thought and so on), *especially* when they support oppressive norms. how often have you heard “women like aggressive men bc science”? how often have you heard “men like aggressive women bc science”? (a lot less i presume) yet if agg. is heritable to some extent it should be pretty desirable in women precisely bc they may have male offspring who are subject to the first claim.

  16. As I said, repeating the number of times you’ve heard bad evolutionary arguments is beside the point. Maybe converse with less idiots. The fact that men are more attracted to women in prime child bearing is not even remotely controversial in terms of evolutionary explanation. That is perhaps the most obvious thing one might suggest could be a result of natural selection.

    There’s a weird tendency in the cultural left (where I’d place myself) to militantly insist in the truth of evolution, but deny it any explanatory power whatsoever. If you want to be a dogmatic idiot with respect to one of the most important areas of science, by all means, go for it.

  17. Also, the argument that, e.g., “Women like aggressive men” would require that there be some sort of data suggesting that women like aggressive men. If that data were to be produced, it would be pretty weird, right? Like… maybe so weird that it was emerging from some sort of deep urge that we couldn’t readily account for with cultural explanations. I have no idea whether the claim is true, and I tend to think it emerges from the warped minds of MRAs and not reality. But making up bullshit to support an anecdote is not an “evolutionary explanation.” Scientific evolutionary arguments emerge in the context of data that is difficult to explain without invoking said arguments.

  18. Finally, evolutionary arguments can’t support a norm without the assumption that circumstances that have some evolutionary explanation are to be accepted as either good or inevitable. We clearly don’t think this in general, and it is where the purveyors of dubious evolutionary psychology are typically at their most vulnerable, argumentatively speaking.

  19. I don’t think Adam is denying the explanatory power of evolution in the abstract. What he (or at least I) takes issue with is its imputed ‘justifying’ power, the way it is misappropriated in non-scientific, non-peer-reviewed conversations and debates. Adam is arguing against the kind of fallacious appeals to nature that we find more and more in every walk of intellectual life. That has nothing to do with science or empiricism or cultural leftism.

  20. (the less/fewer thing is snarky as fuck but wv i bad grammared on the internet what to expect?)

    anyway, discounting the high frequency with which one encounters terrible evo. arguments when deciding whether or not to listen to evo. arguments with which one is presented is idiotic.

    but yes, you are obviously correct when you say it (ie the high frequency) comes nowhere near to a proof that such arguments are universally invalid. i don’t think anyone here would make such a claim. pointing out that evo. has non-zero explanatory potential re. such questions (which it pretty clearly does imo) is very very far from a convincing argument for listening to ppl when they choose to give evo. explanations for such things.

    also, the claim that these men’s preferences are fundamentally reproductive as opposed to something deeper seems to be blatant question-begging.

  21. I disagree with you ambzone. The position you advance is reasonable, but I think it’s pretty clear, from the twitter exchange and this blog post, that that’s not exactly what Adam was saying. As I mentioned in my comment above, the assumption that an evolutionary argument can justify anything is itself a logical fallacy, and indeed, this is the problem with most of the discourse (assuming the science itself is reasonable.)

    Race realism is what is lurking in the background of this discussion for me. And to be honest, there are very smart people with good data and good science deploying those things for pernicious ends. It simply won’t suffice to attack them at the level of their understanding of evolution.

  22. Let’s entertain the following hypothetical: men of all ages prefer women around the age of 21, and this fact is substantially the result of selective forces. If this measured preference is a bad situation, politically, we need to be able to respond to it without pretending like it isn’t the case. There are lots of biological facts that lead to undesirable political realities, and the solution is not to deny the biology. It’s to reassert the political dimension and clarify the relation of the science to the political.

    Otherwise, what will happen if really compelling evidence, vetted at the highest level with a global sample size, comes out that some identifiable genetic group is inferior at really important social function X. If the science were unequivocal, what would we do? It won’t suffice to “dismiss that evolutionary explanation” out of hand. That won’t be an effective political strategy.

  23. I don’t think a field like modern genetics can be susceptible to the kind of single-factor explanations espoused by misogynists, racists and other determinists. However the larger society can be, and has been. Facile pseudo-scientific rationalizations are just that, and no amount of massaging can make them connect in any but the most superficial way to actual scientific findings.

  24. Great post, Adam. It reminds me of Bernard Williams’ distinction (in Moral Luck) between internal and external reasons – e.g. between “A has a reason to X” and “There is a reason for A to X” – and his argument that only internal reasons motivate action. Even if evolution can give reasons why males in general might prefer to mate with females near their reproductive peak, it does not follow that any particular man has a reason to prefer to mate with women near their reproductive peak. His “subjective motivational set” has to include some first-person beliefs that would motivate such an action. So, for example, in ancient Rome an older man who believes that he needs a heir and could die at any time might have a reason to prefer the (very) young women he was allowed to marry under Roman law. But obviously such beliefs are unlikely in any modern civilized society, and it is much more likely that male preferences for young females derive from internalized sexism, as you point out.

  25. I’d just like to point out that the scientific rigour involved in sampling people on their preferences for sexual partners is of a totally different and lesser order than that involved in experimental bio-genetics. It’s not ‘pure’ hard science at all – if such a thing even exists. (see theoretical physics…) Any science that relies on subjective reports of social preferences (because it’s social preference that’s under discussion, not biological preference -whatever that could even mean) as its ‘data’, and uses this data to retrospectively correlate choices with supposedly trans-historically constant biological data as well as historical knowledge of hunter gatherer reproductive behaviour (which we know everything about) is just bullshit! In order for such claims to meet even the minimal requirements of scientificity, one would have to have data that tracked this correlation from biological pre-history to the present. Moreover, one would need an absolutely rigourous model that showed that biology significantly and consistently trumps all other considerations, which as far as I’m aware, no scientist has ever been foolish enough to claim. Adam isn’t rejecting science or bio-genetics out of hand, he’s rejecting pseudo-science, as well he should. I’d like to also point out that research bias – impelled largely by huge commercial interests and the structure of the scientific publishing machine – in primary scientific research of all kinds is so massive and widespread today that it makes an utter nonsense of the principal of scientific objectivity.

  26. I just don’t get some of these replies though: is the contention being made that humans no longer possess a drive to mate with fertile mates? Because I’m pretty sure every other mammalian species does. Of course that drive wouldn’t be determinant of all human behavior, but it’s obviously relevant. Adam expressed pure bafflement regarding the outcome of the study, and the simple fact that pretty much all mammals have an instinctive drive to optimize odds of conception was advanced as partially explanatory. Partially explanatory is a lot more useful than bafflement. It can at least be refuted, although on one here has even tried.

    Again, this is the fundamentally anti-scientific aspect of this. A hypothesis was advanced to go some way towards explaining an observation. All hypotheses are inherently provisional and incomplete, even, as Ruth indicates, in scientific fields that view themselves as the most rigorous.

    By “rejecting” this hypothesis, you implicitly advance the hypothesis that widespread mammalian drives to mate with fertile mates are irrelevant to human behavior. Good luck defending that one.

    It’s also worth mentioning in response to Michael that we clearly don’t require subjective first person beliefs, or any beliefs at all, in order to act. Do you have a belief that is responsible for the extent and nature of your sexual attraction? Do chimpanzees?

    It really baffles me the extent to which materialist leftists seem to operate on the premise that man is not an animal.

  27. Hill, I can happily affirm that human beings are animals, because I also accept animals have beliefs and act on them. A dog may bark at a scarecrow, because it has a false belief the scarecrow is a threat. A cat may eat a shrew, because it has a false belief that a shrew is no different than a mouse. Later, however, the cat will differentiate between shrews (bad to eat) and mice (good to eat), and the dog will no longer regard the scarecrow as a threat. I’m not an expert on primates, but I’m confident chimpanzees have not only innate biological desires but also beliefs about which of their fellow chimps they can mate with, who they would like to mate with but can’t (e.g. because they’re ‘taken’), and what cannot be mated with (e.g. because it’s not a chimp). Ergo, even chimpanzee mating behaviour involves beliefs.

  28. An example Williams himself uses is of a man who wants a drink. His desire for a gin and tonic is not necessarily a ‘belief’. But for him to pick up a bottle, pour it into a glass of tonic water, and drink the mixture, he must believe, even unconsciously, that the bottle contains gin, and not gasoline.

  29. quoting ruth’s excellent summary;

    “Any science that relies on subjective reports of social preferences (because it’s social preference that’s under discussion, not biological preference -whatever that could even mean) as its ‘data’, and uses this data to retrospectively correlate choices with supposedly trans-historically constant biological data as well as historical knowledge of hunter gatherer reproductive behaviour (which we know everything about) is just bullshit!”

    ie no one is questioning whether mammals have an instinctive drive to mate with fertile members of their species. rather they are questioning to what extent that is even relevant to a study which *asks* men to *state* their ideal age for a sexual partner. (can 50 y/o men even tell the difference between a 20 y/o woman and a 25 y/o woman?)

    now, if for example (i’m making this up and i make no claim it would be a remotely interesting or even sensible experiment) the men had some area of their brain monitored whilst they were made to smell cloth sprayed with the vaginal scent of women of different ages blah blah blah, then mentioning the instinctive drive of mammals to mate with fertile members of their species would be (a) relevant and (b) totally obvious.

    if your claim is that evo arguments have non-zero (although maybe extremely small) explanatory potential in such cases then sure, i agree with you and i think it’s not very interesting.

  30. To the extent that we can reliably evaluate age, and age is a reliable proxy for fertility (I seem to be fairly safe here so far), then our unconscious beliefs about fertility might correlate strongly with age. It is hardly a stretch to suggest our unconscious beliefs about fertility affect our sexual preferences and are the result of selective pressure.

    Explain how this is dubious or uninteresting? As far as I know, we don’t reliably gauge fertility from a general population via smell, and that may be simply random or a result of evolution.

    Telling the difference between a 20 year old woman and a 25 year old woman is beside the point. It’s a distribution of preferences that centers on the youngest age bracket that isn’t socially taboo in the west. I’m seriously baffled that a thinking person could think evolution has nothing to do with this. Of course the data isn’t perfect and there are cultural and psychological factors. That is almost always the case in any social scientific inquiry.

    Selection pressure for males that reliably identify fertile females seems like one of the most obvious predictions one could make from the theory of natural selection. Age is an effective proxy for fertility, for a number of reasons, and especially if monogamy is the dominant sexual relationship. If this is insufficiently explanatory to have any value, then science generally has very little value.

  31. “It is hardly a stretch to suggest our unconscious beliefs about fertility affect our sexual preferences and are the result of selective pressure.”

    Sure, but that’s not a hypothesis, it’s just handwaving. Maybe men are attracted to women with long legs because long legs are good at kicking sabre-tooth tigers? You can come up with a story about anything which purports to show it gives selective advantage, but you need to do much more than that before you’ve said something that deserves to be taken seriously because of its scientific status.

    As Adam said on Twitter, other current female beauty standards, like thinness, don’t seem immediately correlated with fertility. If you want to explain beauty standards by reference to evolution, you would have to account for these, too. That is, you need a theory of how certain genetic factors which are the result of evolution are expressed in particular ways in particular environments. I’ve never seen an evolutionary psychology explanation which contains such a theory; until I do, I’ll follow Adam in rejecting such explanations en masse.

  32. You are essentially saying “if you can’t do a perfect experiment, then there is nothing that can be said scientifically.” As I tried to outline above, this would undercut the entirety of science and especially evolutionary theory. What we have are observations consistent with male preference for women in prime child bearing age and a hypothesis that this could be the result of selective pressure. It’s a very simple hypothesis, almost as simple as one could be regarding selective pressure. You can’t reject that hypothesis without affirming its negation, which you are clearly in no place to do. So you can just not have an opinion, that’s fine. But “rejecting” evolutionary arguments without being able to provide some sort of hypothesis that is preferable is the behavior of an idiot, and I’m using that in the technical sense of the term.

  33. Once again:

    Unfalsifiable just-so stories don’t amount to science. On their very best behavior they can aspire to scientific paratext : vulgarizing established theories among the general public. They are not the jump-off point toward new and further findings, except in very few cases and very capable hands.

    And when they touch upon historically disadvantaged groups, rather than say the Lambda-CDM model, their lack of methodological rigor leave them completely open to biases, dominant narratives and reified terminology. In other words, they’re offensive and little else.

  34. Fine, alright — natural selection “plays a role” in the male preference for younger women, alongside other powerful factors that, in our present society, generally leads men to forego a huge swath of the youngest sexually mature women. What I’m rejecting is not the fact that humans are animals, nor the fact that our biology sets up certain basic parameters and inclinations. That would be stupid, and it’s frustrating that you persist in attributing the stupidest possible position to me, particularly given that we are both in agreement that the positions I’m dismissing are themselves incredibly stupid.

  35. On the other hand: “It is a popular assumption that certain perceptions—for example, that highly feminine women are attractive, or that masculine men are aggressive—reflect evolutionary processes operating within ancestral human populations. However, observations of these perceptions have mostly come from modern, urban populations. This study presents data on cross-cultural perceptions of facial masculinity and femininity. In contrast to expectations, we find that in less developed environments, typical “Western” perceptions are attenuated or even reversed, suggesting that Western perceptions may be relatively novel. We speculate that novel environments, which expose individuals to large numbers of unfamiliar faces, may provide novel opportunities—and motives—to discern subtle relationships between facial appearance and other traits.” http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2014/09/19/1409643111

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