This Philosopher Is Challenging All of Evolutionary Psychology

Subrena Smith
Subrena Smith
Photo: University of New Hampshire

It’s not often that a paper attempts to take down an entire field. Yet, this past January, that’s precisely what University of New Hampshire assistant philosophy professor Subrena Smith’s paper tried to do. “Is Evolutionary Psychology Possible?” describes a major issue with evolutionary psychology, called the matching problem.


The field of evolutionary psychology is no stranger to critiques, given its central idea: that human behaviors can be explained in evolutionary terms and that the core units governing our actions haven’t changed since the Stone Age. But Smith’s paper garnered a particularly strong response after science journalist Adam Rutherford discussed it on Twitter and PZ Myers discussed it in his Pharyngula blog.

We at Gizmodo have long rolled our eyes at the often-nonsensical conclusions that some people come to when employing evolutionary psychology theory, so we were excited to chat with Smith about her work. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Gizmodo: Your paper’s main refutation of the field is something called the matching problem. Can you explain what that is?  

Subrena Smith: Evolutionary psychologists’ thought is that, for at least some of our behaviors, they believe that we have—dare I use this term—hard-wired cognitive structures that are operating in all of us contemporary human beings the same way they did for our ancestors on the savannas. The idea is that, in the modern world, we have sort of modern skulls, but the wiring—the cognitive structure of the brain itself—is not being modified, because enough evolutionary time hasn’t passed. This goes for evolutionary functions like mate selection, parental care, predator avoidance—that our brains were pretty much in the same state as our ancestors’ brains. The sameness in how our brains work is on account of genetic selection for particular modules that are still functional in our environment today. [Editor’s note: These “modules” refer to the idea that the brain can be divided up into discrete structures with specific functions.]

The matching problem is really the core issue that evolutionary psychologists have to show that they can meet: that there is really a match between our modules and the modules of the prehistoric ancestors; that they’re working the same way then as now; and that these modules are working the same way because they are descended from the same functional lineage or causal lineage. But I don’t see any way that these charges can be answered.

Gizmodo: What inspired you to write this paper? 

Smith: I talked about some of these issues in my dissertation, but the ideas got mature and seasoned since graduate school. I suppose the question is, “why evolutionary psychology?” I was associated roughly with that scene some years ago. I found the evolutionary psychology explanations of human behavior in themselves evocative but also puzzling, given what I understood of the theory of evolution, particularly the importance of variation. People have been talking about it for so long, saying that it’s not workable, it’s problematic. I’ve never taken that attitude. I’ve seen evolutionary psychologists as scientists trying to figure things out. My approach has been to think carefully about what they’re doing. I didn’t have an attitude of, “this is just ridiculous.” I wanted to carefully try to articulate what seems to be a fatal problem with the framework and to put it out there.


Gizmodo: Can you give some examples of scenarios of the matching problem in action?

Smith: Here’s the problem. With respect to human beings, we don’t have the relevant evidence about how our ancestors behaved to make any substantiative claims. We can only use evidence of our behavior and evidence of the likely kinds of behaviors that they would have exhibited in the past. We know that ancient humans avoided predation, for instance. What exactly they did is something evolutionary psychologists have to show. Did our ancestors avoid predation because they were good at hiding in bushes or because they were running? Evolutionary psychologists would say that the better explanation is that they were running. But the fact that they ran to avoid predation and the fact that we have the disposition to run when we’re endangered still does not establish that there’s a singular module doing both of those jobs.


Gizmodo: You flesh out another example, from a paper by Aaron Goetz and Kayla Causey about cuckoldry. Can you explain this?

Smith: The hypothesis is that, in the environment of evolutionary adaptation, mate infidelity was costlier for males than it was for females. Presumably, it’s on account of the fact that, if you’re a man, you might end up taking care of someone else’s child. So college students were asked how likely it is that they’d have sexual intercourse with someone other than their current partner. Now, one of my major charges with evolutionary psychologists is that they go to the ordinary folks, college students, and they ask them questions about such intimate things like their sexual behavior. We know that people are wanting to not be honest about such matters, and, of course, evolutionary psychologists are aware of this. The second issue is that the answers given to these sorts of questions are then generalized to humanity in general.


The thought is that we expect to find this particular behavior in the contemporary world, namely that respondents who answered these questions are apt to be vigilant around their mate; males in this context are inclined to be vigilant around their female partner. (The study authors didn’t ask any questions about same-sex relationships, but let’s set that aside). Evolutionary psychologists posit that, based on these questionnaire answers, mate guarding behavior is driven by a hard-wired, domain-specific cognitive module whose function is to procure and protect one’s mate from extramarital relationships. But their evidence is nothing more than the responses given to these prying questions by contemporary college students. My worry is that it doesn’t begin to be a scientific study. There’s no way to move from the contemporary case to the prehistoric case, which is a hypothesized case about how prehistoric males behaved with respect to their mates and cheating.

The hypothesis is: We’re getting these reports from the U.S. context because there’s a module they inherited from their ancestors. So we’re moving from a report of how people would behave in these situations to claims about how our ancestors did in fact behave. This is really deeply flawed. I don’t think that this is good enough for the sorts of things that evolutionary psychologists want their theory to do. You need more than that.


Gizmodo: What are some of the potential harms of evolutionary psychology as a theory?

Smith: While I think that evolutionary theory is the only game in town to give us accounts of biological questions when we’re thinking about evolutionary history and claims about selection, I also think it’s grossly misappropriated. One of the things people tend to forget is that in On the Origin of Species, Darwin takes several chapters to talk about variations. And yet the impression one gets from evolutionary psychologists for uses of evolutionary theory is that, when we’re talking about human begins and our brains, evolution has given us this static system. That our brains are static. And in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Our brains are dynamic, our behaviors are dynamic, we’re imaginative, we generate novel behaviors in contexts that never exhibited themselves. That variation is one of the things about evolution we should be including more in our theories.


The evolutionary psychologists I engage with are not silly people. They are thoughtful and philosophical about these matters. However, the attractiveness of evolutionary theory coupled with peoples’ ideological biases forces them to not be as careful as they might be otherwise. I think that the consequences for our world when we misappropriate evolutionary accounts are really serious. People are saying that people of color have smaller brains, which is not true, or that women aren’t as great as men, which is not true... I think we have a special responsibility, when we say evolution made us that way, to recognize that people will read “innate” or “hardwired” as synonymous with evolution. We should be especially careful to not be making claims like these, which can have consequences.

If you say evolution made us so, then governments can rightly say you don’t have the capacity to do something, so we won’t use our resources to make you do stuff you can’t do. This is about the science and politics—making sure that we’re not misappropriating the science to underwrite our politics in a way to suit interests, be they my interests or their interests. If I have interests inconsistent with what the science says, I don’t think I should be given a pass. But my view is that I don’t see the framework of evolutionary psychology as-is providing us with an explanation of human behavior that we can get behind.


Gizmodo: I know the paper made a big splash. Can you tell me what the response has been like?

Smith: I did a [post] of sort for this evolution blog, and I understand that someone responded to me. I’m happy to have the intellectual conversation. I’m not a tweeter and I don’t have a Twitter account. My spouse is, and he tells me that there have been some not-so-nice things, as well as people who are championing my cause. Adam Rutherford, who I really like, a British broadcaster who was a geneticist, was one of the first people to pick up the paper and say the arguments were compelling and that evolutionary psychologists should be answering these arguments. But otherwise, I told my husband I don’t want to hear stuff from Twitter, particularly if it’s a teaching day. It’s fair to say that it’s been not very nice, and also people who have been thoughtful in their responses, plus lots of people asking me if I want to write something for them. That’s a good thing, but I don’t have time.


Gizmodo: What’s your end goal? What do you want from evolutionary psychologists?

Smith: My little paper isn’t going to stop this discipline. It’s not going to cease departments where evolutionary psychology is thriving from existing. I do hope it gets a conversation going. I actually think that it is a worthy project to ask ourselves questions about how are we related to our prehistoric ancestors in such things as behaviors.


My view is that while we might talk about similarity and ancestry with respect to normal physical phenotypes, I am reluctant to go there with behaviors. For me, it’s really because of the flexibility that is needed in order for any organism to thrive in the environments that they find themselves... Long story short, what I hope this paper does is gets us all thinking a little bit deeper about what is it to talk about evolution and psychology and human behavior.


The Ghost of James Madison's Rage Boner

This bit from her blog post explains the issue pretty well, I think.

For a present-day psychological trait to be related to an ancestral psychological trait in the way that evolutionary psychology requires, the present-day trait must be of the same kind as the ancestral one. It must also have the same function as the ancestral one and must be descended from that ancestral trait as part of a reproductive lineage extending back to prehistory. Also, importantly, the present-day trait and the ancestral trait must be of the same kind and have the same function because the former is descended from the latter. This is key because it might be that a present-day trait and an ancestral trait are of the same kind and have the same function without one being descended from the other. The architecture of the modern mind might resemble that of early humans without this architecture having being selected for and genetically transmitted through the generations. Evolutionary psychological claims, therefore, fail unless practitioners can show that mental structures underpinning present-day behaviors are structures that evolved in prehistory for the performance of adaptive tasks that it is still their function to perform. This is the matching problem.

Ancestral and present-day psychological structures have to match in the way that is needed for evolutionary psychological inferences to succeed. For this, three conditions must be met. First, determine that the function of some contemporary mechanism is the one that an ancestral mechanism was selected for performing. Next, determine that the contemporary mechanism has the same function as the ancestral one because of its being descended from the ancestral mechanism. Finally, determine which ancestral mechanisms are related to which contemporary ones in this way.

It’s not sufficient to assume that the required identities are obvious. They need to be demonstrated. Solving the matching problem requires knowing about the psychological architecture of our prehistoric ancestors. But it is difficult to see how this knowledge can possibly be acquired. We do not, and very probably cannot, know much about the prehistoric human mind.

If I’m reading her correctly, she’s not (as some commenters here are thinking) saying there are not similar behaviors between now and prehistory, but rather that if you want to describe this in evolutionary terms, you need to test things that have not been tested and are likely not even possible to test.