I’ve just started my second subject in my psych degree and I’ve already heard more about evolutionary psychology than anyone realistically should.
We need to confine it to the scrap heap of psychological theories and talk about it as a fun oddity, rather than a major psychological school of thought.
Here are three reasons why:
Reason 1: It can’t be validated
The first reason why evolutionary psychology should be confined to the back pages of obscure psych textbooks that people read for fun is that it cannot be validated.
You cannot prove that someone is afraid of approaching a stranger because back when everyone lived in caves and gnawed any remaining flesh of a Wooly Mammoth carcass. You cannot prove that high-status males got laid more often because they dominated the resource pool.
You cannot prove any of the wild claims put forward by evolutionary psychologists because you don’t have a time machine. You cannot go back in time to check the genetic makeup of humanoids before and after these changes took place to determine any kind of cause and effect.
All you can do is speculate wildly and develop theories that appear to make sense in light of the current behavioural patterns observed in modern society and try to make some kind of link back to the past.
And without the ability to conduct scientific experiments to separate correlation and causation, all you can do is guess.
Reason 2: It doesn’t do what it claims to do
Evolutionary psychology theories are the most commonly cited baseline motivators for human behaviour in my current educational pathway. We’ll be presented with an action or a behavioural theory in one lecture or another and the lecturer will proclaim that “…this makes sense from an evolutionary perspective because [insert some untested theory about things that were important to cave-dwellers]”
But, the important part that seems to be missed is that evolutionary psychology doesn’t explain the specific mechanism that drives behaviour. It attempts to explain why that behavioural mechanism may have developed in the past, but not what that specific mechanism is.
Feeling anxious talking to a stranger might make sense from an evolutionary perspective, but it doesn’t explain the specific cause of that anxiety.
It’s like being asked “How does a car move forward?” and trying to explain it by talking about horses get tired too easily and can’t run fast when dragging heavy loads. It explains why cars were developed, but not specifically how cars work.
Reason 3: It’s functionally useless
The purpose of psychology is to help people, and evolutionary psychology doesn’t do that.
The fact that you can’t validate the ideas and even if you could, those ideas don’t give you any insight into the specific problems that people face means that you can’t use them to help anyone.
You can speculate, you can theorise, you can hold a conference where you pay extensively credentialled academics with walls plastered with degrees to share their latest musing, but at no point can you help someone overcome their psychological issues.
No one’s depression is relieved because of evolutionary psychology. No one’s schizophrenia symptoms are reduced because of evolutionary psychology. No one’s anti-social personality disorder causes less damage to their life because of evolutionary psychology.
You can’t use it to treat anyone. You can’t use it to solve their problems. It doesn’t provide a functional framework to solve any issues in anyone’s life at any point in time. It’s a wild and speculative patchwork of logically flexible guesses that don’t provide a solution and without that solution, what’s the point??
Reason 4: It’s counter-productive
If the only problems with evolutionary psychology were those listed above, then it could be brushed off with a casual shrug. It wouldn’t cause any harm to allow those interested in developing hypothetical connections between modern behaviour and the living conditions of those 30,000 years ago. But it does cause harm.
The idea that behaviour is rooted in genes inherited from some distant ancestor in a loin cloth with an oversized spear arm means that behaviour is set. It’s hard coded into our DNA. We don’t choose how we act. We act in the way we’ve been genetically programmed. We don’t have free will. We are victims of our biology.
If you know anything about psychology, you’ll know just how damaging this mindset is for about 1,000,000 different reasons. You’ll also know that it flies in the face of the commonly held scientific consensus that behaviour is a product of both nature and nuture, but whether it’s right or wrong is not the point here. The point is that this belief is damaging, and it’s the belief that people can take from evolutionary psychology (regardless of whether or not it is intended).
Evolutionary psychology is a waste of precious learning space and needs to be either removed from the psychology learning curriculum or at least relegated to some dark corner.
It provides no functional benefit to the budding minds of psychologists and given the fine edge that the mental health of the majority of the world currently sits on, we have far better things to do than to speculate about unproven and potentially damaging theories.