Science's Genuine Controversies

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Is Evolutionary Psychology Legitimate?

Evolutionary biology -- the study of how life (including humans) adapted and changed over time through evolutionary processes -- is a widely studied and accepted scientific field. But evolutionary psychology, which studies the supposed changes to human behavior made as a result of evolution, is far more controversial. P.Z. Myers excellently sums up why:

"The repertoire of human behavior is so complex and rich, and relatively recently evolved, that to argue that every behavior is the product of specific selection imposes an untenable genetic load. The bulk of the genetic foundation of our psychology (and I agree that there must be one!) must be byproducts and accidents."

With equal eloquence, Jerry Coyne disagrees:

"The fundamental premise of evolutionary psychology is absolutely sound: our brains, like the rest of our bodies, are the product of evolution and natural selection over the past six million years, and some of our current behaviors reflect that evolution. To deny that is ideologically motivated nonsense. To parse out the evolutionary component of such behaviors is the goal of evolutionary psychology."

A big problem for the field is that it is difficult to obtain rigorous data, and much of what constitutes research sounds more like "just-so stories" rather than convincing biological arguments. It also doesn't help that high-profile cases of fraud made big news recently. Moreover, in the past, the field has been used to marginalize women and justify rape.

Evolutionary psychology does have some legitimate questions to tackle, like why we enjoy foods that are bad for us, or why we innately fear certain things, like snakes and spiders, but not more dangerous things, such as cars. But as Coyne argues, those in the field have to come up with better methods of collecting data, and they must also guard against pop evolutionary psychologists spouting contentious hypotheses under the esteemed mantle of science.

(Image: Human Ancestor Skull via Shutterstock)

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