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Darwin In Your Brain. Four Reasons Why Evolutionary Psychology Is Controversial
Image credit: Flickr/illuminaut
Bernard Crespi
Bernard Crespi
is Professor of Evolutionary Biology at Simon Fraser University

Evolutionary psychology, like sociobiology or Marxism, has become associated with controversy. Why should it, and why has it? Yes, debates about evolution totter endlessly along, and psychology remains a discipline that sometimes seems orphaned by both humanities and the hard sciences. Why should combining psychology and evolution ignite a confabulation of loathing, fear, and scientific vitriol?

Four reasons, by my reckoning.

First, not only do we (here, a royal ‘we’ of evolutionary biologists like myself) expect very many people to not understand evolution, because it is too simple and mechanistic for our meaning-laden world; we also predict that people should reject evolution because one of its core provisos is that people, you and me, should generally behave so as to maximize their relative fitness. Competition, survival, reproduction, of the fittest? Not me, you? For shame. Evolutionary theory indeed predicts that we should each believe, or at least rationalize, ourselves to be mutualistic, altruistic, and moral nearly to a fault, because that is one of the best ways to get the edge on, or into, our competitors, be they individuals or other groups1. So are you a believer now?  Evolution is controversial because its very existence seems to attack our core beliefs about our own goodness, and the biggest questions regarding human purpose.

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Second, psychology purports to study the brain, but can it do so scientifically, like other disciplines? Will generating questionnaires, and treating humans in modern, novel environments like lab rats, illuminate the inner-workings of the most complicated known structure in our universe? The hard sciences are hard because they are reductionistic – they infer mechanisms, processes, parts that, combined together, explain the workings of whole systems. They conduct controlled, predictive experiments. They have conceptual frameworks built from math and data, not fashion. So armed, they ratchet forward, fact by incontrovertible fact. ‘Soft’ disciplines are soft because they reject reduction, and indeed often claim post-modern relativity for all. Psychology is a soft science because it cannot reduce – there is no place to go except neuroscience, which would swallow it up with nary a belch, given the chance. Evolutionary biology is historical but also reductionist, in that it specifies the precise set of processes whereby all phenotypes have come to be, and change, and it tells us how to discover what functions they serve. As such, it illuminates all domains of science, from genetic sequence through to human behavior – or at least would, if allowed to by academic practitioners. Psychology is controversial because it is a soft science trying to answer the hardest of question, how the brain works. It can’t.

Third, evolutionary psychology was forged in a crucible of polemic, as specific schools of thought, such as the school of highly-modular fitness-increasing brain functions developed by Leda Cosmides and John Tooby. These researchers staked out strong claims, trained talented students, and attacked intellectually-neighboring tribes. Adopting one side of polarized viewpoints, and sticking to it, remains a highly-effective route to scientific notoriety, even though in almost all such fierce academic battles both sides are partially correct, and both partially wrong. We are a deeply tribal species, and we love observing, or joining in, a good scrap. In this case, though, an entire emerging, integrative field has become conflated with extreme views of how the mind thinks, which has made for inviting targets but distracted from the much more general usefulness of evolutionary thinking. Will psychology eventually be torn asunder, like anthropology has been into post-modern, anti-evolutionary ‘culturalists’ versus mainstream but human-centric and evolution-minded biologists? Will economics? One can only hope.

Fourth, ‘psyche’ indeed means ‘soul’, and for psychologists, the hostile tribes of evolutionary biology threaten to steal it away, and subsume their discipline in its mechanistic, reductionist embrace. The irony here is that if there is any discipline that has no soul – that is, no unifying conceptual framework – it is psychology, which has flitted from one arbitrary, more or less imaginary construct to the next since Wilhelm Wundt began treating introspection as data. Of course psychology has produced deeply fascinating insights over its many years. Of course we need a top-down approach to understanding how the brain works, to meet neuroscience inexorably burrowing up from the bottom. But don’t we need a mind-set that recognizes that the brain and mind have evolved, like finches and opposable thumbs? Any discipline would fight like hell to defend its very existence, or at least resist radical transformation at the hands of competitors. Controversy indeed often leads to scientific revolution, with casualties on both sides.

Evolutionary psychology is like evolutionary anything: it is founded on a way of thinking about how the world works, how it has come to be, and how to understand it. It works by telling us what hypotheses to test, what data to collect, and how to interpret our results. The fires of controversy over this emerging field have generated both heat and light, but better understanding of their sources will, I think, help us to control the flames and put them to better use.


  1. Alexander, Richard D. 1987. The Biology of Moral Systems. Aldine De Gruyter, New York.

Join the discussion


  1. Hank Vandenburgh says:

    Mercy me. I seem to believe in both EP and a soul. Oh well.

  2. Glen Sizemore says:

    This brief piece is, by far, one of the most naïve thing I have ever read – well…OK…so much of what is said about behavior (even if allegedly about the brain) is naïve so it is hard to call one thing “the most naïve”). First…psychology purports to study the brain? Not the psychology I know, which purports to study behavior. Secondly…”hard sciences” are necessarily reductionistic? Give me a break…this is a complete distortion of the history of science and the organization of scientific disciplines. Chemistry and thermodynamics, for example, are examples of sciences whose origin was not predicated on reductionism. Indeed, when Fourier was presented a prestigious scientific award for his treatment of heat transfer in metals, there was nothing reductionistic about it. Some of the committee hedged (even though they voted to award him the prize) saying that it did not treat heat transfer in a way that embraced the LaPlacian reductionistic vision of science. I could go on…but I’ll leave it there…

  3. Ted Cloak says:

    “Will psychology eventually be torn asunder, like anthropology has been into post-modern, anti-evolutionary ‘culturalists’ versus mainstream but human-centric and evolution-minded biologists? ” There is a third view in anthropology; culture can be studied scientifically and reductively. See, e.g., “Naturalizing Culture” —

    • Helga Vieirch says:

      I think there are three main problems with evolutionary psychology, one of which is shares with evolutionary biology (as applied to human behaviour): 1) the idea that the human mind was evolved to live in a Pleistocene hunter-gatherer economy. This gives rise to notions of a mismatch between the supposedly greater complexity of the modern economy and the “Palaeolithic brain” we have inherited (EOWilson, page 243, in “the Social Conquest of Earth”) and the ways that this this results in behaviours in humans that are part of evolved adaptive algorithms based on this earlier time. There is no scientific evidence that hunter-gatherers require different cognitive/behavioural systems than do people in any other more recent economic system.
      2) Insistence on a “tribal” and often competitive and hostile relationship between hypothesized “in” and “out” groups as one of the significant features of selection pressure during the evolutionary trajectory that led to the emergence of the human species. Again, whether you look at the writings of either EOWilson (same pages as before, in fact) or David Sloan Wilson, this adherence to the idea of competition between “groups” is central; it is also basic to the reason why kin selection has found more acceptance than “group” selection, since it appears to be taken for granted that the supposed “tribalism” of humans is based on kinship (altruism toward those who carry similar genes) and the notion that the most successful at both defending their own tribal group and destroying the genetic future of competing “groups” was important in directing selection pressure in humans. Again, there is no scientific evidence that loyalty and networks among humans (even among hunter-gatherers) are confined to kin, in fact there is no evidence that they are even confined to the same linguistic or geographic deme. Instead, we find widespread evidence of individual mobility via networks that interconnected populations spread over whole continents, and across continental divides. Information flow and the voluntary flow of personnel appear to have been much higher priorities for our ancestors than we credited them with. The globe trotting young adult is not a new phenomenon. Evidence of violence among human beings is certainly not all that rare in the archaeological and ethnographic record of hunter-gatherers, but it appears to be more often due to internal (even domestic) disputes and social controls than to warfare among different demes.

      3) The idea is often brought forward in EP and EB hypotheses a out human evolved behaviour, that there was always a dominance hierarchy based on material possessions or rank related to aggression, leading to suppression of the mobility and options of females and the young. Males are frequently said to be attractive to females on the bases of their dominance and ability to provide food and other material benefits to the female, thus increasing her chances of raising children. The male “provisioning model” is seen in Buss “A permanent male assistant was in a woman’s best interests, and she had a bargaining chip. … An alternative model proposes that, if females were willing to forego extra-pair matings and preferred males who provided resources, male provisioning would increase…” (page 692 Handbook of Evolutionary Biology… 2015)
      Such formulations tend to ignore the evidence, not only from hunter-gatherer studies, but also from many pastoral and horticultural lineage based societies, that suggest that rank among men is as much dependent upon their reputation for loyalty, generosity and competence rather then upon aggression and/or material wealth. Among hunter-gatherers, in fact, the size of a man’s social network, indicating the quality of his reputation for moral behaviour highly valued by others (diligence, generosity, loyalty, compassion, courage, humour, diplomacy) that was significantly realtd to his chances of contracting a successful marriage. His hunting in general did not, after all, contribute more than 30% (averaged) to his family’s caloric intake, since meat was generally shared among the several families that shared a temporary camp. Women’s gathered foods (plants. eggs, mussels) tended to supply most of the daily calorie intake. Furthermore older women (relatives or not) in the camp often contributed to the feeding of the children, and to the survival of those children, add much as did their father.

      Gender egalitarianism tended to be a feature of hunter-gatherers as well, and not so much in societies of horticultural or pastoral people who were passing down ownership of land or livestock through the male line.

      These three areas – the idea of a mismatch between modern environments and the kind of cognitive and behavioural systems that would have suited human hunter-gatherers for 99% of human evolutionary history, and the presentation of that ancestral environment as one of small “tribal” and rather tight-knit and mutually hostile groups, where males dominated females and competed with one another for female attention by hunting for meat… this whole set of three inter-related aspects to the modelling presented in much of the literature I have personally read, in EP and EVBio, illustrate a major flaw. I have outlined as briefly as possible in the above why this flawed model sets most people in EvoPsych and Evobiology at loggerheads with the received models in mainstream anthropology (which has, I think, managed to recover from the post-modern infections and is hobbling about again). The Evolutionary Environment of Adaptation for humans is not a hunter-gatherer economy. An economy of any kind is a learned set fo cooperative and skilled behaviours, and thus it is cultural, not obligatory behaviour. The fact that humans are cultural creatures is profoundly biological – it is the clearest key we have to what we might call “human nature”. The EEA is culture, and it is not in the past, but continual. I welcome all the discussion, but I do not think there is any point in holding on to the 3 flawed notions outlined briefly here. Let us get on with it. It would be really nice to collaborate in an multidisciplinary effort, to unlock human nature and to use this to improve our chances of deflecting our largest industrial economy from its present, disastrous, course.