Field of Science

Explanation is not justification

In an interesting article in Newsweek, Why Do We Rape, Kill and Sleep Around?, Sharon Begley promotes the argument that we can not blame our bad behaviors on our ancestors, but must look to ourselves to explain why we rape and kill.

Begley is a senior editor and science journalist at Newsweek, and you might just be familiar with her if you read Pharyngula.

This time, she is out to demolish, no less, evolutionary psychology (EP). So what's wrong with that field of science? Well, basically that it really isn't science, is what I would say. Whenever I find myself with someone who argues for the virtues of EP, I can't help but point out the significant flaws in many studies by evolutionary psychologists. For example, David Buss, in his textbook Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind (2007), begins by explaining how not every human behavior need be a trait that has been under positive selection. For example, just because it is conceivably beneficial to rape, it doesn't mean that that behavior evolved as an adaptation. But then Buss spends all the remaining chapters assuming that this and that behavior is an adaptation, without any other justification. On the other hand, when detractors criticize EP for being completely unscientific, then I tend to balk, noting that the researchers may not always test every hypothesis they make, but it could at least in principle be done (see earlier posts I wrote about this).

Begley takes the side of those who criticize EP for making justifications for human behavior. Randy Thornhill, coauthor of A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion (2001) is taken to task for justifying rape:
Over the years these arguments have attracted legions of critics who thought the science was weak and the message (what philosopher David Buller of Northern Illinois University called "a get-out-of-jail-free card" for heinous behavior) pernicious. But the reaction to the rape book was of a whole different order. Biologist Joan Roughgarden of Stanford University called it "the latest 'evolution made me do it' excuse for criminal behavior from evolutionary psychologists." Feminists, sex-crime prosecutors and social scientists denounced it at rallies, on television and in the press.
I cannot emphasize how deeply repugnant I think such behavior is. Accusing Thornhill for justifying rape is deeply unsettling. Whenever this sort of accusations fly, it makes me really worried that scientists interested in explaining why humans are as we are must fear for their careers because what they find might not please everyone. Accusing evolutionary biologists for justifying eugenics is exactly as deplorable (science cannot justify anything, it can only explain, and if you don't like a conclusion, your only option is to attack it with scientific arguments, not rallying against it as a common mob). Basically, it is a mark of scientific immaturity on any would-be scientists who ever confuses explanation with justification. Ptui!
For years the loudest critics have been social scientists, feminists and liberals [my emphasis] offended by the argument that humans are preprogrammed to rape, to kill unfaithful girlfriends and the like. (This was a reprise of the bitter sociobiology debates of the 1970s and 1980s. When Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson proposed that there exists a biologically based human nature, and that it included such traits as militarism and male domination of women, left-wing activists—including eminent biologists in his own department—assailed it as an attempt "to provide a genetic justification of the status quo and of existing privileges for certain groups according to class, race, or sex" analogous to the scientific justification for Nazi eugenics.)
Well, there you go. I consider myself a liberal, though I am neither a social scientist nor a feminist, and yet I strongly distance myself from anyone who makes such accusations of justification. If you are offended by scientific arguments, then you do not belong in science. Simple as that. Full disclosure: I have myself been subject of such criticism in the past, but can assure all that I was as adamant, though perhaps not as emotional, before that particular incident as I am now. (Here is that criticism, and here is the discussion that started it all.)

Additionally, Begley cherry picks quotes and studies with the aim of dismantling the science of EP, but seems to think that this only holds for those nasty male behaviors:
"That makes the likelihood that rape is an evolved adaptation extremely low," says Hill. "It just wouldn't have made sense for men in the Pleistocene to use rape as a reproductive strategy, so the argument that it's preprogrammed into us doesn't hold up."
But where rape fails the litmus test, jealousy is "obviously" adaptive:
Critics of evo psych do not doubt that men and women are wired to become jealous. A radar for infidelity would indeed be adaptive.
Please inform me of the difference between the two claims. Why is rape just not an adaptation, while jeaslousy so clearly is? This is blatantly bad science on the part of the critics of EP, and really bad reporting on the part of Begley.


  1. There has been a rise in spam (which I am not moderating before posting), and that's why the above messages have been deleted (they were sellng products one should get through one's physician).

    No serious comments on topic or related will be deleted.

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  6. Do you have copy writer for so good articles? If so please give me contacts, because this really rocks! :)

  7. Anon, thanks, I think...

    And no, I don't have an editor, apart from myself.

  8. I didn't understand the concluding part of your article, could you please explain it more?

  9. I'm not sure. What exactly don't you get?


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