Is evolutionary psychology really rational choice theory?

I recently came across a couple of postings on a Psychology Today blog, Remaining puzzle #7 solved: Why children may love their parents, and Stump the evolutionary psychologist: Remaining puzzles, both by Satoshi Kanazawa. Dr. Kanazawa is a self-proclaimed ‘evolutionary psychologist’ (by that, I just mean that I’m not the one applying the label — he is) who is affiliated with Management at the London School of Economics and Political Science, the Department of Psychology at University College London, and the Department of Psychology at Birkbeck College, University of London. Listed as one of his primary qualifications is his co-authorship, with the late Alan S. Miller, of Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters.

In the first of the posts, ‘Stump the evolutionary psychologist,’ Dr. Kanazawa writes about his blog, The Scientific Fundamentalist:

Regardless of the particular topic at hand, the consistent theme in my blog has been to illuminate the power of evolutionary psychology to explain human cognition and behavior — what we think, how we feel, what we want, and what we do. The range of topics covered in this blog reflects my belief, shared by all evolutionary psychologists, that evolutionary psychology provides the best and the most ultimate (as opposed to the proximate) explanations of human behavior.

The fact that evolutionary psychology can explain so much of human behavior, however, does not mean that it can explain everything. Yet. Although I have absolutely no doubt that evolutionary psychology (along with behavior genetics and cognitive neuroscience) can eventually explain all of human cognitions and behavior some day, the day is still far ahead. There is still so much that we do not know.

This account is pretty sweeping and ambitious, a program that would theoretically make all other forms of psychological explanation subordinate, if not completely obsolete. According to Dr. Kanazawa, Robert Wright identified six questions in The Moral Animal (1994), that have challenged evolutionary psychology:

1. What about homosexuals?
2. Why are siblings often so different from one another?
3. Why do people choose to have few or no kids?
4. Why do people commit suicide?
5. Why do people kill their own children?
6. Why do soldiers die for their countries?

According to Kanazawa, Questions 1, 2 and 5 have been resolved (whew!) since 1994, but a number of new questions have come up which he and Miller posed in their book. Here are the new questions:

7. Why do children love their parents?
8. Why do parents in advanced industrial nations have so few children?
9. Why do people find a tan attractive? Why do men hog the remote control and typically channel surf much more than women? Why are men mostly responsible for barbecuing and carving meats while women do most of the other cooking? [I’m not sure why these latter questions were grouped together…]

Let me just make this clear: no, I’m not making this up. Apparently, evolutionary psychology has definitively answered so many questions that they’re only left with a short list that includes such probing questions as why people find tans attractive (this will be news to most Asian societies, I’m assuming, where protection from sun is considered essential to preserving one’s beauty), why men hog the remote (I’m not sure how evolution got around to shaping this behaviour in the few short years since remotes have been invented), and the whole men on the barbie thing (here in Australia we know it’s because men only cook if there’s a serious possibility of killing oneself in a gas fire).

I LOVE that wacky English sense of humour. Oh, man, you had me going there for a minute. I thought that this was serious, and then you busted out that killer one about the tan and made me go, ‘yeah, right…. HUH!? gwuhUH!? WHAAAA!?’ And then I read the final questions, and I nearly wet myself laughing. God, that’s funny… oh, wait. you’re serious? really?

Look, I’m not going to delve too deeply into The Scientific Fundamentalist as I imagine that my delight and amusement at finding this column will quickly turn to a painful throbbing migraine headache, but to those who think I’m exaggerating, please surf right on over to the The Scientific Fundamentalist; I see there’s a 6-part series on the argument that men do everything that they do in order to get laid (which would seem to be disproven by the very fact that men blog in the first place — not a chick magnet in my experience. Again: No, I am not making this up.).

For our new readers, I’ve had to point out repeatedly, sometimes for angry comment writers, that I’m perfectly content to talk about how evolution shapes all sorts of human traits and behaviours; after all, I teach about human evolution, even lecturing on the evolution of the human brain. But what I think I differ on is that I do not see ‘evolutionary’ roots as identical to rational choice-style calculations of advantage. That is, too often ‘evolutionary’ arguments are indistinguishable from cost-benefit analyses that look more economic than evolutionary. To just come up with a ‘rational’ strategy that explains seemingly ‘irrational’ human behaviour (like being gay or committing suicide), showing that they really ‘make sense’ from some kind of benefit-calculating perspective, is not an ‘evolutionary’ account; it’s a functionalist account of a trait. Finding the ‘function’ or ‘evolutionary reason’ for a behaviour pattern in its benefit to the organism is resolutely NON-evolutionary.

An evolutionary explanation for a trait would have to account for how a trait might arise through evolutionary processes in time, including whether or not the trait might NOT be susceptible to natural selection because it did not fulfill the basic requirements of Darwin’s model (a) heritability, b) variation, and c) selective pressure). I suspect that many human behaviours fail to meet basic requirements such that natural selection might even applying to them because they are a) not inheritable, and b) do not significantly affect chance of survival to reproduction. Liking to have on one’s possession the remote control for the TV is probably going to fail on both accounts to even be a candidate for natural selection. (Again, this may be a REALLY dry version of English humour, and I shouldn’t even take it this seriously…)

I think that in one of my earlier posts, I mentioned the danger of economists wielding ‘evolutionary’ explanations for behaviour. The confluence of so-called ‘evolutionary’ explanations and cost-benefit analysis might explain why there’s the dangerous undertow of economistic thinking in some forms of evolutionary psychology. At it’s best, this sort of thinking can be adaptationist, assuming that every trait, isolated from the whole organism, is individually selected and, therefore, must serve some evolutionary ‘purpose.’ Of course, individual traits are not selected in isolation; they are part of a whole organism which either succeeds or fails to pass on its DNA.

But at its worst, cost-benefit ‘evolutionary’ explanations can be a kind of retroactive functionalism that completely denies the way that traits emerge over an evolutionary time scale, often through circuitous routes, with intermediate forms granting selective advantages for reasons that differ from the current function of an organ, trait or behaviour. That is, cost-benefit ‘evolutionary’ accounts are almost teleological, taking the current form as the cause, when it may be anything but the reason that a trait first arose in an organism.

Ultimately, it seems to me that ‘evolutionary psychology’ explanations in some of these exercises combine two highly speculative forms of thinking: first, a kind of loose economistic cost-benefit analysis that seldom actually calculates the real costs in energy or opportunities to an organism of a particular trait, and second, a conjecture about the prior evolutionary context that would have shaped that trait.

As recent research on bipedalism has revealed, actual evolutionary evidence such as paleoarchaeological remains can quickly undermine our accounts of how basic traits emerged, when they emerged, and what a plausible account of the emergence might include. In some of the crucial cases for evolutionary psychology, I’m not sure we know enough about the emergence of modern human sociality and the social lives of our ancestors to really confidently talk about how a modern psychological trait might have emerged (if we even concede that these psychological traits might be subject to selection — hey, I’m not the one who brought up the TV remote as one of the key questions for evolutionary pychology…). We don’t even know what hominin social life looked like 6 million years ago; is it so easy then to argue what it might have done to shape our modern behaviour?

I wouldn’t want to rule out the possibility of talking about behaviour, but I do think that back-figuring evolutionary theories on the basis of modern behaviour coupled with a cost-benefit story can be a dangerous way to go about doing evolutionary theory, especially if we’re not careful about what sorts of traits we’re going to include (e.g., tans, barbecues… you get my drift). It’s one thing to talk about reproduction or survival-related traits, another to discuss the mass psychology of modern institutions, like nation states.

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Trained as a cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago, I have gone on to do fieldwork in Brazil and the United States. I have written one book, Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art (Oxford, 2005). I have also co-authored and co-edited several, including, with Dr. Daniel Lende, The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (MIT, 2012), and with Dr. Melissa Fisher, Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy (Duke, 2006). My research interests include neuroanthropology, psychological anthropology, sport, dance, human rights, neuroscience, phenomenology, economic anthropology, and just about anything else that catches my attention.

7 thoughts on “Is evolutionary psychology really rational choice theory?

  1. Naadir —
    Wow. I’m gobsmacked, as we say here in Oz. Thanks for enlightening me — the paper looks excellent, an insightful exploration of the ‘evolutionary imagination’ (which can be so extraordinarily creative), and the blog entry was startling. I’m glad that I didn’t dig too deep into Dr. Kanazawa’s website. Maybe some slow weekend after a couple of beers I might have the right frame of mind to deal with it.

    It’s a shame that so many nutters are attracted to what they think is ‘evolutionary’ theory. Kind of makes it harder for the people who want to do serious work on the relation between brain, psychology, and evolution.

  2. The English do seem to be particularly entranced by this kind of thing — there was a TV series a number of years ago called “Why Men Don’t Iron” that was an equally hilarious exploration of wildly misinterpreted social phenomena. Still, there is part of me that expects the author of the paper linked to above to be revealed as a comedian, not an academic. The line “the brain of young Muslim men today is tricked by the Koran, which also did not exist in the ancestral environment” was particularly hysterical.

  3. Is it not ‘jumping the gun’ to equate sociological aspects of our behavior to evolution? Don’t factors, like social and cultural influence, affect all of these proposed irrational issues? For example; Athens and Sparta Greece — (not an expert here) but, didn’t Athens have affluent homosexuality where as Sparta had little to none? Or, in Afghanistan where men have multiple wives and still engage in homosexuality on the side as recreation (this one I know.) And isn’t porcelain skin valued in more countries than tanned? For instance, Afghanistan for one, India for another, I believe Asian countries think the same (painted white faced Chinese women come to mind.) But, I need not argue the validity as that is already your stance.

    My humble, only generally educated, opinion: I believe that our biological programming is stiff and generally just happens; but, I think the programming for the mind is more open ended — more of a ‘help menu’ -if you will, of options as processes for any sort of situation or variable that cannot be predetermined. This, I believe, is why we are able to utilize this sort of programming for our will. Our artistic pursuits, invention, theory and science… All a possible result of simply utilizing the available programmed tools – the way we choose to use them. Choice being the key attribute necessary to do so; choice, I believe, is required for programming because the mind cannot predetermine scenario’s and problems. Choice, being presumably a program itself, would have the purpose of allowing us to utilize all available functions to solve any sort of problem or construct any sort of idea. It would also be available for choosing to be cruel, hurtful, ignorant or detrimental towards other humans or to pursue pleasures or want’s etc.

    As far as an evolution of the mind, – maybe more of these tools become available?

    But, how would this progress in overall humanity when the aspects of evolutionary progression (Darwin’s; heritability, variation and selective pressure as you mention) are influenced by our choice to assist each other in survival and furthermore to medically support the ‘bad strains’ like bad vision etc. How will the progression make headway without evolutionarily progressed humans living out the rest? Though, maybe with interbreeding and time, all things would play out…


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