From gender to empathy: what can evolutionary psychology tell us?

Sunday 29 October, 16:0017:15, Garden RoomScience and ethics

In July 2017, James Damore, a Google engineer, wrote an internal memo that would eventually go viral, and lead to his sacking. In this memo, Damore claimed that the company existed in an ‘ideological echo chamber’ and had failed to realise that the relative paucity of female engineers was to some degree natural, not social. As Damore put it, ‘the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes’. This is a line of thinking inspired by evolutionary psychology, a school of thought used to explain not just gender differences but phenomena as diverse as empathy and obesity.

Spawned from the ashes of sociobiology in the 1970s, evolutionary psychology seeks to identify the human psychological traits – ‘functional mechanisms’  – that were adaptive in our evolution, forming part of what many now refer to as ‘human nature’. For example, one summary of the area suggests these functional mechanisms include ‘language acquisition modules, incest-avoidance mechanisms, cheater-detection mechanisms, intelligence and sex-specific mating preferences, foraging mechanisms, alliance-tracking mechanisms, and agent detection mechanisms’.

The idea that many mental processes and capabilities may have developed as a result of natural selection seems very plausible, to advocates of evolutionary psychology at least. But without anything grounded in physical evidence as such, are these theories of the evolution of our psyche anything more than predictions or ‘just-so’ stories? And more, can these predictions from the past offer a justification for aspects of our own nature that many deem abhorrent, like violence, racism and rape, to name a few? Don’t blame me, blame evolution?

Evolutionary psychology is also blamed for our poor diet. According to many observers, we are attracted to high-fat and high-sugar foods because they were dense sources of calories as we evolved as nomads at a time when food was in variable supply. But as such foods are now ubiquitous, there is no need to feast to protect ourselves from times of famine. Our hard-wired appetites are considered inappropriate and unhealthy today.

All that said, evolutionary psychology is one of the fastest growing fields of psychology and, with the Google Memo furore, one that is now in the public spotlight. But did the conclusions drawn by Damore have any substance to them? In his book The Blank Slate, cognitive psychologist Professor Steven Pinker would seem to think so: ‘Eliminating discrimination against women is important, but believing that women and men are born with indistinguishable minds is not.’ He goes on to say that while freedom of choice is important, ‘ensuring that women make up exactly 50 per cent of all professions is not’.

Debates around evolutionary psychology seem to become particularly charged where the wider implications for society are discussed, with many seeing the idea of genetic determinism lending weight to ideologies more commonly associated with the political right. If intelligence, race and class are all somehow linked, what’s the point in positive action? Conversely, if gender is indeed a ‘social construct’, then why not use society to deconstruct the categories we currently have?

The field of psychology has never been so polarised, with both sides of the argument around evolutionary psychology throwing up politically and morally charged claims supposedly based on empirical evidence. Ultimately, does the field of evolutionary psychology hold any relevance today? Should we reject an evolutionary perspective simply because it throws up some uncomfortable conclusions? Is it really possible to explain modern psychology through evolution when culture and language appear to be changing at an unprecedented rate?