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Perhaps it's time to stop blaming our cave-dwelling ancestors

July 6, 2009 |  4:18 pm

Rings Sometimes, men have affairs. Sometimes, their wives stand by them. (The reverse also happens, but those scenarios are rarely played out for public consumption, as is the exceedingly common case with U.S. politicians.) For people seeking some public explanation for such intensely private matters, evolutionary psychology has offered one-stop shopping.

The notion is that evolution has bestowed upon us certain predispositions. That is, men are hard-wired to procreate, regardless of the emotional toll on others; women are hard-wired to protect their existing offspring, regardless of the emotional toll on themselves. As for politicians -- well, it all goes double for them, with the need for power, stature, conquest, etc.

Done. And on to the next public display of emotion and remorse.

Now, evolutionary psychology is getting a more skeptical look.

Sharon Begley writes in Newsweek:

"In some environments it might indeed be adaptive for women to seek sugar daddies. In some, it might be adaptive for stepfathers to kill their stepchildren. In some, it might be adaptive for men to be promiscuous. But not in all. And if that's the case, then there is no universal human nature as evo psych defines it. That is what a new wave of studies has been discovering, slaying assertions about universals right and left."

Here's the article, "Why Do We Rape, Kill and Sleep Around? The fault, dear Darwin, lies not in our ancestors, but in ourselves."

And David Brooks attests in the New York Times:

"Far from being preprogrammed with a series of hardwired mental modules, as the E.P. types assert, our brains are fluid and plastic. We’re learning that evolution can be a more rapid process than we thought. It doesn’t take hundreds of thousands of years to produce genetic alterations. Moreover, we’ve evolved to adapt to diverse environments."

Here's the column, "Human Nature Today."

Begley in particular has taken some flak for her article. Gad Saad questions her assessment and defends the field in Psychology Today:

"Evolutionary psychologists are perfectly aware that humans are an inextricable mélange of their genes and idiosyncratic life experiences. This is known as the interactionist perspective. ... That said this does not imply that human nature is infinitely malleable.

Here's his full response, "The Never-Ending Misconceptions About Evolutionary Psychology."

David Sloan Wilson, meanwhile, says on the Huffington Post that "Begley's article made some cheap shots but it also made some fair shots about evolutionary psychology that need to be acknowledged." He lays them out here in "Evolutionary Psychology and the Public Media: Rekindling the Romance."

The discussion about evolution's influence on our behavior will continue, but clearly the media seem less inclined to accept it as explanation.

-- Tami Dennis

Photo: People looking for a simple answer to infidelity may have to keep looking.

Credit: Eric Boyd / Los Angeles Times