Begging The Question

I’ve long been bothered by evolutionary psychology. Thoughts leave no fossils, the way bones do. So we can know that ancient Egyptians suffered from tuberculosis, or Neandertals from arthritis, but it’s much harder to know how they brought up their children.

Behaviors may leave fossils, although the interpretation of them is much more difficult than the lesions of tuberculosis or arthritis. A Neandertal grave with the body carefully arranged and flowers around it may mean respect for the dead or magic to keep death away from the living. Or both, or something we haven’t thought of.

Dan Slater this morning provides what may have really been bothering me about the field. I haven’t paid enough attention to its methods, but I have noticed, far too often, that its results tell us that men do things pretty well and we should allow them to keep doing what they’re doing: following their penises, mostly.

The term “begging the question” is frequently used when a writer finds another question in the material she’s working with. But the older meaning, from formal logic, is that a conclusion is assumed and then used to prove itself. Slater:

Evolutionary psychologists who study mating behavior often begin with a hypothesis about how modern humans mate: say, that men think about sex more than women do. Then they gather evidence — from studies, statistics and surveys — to support that assumption. Finally, and here’s where the leap occurs, they construct an evolutionary theory to explain why men think about sex more than women, where that gender difference came from, what adaptive purpose it served in antiquity, and why we’re stuck with the consequences today.

Assume that men think about sex more than women do. Then gather evidence to support what you’ve assumed. Then use that to explain why men think more about sex than women do. A very nice, clear example of begging the question.

I’m a chemist, and the matter that we investigate is more easily pinned down than human behavior. Our usual method is to make a great many observations, designed to observe a phenomenon from many sides, then make a hypothesis about what is causing the phenomenon, then designing experiments that will come out one way if the hypothesis is true, another if it is false. We admit all evidence, even when it does not support the hypothesis. In fact, we will usually try to find evidence that conflicts with or undermines the hypothesis. If we don’t, another chemist will.

The example Slater has chosen is telling, too. Yes, men and sex and why that behavior is justified, again. I haven’t done a count, but I wonder how many evolutionary psychologists are women.

Slater goes on to examine the navel of ev psych. Some of the initial male preferences hypotheses are being, apparently, invalidated by later investigations. If those later investigations beg their questions in the way that Slater has outlined, they are no more valid. Although they investigate current behavior rather than imagining how the caveman slung the woman over his shoulder and she liked it. And apparently some of that behavior is at odds with those initial male preferences hypotheses. Horrors!

As I said, chemists try to disprove their hypotheses. If it turns out the hypothesis was wrong, then we devise one more in line with the observations. I guess that finding your hypothesis is wrong when you’ve used it to prove itself is a worse outcome.

It’s nice that people can get  jobs fantasizing about sex and asking others embarrassing questions. But, if this “science” is done as Slater describes, what can we possibly expect to get out of it?

Update: Steven Pinker tweets that Slater has misquoted him. His entire statement is here.


Cross-posted at Phronesisaical.

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Cheryl Rofer

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  • Vis-a-vis begging the question

    While descriptivists and other such laissez-faire linguists are content to allow the misconception to fall into the vernacular, it cannot be denied that logic and philosophy stand to lose an important conceptual label should the meaning of BTQ become diluted to the point that we must constantly distinguish between the traditional usage and the erroneous “modern” usage. This is why we fight.

  • Evo-psych is the perfect tool to justify gender apartheid on account of biology. The desire for this is so great that any shoddy study will do.

    Holly Combe offered a critique of this absurd study: “Research casts doubt on women’s pleasure”

    The main problem I have with the framing of this research is that it seems to perpetuate the all-too-common view that women don’t really enjoy sex. It also seems to sit alongside the sexist mainstream media’s focus on the variety of more unsexy reasons some women have given for having sex in order to imply that, unlike men, simple pleasure is not generally our priority. This culture for relentlessly negating female desire surely means any sexual behaviour a woman who has sex with men exhibits, such as “copulatory vocalisations,” is less likely to be accepted as an expression of her own pleasure or a direct attempt to increase it.

    Note that all these studies are carried out while women suffer slut-shaming and are denied the female gaze. One can hardly expect a valid study when plaudits are heaped on men’s sexual expression while shame is heaped on women’s sexual expression.

  • I highly suggest that people read the Update link with Pinker’s correspondence. It adds way more nuance to this.

    My wife went to undergrad and grad school in psychology, took several evo-psych classes, and spoke with prominent researchers in the field at conferences, etc. She thinks that the particular line of questioning that evo-psych represents is based on an overly simplistic theoretical basis, but that’s really her only beef with it. Whenever the old “progressive evo psych hate” comes out on a blog I read, I tell her and she rolls her eyes.

    The actual ideas and research of the field are different and a lot more nuanced than what the popular press picks up on and sensationalizes. But there’s this terrible knee-jerk reaction whenever anyone says the phrase “evo psych” that is based on exactly that–cherry picking bad papers, sensationalizing the results, hugely oversimplifying the debate, etc. Seriously, read Pinker’s reply, especially the last part:

    I also couldn’t disagree with you more on this: “it’s interesting to see how various scientific
    theories often magically support the status-quo thinking of their era. I imagine it was
    comforting for the men and women of Trivers’ time to hear such seemingly immutable
    explanations for stereotypical gender roles.” Among the academic and journalistic circles that
    got to comment on Trivers’ theory, the prejudice was massively in the other direction, and the
    sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists were bitterly vilified and sometimes physically
    attacked. It’s still close to career suicide in academia to pursue biological explanations of sex
    differences, whereas no one has ever suffered from career damage in journalism or academia
    for saying it’s all due to stigma, prejudice, and hidden barriers – on the contrary, it’s a ticket to
    professional advancement. As a veteran of this issue, I can give you many, many examples.
    Again, if you think that the theory of sexual selection got a free ride because it harmonized
    with cultural expectations, and that the theory of social construction bravely fought against
    entrenched privilege, I think the evidence shows that it is the other way around.

    As for greater permissiveness, promiscuity, lower marriage rates, rising marriage age, and so
    on – which theories do these contradict? Sexual selection does not predict puritanism, marital
    fidelity, low marriage ages, etc. – it sounds to me as if you’re blurring together all the features
    of sexuality that were true in the 1950s, and attributing them all to the theory of sexual

    Having spoken to my wife about this and seen how her grad program worked in a very, very closely related field, this largely rings true (though he does use a few absolutes such as “no one has ever…” etc., which are by definition exaggerations!)

    • After I read Pinker’s correspondence, I began to think that the problem might be Slater’s interpretation of evo psych. Hard to be sure from just this much, and I’ll admit that I haven’t delved deeply into evo psych itself. I have read Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature and think it’s excellent, but it doesn’t contain or rely on a lot of evo psych. It did give me a lot of respect for Pinker, though.

      So it may be that the problem with the quote I pulled is that Slater doesn’t understand how science works, or evo psych either. It may be the (male) reporters who are obsessed with justifying their sex lives through evo psych, rather than the scientists.

      Still, so much of what is around on evo psych has been masticated by the journalists, it’s worth being skeptical of anything in that area.

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