Evolutionary Psychology OUPS Annual Conference 2016
Last year’s 2016 Annual Conference of OUPS was held at Warwick University upon the interesting though often controversial area of Evolutionary Psychology. This comprehensive subject could not be covered in a weekend and consequently, I will need to be very selective in this review. Many of the general details of evolutionary psychology can be found in textbooks by Buss, Pinker or Workman & Reader. This has the drawback that my review provides an unbalanced reporting of the talks as many lectures covered general information. So, I will not repeat this, but report on what I found interesting information that is not emphasised in these above publications.
Oliver Scott Curry of the University of Oxford spoke about Explaining Morality. Evolutionary psychology presents an ontological model of humans possessing a cognitive architecture consisting of a mind containing collections of solutions to adaptive problems. In this context, Scott Curry argued that morality is a collection of biological and cultural solutions to problems in cooperation. These solutions motivate our social, cooperative and altruistic behaviour and provide criteria to evaluate and critically reflect upon others’ behaviours (and thoughts in a theory of mind process). Studies in this area show some cooperation seen as morally good in some cultures, but not comprehensively across others. Further, different types of methodological measures have been used thus, making comparison difficult.
Consequently, Scott Curry’s present research sought to improve upon these previous studies. The current study consisted of sixty cultures in six different cultural regions using the HRAF data (Human Relations Area Files http:// hraf.yale.edu/). Three coders (K=0.58 measure of inter-rater reliability) made 962 observations of moral valance. The results showed statistically significant results suggesting that moral valance is universally positive out of the seven tested moral behaviours (Kinship; Mutualism; Reciprocity; Contests (Hawk); Contests (Dove); Fairness; Property). None of the cultures examined showed evidence of any negative moral valance, providing strong support for morality as cooperation and showing no evidence for moral relativism.
Keith Jenson of Manchester University spoke about Prosociality – behaviour intended to benefit others - in both apes and humans. He pointed out that human cooperation is one the pinnacles of evolution in our transition from primate to human societies. This was possible because humans rely heavily upon social learning and cooperation with non-kin. However, we never can be sure that alleged prosociality (defined as behaviours intended to benefit others e.g. helping; sharing; comforting and informing) is really actually intended to benefit others and not just the givers own self-interests. In other words, prosociality is an illusion. Testing prosociality is methodologically difficult as Jenson pointed out, since inferring the psychological basis of any behaviour is challenging in adult humans let alone non-linguistic children and in comparative psychology using animals. Furthermore, there is considerable scepticism that individuals can actually be prosocial in contrast to the Machiavellian hypothesis prediction.
Space doesn’t permit me to cover all of his talk, but a consideration of aligned emotions motivating behaviours, such as fairness deserve mention. Jenson referred to a previous study he was involved in that demonstrated how, in contrast to humans, chimpanzees behave more self-interestedly in an ‘ultimatum game’ than humans, who are more likely to compromise to maintain principles of fairness that improves further cooperation. This contrast to one of our nearest evolutionary relatives further suggests prosociality does exists in humans as a unique trait and an adaptation to an ancestral problem in realising the benefits of cooperation.
Nonetheless, evolutionary mismatch between an Environment of Evolutionary Adaptiveness (Hunter-Gatherer society) and a civilisation can strain our personal and social well-being. Despite this strain Paul Gilbert gave a broad overview of the evolutionary advantages of compassion and more importantly argued that a more action research approach was urgently required in society. Gilbert emphasised the need to challenge brain models based upon ‘competition’ that has become dominant the last twenty years in research. Gilbert highlighted studies showing the opposite of compassion: 50% of children with PTSD live in deprived areas and interesting research showing that poverty, loneliness and experiencing violence affects brains.
To achieve this action research approach, it is important we understand that our brains are multi-model and the brain is a massive challenge to itself. One area Gilbert mentioned was our System 1 functions, which can be seen as an endogenous bias. However, we have the ability as a species to self- reflect making this task possibly easier and Gilbert mentioned the role of the Insula as being essential to this sense of ‘you,’ and may therefore ameliorate the effects of System 1 bias.
Despite this bias, System 1 functions are not all bad as Gilbert emphasised the importance of attachment as promoted by Bowlby. More recent research has shown that relationships downregulate oxytocin, improve gene expression and reduce stress and heartrate via Vagus nerve activity in the Parasympathetic ANS.
Gilbert, questioned lack of ethical training in Engineering and Financial occupations and argued that universities need to teach about harm causing behaviour. Gilbert argued that by improving our understanding and taking action e.g. social policy, we may be able to increase compassion over cruelty to raise our personal and social well-being, ending the talk by stating that we need to ‘trick’ our brains to think and behave more compassionately.
Next, Professor Lance Workman highlighted two areas of misunderstanding of Evolutionary Psychology. This is important as it can provide some critical reflectiveness methodologically for all of us on some of the controversial points raised so far. The first area usually comes from various social scientists. Workman argued that these adopt fallacies to ‘refute’ evolutionary theory. Worryingly, he pointed out that academic textbooks regularly misrepresent evolutionary theory to accomplish this supposed ‘refutation.’ For example, Winegard et al (2014) found that twelve commonly used social science textbooks upon sex and gender contained five regularly used inaccuracies about both evolutionary psychology and Darwinism.
These fallacies include: 1) creating straw men (presenting weaker versions of evolutionary arguments, so they can be easily refuted); 2) positioning evolutionary psychologists as politically right-winged-conspirators (in fact a study by Tybur et al (2007) revealed that evolutionary psychologists were less right -winged than the general populace and no more politically conservative than other scientists in general); 3) that EP is based upon genetic determinism, despite a review of EP research literature showing that it argues for a biological- environment interaction. The aforementioned Winegard et al (2014) study further found that major sociology and psychology textbooks misrepresent this latter point. Significant to note is that all genetic effects depend upon an environmental input; 4) the Intentionalistic fallacy (or Sahlin’s fallacy) suggests that people know consciously what they are doing e.g. thinking of reproducing their genes so this motivates individual sexual behaviour.; 5) Just So Stories.
On the other hand, critics who are biological orientated scientists and philosophers have argued with more serious concerns about EP. One is the duration of gradualism, arguing that adaptive cognitive processes could have occurred much quicker in the current Holocene epoch rather than the previous Pleistocene (EEA) one or even evolved before the latter. However, it is important to note that evolutionary processes do not occur in short-time frames as the fossil record reveals, the latter evidence from the Pleistocene period only.
The charge that little is known about the EEA is an overgeneralisation. We know that it had become a socially challenging place of intelligent forager groups who had to make good choices about mate selection; so there is no idealistic EEA. The latter can consist of diverse natural conditions from savannah to tundra suggesting other factors such as culture involvement. The only current evidence for Universality is in mate selection tactics. EP needs more research of Universality’s involvement in non-mate selection. Another criticism is the Santa- Barbara School’s claim to Massive Modularity. This has proved controversial with evidence from neuroscience suggesting self-reorganisation and neuroplasticity.
Next to speak was Dr Glenn Wilson about Sex Wars. His talk highlighted many areas where males and females differ innately. Wilson questioned feminist views that these differences are learnt binary roles from patriarchal society.. For example, he emphasised that women report far greater levels of domestic violence, further show more distress when faced with sexual harassment and/ or unwanted advances. Women on average also show higher levels of mental health issues such as depression.
Parental Investment theory explains this ‘simply’ that sperm are cheaper than ova. Therefore, the latter being more valuable, women will be especially vigilant at guarding and protecting their potential future ‘investment,’ unconsciously. Despite this guarding process, controversial research shows that women of fertile age are more likely to wear clothing that reveals more flesh during the mid-phase of their cycle.
Moreover, recent significant biological research suggests an immune inflammatory response can cause a depressed mood in women, but not men. Consequently, this postulates an additional interacting layer of evidence to socio-cultural theories supporting further possible reasons why women may be more vulnerable to stress and emotional difficulties. This may have practical application in the future.
Wilson further spoke of twin studies showing that up to a third of male and female variance in personality was probably genetically based. Other research has shown that sharing a womb leads to an increased chance of the women becoming more masculinised.
Wilson highlighted a massive difficulty in this area is that it becomes morally politicised. An example of this was that research published in 2013 suggested that feminist activists are statistically significantly more masculinised than the female population in general! Whilst extremely controversial and possibly offensive to some, the study revealed that some feminists attending a Swedish feminist conference had finger digit ratios and personality traits of social dominance much nearer to an average male than an average female. Previous research by Wilson on the 2D:4D finger digit ratio found this correlates with increased testosterone levels. Worryingly, Wilson remarked that the mainstream media refused to publish this article when approach by the study authors.
Lisa DeBruine has researched facial resemblances in relation to kinship recognition for over ten years. Her research is therefore too broad to mention in detail, but I will focus upon two areas she mentioned during her presentation. Firstly, her research into trustworthiness and facial resemblances revealed that as the latter increased so did the former and also prosocial behaviour. In contrast as facial resemblances increased, inversely levels of attractiveness decreased. This suggests some form of implicit kinship recognition system to increase levels of altruism and decrease the occurrence of incest.
There are differences in relationship duration: long-term showed that facial resemblance had no effect on prosocial or sexual appeal whereas in short-term facial resemblance, decreased attractiveness levels (or in other words having a partner who was similar looking to you decreased sex appeal). Thus, kinship detection via facial resemblance is more directly observable than other behavioural inferences of possible genetic relatedness. Consequently, this research suggests some innateness in facial resemblance recognition.
Further research with opposite-sex siblings showed a similar outcome. It influenced inbreeding-relevant perceptions of facial resemblance; but not prosocial ones. Further analysis showed that the effect was influenced by younger.
Next to speak was Helena Cronin who spoke about the very controversial area of sex roles in the workplace. She questioned the consensus promulgated by feminist ideology and presented counter-evidence to the contrary. Significantly, this data revealed that there are huge sex differences in the average choices made by each gender of various professions and significantly highlighted that the distribution that feminists used to justify discrimination was not sufficient as hard evidence.
Cronin tellingly emphasised that alternative explanations for the gender differences are just as plausible in contrast to feminist researchers selective use of evidence. She highlighted the significance of this that instead could inform social policy differently when looked at with different evidence. The gender pay group has been a continual major issue and source of unfairness and is researched extensively. However, Cronin pointed out a more detailed analysis of the pay gap revealed that it was worse in the over forties age group who tended to have less education attainment. In contrast, in the under forties age group the pay gap was not as severe or even non-existent. Further, research shows that many women prefer part-time work.
Moreover, Cronin introduced the concept of the 3Ts: Temperament; Tastes and Talents. The latter concept is well researched and quoted often by both Feminists and Economists of evidence towards unfairness. However, the former two rarely are mentioned in the research literature, which refer to aspects of personality and emotions and gender choices in average occupational choice. Whilst this is very controversial, Cronin reminded us that you can’t just explain away evidence because it disagrees with your favoured ideology!
David Leavens of the University of Sussex next spoke upon The Mismeasure of Ape Social Cognition. providing an important probing and original critique of methodology in current Comparative Psychology showing that apes had methodological unfairness applied when compared with humans in research. To support his viewpoint, he outlined four taken-for-granted assumptions by researchers, which still permeate our discipline, for example viewing humans and animals as separate.
Claim one, that only humans have cognitive capacity for non-verbal reference. Leaver’s then showed multiple studies suggesting that apes have far superior socio-cognitive function than many researchers give them credit for.
A second claim built upon this by arguing that pointing coupled with gaze towards objects and spaces was not possible in apes. More recent studies using chimpanzees has found that they are able to gaze and point with intention towards objects. Furthermore, among the studies disproving this claim, Leaven’s emphasised that many of the animal studies involved ‘retriever’ dog breeds, which are notorious for being able to retrieve objects!!!
Thirdly, that only humans communicate about Absent Entities. Again more recent research has revealed that apes do show much more socio-cognitive with a more rigorous research design bonobo’s and chimpanzee’s performed to the spatial location of a hidden object above chance thus suggesting they are able to form representations about this.
Fourthly, that only humans point to desired entities from afar as previous studies suggested this was impossible for apes. Nonetheless, Leaver’s research found the contrary that apes too could point to desired objects by matching apes and humans on similar factors e.g. distances between the ape and the experimenter.
Reflectively, I have read much about evolutionary psychology – a subject I was antagonistic towards before I studied psychology mainly due to political reasons. However, over a decade ago I found Pinker’s Blank Slate and Ekman’s cross-cultural studies intriguing coupled with my newly developing critical thinking skills taught to me by the OU I changed my views towards it. Despite the controversy it causes amongst academic circles it is worth to note Fred Toate’s suggestion in his Sexual Desire book that evolutionary psychology focuses upon System 1 whereas the other theories such as feminism and cognitive psychology focus more upon system 2 processes; a hypothesis that may in the future settle the pointless conflict between them by providing a broader viewpoint of what it means to be human and understanding how to moderate its excesses rather than claiming it’s all due to learning and society upon a Blank Slate brain. One only has to think of Schrifflins (1977) auto and controlled model, which does not receive the same hostility as EP despite mentioning automatic processes. Consequently, evolutionary psychology may provide that missing Bio part in an interacting Bio- Psycho-Social model.
Ken Kilsby MBPsS graduated with a Bsc(Open) Hons Psych in 2009 and is currently a postgraduate studying part-time for a Msc Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Sussex. Previously, he worked for a children’s charity for cerebral palsy and autism as a research assistant for fifteen years.