Movements often exceed the expectations of their founders, because after the movement catches on, other people inevitably want to capitalize on the popularity or authority of the movement and piggyback their own ideas on to those of its founder. The figurehead of an ancient religious movement may have warned his followers, “Take heed that ye be not deceived: for many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ…” The figurehead of a later political movement may have been so appalled at what the French were doing in his name that he tells someone, “Je ne suis pas Marxiste.”

Both Jesus and Marx are wary of impostors who speak in their name. We have no record of Darwin actually saying something comparable, but I am pretty sure that if he were alive today, he would be thinking it.

The reason is that every generation of evolutionary biologists has various political ideologies attached to the fairly simple Darwinian propositions that (1) species are genealogically connected and (2) the primary cause of adaptation is natural selection. How do we know this? Because every previous generation indeed has tethered their ideologies to their Darwinism.

Ernst Haeckel, for example, maintained the subhumanity of non-European peoples, and saw evolution as effectively the progression from an amoeba to the Prussian militaristic state.1 You may not like his view, but he was the leading Darwinian in Germany, and he wrote with authority on the subject, so that if you rejected his theory, his followers would accuse you of being anti-evolution. Eventually, his ideas became inspirational to the German officers in World War I.2

By the end of the 19th century, Karl Pearson could casually invoke evolutionary biology in support of genocidal colonialism, explaining that “a capable and stalwart race of white men should replace a dark-skinned tribe which can neither utilize its land for the full benefit of mankind, nor contribute its quota to the common stock of human knowledge.”3 Once again, the issue is not the political idea itself, but the scientific authority with which it is espoused. And once again, you may disagree with it, especially with the aid of over a century of hindsight, but Karl Pearson was the leading evolutionary geneticist in England. What are you?

And a generation after that , the leading human geneticist in America explains that urban crime is a holdover from Homo erectus, because “the traits of the feeble-minded and the criminalistic are normal traits for infants and for an earlier stage in man's evolution”.4 And once again, if you chose to challenge the veracity of that statement, you would be accused of being anti-Darwin.

That is the historical intellectual context within which I see evolutionary psychology. It’s presumably better than creationist psychology, but nobody practices creationist psychology – so presumably the word “evolutionary” is doing a bit more work here than it may seem at first blush. Indeed, the word seems to encode, in this context, a series of propositions that most people actually working in human evolution believe to be false, if not ridiculous. Foundationally, where students of human evolution have generally emphasized the adaptability of the human mind, evolutionary psychologists have rather attempted to call attention to the adaptedness of the human mind.

From these opposed starting points, other divergences quickly accumulate. For example, the idea that there is an instinctual “human nature” that is analytically separable from human culture. Whether or not you believe it, the idea has far stronger roots in Aristotle than in Darwin. But what our knowledge of human evolution tells us is that even our most fundamental evolutionary instincts, walking and talking, are also learned and highly cultural. Moreover, any familiarity with the history of the subject can show that assertions about “human nature” have a great deal of political valence. They consequently must endure high degrees of scrutiny to be taken seriously; the propositions that regularly emerge from evolutionary psychology tend to wither under the merest criticism.

My personal favorite is the claim that 37 different cultures attest to the divergent features that men and women like in mates, which can now be safely ascribed to nature – until you control for gendered economic inequality, at which point the apparent divergence disappears.5 It wasn’t nature at all; it was history and sloppy scientific reasoning. My second personal favorite is the presumptively evolved disposition for men to be attracted to women with a waist-to-hip ratio of 0.67, the same as that of the stereotypical 36-24-36 Hollywood starlet. Again, naively cross-culturally supported, until you try to control for familiarity with Hollywood. Then it breaks down quickly.6 Again, history and sloppy scientific reasoning; what passes for cross-cultural generalization in evolutionary psychology tends to appall scholars actually familiar with cross-cultural analyses.7

Another problematic idea to students of human evolution is the broad assumption in evolutionary psychology that an evolutionary explanation for any particular feature is ipso facto an adaptive explanation. But again, our knowledge of human evolution tells us that (1) non-adaptive or even maladaptive traits can evolve under appropriate demographic conditions (notably, small population size); (2) those were precisely the conditions under which the great bulk of human evolution occurred; and (3) origin and modern use do not map well onto one another, for either biological or cultural traits. Consequently, there is not the slightest reason to think that any specific feature has to have an adaptive explanation, much less that we have a reliable method for ascertaining it. While of course there are features of the human form that are probably the result of adaptive selection – for example the distinctive shape of the human pelvis in relation to the vertical posture of our ancestors – the human mind seems to be characterized by the opposite condition – adaptability, not adaptedness.

In fact, students of human evolution have found it difficult to detect any influence of selection acting even upon the shape of the human face.8 The assumption that selection would tightly constrain any particular human behavior – given the flexibility of human behavior compared to the flexibility of human faces – simply does not easily harmonize with what we know about human evolution. Consequently, any work that posits an adaptive explanation for a feature, but calls it an “evolutionary” approach – much less “the” evolutionary approach – is likely to be of greater value to the study of rhetoric or narrative in human evolution9 than to the study of human evolution itself.

Is religion an adaptation or an exaptation? There are an awful lot of prior assumptions packed into that evolutionary psychology question. Of course, we have learned a lot about religion, both functionally and cross-culturally. First, there is (cross-cultural) difficulty in bounding or defining “religion” rigorously, since at the very least, magical thought is ubiquitous.10,11 That in turn suggests that “religion” is a reification, and is only a “thing” in a very narrow and localized sense.12 Second, what we experience as religion is complex and has social, intellectual, emotional, and normative aspects. There is no firm reason to consider any particular aspect primary or elemental; its moral, affective, rational, and social aspects presumably coevolved with one another. Religion is consequently easily seen as neither an adaptation nor an exaptation; it’s both. That is to say, to scholars of religion and to scholars of human evolution, the question of whether religion began as a property that spread over generations because it directly benefitted its possessors, or whether it was a byproduct of something else beneficial, is just a very naively framed question. After all, we don’t even really know if bipedalism was an adaptation or an exaptation; we like to think that it arose in the latest Miocene as a good way of getting from point A to point B on the ground, but there are people who steadfastly believe that it arose as a consequence or byproduct of persistent wading and swimming, and it’s hard to prove them wrong.

And finally, I can’t shake the feeling that the methodologies I have encountered in evolutionary psychology would not meet the standards of any other science. For a notable example, it is apparently a revelation to evolutionary psychology that one cannot readily generalize about the human condition from a sample of humans that is Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. Perhaps this was news in psychology – creationist, evolutionary, or otherwise – but, sad to say, everybody else who works with cultural diversity knew that a really long time ago.


[1] Haeckel, E. (1868) Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte. Berlin: Reimer.

[2] Kellogg, V. (1917) Headquarters Nights. Boston: The Atlantic Monthly Press.

[3] Pearson, K. (1892) The Grammar of Science. London: Adam and Charles Black, p. 438.

[4] Davenport, C. B. (1911) Heredity in Relation to Eugenics. New York: Henry Holt, p. 262.

[5] Eagly, A. H. and Wood, W. (1999) The origins of sex differences in human behavior: Evolved dispositions versus social roles. American Psychologist, 54:408-423.

[6] Yu, D. W. and Shepard, G. H. (1998) Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? Nature, 326:391-392.

[7] Fuentes, A. (2012) Race, Monogamy, and Other Lies They Told You: Busting Myths about Human Nature. Berkeley, CA: Univ of California Press.

[8] Weaver, T. D., Roseman, C. C. and Stringer, C. B. (2007) Were neandertal and modern human cranial differences produced by natural selection or genetic drift? Journal of Human Evolution, 53:135-145.

[9] Landau, M. (1991) Narratives of Human Evolution. New Haven: Yale University Press.

[10] Malinowski, B. (1935) Coral Gardens and their Magic. London: Allen and Unwin.

[11] Gmelch, G. (1992) Superstition and ritual in American baseball. Elysian Fields Quarterly, 11:25-36.

[12] Armstrong, K. (2014) Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence. New York: Knopf.