Debate Magazine

Survival of the Supernaturalist

By Cris

Since it seems to be the season for critiquing evolutionary psychology, some may be interested in a recent Nation article, “Survival of the Sexiest: How Evolutionary Psychology Went Viral,” by Mal Ahern and Moira Weigel. While the focus of this article is evolutionary psychology’s obsession with sex, some of the insights are equally applicable to the evolutionary psychology of religion. With this in mind, let’s consider these excerpts:

Both historians and scientists criticized evolutionary psychologists for making broad claims about what humans desired in a prehistoric past to which we have very little access. Adaptationist narratives rarely qualify as scientific hypotheses, quite simply because they are impossible to prove right or wrong. Evolutionary psychology does draw on empirical data and laboratory studies, and those data are falsifiable. But the adaptationist explanations that evolutionary psychologists offer are not. We can know what today’s college students say they want in a mate, but it’s impossible to know what our Pleistocene ancestors were after by reading our own preferences backward.

In each case, we are presumed to believe in the phenomenon under analysis already. All we require is an explanation, a story that tells us why we are the way we are. Ultimately, the explanation is always the same: evolution—i.e, reproductive advantage. Click on one of these stories and you will find two things: first, the results of a recent psychological study that verifies an observation about a common human behavior; and second, an evolutionary explanation for why that behavior was advantageous for our ancestors. Because their standard operating procedure is to begin from behaviors that they perceive as universal, evolutionary psychologists tend to confirm received wisdom. Many EP studies tautologically assert that widely held social values are…well, widely held.

These observations are especially pertinent to the evolutionary psychology of religion, a field in which researchers begin with what they take to be a universal (such as “religion” or “belief in invisible agents”), perform psychological testing on WEIRD people like university undergraduates, and then spin evolutionary stories about how the psychological propensities identified in the lab would have been adaptive in ancestral evolutionary environments. Some of them dispense with psychological testing altogether and simply scour anthropological records for evidence which confirms the adaptive story they wish to tell about the evolution of religion.

An example of the former is Jesse Bering, who projects his “Imaginary Alice” lab findings back into the Paleolithic past to explain the alleged adaptiveness of invisible agent ideas. An especially notorious example of the latter is Matt Rossano, an evolutionary psychologist-theist who selectively culls anthropological archives for anything and everything that confirms the marvelous unfolding of God’s plan the evolution of religion by “supernatural selection.” When teaching the anthropology of religion, I always have my students read some of Rossano’s articles, which we then use to discuss methods and just-so storytelling. In other words, we read them to learn how not to do science.

None of this is to say, and I do not mean to suggest, that evolutionary psychology is entirely bankrupt or fraudulent. There are methodologically appropriate ways to do evolutionary psychology, and restrained ways in which insights gleaned from evolutionary psychology can assist us in understanding “religion.” The purpose of this post is simply to point out some of the ways in which it should not be used, or ways in which EP findings have been overextended or misapplied.


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