PBS Evolution A Critical Review

“Evolution” Series Provides Infomercial for Dubious Field of “Evolutionary Psychology”


SEATTLE–Many scientists–including many supporters of Darwinian theory–regard “evolutionary psychology” as pseudo-science, but viewers of the WGBH / Clear BLue Sky series “Evolution” won’t get the opportunity to hear their views. Instead, during episode five of the series (“What about sex?”) viewers will be subjected to an uncritical–and unrebutted–presentation of some of evolutionary psychology’s wildest and most speculative claims.

The series devotes special attention to the sweeping theories of evolutionary pscyhologist Geoffrey Miller, who explains everything from the origins of the human brain to Handel’s “Messiah” as a result of our drive for sex. Miller’s conjectures have been criticized as “a product of the storyteller’s art, not of science,” by American Museum of Natural History paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall (New York Times Book Review, June 11, 2000). But viewers won’t get to hear any criticism of Miller’s ideas.

“Evolution’s coverage of evolutionary psychology is about as educational as an infomercial,” says Discovery Institute Senior Fellow John West, a political scientist who tracks the controversy over evolutionary psychology. “While the narrator glancingly admits that evolutionary psychology is ‘controversial,’ the disclaimer is meaningless since no time is given to any scientist who challenges evolutionary psychology or its research.”

Growing out of the often-debunked “sociobiology” movement of the 1970s, evolutionary psychology is dominated by researchers who delight in issuing shocking pronouncements backed up by little or no scientific evidence.

For example, Steven Pinker of MIT asserts that infanticide is hard-wired by evolution into the brains of some mothers, and Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer have argued that rape is a product of natural selection. Such claims have been justly ridiculed by many in the scientific community, and evolutionary psychology has come under close scrutiny for promoting theories based not on evidence but on sheer speculation.

Some of the harshest attacks on evolutionary psychology have come from other biologists committed to defending Darwin’s theory of evolution. “Unfortunately, evolutionary psychologists routinely confuse theory and speculation,” says University of Chicago evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne. According to Coyne, evolutionary psychologists “deal in their own dogmas, and not in propositions of science” and “evolutionary psychology suffers from the scientific equivalent of megalomania.” Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin is equally critical, calling evolutionary psychology “the latest episode in the misuse of biology.”

Other biologists point out the thin basis in biology of most work done in this area. “Most sociobiological accounts of human behavior entail speculative econometric models rather than demonstrated links to biological development,” says biologist Jeffrey Schloss of Westmont College in California. “This does not make them false, but it does mean they are highly conjectural and should be tentatively and self-critically posited, rather than dogmatically asserted as is often the case.”

“Evolution is being promoted for use in schools, but its one-sided advertisement for evolutionary psychology is poor education,” says Bruce Chapman, President of Discovery Institute. “Students have the right to hear from critics of evolutionary psychology as well as its partisans, and teachers should be wary of using in the classroom something so clearly biased.”

Founded in 1990, Discovery Institute is a non-profit, non-partisan public policy center for national and international affairs. Its programs deal with a range of issues, including science, technology, regional development, environment, and defense. More information about the Institute and its activities can be found at www.discovery.org.

Discovery Institute

Discovery Institute promotes thoughtful analysis and effective action on local, regional, national and international issues. The Institute is home to an inter-disciplinary community of scholars and policy advocates dedicated to the reinvigoration of traditional Western principles and institutions and the worldview from which they issued.