May 11, 2021   7 mins

Back when people were still arguing about atheism vs creationism, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection was a constant topic of argument. It was always angry right-wingers who would argue the toss about irreducible complexity at the bottom of my blog posts, claiming evolution broke the Second Law of Thermodynamics. It was left-wingers who went the other way. It was like climate change: the Left “accepted the science”, and (parts of) the Right refused it.

Darwin still divides the Left and Right, but the polarity has reversed. No one really cares about creationists any more. Instead, the row is over whether Darwin – and his theory, or its implications – is racist, or sexist. And the people passionately defending him are often right-wingers, while his critics are on the Left.

The latest incarnation is a by-the-numbers fighting-the-culture-war piece in the Telegraph about a guide to “Applying a decolonial framework to teaching and research in ecology and evolution” published by some plant scientists in the University of Sheffield. In the guide, science lecturers are told to contextualise Darwin by making it clear how his worldview was shaped by colonialism and racism.

I’ve read the guide, and it’s kind of tiresome. A small but irritating aspect is that it slanders the great pioneer of genetic biology JBS Haldane as a “racist and eugenicist”, on the basis of a piece of science fiction he once wrote.

It does indeed criticise Darwin too, one angle of which is that the HMS Beagle, upon which he sailed, was on a mission to map the coastline of South America in order to aid colonial control; that seems a strange thing to blame him for. But it also says that he thought white people were superior to black people, and men to women. It doesn’t mention his passionate hatred of slavery – “Great God how I should like to see that greatest curse on Earth Slavery abolished,” he wrote, saying it would be worth a million lives lost in war to end it – which feels relevant, but no doubt he was racist by modern standards. Cue a thousand-year war over whether we should judge him by standards of his own day or ours, and what those standards are, and so on.

I also rather wish that the Sheffield academics had mentioned whether or not they think Darwin’s theory of natural selection is true or not. There’s an awful lot of talk about power imbalances, Eurocentric viewpoints, and the legacy of colonialism, and how science “cannot be objective and apolitical” – but regardless of whether or not Darwin was racist, was he right? Maybe that’s taken for granted.

Universities, though, are universities; there are hundreds of them, and hundreds of academics in each one, and academics are mainly very left-wing. If you pick the most left-wing thing some academic has said that week, then you’ll never run out of things to print in your newspaper, if you need to keep stoking the culture war to rile up your readership. 

It’s not just the man himself, though. The interesting question is not whether he was personally racist, or to what extent his views were shaped by colonialism – the interesting question is whether his ideas were correct, or, more generally, which of the many, many ideas that have sprung forth from his initial, startling insight are correct, and which are not.

The sad, forgotten creationists aside, most of us gladly accept that dragonflies’ wings and wombats’ toenails or whatever have evolved; that those ancestors which had versions of those organs more suited to their environment tended to have more offspring.

But when Darwin’s idea gets applied to behaviour, it becomes more controversial. The field of science that tries to do this is called sociobiology; it was controversial enough when it arose in the Seventies, pioneered by EO Wilson. It caused a furore – protesters poured water over Wilson’s head during a conference talk, chanting “Racist Wilson, you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide.” Wilson’s work was mainly about ants.

When Darwinian ideas are applied to the human brain, and human behaviour, it is called evolutionary psychology, and that is more controversial still. 

Which, on the face of it, is strange. Evolutionary psychology is, at its heart, the idea that the brain (and therefore the mind, and human behaviour and psychology in general) is the product of evolution, just like every other animal organ. As Richard Dawkins wrote in the 2005 foreword to The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology, that is so obviously true as to be almost not worth saying: “The central claim [of evolutionary psychology] is not an extraordinary one,” he wrote. “It amounts to the exceedingly modest claim that minds are on the same footing as bodies where Darwinian natural selection is concerned. Given that feet, livers, ears, wings, shells, eyes, crests, ligaments, antennae, hearts and feathers are shaped by natural selection … why on earth should the same not be true of brains[?]”

If you accept that evolution really happened and that humans are a product of it, then that should surely be uncontroversial. It’s surely the case that if we had evolved from bats, or whales, rather than apes, we would be very different, psychologically speaking. But evolutionary psychology is an astonishingly controversial field. It’s “pseudoscience”, or “unfalsifiable”, according to some.

The idea that the mind is evolved goes back to Darwin himself, but it was Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, a wife-and-husband team of academics, who really developed the field in The Adapted Mind, a book of essays they edited in 1992. 

Insofar as I can tell, evolutionary psychology is no more pseudoscientific or unfalsifiable than evolutionary biology in general. It’s harder to do, because brains and behaviour don’t usually leave fossils, but in principle it’s the same. You come up with some hypothesis, you make predictions using that hypothesis, and you test those predictions against reality.

For instance: one hypothesis within evolutionary psychology is the “psychological immune system”, the idea that we have an evolved tendency to behave in ways that reduce our exposure to dangerous pathogens. That’s pretty obviously the case in certain situations — for instance, faeces and rotting meat smell bad to us and we want to get away from them. But one more specific hypothesis was that people who have recently been ill, and therefore less able to fight off new diseases, would be hypersensitive to that tendency, and would want to (for instance) avoid people whose faces showed signs of disease.

One study found evidence that that was the case; a later, larger replication found that it wasn’t. Hypothesis (so far) falsified. This is bog-standard science.

It is true that there are a lot of comedy-sounding studies, into nipple erection and sexiness or a correlation between intelligence and semen quality, and some of them have failed to replicate

But if having some strange-sounding studies published, or studies that have failed to replicate, is enough to render an entire field pseudoscientific, then very few fields will survive. The field of medicine contains studies like this, in the medical journal Global Advances in Health and Medicine, which claims that to heal the body we need to study “the human energy field” and especially “organ-associated frequencies instrumental in the endocrine/chakra systems”. (It was eventually retracted, after two years.)

And this, in the same journal, encouraging “shamanic journeying” in paediatric palliative care, “in which the patient or the shaman moves into an altered state of awareness and encounters … ‘power animals.’” Or this paper, in the Journal of Trace Elements in Medicine and Biology, which looked at five (5) human brains, used no control group, did frankly weird things with the numbers, and used that to claim that aluminium in vaccines causes autism.

Those papers — which took me five minutes to find — are bad, and silly, and potentially harmful. But we don’t throw out the entire scientific field of medicine because there are weird, bad papers published on its fringes. Evolutionary psychology has its cranks, and its amusing or weird-sounding papers, but so does every field. Demanding that it alone be pure is an isolated demand for rigour. It’s not fair to apply uniquely stringent rules to evolutionary psychology, and I think the only reason people do is because evolutionary psychology is associated with a particular kind of reactionary politics.

It is, of course, true that evolutionary psychology can have obvious political implications that other fields, chemistry or astrophysics, say, might not. And some of them are unpalatable. The James Damore “Google memo” based its suggestion that women are, on average, less interested in tech than men explicitly on an “evolutionary psychology perspective”, for instance.

But there is lots of perfectly good, and politically uncontroversial as well as scientifically uncontroversial, science that goes on, looking at psychology through an evolutionary lens. Daniel Kahneman’s great work of popular psychology, Thinking, Fast and Slow, explicitly describes human psychology as an evolved thing: “The questions are perhaps less urgent for a human in a city environment than for a gazelle on the savannah, but we have inherited the neural mechanisms that evolved to provide ongoing assessments of threat level, and they have not been turned off.” He links our ability to read faces to a crucial evolutionary need to assess the intentions of people around us. This is evolutionary psychology, unadorned.

More importantly, though: whether something is politically convenient or not doesn’t affect whether it’s true. The Damore essay is a case in point. It certainly doesn’t seem to be unambiguously false: Cordelia Fine, author of Delusions of Gender and a populariser of feminism-inspired science, told the Guardian that Damore’s summation of the difference between men and women was far from perfect but “more accurate and nuanced than what you sometimes find in the popular literature” and “not seen as especially controversial”.

One problem is that if you say things like “Some of the differences between men and women are caused by evolution,” it sounds as though you’re saying “And therefore there is no point in working to reduce the gender pay gap”, or “and therefore women are supposed to have babies and not work”. It’s very hard to avoid people hearing those things. 

And it’s absolutely true that some people do use evolutionary psychology as a crutch for their beliefs; human beings are, indeed, not lobsters. (Mind you, they’re not clownfish either.)

Charles Darwin, the historical figure, is interesting to study, and it’s worth remembering that he was a man of his time. But Darwinism, the great insight of evolution by natural selection, is separate. It is true (or false) regardless of Darwin’s own views, and so are the many insights which have followed it. We can go back and forth over whether he was a racist, but the more interesting question is: was he right?

Tom Chivers is a science writer. His second book, How to Read Numbers, is out now.