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Evolutionary psychology takes its lumps in Newsweek

Science writer Sharon Begley, who in 2007 returned to her old job at Newsweek after 5 years of writing the “Science Journal” column for The Wall Street Journal, has long reported skeptically about anything smacking of biological determinism. In the 29 June issue of Newsweek, she pens a 4300-word critique of evolutionary psychology, the theory that modern human behavior—including everything from mate choice to child abuse to warfare—is the result of evolutionary adaptations that took place 100,000 or more years ago. Her piece, titled “Why Do We Rape, Kill and Sleep Around?” concludes, as the subtitle puts it, “The fault, dear Darwin, lies not in our ancestors, but in ourselves.”

The heart of Begley’s smack down of evolutionary psychology is a pile of new evidence that, she argues, pulls the Darwinian rug out from under the theory. For example, is rape an adaptation that allows men to spread more of their genes around? Begley writes that this thesis—which was made notorious by biologist Randy Thornhill of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque in his 2000 book A Natural History of Rape—is undermined by calculations by one of Thornhill’s former colleagues. Those calculations suggest that hunter-gatherers who rape will see their evolutionary fitness go down rather than up because  offspring of such violent encounters have a lower chance of surviving or even being born.

Throughout the article, Begley combines detailed scientific argumentation with rapier-sharp digs at evolutionary psychologists. Here’s her mocking characterization of one of the field’s central hypotheses for what men seek in women:  “Men attracted to young, curvaceous babes were fitter because such women were the most fertile; mating with dumpy, barren hags is not a good way to grow a big family tree.”

Begley laments that although evolutionary psychology has lost a great deal of ground scientifically in recent years and represents a very simplistic view of human nature, it remains very popular with the mass media.

profile of Begley gives more information on her career.