Evolutionary Pscyhology in Political Science

I’ve been thinking about the role of evolutionary psychology in political science, after it was used in a couple of recent presentations. My concern is that political scientists are borrowing a method or paradigm from another discipline without borrowing the critiques that need to go with it. Discussion of some of the normative issues around evolutionary psychology, particularly the naturalistic fallacy, are ongoing in evolutionary psychology (see here for instance http://evolution.binghamton.edu/dswilson/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/DSW14.pdf) but are often neglected when causal mechanisms from that discipline make their way into other work.

This is particularly important when evolutionary psychology is used to study some of the worst human behaviors, such as sexual violence, genocide, or the discriminatory behaviors associated with racism. Given the prevalence of sexual violence on university campuses, surely it’s imperative that professors don’t inadvertently feed into stereotypes about blaming the victim? Evolutionary psychology might have a lot to contribute to our understanding of these phenomena, but I don’t think you can expect an audience to stick with you long enough to find out if you don’t discuss – not even a single mention – that whatever your genes, and whatever hypotheses (unconfirmed hypotheses, that I’m overwhelmingly skeptical of, I might add) academics might have about the relationship between sexual violence and evolutionary fitness, none of that will ever justify any sexually violent behavior. Similarly with discrimination, do we really want to place the emphasis of our research on why, at some point in history, racism was apparently evolutionarily fit – without even mentioning what it might mean to be taking that angle as opposed to any other angle? I think it’s really important that political scientists engage with questions like this, whatever their methodological approach, but it seems to me to be particularly necessary when considering evolutionary psychology. I don’t think causal mechanisms can be translated from evolutionary psychology to political science unless we also translate the important (and sometimes normative) debates that surround those mechanisms.

            Though evolutionary psychology in political science seems particularly susceptible to these kinds of problems at the moment, I think all political scientists could stand to be a bit more sensitive when discussing these topics. If you’re going to present war as the equilibrium outcome, genocide as a rational choice, or human rights violations as evolutionarily optimal, then you have a responsibility to deal with the normative implications of what you’re saying. Whether it’s a classroom, a workshop, or a conference, you don’t know how many survivors of these traumatic events are in your audience, and if you’re going to stop just short of a normative implication that has the potential to be massively triggering for them, you need to preface it appropriately and be upfront about the normative implications of your argument.

About Ben Farrer

Ben is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Studies at Knox College. He received his PhD in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2014. Ben was previously a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and previously held a research position in the Department of Political Science at Fordham University. His research and teaching interests are centered around parties and interest groups, particularly those from under-represented constituencies. A great deal of his work deals with the political organizations of the environmental movement. He studies both American and Comparative politics.

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