Mark Sanford and the Utility of Evolutionary Psychology

by Olivia Scheck

Mark_sanford On June 25th, one day after Mark Sanford’s press conference in which he confessed to a year-long affair with a woman in Argentina, David Brooks published an apparently unrelated column titled “Human Nature Today.”

Brooks’ column begins by identifying three “different views of human nature”: the economic view, the traditional Christian view, and the evolutionary psychology view, which he asserts “get[s] the most media attention.” He then lambastes the evolutionary psychology view, using as a proxy Geoffrey Miller, author of The Mating Mind and, more recently, Spent: Sex, Evolution and Consumer Behavior.

Summarizing Spent in terms so simplistic and out-of-context as to be absurd, Brooks’ writes “According to Miller, driving an Acura, Infiniti, Subaru or Volkswagen is a sign of high intelligence. Driving a Cadillac, Chrysler, Ford or Hummer is a sign of low intelligence…[and] teenage girls may cut themselves as a way to demonstrate their ability to withstand infections.”

Whether or not this is a fair account of Miller’s book, it is without question a misrepresentation of evolutionary psychology in general. Yet Brooks uses this review to usher in a new era of skepticism about “E.P.,” declaring that “Evolutionary psychology has had a good run. But now there is growing pushback.”

Specifically, Brooks notes, there is Sharon Begley’s Newsweek attack piece – a “takedown,” he calls it – entitled “Why Do We Rape, Kill and Sleep Around? The fault, dear Darwin, lies not in our ancestors, but in ourselves.” As the headline suggests, Begley’s article is riddled with naive accusations that evolutionary psychologists are genetic determinists. It even implies – bizarrely – that evolutionary psychologists have concocted their views in order to excuse, by dint of the naturalistic fallacy, their own bad behavior. “Let's not speculate,” Begley writes, “on the motives that (mostly male) evolutionary psychologists might have in asserting that their wives are programmed to not really care if they sleep around, and turn instead to the evidence.”

For a response to Begley’s substantive claims, see Gad Saad’s rejoinder on his Psychology Today blog or David Sloan Wilson’s more charitable piece in the Huffington Post.

Here, I am concerned with why this hostility has developed towards scientists carrying out evolutionary psychology research. One reason, I suspect, is that amid the sensationalist news coverage, which appears frequently in Newsweek and the Times and which, it bears note, is not unique to this area of science, many have forgotten the utility of the field.

Whereas Brooks and Begley paint evolutionary psychologists as pushing a fatalistic view of human nature, in which we are inescapably programmed to behave in certain ways, the evolutionary psychologists I know have a quite different agenda. Far from condemning people to engage in destructive behaviors, evolutionary psychologists seek to teach people about themselves so that they might improve, following the words of Anton Chekov, which have become a kind of mantra for cognitive scientists, “Man will become better when you show him what he is like.”

While it is unclear what effect the lessons of evolutionary psychology have had so far, there is, I think, great potential for the field to have a positive influence on the way we live. To take a topical if trite example, consider the case of Mark Sanford.

Mark was in love, it appears from his now public email exchange with lover Maria Chapur, and he didn’t know what to do about it. He knew that people would be hurt if an affair with Maria ever came to light, and the Bible had been pretty clear that the whole situation was a no-no. Still, the feeling in his gut seemed to reflect some undeniable truth. The oxytocin flooding his receptors insisted that he and Maria were “meant to be,” “soul mates,” “MFEO.” If it was wrong, then why did it feel so right?

Lacking explanation, Mark gave in to his instincts.

But imagine if Mark did have an explanation. What if he knew that the feeling we call “love” is a product of our innate psychology (though no doubt shaped in many ways by the society around us) designed by evolution to maximize our reproductive fitness? What if he understood that his sexual and romantic preferences had been influenced by a host of unconscious factors that he would not coolly deem important?

These facts alone could not have told Mark what to do; but they might have informed his decision. An understanding of the principles of evolutionary psychology would not have made Mark’s feelings of passion less intense; but they might have equipped him to better manage his feelings and avoid the typical patterns of moral rationalization.

In these and other matters, recognizing the biological and evolutionary origins of our instincts and emotions can clarify our perspectives and lead to more ethical behavior. For this reason, I hope that research in evolutionary psychology continues to show us what we are like and that this message is conveyed – responsibly – to mainstream audiences. While I applaud the efforts of earnest critics to reign in evolutionary psychology where it has overextended its reach, I lament the efforts of those who would hamper progress out of ignorance or for the sake of fashion.