They believe that certain groups of people are inherently smarter than others. They write books about how rape is a natural part of human evolution. And now, with another scandal rocking the world of evolutionary psychology, we can officially welcome a new breed of mad scientist into the spotlight: evopsych douchebags.
Evolutionary psychology has often been a field whose most prominent practitioners get embroiled in controversy — witness the 2010 case of Harvard professor Marc Hauser, whose graduate students came forward to say he'd been faking evidence for years. Then there was the case of Diederik Stapel, whose social psychology work shared a lot of territory with evopsych. He came forward in late 2011 to admit that most of his data was sheer invention.
And the latest example of douchebaggery comes from University of New Mexico evopsych professor Geoffrey Miller. Back in early June, Miller decided to share some of his feelings about fat people with the world:
This isn't just the usual trolling from a jerk on Twitter. This is a guy who is supposedly an expert on human psychology, which includes willpower, so he's putting the weight of his profession behind this assertion. More importantly he is somebody who actually has the power to reject potential Ph.D. students from the University of New Mexico, based on his spurious and unfounded theories about fat. As anthropology professor Jason DeCaro said in response, Miller's tweet could actually provide evidence in a discrimination suit:
Miller was immediately inundated with other angry tweets, including from NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen (who called Miller's comment "astonishing" and "fat-shaming"). Within minutes, Miller deleted the tweet and issued an apology for his words. But then he went further, claiming that the tweet wasn't his own opinion but was part of a research project he was conducting. And that's when things got really weird.
Last week, the University of New Mexico issued a statement saying that it had conducted an investigation and that the tweet had nothing to do with Miller's research at all. Instead, it was "self-promotional," a raw, unvarnished opinion from a guy who still has tenure at a major research institution and is about to finish up a fancy, one-year appointment at NYU's business school.
But it's not really out of character for Miller, who is the poster child for evopsych douchebaggery. Previously, he has spoken up about how he loves the idea of a Chinese eugenics project to make people smarter. Though Miller was involved in this project (he donated some of his smart DNA for testing), he had actually misunderstood its aims and misrepresented them as eugenics. In fact, the project was aimed at studying genetic markers of intelligence. Miller is also famous for saying, based on almost no evidence, that evopsych reveals that lap dancers get better tips when they are ovulating.
This is all part of his and many other evopsych researchers' project to prove that humans haven't changed much since we were roaming east Africa 100,000 years ago. Evolutionary biology researchers like Marlene Zuk have explored some the scientific problems with this idea. Most notably, humans have continued to evolve quite a lot over the past ten thousand years, and certainly over 100 thousand. Sure, our biology affects our behavior. But it's unlikely that humans' early evolution is deeply relevant to contemporary psychological questions about dating, or the willpower to complete a dissertation. Even Steven Pinker, one of evopsych's biggest proponents, has said that humans continue to evolve and that our behavior is changing over time.
But the classic evopsych douchebag, like Miller, absolutely wants to believe that humans are still in thrall to the same psychological forces that shaped our behavior much earlier in Homo sapiens evolution. At the same time, he wants to allow for the idea that some people have obviously evolved to be smarter, like guys who donate DNA to eugenics projects.
Miller's work is a more erudite version of a lot of what you see in the pickup artist (PUA) and men's rights scenes. In both groups, the common sense belief is that sexuality is based on a very old game that isn't terribly different from clubbing women on the head and dragging them back to an anthropologically inaccurate cave. Other kinds of human relationships aren't much better. I guess you could say that evopsych douchebags are the academic version of pickup artists. They throw you negs on Twitter, but only if you're a potential Ph.D. student.
Welcome to the age of the evopsych douchebag. Science is not immune to cultural trends, and this just happens to be one of the worst.