Friday, November 16, 2007

Panel discussion on Gender, Sexuality and Evolutionary Psychology

On October 22nd the Departments of Psychology, Biology and Educational Studies, along with the Evolutionary Studies Program and the Women’s Studies Program sponsored a panel discussion on Gender, Sexuality and Evolutionary Psychology. Participants included Tom Nolan (Biology), Mike Camargo (graduate, Psychology Department MA program), Alison Nash (Psychology) and Gowri Parameswaran (Ed Studies), with Suzanne Kelly (Women’s Studies) moderating.

How the Panel Came About
The Gender, Sexuality and Evolutionary Psychology panel emerged out the of the Love & Sex course Suzanne Kelly has been teaching at SUNY New Paltz for the past five years. Love & Sex is an interdisciplinary course with a philosophical bent, asking questions about how and why love and sex are gendered and what that means for intimate relationships and marriage. Most students who take the course already have some grounding in using gender as an analytical lens, and the understanding that feminism is rooted in both theoretical and practical attempts to dislodge culture from the grips of nature. But last year Professor Kelly began to notice a set of ideas popping up in class discussions, ones that seemed to reinforce the very female and male stereotypes feminists redressed long ago. Women desire love and men desire sex. Women want resources and men want physical beauty. Women are nurturers and men are murderers. Professor Kelly was perplexed; how had these ideas moved from being issues to be addressed using historical, sociological and philosophical frameworks, to becoming a bunch of scientific facts based in evolution? Now that these issues were back on the table, Professor Kelly felt a need to have a conversation that extended beyond her classroom, and to address these concerns by way of healthy debate. Thus a university-wide teachable moment surfaced from students’ struggle to make sense of the conflicting perspectives on gender and sexuality that they were receiving from their various courses.

Over the summer, a group of interested faculty from the Women’s Studies Program and the Psychology Department read articles and had meetings to discuss evolutionary psychology. We focused on what we perceived to be fundamental issues within the discipline as well as its implications for understanding gender and sexuality. The idea of a panel discussion grew from these meetings, with the goal of facilitating discussion of the various perspectives.

For those readers who are wondering what evolutionary psychology is, here is brief overview: Evolutionary psychology is an approach to psychology that views many prevalent human behaviors as biological adaptations. These adaptations are thought to be designed by natural (or sexual) selection to solve problems faced by our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Much attention is paid to gender differences in mating ‘strategies’ and in cognition. For example, studies focus on what characteristics men and women find desirable in potential mates, what situations arouse jealousy, and gender differences in spatial abilities, math, and science. Critiques arise from a number of different disciplines: e.g. from within biology and psychology, and from anthropology, sociology, philosophy, and women’s studies. Central criticisms include poor methodology, faulty reasoning, lack of historical context, and paying lip service to, but not addressing, socio-cultural influences.

The panel presentations
The first two presentations presented an overview of the principles of evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology. The second two presentations presented scientific and cultural critiques of evolutionary psychology.

Tom Nolen outlined the basic principles of evolutionary biology, including the central concepts of adaptation and sexual selection, and described the kinds of evidence necessary to show that a particular trait is biologically adaptive. He gave an example of research findings indicating that male birds’ decorative traits that are used to attract females signal important advantages like resistance to parasites. Thus, females choosing these ‘attractive’ males produced offspring that inherited these adaptive traits.

Next, Michael Camargo showed how these principles are applied to humans. He outlined the principles of evolutionary psychology and illustrated the methods psychologists use to trace the evolutionary advantages of common human behaviors. He used the example of morning sickness and its adaptive role in protecting women from toxins.

Alison Nash provided an epistemological and methodological critique of the reasoning and methods used by evolutionary psychologists to arrive at their conclusions about human sexual behavior. She pointed out that evolutionary psychology mirrors dominant stereotypes about gender and sexuality in western society since the 18th century, like the notion of coy females and philandering males.

Gowri Parameswaran spoke about how both sex and sexuality are socially constructed as evidenced by widely varying cultural practices both within and across cultures. She suggested that the uniformity in sexual behavior across many cultures that evolutionary psychologists observe could be explained by the pervasiveness of European colonial influences across the globe and the Eurocentric lens that researchers used and still use to study ‘other’ cultures.

Future conversations
At the panel discussion, several themes emerged that we would like to explore in future colloquiums, panels, and roundtable discussions:
1. Is evolutionary psychology a new discipline? The place of evolutionary psychology in the history of psychology, and more broadly, the historical context of biological determinism.
2. Do humans have ‘instincts’ like other animals do? Is the concept of instinct useful for understanding animal and human behavior? Are ‘instincts’ governed by modules in the brain as assumed by EP?
3. The existence of modules, that is, highly specialized neural systems that evolved for specific complex behaviors, is simply assumed by EP and never empirically demonstrated. What value is there for a biological and psychological science to focus on distal explanations of behavior without providing an analysis of the development, functioning, and evolution of the neural mechanisms involved in the production of behavior?
4. What does evolutionary psychology add to our understanding of gender and sexuality?
5. What are the implications of evolutionary psychology ideas about gender differences in sexuality and cognitive abilities?

We welcome ideas about other issues that people would like to address, and suggestions for venues for future conversations. Feel free to contact one of us at our e-mail addresses below, or to post comments, questions, and suggestions on the psychology department blog at

Suzanne Kelly (Women’s Studies) (
Alison Nash (Psychology) (
Gowri Parameswaran (Ed Studies) (
Giordana Grossi (Psychology) (
Peter Brown (Foreign Languages) (

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