Kramare and Treichler (1996): “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.”
Geher (2009): “Evolutionary psychology is the radical notion that human behavior is part of the natural world.”
There is no reason on earth to believe that these two “radical” notions are irreconcilable.
I am glad to say that an important and growing intellectual movement is in the works. The Feminist Evolutionary Psychology Society (FEPS) was borne of discussions at the most recent meeting of the NorthEastern Evolutionary Psychology Society (NEEPS) in Oswego, New York. Apparently, the NEEPS meetings are about more than intensive academic sessions, world-class keynote speakers, whiffle ball, and parties on the beach.
Believe it or not, most evolutionary psychologists I know are exceptionally “progressive” in their politics. I quote the word “progressive,” as I feel bad for folks who are not considered “progressive” by those who are self-proclaimed in their “progressivity” – seems like kind of a bad thing to be “non-progressive.” In fact, “non-progressive” almost sounds fully synonymous with “stupid.” But I digress.
“Progressive” means more than “secular democrat” or “liberal.” The moniker has a clear connotation regarding action. Those who consider themselves “progressive,” as far as I can tell, proactively work to uphold various important social values. Someone who is “progressive” not only is against racism, sexism, and unjust wars that kill thousands – he or she also has a sense of obligation to shape the world to be less racist, sexist, and unjust.
Evolutionary psychology has proven to be extremely controversial – often, as I’ve stated in prior work (Geher, 2006), perceived as some sort of conservative conspiracy designed to keep the gender-based status quo. This portrait of evolutionary psychology is inherently “non-progressive.”
In fact, evolutionary psychology is, at its core, an approach to understanding human behavior using evolutionary theory – arguably the single-most influential theory that has existed in the history of science – as a guide. The idea of understanding human behavior in light of evolutionary forces is not inherently conservative, sexist, or evil – not even close. Trying to understand who we are by employing the most powerful theory that exists within the life sciences actually seems pretty smart when you think about it.
A recent examination of the political attitudes of psychologists who label themselves as “evolutionary psychologists” versus other psychologists tells an interesting story. In an article published in Human Nature in 2007, Josh Tybur, Geoffrey Miller, and Steve Gangestad reported that evolutionary psychologists are every bit as left-leaning and “progressive” as non-evolutionary psychologists – being just as likely to affiliate with the democratic party – and being no more likely to have voted for George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election. While folks from the conservative right are likely not at all surprised by these data (after all, isn’t that whole theory of evolution an anti-religious New York liberal thing?), I bet “progressive” folks on the far left may well be.
As David Sloan Wilson (2009) tells us, evolutionary psychologists need to reclaim our field. The term “evolutionary psychology” has often been yoked with very specific approaches to human behavior – and has partly become embroiled in politics as a result. While I don’t think any of these approaches is inherently sexist, it will definitely serve future scholars well to take a more open approach to understanding how evolution underlies human behavior. According to David – with whom I agree strongly on this issue – evolutionary psychologists would benefit from being open to non-modularist approaches that take seriously the fact of cultural evolution.
When Rosemarie Chang, EvoS websmaster, came to me during the NEEPS conference to ask if I’d be up for joining a new organization called FEPS, I was immediately on board. So were many attendees at NEEPS 09. It turns out that evolutionary psychologists are not only typically liberal and feminist in their politics – they’re also “progressive” – and the birth of FEPS demonstrates this point strongly.
What will come of FEPS? I’m not sure. But given the intellectual strength of folks who are primarily responsible for forming this new society – including Alice Andrews, Rebecca Burch, Rosemarie Chang, Maryanne Fisher, Leslie Heywood, Dan Kruger, Kaja Perina, Sarah Strout, and many others – I have little doubt that great things are to follow.
Can insights from evolutionary psychology help reduce unfair sexist policies and actions? Can insights from evolutionary psychology help lead to a world that empowers people regardless of gender? Can my field of evolutionary psychology make my daughter Megan’s world a better and brighter place? You know what I think.
The first official meeting of FEPS will take place as something of a pre-conference to the 2010 meeting of NEEPS – slated to likely take place where NEEPS was born in 2007 – my home campus at SUNY New Paltz. Check the NEEPS website (neepsociety.com) for details. Hope to see you there.
Oh – and here’s the URL for the FEPS facebook group – tell your friends:
* must be approved by the group administrator, Rosemarie Chang, to join. Contact Rosemarie at: email@example.com