NEEPS 2010, Return to New Paltz. What a whirlwind weekend! How amazing to return to where it all started, just four years ago, and see how far we’ve come. We topped the previous conferences in total numbers of attendees, the talks seemed to be even more stellar than in past years, and we saw the first workshop meeting of the Feminist Evolutionary Psychology Society (FEPS). I am sorry to have moved on, but excited to already be co-planning my first conference as President.
One theme to come out of this conference was that of the obstacles we, as evolutionary scholars, have to face. An obvious source of contention comes from Creationists, who believe that evolutionary theory is scientifically disputable – but that is old news. One area about which we might not usually think was addressed by Robert Deaner of Grand Valley State University. He analyzed textbooks from the social sciences not for the authors’ animosity towards evolutionary theory – but the errors presented in the name of evolution. All 17 major textbooks at which he looked misrepresented the facts of evolutionary theory, and some argued against the theory based on these misunderstandings. Not only are we facing dispute from a non-scientific sector, but our own colleagues who are teaching the same students as are we.
Similarly, Kilian Garvey of University of New England, spoke of the existential threat evolutionary theory poses. People don’t question any other scientific theory in the way that they do evolutionary theory – though most people don’t understand all the details of the other theories either (such as relativity, gravity, or geophysics). Most people don’t contest that dinosaurs existed, but for the existence of evolution by natural selection – that is clearly not the case.
Leslie Heywood, from Binghamton University, gave an inspiring talk about evolution and feminism. She contended that evolutionary psychologists are not everywhere accepted, or even understood – and so too is the challenge for academic feminists, who are separate from the political feminists more often portrayed in media (and likewise separate from the political straw-woman against which some EPists apparently stand). She presented the quotes seen on another EvoS Blog, by NEEPS President Glenn Geher – Kramare and Treichler (1996): “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people,” and Geher (2009): “Evolutionary psychology is the radical notion that human behavior is part of the natural world.” These notions are not incompatible, even in a scientific setting.
To these challenges, NEEPS 2010 also offered hope. David Sloan Wilson reported on the Binghamton Project, which employs evolutionary theory to improving the community life of the citizens of Binghamton. If evolutionary theory can be used positively to improve public policy (emphasizing that humans do, indeed, have a rich (pre)history of prosocial behavior!), then we stand to benefit as a field of scholars. Much like the Civil Rights movement, change often comes by first instating behavioral changes, only then does attitude change follow. By the time people realize they are already using evolutionary theory in their everyday lives, it may be too late – they may already accept evolutionary theory!
Likewise, the inaugural meeting of FEPS provides hope to a new generation of scholars. While some people are put off by our use of the F word, our uniting message was clear: we are interested in examining the active role women have played in evolution, not to the exclusion, but in addition to the well-studied roles that men have played. We are a diverse bunch that cannot be pigeonholed, as our forthcoming title and mission statement will present. And if along the way, we help share evolutionary theory with some fields that might initially be unreceptive, then I can’t see the harm in that!
NEEPS has yet again shown that science is collaborative, and highlighted the best of that assertion. We are a tight knit group that is critical in thought, but not in interaction. From this, we produce positive scientific collaborations and research – made richer by the feedback we receive from these meetings.
On a final note, we also raised money for the National Center for Science Education. This organization promotes the accurate teaching of evolutionary theory in our public schools, and certainly, if our incoming students have been presented a fair and truthful representation, we stand against one less obstacle to the lay (and scholarly!) understanding of evolutionary theory.