Challenges To and Hope for Evolutionary Theory: The 4th Annual Conference of the NorthEastern Evolutionary Psychology Society

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.

References

Geher, G. (2006). Evolutionary psychology is not evil! … and here’s why … Psihologijske Teme (Psychological Topics); Special Issue on Evolutionary Psychology, 15, 181-202.

Kramare, C., & Treichler, P. A. (1996).  A Feminist Dictionary. Illinois: University of Illinois Press.

Rosemarie Sokol Chang

About Rosemarie Sokol Chang

Rosemarie Sokol Chang is an evolutionist trained as a psychological scientist. She is the editor of EvoS: The Journal of the Evolutionary Studies Consortium; the creator of the EvoS Consortium website and the EvoS Blogs; and co-founder of the Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology. She also has been involved in the NorthEastern Evolutionary Psychology Society since its inception. She recently edited and contributed to the book Relating to Environments: A New Look at Umwelt. Evolution Matters is a recurring blog focused on concepts and evidence of evolution by natural selection.
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3 Responses to Challenges To and Hope for Evolutionary Theory: The 4th Annual Conference of the NorthEastern Evolutionary Psychology Society

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thanks Leslie, NEEPS 2011 is going to be monumental – the 5th anniversary of NEEPS! T-shirt design is mostly up to the hosts, get crazy.

  2. Rose, really nice characterization of both the present and emergent trends, and I love the energy in your characterizations that speaks so eloquently to the energy generated by the questions themselves. I’m so happy to be hosting NEEPS at Binghamton this year, and hope the questions and debates opened up last year will continue. Glenn, how I love being part of a group who can use “outgroup homogeneity bias” to explain dynamics–the humanities would benefit from these concepts so much, but the bogeyman of genetic determinism too often scares them away. I’m looking forward to the continuing conversation at NEEPS 2111: Binghamton! BTW who gets to design the tee shirt this year–I’ve got some ideas . . .

  3. Glenn Geher Glenn Geher says:

    Rose – as I suspected, you beat me to it in the race for the first NEEPS blog here on evostudies.org. And you did a great job! You capture so much of what’s great about this conference, including the high quality of the presentations but also, importantly, the variegated perspectives within EP. Social psychologists have documented several perceptual biases that bear on EP’s place in modern academia – and your blog post brings this to mind. In particular, a core idea here pertains to Leslie Heywood’s (2010) INCREDIBLE AND INSPIRING NEEPS presentation, which bears specifically on outgroup homogeneity (Ostrom, & Sedikides, 1992) – the tendency to perceive individuals in one’s outgruop as more similar to one another compared with individuals in one’s ingroup. Professors things students are more similar to one another than they think that professors are similar to one another. Northerners think Southerners are more similar to one another than they think that Northerners are similar to one another, etc. Similarly, scholars who vilify EP surely think that evolutionary psychologists are relatively similar to one another – they all think in the same way. They’re all genetic determinists, they are all male-biased and chauvenistic, and they are all politically “non-progressive.” And they only study physical attractiveness.

    The great insight that Leslie brings to the table is that yes, non-evolutionary psychologists are employing an outgroup homogeneity bias in terms of how they portray EP – but ALSO that non-feminists employ precisely this same kind of outgroup homogeneity bias in terms of how they perceive feminism!

    You cite the work of Rob Deaner, Kilian Garvey, Leslie Heywood, David Sloan Wilson, and myself along the way. And the work of these scholars, I think, tells a clear tale – our research areas, our perspectives, and our conceptions of what evolutionary psychology is vary quite a bit from one another. But we are united by the common theme of evolution as a core and powerful set of tools to shed light on human behavior. And really, for my money, that’s what EP truly is.

    Thanks for your post – and I can’t wait for the exciting future of NEEPS under your leadership!

    Reference:

    Heywood, L. (2010). The Quick and the Dead: Gendered Agency in the History of Western Science and Evolutionary Theory. Presentation given at the annual meeting of the NorthEastern Evolutionary Psychology Society. New Paltz, NY.

    Ostrom, T. M., & Sedikides, C. (1992). Out-Group Homogeneity Effects in Natural and Minimal Groups. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 112, 536-552.

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