Turf Wars in Academia (or the Feasibility of Being a Social Psychologist and an Evolutionary Psychologist at the Same Time!)

Turf Wars in Academia (or the Feasibility of Being a Social Psychologist and an Evolutionary Psychologist at the Same Time!)


Turf wars in academia? To any academic, this is like asking if there are peanuts in peanut butter or socks in a sock drawer or clowns in a clown car. You bet.

Like lots of us (I’m guessing), I don’t entirely understand it. But it seems that our common tendency to categorize things (see Atran, 1995) makes people like to sort information into categories. People can be uncomfortable conceptualizing something as existing in multiple categories simultaneously. How can a dolphin be a marine animal and a mammal at the same time?! How can a lobster be both an invertebrate and a tasty meal?!

I was recently surprised to find that my fondness for evolutionary approaches to human social behavior is somehow seen by some as putting me in the category of “evolutionary psychologist” and not “social psychologist.” Really? I have to say, while I’m a big fan of the expression of multiple perspectives on intellectual issues, this conception just seems a bit myopic to me. And here’s why:

Being “an evolutionary psychologist,” in my mind, at least, essentially corresponds to being a scholar of human behavior who takes evolutionary principles into account in understanding why people do what they do (Geher, 2006). In this sense, “evolutionary psychology” is a perspective that can be applied to understanding all facets of human behavior.

And evolutionary psychology has, in recent years, been famously successful in helping illuminate our understanding of phenomena ranging across the spectrum of human behavior. This perspective has illuminated our understanding of the effects of hormones on behavior (e.g., Miller, Tybur, & Jordan, 2007), cognitive neuroscience (Cosmides & Tooby, 2005), developmental psychology (Heerwagen & Orians, 2002), and social psychological processes (e.g., Haselton & Buss, 2000) – among a battery of other classes of behavior.

Leda Cosmides is NOT an evolutionary psychologist AS OPPOSED TO a cognitive psychologist. That’s silly! She’s both. She’s a world-renowned cognitive psychologist who applies an evolutionary approach to her understanding of cognitive processes. To necessitate that a scholar must be X OR Y is simply to miss a major point.

As behavioral scientists, we’re all in this thing together – we’re doing our best to help the world gain a better understanding of human behavior. That’s at least moderately important in my book. Forcing behavioral scientists into pigeon holes based on traditional categories within the woefully-slow-to-budge world of academia is not particularly progressive.


This leads to my next point regarding this whole turf-war thing – just what is social psychology? Of course, this question depends largely on which textbook you happen to have open at a given time. But I have a PhD in social psychology from the University of New Hampshire, so, if you don’t mind me being a smidge presumptuous, allow me:

Social psychology is the part of psychology that addresses human behavior in terms of social context. It focuses on how behavior is affected by other people and by all socially relevant situational factors. It also addresses internal, psychological processes – such as cognition, emotion, and motivation – as they pertain to the social world.

I just came up with that right now, but I’m guessing if you have a social psychology textbook in front of you, you’ll find that this answer’s in the ballpark.

Is social psychology somehow incongruous from the idea of using our understanding of evolutionary processes to shed light on human behavior? Not at all. If a “social psychologist” is someone who studies human social behavior, and an “evolutionary psychologist” is someone who uses evolution as a tool to understand behavior writ large, then certainly there’s room for someone to use evolutionary principles to understand human social behavior! Heck, there’s plenty of room.

Maybe this is why Greg Webster’s (2007) recent analysis of the content of articles of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (the premier journal in the field of social psychology) found that articles incorporating evolutionary approaches have been steadily on the rise – and this trend is still in motion as I type.

Like many social psychologists, I study the nature of interpersonal relationships (studying such phenomena as the ability to estimate the desires of potential mates; see Geher, 2009). Informed by an evolutionary framework, my scholarship often examines behavior in light of evolutionary forces such as natural and sexual selection (see Geher & Miller, 2008).

So I consider myself a social psychologist AND an evolutionary psychologist. I also consider myself a decent cook and an almost-average roller hockey player. You can be more than one thing at a time!


Please, don’t take my word for it. I’ve got some data for you. The Social Psychology Network (SPN), overseen by Scott Plous, is one of the greatest online resources in all of psychology. Dedicated to the field of social psychology, this online database includes information on graduate programs in social psychology, links regarding online studies in social psychology, curricular resources, and – relevant to the current line of reasoning – profiles of social psychologists from far and wide. For most profiles, the “number of visits” (or “hits”) is presented. This number gives a quick indication of the impact of particular scholars.

In a quick analysis to substantiate the point of this blog, I checked out the SPN profiles of several psychologists whom I know as both “social psychologist” and “evolutionary psychologist.” Here are just a few examples – including the number of hits their profiles have received within the past few years:

David Buss: 25,350*
Doug Kenrick: 21,312*
David Schmitt: 25,701*
Jeffrey Simpson: 10,414**

Note that these numbers were retrieved from www.socialpsychology.org on September 27, 2010
*Profile created June 9, 2001
** Profile created July 18, 2003

I’m not going to present a comparison of matched “non evolutionary social psychologists” now – that’d stray from the point of this blog! My point in this section is simply this: Look – these scholars are huge – they’re renowned – they are all making major impacts on our understanding of human behavior. Importantly, these data are from the Social Psychology Network. These hits represent how well these scholars are known AS SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGISTS. Yet when you hear a name like David Buss, you hear “EVOLUTIONARY PSYCHOLOGIST” as well. If “evolutionary psychologist” and “social psychologist” were mutually exclusive terms, you probably wouldn’t see “evolutionary psychologists” featured in such a prolific manner on the SPN site.


David Sloan Wilson (2007) suggested that the “ivory tower” be renamed “the ivory archipelago” – a moniker owing to how isolated the different areas of academia are from one another. He’s right. As scholars, we can do the world a favor by refusing to adhere to traditional categories of academia. Allowing ourselves to “think outside the turf,” so to speak, has extraordinary potential to help us see things that we just wouldn’t see otherwise.

My EvoS blog, “Building Darwin’s Bridges,” is about the power of evolutionary theory in helping us understand the world – but it’s about more than that. It’s about helping bridge the many islands of the ivory archipelago and getting students (and we’re all students) to open their minds to the many connections that await their courageous intellectual adventures.

And in case I didn’t make it clear, yes, I think someone can be a “social psychologist” and an “evolutionary psychologist” concurrently.


Atran, S. (1995). Causal constraints on categories and categorical constraints on biological reasoning across cultures. In D. Sperber, D. Premack, & A. J. Premack (Eds.), Causal cognition: A multidisciplinary debate (pp. 205-233). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (2005). Neurocognitive adaptations for
social exchange. In D. M. Buss (Ed.), The handbook of evolutionary
psychology (pp. 584–627). New York: Wiley.

Geher, G. (2006). Evolutionary psychology is not evil! (… and here’s why …). Psychological Topics, 15, 181-202.

Geher, G. (2009). Accuracy and Oversexualization in Cross-Sex Mind-Reading: An Adaptationist Approach. Evolutionary Psychology, 7, 331-347.

Geher, G., & Miller, G. F. (Eds., 2008). Mating Intelligence: Sex, Relationships, and the Mind’s Reproductive System. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Heerwagen, J. H., & Orians, G. H. (2002). The ecological world of
children. In P. H. Kahn, Jr., & S.R. Kellert (Eds.), Children and nature:
Psychological, sociocultural, and evolutionary investigations (pp.
29–64). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Miller, G. F., Tybur, J., & Jordan, B. (2007). Ovulatory cycle effects on tip earnings by lap-dancers: Economic evidence for human estrus? Evolution and Human Behavior

Webster, G. D. (2007). Evolutionary theory’s increasing role in personality and social psychology. Evolutionary Psychology, 5, 84-91.

Wilson, D. S. (2007). Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives. New York, NY: Delacorte Press.

Glenn Geher

About Glenn Geher

Glenn Geher is professor and chair of psychology at the State University of New York at New Paltz. In addition to teaching courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, and conducting research in various areas related to evolutionary psychology, Glenn directs the campus’ EvoS program, one of the most successful, noteworthy, and vibrant features of a campus that prides itself (rightfully) on academic vibrance. In Building Darwin’s Bridges, Glenn addresses the details of New Paltz’s EvoS program as well as issues tied to the future of evolutionary studies in the rocky and often unpredictable landscape of higher education.
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4 Responses to Turf Wars in Academia (or the Feasibility of Being a Social Psychologist and an Evolutionary Psychologist at the Same Time!)

  1. Glenn Geher Glenn Geher says:

    David – OK, fair enough, then! Just can’t help myself – I guess I just love evolutionary thinking that much! One might say that it’s a particularly adaptive writing style …

    All best,

  2. Avatar Dave Gerstle says:

    Thanks for the response, Glenn. Sorry my comment was unclear to you. I was not weighing in on the content of your post or the implications your evolutionary perspective. My focus was on style. I wanted to point out a tendency within the rhetoric of evolutionary science writers. When describing the academic “turf wars,” they often employ metaphors drawn from evolutionary biology – competing tribes, “us/them” instincts, archipelagos, etc. This is not an uncommon socio-cultural phenomenon. People tend to explain the complexities of their environments using religious, political, economic and – in this case – scientific first principles.

    As for what this style of writing “means,” I am unsure. This said, I was also suggesting that (in my experience) scholars who are skeptical about evolution become even more dubious when they encounter such metaphorical devices. Most likely, as you point out, they dislike the “meta-perspective” quality of this rhetoric. Using evolutionary concepts to describe the rejection or acceptance of evolution is rather circular – the “Ivory Archipelago” being a prime example. Moreover, when evolutionists describe university disciplines as competing “tribes” they are demonstrating an unfamiliarity with the critique of this very concept in the social sciences and humanities, over the last four decades. Upon encountering these rhetorical devices, the skeptics flinch – not because they reject evolution, but because they are encountering circular reasoning that is poorly informed about their own professional inquiries. I recognize this is not the most flattering interpretation, but it is what I’ve gleaned from my colleagues and professors.

    So… to answer your concern, my comments were not directed toward the argument you make in your post, but the language that has been used to make it and the ways I have seen these arguments received.

    Best to you,


  3. Glenn Geher Glenn Geher says:

    David – thanks for this post. I think you may suffer from the same issue that I often suffer from – being so careful in your wording that it’s a little unclear for others to readily glean your main point. Is your main point that my angle in this particular blog is too biased from my evolutionist perspective? Is the point that many academics are too quick to point out evolutionist reasoning as “circular, dogmatic, and uninspired?” Or is it that evolutionists are often cavalier in their tendency to think that “their” perspective is a uniquely “factual” perspective that is, concurrently, a meta-perspective which necessarily consumes any-and-all other perspectives?

    My whole point in this particular blog was that being an evolutionist need not preclude an academic from being a _______ (fill in the blank! Social Psychologist; Developmental Psychologist; Cultural Anthropologist; Sociologist (yes, I said it!), etc.).

    I like how you articulate your points – I’m just trying to see the direct relevance to the basic points I delineate in my post …

  4. Avatar Dave Gerstle says:

    It’s fascinating how evolutionary writers use Darwinian metaphors to explain their own professional landscape. Academic departments are competing tribes. They are divided because humans have an innate tendency to categories people into like and unlike. Disciplinary specializations are like (… wait for it…) an archipelago of differently adapted organisms.

    I’m not sure what causes this. One could argue that evolutionary reasoning does not seem to favor thinking outside its own take on history, nature, and knowledge. Looking to explain a complicated social context (in which they feel marginalized and misunderstood), the theorists turn to their own first principles for help. Or perhaps this is more a stylistic issue, and evolutionary writers simply need to look beyond their office bookshelves when want to turn a phrase. Whatever the case, as I say above, I find it rhetorically fascinating. It is unfortunate (but never-the-less true) that many others in the university find this same quality of evolutionism to be circular, dogmatic, and uninspired.

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