A systematic survey among evolutionary scholars suggests a lack of progress in the discipline of human evolutionary science. According to participant responses, many scholars are concerned that political trends in academia are contributing to increased hostility toward the field. The findings were published in the Journal of the Evolutionary Studies Consortium.
The field of human evolutionary research has encountered resistance from both academics and everyday people. In America, roughly half the population does not believe that humans descended from earlier species. And although most scholars accept evolutionary theory, many are resistant to accepting evolutionary explanations for human social behavior.
In 2010, a team of researchers including Daniel J. Kruger conducted a study to systematically explore the state of human evolutionary research by surveying a large sample of evolutionary scholars. The overall findings suggested that scholars were generally optimistic that the field would gain acceptance in the coming years. More recently, Kruger and his team conducted a follow-up survey to gauge whether these hopeful predictions would be fulfilled.
This second wave, conducted ten years later in 2020, again surveyed a sample of evolutionary scholars and asked them questions about their academic and career challenges. The sample was recruited by soliciting members of various human evolutionary science societies as well as participants who had completed the 2010 survey. Participants included faculty and students who use evolutionary perspectives to study human psychology and behavior.
“It is important to assess and understand the overall state and progress of scientific fields,” Kruger told PsyPost. “We have written several papers documenting the experiences of scholars who use an evolutionary framework to understand human psychology and behavior. Evolution by natural and sexual selection is the most powerful theory in the life sciences and the only theoretical framework that can unite disparate fields.”
“However, since Darwin’s 1859 publication of ‘On the Origin of Species,’ there has been resistance to the idea that evolutionary forces have shaped our own species. Evolutionary approaches to psychology have been criticized, though many criticisms are based on misunderstandings.”
The final sample consisted of 579 scholars between the ages of 20 and 89, 61% of whom were men, 38.3% of whom were women, and 0.7% who indicated other gender. Most of the respondents were based in North America (59.7%), while 28.6% were based in Europe, 4.6% in South America, 4.3% in Asia, and 2.8% in Oceania. The top three major fields of study listed were Psychology (57.9%), Anthropology (18%), and Biology (6%).
Overall, the scholars reported similar concerns about evolutionary research in 2020 as they had a decade earlier. However, there was some evidence suggesting scholars were slightly less optimistic in 2020. Respondents reported smaller advances in the prominence of evolutionary research in the past decade and foresaw smaller advances in the next ten years as well.
Many scholars noted that they were the only evolutionary scholar in their department, and when asked about their department’s views on evolutionary psychology, responses were varied. In open-ended comments, some participants reported that their department or field was very supportive of evolutionary perspectives, while others noted that hostility, lack of understanding, or disparaging attitudes were pervasive. In many cases, respondents alluded to an increase in political correctness and social justice issues as a factor relating to this hostility.
Respondents were also asked about issues facing their career or field. “Several respondents noted that academia had shifted further to the left politically over the past decade, especially in recent years in the USA.,” Kruger and his colleagues wrote in their study. “This cultural shift was seen as increasing hostility to evolutionary models, both because of genuine implications (e.g., humans are not interchangeable blank slates) and continuing misperceptions (i.e., evolutionary models are inherently racist, sexist, transphobic, etc.).”
According to their findings, the authors of the study suggest that the field did not advance in time with the optimism reported by scholars in 2010, but instead seems to have plateaued. They suggest that evolutionary scholars may need to do more to actively promote evolutionary approaches and resolve misconceptions related to their discipline. Notably, the 2020 sample consisted of a higher number of professors and a smaller number of students compared to the 2010 sample, which may have skewed the results toward the perceptions of professors.
“Researchers adopting evolutionary approaches to understanding psychology and behavior expected to see continuous progress in the integration of evolutionary theory into the human sciences, because of the power of the theory and the cumulative nature of the evidence,” Kruger said. “Unfortunately, this approach appears to have plateaued for the time being, as overall trends in academia (including an increase in the politicization of science) have shifted interest to other areas or aspects.”
“It may be necessary for evolutionary societies and scholars to take a more active role in promoting evolutionary perspectives both within academia and in public discourse,” he added. “Changing political dynamics may require greater efforts to dispel misconceptions about evolutionary theory and its application to humans. Solutions for humanity’s current challenges will be more effective if they are informed by an accurate understanding of humanity, which of course would have evolutionary theory as the foundation. Future assessments will reveal whether evolutionary-informed research on humans is marginalized in academia or experiences a resurgence.”
The study, “The 2020 Survey of Evolutionary Scholars on the State of Human Evolutionary Science”, was authored by Daniel J. Kruger, Maryanne L. Fisher, Steven M. Platek, and Catherine Salmon.