When Religious Conservatives Co-Opt Evolutionary Psychology

Jordan Peterson interviewed by VICE on the 8th February 2018. Image Credit: VICE

Conservatives often cite evolutionary theories to justify orthodoxy, often while misunderstanding and misapplying them.


“That’s what makeup’s for! Jesus, that’s self-evident! Why else would you wear it?”

~ Jordan B. Peterson

From the “VICE Interview


Evolutionary psychology has quite a number of things to say about the consilience between biology and culture – unfortunately, so do religious conservatives. Based on much of the reaction to this video, it is this author’s belief that some conservatives may be co-opting evolutionary theory to conceal their zealotry, to uphold their notions of religious tradition, or as an aegis for their jingoism. To be clear: I’m not necessarily saying that this is what Jordan Peterson’s motives are, but if someone were to use evolutionary psychology as a masquerade for religious traditions and norms, that person would likely be saying many of the things Peterson is saying. Whatever the case may be, given he seems to have similar views about women as mullahs in a Muslim majority country, and given the platform he has, the comments he made in the VICE interview warrant careful scrutiny.

Jordan Peterson
Jordan Peterson interviewed by VICE on the 8th February 2018. Image Credit: VICE

According to the Standard Social Science Model (SSSM), one of the main reasons why women wear lipstick is because it is a social construct invented by the patriarchy for the purpose of subjugating, marginalizing, and controlling women. Although Jordan Peterson would be right in rejecting this blank slate explanation of human nature, the reason why this interview is so awkward is because of Jordan’s epistemology and because of his confabulation of what is true with what is useful. In other words, he does not demonstrate the understanding that just because something worked in the past doesn’t mean it is an immutable truth, that it is optimally design, or that it will work in the future.

Although he did not expressly say that women ought to not wear lipstick in the workplace, when Jordan Peterson did say that women who wear lipstick increase their odds for being sexually assaulted, it is unclear whether he was blaming the victim, advocating for the enforcement of “Sharia-style” gender segregation, or whether he was genuinely echoing RAINN’s recommendations that both men and women should take responsibility to reduce sexual assault (discussed in a previous article) – I am genuinely uncertain.

At any rate, because of his comments, the field of evolutionary psychology is coming under attack again and is being panned as part of the patriarchy. The aim of this article is, in light of Jordan Peterson’s VICE interview, to show how misunderstandings of evolution can make descriptions of human behavior look either like biological determinism or religious fundamentalism. Whether this misappropriation of evolutionary theory is intentional co-opting to protect one’s otherwise questionable views or whether it is a mere oversight may be hard or impossible to know.


Peterson correctly states in the VICE interview that women wear makeup, revealing clothing, and high heals to become sexualized and to directly manipulate males. To some viewers, the evolutionary data he uses to back up his statements may seem like religiously motivated justification for curbing the choices of women – and, although it’s hard to know, in Peterson’s case, it may very well be. (The comparative research on mate guardianship will be explored below.)

Peterson completely misses the boat however when he fails to mention that female cosmetic enhancements also serve the purpose of attracting males by fending off rival females. True, women wear makeup for reasons that are directly related to male manipulation (i.e. intersexual competition), but they also wear make-up and use cosmetics and fashion as a form of intrasexual competition. This distinction may seem subtle, but it is significant. And the fact that Peterson does not address it in the interview and yet often uses evolutionary theory as a corner stone for much of his discourse is as dubious as it is telling.

In the modern era, since the sexual act is largely decoupled from reproduction as a result of abortion availability and contraceptives, biological mechanisms that took eons to evolve are still in place and often look as though they are mismatched with modernity. Our modern skulls house Stone Age minds. Our brains evolved and are now moving our bodies around in an environment that has very little resemblance to the ancestral one it evolved in. Since evolution never moves backward and can only build on existing structures, if a woman claims to have no desire to have children or to even find a mate, she still may use ancestral mechanisms designed by evolution to gain status in the eyes of other women. Not to compete for a male – but for a job.

So, when Peterson asks, “why else would you wear it?” the answer to some women may be along the lines of the SSSM: “it makes us feel good.” But the reason why it would make a woman feel good is significant here as is the fact that it belies sociocultural data indicating that the experience of “feeling good” is not purely socially constructed. Because females, like males, compete for status, women will adopt indirect means to acquire power for themselves – whether it is over a male, over other females, or over a resource. Not simply to just “feel good” – as if emotion serves no evolutionary function.

How so many who fail to see the role that intrasexual competition plays in the incel movement, they also fail to see how intrasexual competition has helped shape culture, the Patriarchy, and even Hollywood.

It should come as no surprise that throughout the Animal Kingdom, males and females display sexually dimorphic “mate guarding” behaviors. Whether it is in crickets, elephants, or humans, the picture is generally the same. Males guard their mates by using evolved behavioral mechanisms to avoid cuckoldry while females generally attempt to keep rival ‘mate poachers’ at bay to ensure the resources her mate acquired will be afforded to her children and not to a rival’s.

Much to the chagrin of blank slate thinkers, evolutionary psychologists have pointed out that the sexually dimorphic nature of ‘mate guarding’ is far from being a random accident or a mere social construct. Adaptations and counter-adaptations in the form of behavioral phenotypes have co-evolved across deep time. Sexual conflict leads to a tug of war between the sexes, but it also leads to one within the sexes. And as a result of this evolutionary arms race, males and females possess different reasons to guard their mates, and hence, different strategies in doing so.

Since a male cannot guard his mate around the clock, and because of cryptic (non-estrous) ovulation in human females, a male, relative to the female, will be less certain that a child is his (i.e. paternity uncertainty). As predicted through Robert Trivers’ parental investment theory, males will tend to use violence against (1) other males to keep them away from his mate, and, sadly, (2) against their own mates to prevent them from straying (note: this is not a prescription for this behavior – it is merely a description of it). Not incidentally, the ancestral problem of paternity uncertainty is also why males tend to prefer virgins.

Females, being biologically different, and having to bear the brunt of pregnancy to ensure the survival of the species, have evolved their own set of mate guarding strategies. Females, relative to males, will use psychological mechanisms to retain her mate.  This could be anything from wearing makeup to “look pretty” all the way to intentionally eliciting jealousy to increase the closeness of the relationship.

Another way women guard their mate is by preventing rival females from poaching her mate. One of the several ways she can do this is through enhancing her own vigilance. Indications of emotional betrayal from her mate, for example, are a signal to her that her offspring might not be cared for. The male, as a result of his mate’s heightened vigilance, is, as a result, guarded by her and likely to stay close so as to not incur the loss of a mate, any children, and/or his reputation.

When you tell a Creationist that cats and tigers are related, for example, they wholeheartedly agree. But if you tell them humans and chimps are also related, all hell could break loose. In a strange juxtaposition to this, a secular humanist won’t bat an eyelash when they hear what evolutionary theory says about mate guarding in giraffes, for example. But once this knowledge is applied to humans, brows quickly become furrowed and careers could end up on the line.

In short, although the people who think you can pray the gay away are rarely, if ever, the same people who espouse blank slate theories of human nature, they are strange bedfellows when it comes to their rejection of the connection between biology and culture (i.e. human nature).

Although the banning of lipstick, mate guarding, and even infanticide, as defined by evolutionary theory, can come to sound eerily similar to sounding like a religious conservative talk show in a country that has mandatory religious veiling, evolutionary theory itself does not espouse any morals. Although Robert Trivers’ theory shows females are more likely to be choosier in mate selection, his theory says absolutely nothing about how a woman ‘ought to’ behave. Parental investment theory also shows that the sex that invests the least – almost always the male, unless you are a pipefish sea horse or a Mormon cricket – will be more aggressive, it doesn’t mean violence is an unavoidable option. Although the ‘lipstick effect‘ shows that women will still purchase cosmetic products even during a recession, it doesn’t mean that they should nor does it mean that women are, like Kanye and Jamie Foxx have suggested, gold diggers. And although wearing lipstick, high heels, and donning revealing clothing may be a way for women to manipulate men in order to achieve status in the workplace (as Jordan Peterson clearly states in the VICE interview), it doesn’t mean that women ought to wear it for that reason. And, Dr. Peterson, it also doesn’t mean that women ought to not wear it.

Evolutionary Psychology is not a tiki torch for religious conservatives. Distally speaking, benign ancestral environments yielded more egalitarian gender roles, lower moralizing gods, and less restrictive religiously motivated mate guarding. Harsh environments yielded more traditional gender roles, higher moralizing gods with harsher punishments for transgressions, and greater religious veiling. While all of these things helped us get to where we are now, don’t let the zealots lead you up the garden path: phenotypes that worked in the past do not necessarily work today, and therefore there is no legitimate moral justification based on utility alone that they will work in the future.

Peterson apparently asked Jesus what else makeup is used for when he should have asked Dawkins instead.

1 Comment

  1. I don’t think you’ve made the case that this “other reason” you present is a difference with distinction. To “look pretty” to compete with other females for status is still using sexual attractiveness to males as a tool for that supposedly non-sexual intra sex competition. The question Peterson asks is are any overt sexual cues appropriate in the workplace? Males wear uniforms. I disagree with Peterson on religion but I don’t think he was playing any conservative religious card here. You don’t need religion to question the sense of a social norm that brings primal sexual tension into the workplace. Regardless of the reason women think they are wearing lipstick and high heels, it triggers sexual arousal in males at a very base level. Is it a good idea for women to use these particular tools to compete with other women for status in the work place? Who says “Yes?”

    None of this is an excuse for harassment. Nor is extreme inequity an excuse for stealing. But who do we think we are kidding? I get no sense that Peterson is proposing the idea of an actual ban. Just trying to get us to rethink the value of the current social norm. It doesn’t seem good for either sex.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.