Evolutionary Psychology and its Defenders

About a month ago, Rebecca Watson gave a lengthy presentation at Skepticon critiquing evolutionary psychology. Her talk has re-ignited online debate regarding the scientific validity of the field, and recent discussions have brought many defenders out of the woodwork. If you have not seen her talk, you might first want to check it out:

Readers of this blog know my thoughts on evolutionary psychology. Quite frankly, I am getting tired of writing about it. However, there is a danger in letting unreason go unchallenged, and so I feel some responsibility to stay involved in the discussions. Aside from Rebecca’s sarcastic tone and her choosing some of the most laughable examples from recent evolutionary psychology research, I see little wrong with her talk. There are no serious errors in her logic, and this more entertaining approach is probably just the kind of discussion that needs to be had for laypersons to begin to understand some of the problems with evolutionary psychology. If you are looking for a more carefully reasoned examination, and more technical set of arguments, I kindly ask you to read my own critique of evolutionary psychology, and a later follow-up discussion.

I am not at all surprised to see proponents of evolutionary psychology reacting to Watson’s critique with anger and vitriol. Part of it might have to do with her tone. I have myself toyed with playful sarcasm in some of my lectures, and while it is an entertaining way of discussing issues, I found that it often has the negative effect of polarizing members of the audience. Of course this makes sense, as you are unlikely to sway someone based on your reasoning, if they are simultaneously trying to defend their position from ridicule.

This leads me to the other possible reason for the angry reactions to her talk. According to Kuhn and Popper, scientific theories are supported by demarcated conceptual communities that tend to take the favored theory and its implicit philosophical assumptions for granted. It becomes very difficult, perhaps even impossible, to challenge the theory from the inside. This is due to the fact that its adherents will be psychologically invested in protecting their cherished scientific worldview – that’s just how theories and paradigms seem to work. So when a worldview is being attacked, it is unlikely that we will seriously entertain the possibility of our being mistaken. We react not necessarily with better reasons, but by dismissing the assailant or returning the attack.

I Can't SpeakMany, for example, want to censor Watson based on her apparent lack of scientific credentials (she has a communications degree). My thought is this: if you do not like what she has to say, you ought to engage her in debate, based on your own reasons. You should not try to dismiss an argument because they do not work within that field, or you don’t like what they have to say. By this logic of ‘specialized credentials,’ we might follow a slippery slope where we decide that only experts in evolutionary psychology should be able to critique their own, which is absolute nonsense, since conceptual communities naturally gravitate toward insular thinking that only serves to reinforce its own biased set of assumptions. It is for this reason that we need not less, but MORE people challenging theories from the outside.

Edward Clint, an evolutionary psychologist, seems particularly offended by Watson’s critique, and in his multiple-page attack of Watson’s position, goes so far as to accuse her of ‘science denialism’. Of course this is a ridiculous assertion, and both Stephanie Zvan and Mark HoofNagle do a fair job of arguing his points, though they regrettably suggest that Watson might have been critiquing only a small segment of pop evolutionary psychology. It seems blasphemous to critique the whole field, lest you ironically find yourself charged with ‘denying science.’ Part of the problem has to do with the fact that so few of these online bloggers seem to really understand how science depends on theoretical assumptions, and that we should have every right to question them if we feel so inclined. Clint does not seem to get this – he only re-asserts the theoretical commitments of his field, saying for example, that “our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers for about 10 million years…” therefore, “It is not reasonable to imagine this period did not leave lasting marks on our psychology.” But no one is denying that our minds are a partial product of evolution and natural selection. The real question driving this ferocious debate involves a disagreement about what it was that nature selected.

Evolutionary psychologists believe that the human mind works much like the body… that it is an information-processing system, with pre-specified psychological programs, adapted much like the rest of the body, to meet specific problems in our evolutionary past. Others, including myself, disagree with this definition of the human mind. While I would certainly agree that evolution had a profound role in shaping lower-level modular systems, including autonomic nervous system responses, reflex arcs, immune systems, complex motor control, systems related to sexual arousal, and so on, it does not make sense for us to assume that our more complex social behaviors were shaped in the same way, or that they would even depend on lower-level domain-specific systems that evolutionary psychologists so frequently assume to be the ‘ultimate’ causes of behavior. Neurobiologists Panksepp and Panksepp point out that while evolutionary psychologists may interpret psychological data in a way to fit with their preferred theory, the philosophical assumptions that are the foundation of that theory are not at all consistent with what we know about human neurophysiology.

“Although the lower reaches of all mammalian brains contain many intrinsic, special-purpose neurodynamic functions (e.g., basic motivational and emotional systems), there is no comparable evidence in support of highly resolved genetically dictated adaptations that produce socio-emotional cognitive strategies within the circuitry of the human neocortex” (2000, p. 111)

DNA BrainClint claims that “humans have shown virtually no major physiological changes in the last 10,000 years,” but he apparently assumes that if there were few physical changes, there must have been few psychological ones, or that these psychological changes only represent ‘proximate causes’ and necessarily depend on the ‘ultimate’ domain-specific causes of our genetic heritage – but that is not necessarily true. Perhaps the most important thing that the brain inherited was secondary, tertiary, and associational cortex that combined with the prefrontal areas, allowed human beings to adapt to present-day environments. I have touched on this in my discussion on human minds and the evolution of consciousness. From about 10,000 years ago, culture took off and changed our psychological environments and our minds/brains in profound ways – we are born into culture, you cannot separate it from our nurture in the way that evolutionary psychologists would like to think. Clint seems to have only a superficial understanding of his own theoretical commitments; he seemingly believes, based on his arguments, that the mind works much like the physical body. There is good reason to doubt this, as I have articulated in my own critique of evolutionary psychology.

But for now we might simply note that part of the negative reaction to Watson’s challenge is due to a clash of theoretical commitments belonging to competing groups of scientists. This is to be expected. But what worries me most, is the fact that her talk has garnered such a negative response from the general public. This could be evidence to suggest that evolutionary psychology is becoming a more dominant cultural narrative for how we prefer to view ourselves as human beings (I will write more about this in a future post). At the time of this writing, Watson has received over 10,000 views on one YouTube video-link, with almost 1000 viewers clicking the like/dislike button – the majority of them are negative. In contrast, this criticism response by Noel Plum has had about 7000 hits, with 550 responses – almost all of them positive. But before I say anything about Noel’s response to Watson, you might want to judge his arguments for yourself:

Noel seems educated, and has some minor points to make, but there are also some problems with his critique of Watson. Let’s look at his first point. He claims that Watson is being unfair in her suggesting that evolutionary psychology is perhaps incapable of producing good research, or at least research that would be of any interest, since according to her, its popularity is based on proponents having to ‘make things up’ in ways that capture the curiosity of the general public. Noel goes on to say that Watson would unlikely make such comments of other fields, including evolutionary biology, as he seems to think that the same problems exist in these fields as well. But this is not true. ‘Evidence’ within the field of evolutionary biology is based on: physical (observable) characteristics, population biology, comparative phylogenies, selective environmental pressures (of environments we can see and measure in the present day), genetics, palaeontology, and so on.

In contrast, the evidence of evolutionary psychology, like any sub-field of psychology, is based on interpretations of psychological characteristics viewed through a very specific theoretical lens. It relies far more heavily on theory, and theories, as I have discussed elsewhere on this blog, are based on philosophical assumptions and reasons. The ‘hard-sciences’ also rely on theory, but to a lesser degree – they are often backed up by objective physical evidence. Robert Richardson in my opinion does an excellent job of illustrating the difference between research done in evolutionary biology and that of evolutionary psychology, in his book: Evolutionary Psychology as Maladapted Psychology (2007). To repeat, evolutionary psychology, like all paradigms under the broad umbrella of psychology, relies heavily on theory. Theory is what organizes data and ultimately justifies what we decide to call ‘evidence.’ If the theory is full of logical errors, we are right to question the theory, along with anything it decides to call ‘evidence.’

The approach of EP, unlike that of evolutionary biology, also relies more heavily on reverse-engineered arguments that involve the logical fallacy of affirming the consequent:

If x, then y.

y.

Therefore, x.

Or, “if it was evolutionarily adaptive, we would see characteristic x, we see characteristic x, therefore, it must have been evolutionarily adaptive.” These kinds of approaches fail to seriously consider, and to ultimately rule out, alternative hypotheses that may reflect cultural or environmental influences. I talk about some of these methodological challenges in my own paper.

I will not comment on all of Noel’s points, but will mention another, since was also referenced by Clint, and predictably comes up whenever a critic suggests that there are consequences to buying into the party-line beliefs of evolutionary psychology. Watson claims, for example, that the hypotheses of evolutionary psychology do little more than justify the status-quo, which may involve gender or social inequalities, or serve to reinforce cultural stereotypes. Both Noel and Clint take issue with Watson’s discussion of evolutionary psychology as it relates to the naturalistic fallacy: the belief that if something is natural, it might be conceived as being inherently good. In other words, it involves trying to get a value judgment from what simply exists in the world as it stands. Evolutionary psychologists tend to reference David Hume at this juncture (apparently the only philosopher they are familiar with), who is claimed to have said that one cannot derive an ought from an is. For example, just because men turn out to be hard-wired to more readily rape women and abuse step-children, does not mean that we, as a society, cannot have value judgments about such predispositions, or that we are powerless to do anything about it. In other words, “we’re not telling you how it ought to be, we’re just describing it the way it is.” Or, “the fact that you don’t like the findings is no reason for you to refute them.” And of course, they would appear to be right – at least on the surface.

Free will and choiceBut I think that this so-called ‘fallacy’ is a bit of a red herring. Critics of evolutionary psychology (i.e. Watson) seldom mention possible implications for society as evidence against the truthfulness of a claim, but rather as a way of pointing out that there are consequences for careless reasoning. While negative societal implications might not be a good argument against the veracity of a finding, it is a very good argument about ensuring that you do not get those arguments wrong. When people read and are swayed to believe in these research findings, it may affect them in negative ways. Watson cites studies, for example, demonstrating that when women are told that men are superior to them in math skills, they do poorly, but when they are told that these are stereotypes, they do far better than female and male controls. Studies have also shown that when research participants are told that their free will has been scientifically proven to be an illusion, they are more inclined to act in morally inappropriate ways. In short, there are consequences to reinforcing stereotypes or supporting baseless conclusions. And while that might not be a good argument against the truth claim of a particular hypothesis, it is very good reason not to engage in the kind of sloppy ‘science’ that characterizes evolutionary psychology.

But I think there is another reason why evolutionary psychologists evoke the ‘naturalistic fallacy’ or the is-ought problem in discussions with critics – it will become clearer if we define each term as such:

IS

OUGHT

What exists in nature, innate, physical, what is  arguably untouched by culture

What is based on reasoning, non-physical, what is culturally determined

 

Let us not forget that the debate between evolutionary psychologists and its critics is really a debate about the evolution of the human mind. Did we inherit a nervous system pre-specified with adaptive programs (i.e. the ultimate causes of our behavior), that can be ‘evoked’ by culture (i.e. the proximate causes), as evolutionary psychologists so often believe, or did we inherit a complex brain comprised of lower-level pre-specificity and with higher level domain-general plasticity, where our symbolic culture might influence the nervous system in its own right? When critics bring up the issue of consequences and stereotypes, they are arguing for some form of the latter, when defenders label it as a fallacy, they are asserting the former. Evolutionary psychologists believe that they can determine nature from nurture during the process of empirical investigation. They believe that ‘cultural universals’ are likely candidates for speculating about innate biological programs – that it might be evidence of the innate ‘is.’ But to the non-evolutionary psychologist, it might be evidence of cultural commonalities – universal ‘oughts’ that do not need invisible genes or an evolved ‘ultimate’ cause for them to exist. From the worldview of the critics, evolutionary psychologists end up taking culturally shaped processes and re-package them in a way that allows them to be viewed as either fully or partially innate, when there is good evidence to suggest that they are not. So for our purposes, it might be best to view the is-ought problem and the naturalistic fallacy, not as a logical error, but rather party politics in action. We can see it as another plea for the audience or reader to view things from a preferred theoretical paradigm.

PerspectiveNoel and Clint are not without their theoretical biases, and they give them away when they use the language of evolutionary psychologists, suggesting for example, that while nature and nurture unquestionably overlap, we can nonetheless make distinctions between ultimate and proximate sources of influence. For the evolutionary psychologist, culture and environment are typically proximate influences, whereas the ultimate causes are embedded in our genetic architecture, waiting to be discovered by the evolutionary psychologist (though apparently only confirmed by geneticists of the future). In short, they assume what has yet to be proven. This artificial separation of nature and nurture protects their modular assumptions about the human mind, and allows them to engage in their current research paradigm without much concern for cultural influences as causal determinants in their own right. I will not get into these issues in much depth here – for a more technical discussion, please refer to my manuscript critique of evolutionary psychology.

I want to turn my attention now to Jerry Coyne, who recently posed the question: “Is Evolutionary Psychology Worthless?” on his website whyevolutionistrue. Early on, he answers his own question with a “certainly not!” adding that “there’s good stuff in it, and it’s getting better.” Personally, I find Jerry’s position unconvincing. But let’s look at Jerry’s arguments for giving evolutionary psychology its fair shake. He suggests that before we dismiss evolutionary psychology, we should all read this article by Confer et al. (2010). Jerry tells us that this is a good paper, and even though it is written by evolutionary psychologists, that it is “an evenhanded exposition of the state of modern evolutionary psychology…” Jerry goes on to say that “If you can read the Confer et al. paper and still dismiss the entire field as worthless … then I’d suggest your opinions are based more on ideology than judicious scientific inquiry.” I don’t think he sees the irony here. First, Jerry tries to persuade us that the defense presented by evolutionary psychologists is “evenhanded” and implicitly unbiased, and then concludes that if we don’t believe it, we must have fallen slave to ideology. Is the pot calling the tea-kettle black Jerry?

First of all, the Confer et al. paper is grotesquely biased, and it is a shame that Jerry cannot see it. For example in their article, the authors state that

“Evolved fear adaptations provide relatively uncontroversial examples that are well supported empirically (Mineka & Ohman, 2002; Ohman & Mineka, 2003). Snakes and spiders, for example, signal potentially dangerous threats to survival.”

So should we just take their word for it? It is curious how they neglect to mention the contradictory findings that appear to refute such claims (e.g. Lipp et al., 2004; Fox et al., 2007; Purkis & Lipp, 2007). This suggests, to me at least, that the empirical support for these ‘evolved fear adaptations’ is still very much in question. These kinds of omissions seem academically dishonest, and should raise the eyebrows of anyone told that this is an “evenhanded” paper.

One of Jerry’s readers pointed out another issue with the paper as it relates to separating culture from purported genetic influences: “Isn’t this exactly the kind of thing people like PZ (or more exactly – Watson) complain about? With the strong social and cultural pressures and the stereotypes of gender – in cases like this the EP scientists measure an effect, but the completely fail to link it to genetics in any way. How do they know this is an evolved effect, not a cultural one?” Jerry obviously senses that his reader raises a valid point, but refuses to revise his view, and makes another curious response:

“I didn’t say the paper is perfect, and you’ve picked out one weak part of it. HOWEVER, the genetic studies are to be done in the future, if they are even possible in a species like ours (one weakness of evo psych is its inability to do experimental work like we do on animals). But replicated demonstrations of behavior that comport with evo-psych hypotheses are intriguing and often, I think, worth publishing, even if we don’t yet have genetic demonstrations.”

Jerry seems to have forgotten how science works. Science is based on a combination of judicious reasoning and objective evidence. In my view, evolutionary psychology lacks both, but that does not seem to be an issue for Jerry. He effectively suggests that we are entitled to make speculative guesses about psychological phenomenon, and are justified in publishing our empirically unsupported guesses, simply because they are “interesting.” As to the evidence, Jerry says that the burden of proof will be left with the geneticists of the future. How comforting.

Near the end of his brief argument, Jerry adds:

“… those who dismiss evolutionary psychology on the grounds that it’s mere “storytelling” are not aware of how the field operates these days. And, if they are to be consistent, they must also dismiss any studies of the evolutionary basis of animal behavior.”

kool-aid-manWith this statement, it should be blatantly obvious to all that Jerry Coyne has officially drunken the Kool-Aid. He is suggesting that if you dismiss evolutionary psychology, then you must also dismiss evolution. Jerry presumably makes this claim based on two assumptions, but only one of them is correct:

1)      The human mind is at least partly shaped by evolution and natural selection

2)      Evolutionary psychology is the only way to study the mind ‘from an evolutionary perspective’

The first premise is true, the second is not. There are many ways to define the human mind from ‘an evolutionary perspective,’ based on different sets of theoretical assumptions. Again, evolutionary psychology commits itself to defining the mind as being comprised of domain-specific information-processing mechanisms that were designed to solve evolutionary problems related to our Pleistocene past (or some other distant history). This is based not on scientific fact, but rather philosophical argument, and as such, we are justified in critiquing any logical errors we encounter. Jerry presents us with a false dichotomy. Critics of evolutionary psychology need not deny evolution. Though they lack the theoretical momentum of the old cognitivism or evolutionary psychology, alternative ways of thinking about human nature are consistent with both neurobiology and evolutionary theory, while explicitly rejecting nativist information-processing and massive modularity assumptions (e.g. Deacon, 1997; van Dijk et al., 2008; Edelman, 1992; Fodor, 2001; Malik, 2002). I think most of the defenders of evolutionary psychology, including Jerry Coyne, just do not understand the theoretical commitments of the field.

But let me address just one last point. Jerry, Noel, Clint, or a host of others, might conceivably respond to my concerns by saying that I am taking a contracted view of evolutionary psychology, which might represent only a subset of the entire field (even though the Confer et al. paper is very clear about their theoretical commitments). For example, they might say something to this effect: “Your view is too narrow. We view evolutionary psychology as an all-encompassing theory that takes a general approach to studying the human mind ‘from an evolutionary perspective.” I often encounter these kinds of last-ditch protests, but find them to be desperate and entirely unconvincing. Using a definition this broad, we might be permitted to say that ‘behaviorism’ is a form of evolutionary psychology, which is just ridiculous. In addition, it makes the theory vague and elusive. Though this might help to shield it from accurate description, falsifiability, and ultimately protect it from criticism, this same move reinforces its status as a pseudoscience. We have to remember that a psychological science is only as good as the reasons that fortify its theoretical commitments. If you obscure those commitments from view, or even stranger, suggest that you do not have any, in my view you are describing some form of scientism.

bad eggJerry concludes his analysis of evolutionary psychology with this:

“Yes, there’s some dirty bathwater in evolutionary psychology, but there’s also a baby in there!”

Ok, let’s assume that in this metaphor, the water = the research, and the baby = the theory. If that is true, I would say the following to Jerry and other defenders of evolutionary psychology:

“Yes, the water is very dirty, but I regret to inform you that the baby is also dead. You can dress up that bloated carcass all you want, but sadly, it will not come to life. I know this must be hard, and I am sorry for your loss, but it is time to move on.”

Again, if readers are curious about some of the more serious criticisms against this field, I would encourage them to check out my own critique of evolutionary psychology. A slightly revised version has been accepted for publication (early-mid 2013) in the journal Theory and Psychology: Evolutionary Psychology: Neglecting Neurobiology in Defining the Mind.

Link to:Death, Meaninglessness, and Darwinian Heroism” (my argument that evolutionary psychology, or Universal Darwinism, is a secular religion).

24 Responses to “Evolutionary Psychology and its Defenders”

  1. Alicia Says:

    Your rebuttal to Jerry’s conclusion is dark, but I like it! Your rebuttal is unique in its imagery, which ultimately makes me look at evolutionary psychology in a whole new light. I recently finished taking a course last semester on Human Ethology, which has ties to evolutionary psychology. We had lectures on animal ethology as well in that course. During the course, I saw ethology/ evolutionary psychology as my main theoretical lens, which was because I was surrounded by it. Now that I am “outside the theoretical wall” of evolutionary psychology, I can clearly see the problems with that theory as being a main theoretical lens again. You are right that our own biases cloud us from seeing the problems with out “pet theories”,that an outsider can more easily see the problems. Now that I am an outsider to evolutionary psychology again, I can see clearly.

    [Reply]

  2. Iamcuriousblue Says:

    “Many, for example, want to censor Watson based on her apparent lack of scientific credentials (she has a communications degree).”

    I have to take serious issue with that claim. Who, exactly, is trying to *censor* Rebecca Watson, as in taking active steps to ensure she not be able to express her opinion? Certainly not Ed Clint, who actually took the time to debate – at length here: http://skepticink.com/incredulous/2012/12/01/science-denialism-at-a-skeptic-conference/ – many of the wrongful claims made by Watson. No response from Watson, so just shying away from debate here?

    There have been many who have *censured* her, as in, expressed harsh disapproval of her views, and in my estimation, for good reason. Not only does she lack scientific qualifications, she clearly lacks the perspective of an informed amateur. As much as I disagree with Stephanie Zvan’s views about a lot of things, I at least give her credit, in her Scientific American columns anyway, of engaging with and assessing actual scientific literature on the topic when making a critique. Watson, it seems, cannot be bothered with such due diligence.

    What so many of those of us who are critical of Watson object to is that she basically comes from a place of critiquing science from the standpoint of ideology, and seemingly putting herself alongside the kind of people who literally assaulted EO Wilson back in the 70s based on disagreement with sociobiology. Or worse, the ugly history of Soviet science, where entire areas of inquiry were banned based on ideological unsoundness.

    [Reply]

    Brad Reply:

    The issue of Rebecca’s credentials (or lack thereof) have been brought up in some of the angry reactions on YouTube and elsewhere in the blogosphere. In my opinion it is a moot point, but others would seemingly use it as an argument to dismiss what she had to say (including you apparently: “Not only does she lack scientific qualifications…”). Aside from the grammatical issue of how I use the word ‘censor,’ do you have anything to say about the more relevant arguments raised in this piece?

    Yes, Clint makes an effort to engage her in debate, though as I have expressed, I find his arguments unconvincing and full of assumptions characteristic of the paradigm he endorses. His position is in my view based on ideological faith, not sound reasoning.

    With regard to Watson… please keep in mind that I am writing this in response to her single talk and the reactions that it provoked. I am not in any way endorsing her as an authoritative source on these matters nor do I necessarily endorse other views that she might hold. I had not even heard of her until I saw her online video. And I agree… it is unfortunate that she has not engaged in a continuation of the online debate – it needs to be happening.

    Let me say something about your last point. You say that Watson is wrong for critiquing science from the standpoint of ideology. But according to Kuhn, Popper, and almost anyone familiar with the philosophy of science, scientific paradigms are in practice little more than competing ideologies. Personally, I can understand Watson’s apparent frustration and use of sarcasm. I have often raised my concerns to evolutionary psychologists and have gotten little more than dismissing passive aggressive comments and disparaging remarks regarding my apparent ignorance. Though these kinds of reactions are to be expected (because as I have already explained, that seems to be how paradigms work), it gets tiresome, and one sometimes cannot help but get their back up in response to being habitually dismissed or attacked. In addition, when a set of theoretical assumptions might put members of a society at risk (as Watson suggests), then it may call for people to protect or defend them… in other words, when reason fails, it can cause one to use a more aggressive tone or approach. But again, I speak here in a general sense, and not for her.

    Lastly, while I do not condone the actions of those who doused EO Wilson with water (e.g. his being ‘assaulted’), I can certainly understand how it happened. Sociobiology (e.g. evolutionary psychology ver. 1.0) was a defunct ideological system reducing much of our human behavior to evolutionary adaptations of genetic origin. We need to keep in mind that the atrocities Nazi Germany and the eugenics movement would have been far more accessible in the collective memories of those living in the 70’s; they would remember the price we pay for blind ideology. And as much as science has done for the world, we also have to remember that sloppy science had once been used to justify all sorts of things, including the purported inferiority of Blacks and Jews. In short, and to paraphrase Kenan Malik, ‘history tells us that when we allow ourselves to be seen as less than ‘human,’ (e.g. as a genetically pre-specified animal or a computational machine) it opens the door to treat one another in inhuman ways.’ So I can speak for myself, that in a situation where I believed I could not get a group of scientists to listen to reason and with so much at stake for society as a whole, I might want to throw water on their faces in hopes of waking them up.

    [Reply]

    Iamcuriousblue Reply:

    “Let me say something about your last point. You say that Watson is wrong for critiquing science from the standpoint of ideology. But according to Kuhn, Popper, and almost anyone familiar with the philosophy of science, scientific paradigms are in practice little more than competing ideologies.”

    Well, I’m also familiar with Kuhn and Popper, and I take huge issue with your characterizing their thesis as being that scientific fields are “little more than competing ideologies”. I really don’t think Kuhn was at all saying that holding to the theories of quantum physics was the same as being a registered Democrat or a Trotskyist, neither of which are generally based on empirical observation and experimentation. Kuhn is correct, of course, that within a particular discipline, normal science can lead to the long perpetuation of theories that aren’t well-supported by actual data, and instead depend on increasingly elaborate rationalizations to make the theory fit the data. (Lee Smolin in “The Trouble With Physics” documents this phenomenon in current String Theory quite well.) But even Kuhn acknowledged that mismatch between theory and data can lead to other theories becoming the dominant paradigm when they better explain the data. I really do not see how attacking evolutionary psychology as being “anti-feminist” is at all confronting evolutionary psychology with a better empirical theory, any more than attacking modern genetics was effectively critiqued by dismissing it as anti-Soviet.

    Lastly, while I do not condone the actions of those who doused EO Wilson with water (e.g. his being ‘assaulted’), I can certainly understand how it happened. Sociobiology (e.g. evolutionary psychology ver. 1.0) was a defunct ideological system reducing much of our human behavior to evolutionary adaptations of genetic origin. We need to keep in mind that the atrocities Nazi Germany and the eugenics movement would have been far more accessible in the collective memories of those living in the 70’s; they would remember the price we pay for blind ideology. And as much as science has done for the world, we also have to remember that sloppy science had once been used to justify all sorts of things, including the purported inferiority of Blacks and Jews.

    Absolutely correct, but it seems your pretty selective in what historical models of “blind ideology” you see fit to remember. Indeed, the excesses of genetic determinism as it played out in Eugenics and Nazi racial “science” represent real abuses of science in the service of a malign social agenda. But, as I’ve referenced above, one need look no further than Lysenkoism for abuse of science by the political Left, and perhaps this should lead to caution in embracing critiques of scientific ideas that happen to conflict with some or another dominant political ideology or one that simply happens to be fashionable at the moment. I’ll also point out that the 1970′s were even closer living memory to the excesses of Behaviorism, where an excessive environmental determinism led to some truly damaging therapies. (In fact, the book and film “Clockwork Orange” was an expression of popular backlash against that excess – how quickly people forget.)

    “In short, and to paraphrase Kenan Malik, ‘history tells us that when we allow ourselves to be seen as less than ‘human,’ (e.g. as a genetically pre-specified animal or a computational machine) it opens the door to treat one another in inhuman ways.’

    Yes, but the idea that Sociobiology or Evolutionary Psychology inevitably lead down that road is ludicrous. Even if I were to accept the most outlandish claims made about male/female differences made by some evolutionary psychologists (which I don’t, BTW), I would have no reason to see women as “less than human”, or inferior for being different, or to support artificial barriers that would exclude those women who would want to enter male-dominated professions.

    And, in any event, even the worst historic atrocities, the history of Nazis and their race pseudoscience, do not automatically relegate genetic explanations of human behavior to the “wrong” category. Only accumulated empirical data can do that. But, of course, I’m sure you know this.

    “So I can speak for myself, that in a situation where I believed I could not get a group of scientists to listen to reason and with so much at stake for society as a whole, I might want to throw water on their faces in hopes of waking them up.”

    Well, I hardly think that a political cult like the Progressive Labor Party (who’s members attacked Wilson) were advancing any kind of “reason”, and were more engaged in exercise in ideological intimidation tactics. It is this history, in light of the less than stellar tactics of internet “social justice warriors” (which Watson could be described as an example of) that raise a great deal of concern that this is the kind of “debate” we’re descending back into.

    [Reply]

    Iamcuriousblue Reply:

    “any more than attacking modern genetics was effectively critiqued by dismissing it as anti-Soviet.”

    “Any more than Mendelian genetics was effectively critiqued by dismissing it as anti-Soviet” is what that should have read.

    Apxeo Reply:

    This isn’t relevant to your post, which I think is great, but I just want to point out in reference to Rebecca Watson not continuing the online debate that there is context to Ed Clint’s piece beyond a dispassionate debate over the scientific status of Evolutionary Psychology. While I know it is hard to believe that Evolutionary Psychology might serve reactionary gender politics, that is the case with Ed clint’s post. It is simply one volley in a rather nasty anti-feminist and misogynistic backlash within the secular movement, for which Rebecca Watson serves as a lightning rod. Given the background, I don’t think Rebecca Watson is under any obligation to engage directly with Ed Clint. In fact I would say she is wise not to.

    [Reply]

    Iamcuriousblue Reply:

    That’s your point of view, Apexo – personally, I’ve seen some extremely nasty actions on the part of the hardline feminist contingent within the secular community, such that an “anti-feminist backlash” is understandable. Of course, it also exists in a context of casual misogyny that pervades the internet, but one that feminists like Watson have no monopoly on being on the receiving end of – I’ve seen plenty of cases where women who were on the wrong side of internet social justice warriors have gotten their share of misogyny is well. In fact, I remember Laci Green being driven off the internet for over a month by one such “social justice” idiot who made a very credible threat toward her.

    And as for Ed Clint, I think you should have the decency to either provide a concrete example of how his critique is “misogynistic” or retract that defamatory claim.

    Apxeo Reply:

    Read what I wrote Iamcuriousblue. I was talking about the context of Ed’s post, which is the whole weird (and most certainly misogynistic) campaign against Rebecca Watson and other secular feminists, a campaign he participates in. Whether you think this whole MRA meltdown is a good or bad thing is irrelevant, and this is NOT the place to discuss it. What is relevant is that, because of this history, RW is under no obligation to engage with Ed and his buddies at all about his post.

    Iamcuriousblue Reply:

    I’m just going to say this, Apxeo – if you think the conflict in secularism simply comes down to “feminists vs. MRAs”, then you’ve grossly misread the situation.

    [Reply]

    DN Reply:

    No, that pretty much is it. You really should use incurious as your handle.

  3. Blake Stacey Says:

    Coyne:

    … those who dismiss evolutionary psychology on the grounds that it’s mere “storytelling” are not aware of how the field operates these days. And, if they are to be consistent, they must also dismiss any studies of the evolutionary basis of animal behavior.

    I’m pretty sure there are confounding factors in the study of human behaviour which are less relevant for research on nematodes.

    The numbers of “likes” and “dislikes” on YouTube is probably affected by Rebecca’s remarkably livid hatedom.

    [Reply]

    Iamcuriousblue Reply:

    Apart from the fact that, indeed, there are confounding factors in the study of human behavior that complicate *all* social sciences (not just EP), I’d say the idea that human behavior should be treated as wholly divorced from that behavior of non-human animals is one of the more extremely problematic tropes I hear coming from critics of EP. That kind of human/non-human dualism has little basis in science, and has little business informing science.

    In biology, we know that living organisms have emergent properties that aren’t easily reduceable to the behaviors of the organism’s physical components – we know that biochemistry and biophysics are critical areas of study nevertheless. Good social science should similarly have no problem drawing on human biology, including comparative ethology and evolutionary biology.

    [Reply]

    Mrs. Neutron Reply:

    [... "I’d say the idea that human behavior should be treated as wholly divorced from that behavior of non-human animals is one of the more extremely problematic tropes I hear coming from critics of EP. That kind of human/non-human dualism has little basis in science, and has little business informing science."...]

    I would call that ridiculous. I know of no “non-human” animals who invent the reality they inhabit. … Show me porcupines with paranormal beliefs… then we will talk.

    [Reply]

  4. Mrs. Neutron Says:

    …”From about 10,000 years ago, culture took off and changed our psychological environments and our minds/brains in [PROFOUND] ways – we are born into culture, you cannot separate it from our nurture in the way that evolutionary psychologists would like to think.”…

    Couldn’t agree more!

    [Reply]

  5. Brad Says:

    Dear anonymous “Iamcuriousblue,”

    You may be familiar with Kuhn and Popper, but I am not convinced that you have a full understanding of their main contributions to the philosophy of science and how it relates to the present discussion. When I speak of how “paradigms end up becoming little more than competing ideologies,” I am referring to Kuhn’s main conclusion: that observational data and logic are alone insufficient in moving scientists from one paradigm to another, since competing paradigms will have different rules for engaging in ‘science,’ determining what constitutes ‘data’ or ‘evidence,’ and for assessing the validity of a theory. What you effectively end up with are groups of scientists who faithfully commit themselves to their preferred theoretical paradigm or scientific worldview. Popper concurred with this picture, adding that credible theories must not only “better explain the data,” but that they need to be falsifiable. As an aside, the main point of difference between Kuhn and Popper are not in their description of how science seems to work, but rather in what we should be aspiring to as scientists (Kuhn had a seemingly pessimistic view, while Popper challenged scientists think outside of their adoptive paradigms – however, most of those working within the philosophy of science would say that those who can do this are likely the exception and not the norm).

    So in short, someone who has fully bought into a scientific paradigm are generally closed-minded, incapable of viewing the ‘data’ (and whether it is considered ‘evidence’) from the lens of a competing paradigm, and are unable to seriously entertain challenges to their preferred scientific paradigm. You, “iamcuriousblue,” prove this point rather well, since all you seem capable of doing here is spamming my website with strawmen of my positions without taking an honest attempt to understand or engage my main arguments (e.g. the philosophical assumptions about how evolutionary psychologists define the human mind).

    “I really don’t think Kuhn was at all saying that holding to the theories of quantum physics was the same as being a registered Democrat or a Trotskyist, neither of which are generally based on empirical observation and experimentation.”

    Good thing neither I nor Kuhn said that (see above). Ideologies are systems of ideas; they are not restricted to politics, as you seem to suggest. And while we try to base our scientific conclusions on ‘empirical observation’ and ‘experimentation,’ both are interpreted through the lens of theories and paradigms, so that ‘empirical observation,’ is in reality “based on” (your words) the theory that interprets it, and not some stand-alone ‘empirical observation’ or series of ‘experiments.’

    Within the social sciences, e.g. psychology, as per the current discussion, and as I have already explained at length, we must necessarily rely far more heavily on theory. Contrary to your position, I would suggest that the conclusions in the social sciences are seldom based, even “generally,” on ‘empirical observation.’ Empiricism involves a theory of knowledge asserting that evidence must be derived from observations by the physical senses. But the target of inquiry in psychology, that is, the nature of human thought, emotion, and behavior, is something that largely escapes physical investigation. For example, you cannot physically touch a feeling, or visibly observe a thought, in the way that you can observe physical cells or chemical reactions under a microscope. Human psychology is interpreted through the lens of theory, a set of ideas or assumptions that justify our interpretation of ‘data’ and even what we decide to call ‘evidence.’ You don’t seem to understand this (or rather you don’t care to), as you apparently skim my blog, inventing words and meanings that are not there, so that you can argue your strawmen and presumably feel vindicated.

    “I really do not see how attacking evolutionary psychology as being “anti-feminist” is at all confronting evolutionary psychology with a better empirical theory…”

    Again, I have no idea where this is coming from. I never accused evolutionary psychology of being “anti-feminist.” You obviously have not read any of my arguments, which again prove my point regarding scientific worldviews and the inability of some people to seriously entertain alternative ideas that threaten their own.

    “… it seems your pretty selective in what historical models of “blind ideology” you see fit to remember.”

    Of course I am selective, since this is a specific (i.e. selective) discussion as it relates to evolutionary psychology, one of the more deterministically leaning psychology paradigms out there. You seem to think that if evolutionary psychology is on trial, then we must evaluate and critique all of psychology at the same time, which is ridiculous. Don’t get me wrong – I’d be happy to critique any hard-lined behaviorist I encounter – but relax, there are none here.

    “… one need look no further than Lysenkoism for abuse of science by the political Left, and perhaps this should lead to caution in embracing critiques of scientific ideas that happen to conflict with some or another dominant political ideology…”

    Again, you seem inclined to frame this as a political discussion, while avoiding the philosophical and scientific arguments related to how evolutionary psychologists define the human mind. I am not a defender of “behaviorism,” “the left,” or whatever category you want to put me in so that you can continue to make strawmen of my arguments. Furthermore, I am not asking anyone to “embrace” my critique. I am asking people to seriously think about it – something that you seem incapable of doing, which again, proves my point regarding scientific ideologies and inflexibility of thought. Rather than look for how my arguments could be right, you desperately scan for ways that it could be wrong, and when you cannot find them, you twist my words to find the faults you seek, which regardless, have nothing to do with my main arguments against evolutionary psychology.

    “… the idea that Sociobiology or Evolutionary Psychology inevitably lead down that road is ludicrous.”

    Again, you mischaracterize my points and build another strawman. I did not suggest anything about the “inevitably” of sociobiology or evolutionary psychology leading to social injustices. I wrote that it “opens the door…” one must still walk through it. As I talked about in this very post (re: is/ought), which you obviously skimmed or did not bother to read, my intention here is to suggest that there are dire consequences to scientific unreason. My arguments are plainly laid out in my paper – you are more than welcome to engage me on them.

    “And, in any event, even the worst historic atrocities, the history of Nazis and their race pseudoscience, do not automatically relegate genetic explanations of human behavior to the “wrong” category. Only accumulated empirical data can do that.”

    Another strawman mischaracterization, and with that last sentence you again demonstrate your dogmatic faith in empiricism, and implicitly, the scientific lens or theoretical worldview you endorse.

    “I’d say the idea that human behavior should be treated as wholly divorced from that behavior of non-human animals is one of the more extremely problematic tropes I hear coming from critics of EP.”

    Who is saying this here? Again, I will kindly ask you to take more time to understand the points you are trying to argue. While you seem like the kind of person who must always have the last word (almost half of the comments on this page were yours), please keep in mind whose blog this is.

    [Reply]

  6. BradC Says:

    I really appreciate both this article and your original critique of EP, and I’m gratified to hear that my (decidedly amateur) misgivings about the assumptions behind EP actually seem to match up with your much more professional opinion.

    (You can see in this PZ comment thread where I wonder to what degree our brains are “flexible abstract thinking engines”, as opposed to “interconnected function-specific logic units”.

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2012/12/11/ep-complexity-is-not-usually-the-product-of-selection/comment-page-1/#comment-509582

    If I understood your Critique of EP article correctly, that seems to correspond to your discussion of massively modular vs moderately modular vs non-modular models of the brain?)

    And just in case you weren’t already aware, Rebecca has her own “anti-fan” club for reasons entirely unrelated to this video, so don’t put too much stock in the YouTube vote count.

    I guess it’s not ENTIRELY unrelated, as an outspoken feminist skeptic, she is not shy about speaking out when she sees racism and sexism being defended, even when it is defended “in the name of science” by evolutionary psychologists. Satoshi Kanazawa is the most obvious example, and one she mentions in her presentation. See http://skepchick.org/2012/09/new-gig-for-bigot-pseudoscientist-satoshi-kanazawa/ . For some reason, this seems to not endear her to those who want to justify holding on to their sexist beliefs :)

    Final question, I was the one in the audience that asked her, “is there any good EP?” that seems to have fueled some of the fire of controversy over her presentation. What did you think of her answer to that?

    [Reply]

    Brad Reply:

    Thanks for taking the to read my paper. Let me reply to something you raised on that other thread:

    “But within the abstract reasoning portion, do we really have “specialized neural circuits” for each and every different kind of decision? That seems… implausible”

    I think that beneath the layperson discussions about evolutionary psychology is really a debate or disagreement about the degree of innate neuromodularity. In these arguments it helps to understand something about developmental neurobiology, which most evolutionary psychologists, in my opinion, just don’t. I won’t get into it too much here, as I present a more careful arguement in my paper, but the main point is this: even if an adult human nervous system turns out to have specialized module-like circuits that represent patterned responses to stimuli or decision-making capacities (which I believe is the case), it does not prove that these mechanisms were innate. We know that neuroplasticity can also create modular circuits through experience-dependent activation and shaping. The lower levels of the nervous system are certainly modular, but the more recently evolved aspects of the human brain are more plastic and highly sensitive to environmental programming. Evolutionary psychologists tend to give the entire nervous system a homogenous treatment, which is simply incorrect, as several neurobiologists have pointed out to them.

    With regard to Watson’s answer to the question: “is there any good in evolutionary psychology…” I think if she is defining ‘evolutionary psychology’ in broad and non-technical terms, involving a psychoology interested in the evolutionary origins of behavior, I would agree with her. The things that these researchers could safely speculate about would involve the earlier evolving lower-level nervous system, which quite frankly, are the foundations of human behaviors that are comparatively less interesting than the kinds of things they want to describe with the current research paradigm. But we’ve already been doing this kind of work long before evolutionary psychology (e.g. Schore’s work on the OFC and attachment or Berridge’s work on emotion), so evolutionary psychology (or whatever we decide to call it) might be redundant and unecessary. My response to that question would go like this: I see evolutionary psychology as a clearly defined field with certain theoretical commitments about how the mind works… to me there is nothing good there, since the theory is based on problematic philosophical assumptions. If there were a new paradigm to carry the torch from here, they would have to rename it in my view, and it would again involve neurobiologists and neuropsychologists looking at lower-level nervous sytem responses, which again, is what we’ve been doing for decades without the help of evolutionary psychology.

    [Reply]

  7. Iamcuriousblue Says:

    Well, actually, I think you do plenty of strawmanning of my points, notably, I never said that *you* claimed evolutionary psychology is “anti-feminist” – that’s specifically what I’m critiquing Rebecca Watson for. I’m only criticizing you by extension for standing with such an ill-considered rhetoric.

    But in any event, since your bottom line is that you want the last word on *your* blog, there’s no point in discussing this further.

    [Reply]

  8. BA Says:

    I find EP to be generally vapid.

    The following is not “EP” but is often overlooked in the discussion of the place in psychological interpretation for a selectionist perspective. Do not reject this due to its source but read it for yourself. It is not a long article and is published in a “reliable outlet”:

    Selection by consequences suggests that human behavior is the joint product of (a) the contingencies of survival responsible for the natural selection of species, (b) contingencies of reinforcement responsible for the repertoires acquired by its members, including (c) the special contingencies maintained by an evolved social environment. Thus, operant conditioning can be viewed as a kind of selection by consequences (SBC), a casual mode found only in living things or in machines made by living things. Although first recognized in natural selection, SBC can also account for the shaping and maintenance of the behavior of the individual and the evolution of cultures. Although SBC replaces explanations based on causal modes of classical mechanics, the replacement is strongly resisted theoretically because there is no place for the initiating agent suggested by classical mechanics. It is argued that while natural selection has now made its case, similar delays in recognizing the role of selection in other fields may deprive us of valuable help in solving problems confronting society.

    (Note, not the original abstract but you get a better flavor with this one.)

    Selection by consequences.

    Skinner, B. F.

    Science, Vol 213(4507), Jul 1981, 501-504. doi: 10.1126/science.7244649

    [Reply]

    Brad Reply:

    It’s been a while since I’ve read any of Skinner’s work, so I might just give it a read. Sounds familiar though. We spend a bit of time talking about Skinner and his views on evolution in the fourth year undergraduate class that I teach. Skinner believed that the mind was shaped by: 1) Natural selection, 2) Cultural practices, and 3) A person’s history of reinforcement… but he says “it is all a matter of natural selection, since operant conditioning is an evolved process, of which cultural practices are special applications.” This sounds very close to the above. I think it might be a stretch to think that we can understand culture using an operant conditioning (or SBC) framework alone… I tend to draw a fair bit from Terror Management Theory (TMT) in how I conceptualize culture.

    [Reply]

    BA Reply:

    Skinner views the mind as an explantory fiction. This doesn’t mean that it isn’t real but rather it does not explain anything to reference the mind. For example, if we were to say that aggression is caused by frustration, frustration is an explantory fiction in that it does not specifically account for the responses emitted by the aggressor. (Personal history is obviously very relevant.) Moreover, the frustration is itself not explained. This is a fundamental problem in cognitive psychology and phenomenological interpretations. More specifically, “mind” is a cultural practice established through socio-cultural contingencies.

    You have the 3 levels of selection Skinner discusses correctly but they require a bit more parsing. First, the levels operate on different entities, so to speak. Selection is considered by Skinner as a fundamental explantory framework in science. NS, with respect to accounting for behavior, refers to how contigencies of survival/reproduction establish the traits/characteristics present in a species at any given time. Thus the phylogenic history of the primary level at which behavior originates. Contingencies of reinforcement/punishment experienced by an individual shapes and establishes their behavioral repertoire. Pavlovian conditioning is also important and is best characterized, with respect to behavioral repertoires, as an interaction between phylogeny and ontgeny. It is also present within all three term operant contingencies and critical component for accounting for behavior. Many of the “operants” established within ones lifetime are significantly influenced by socio-cultural contingencies. The practices of a social unit influence what the individual experiences (e.g., we speak English and not Mandarin because of the language spoken in the house we grew up in). Skinner’s conceptual framework is geared towards developing descriptions and explanations of behavior but not of society.

    [Reply]

    Brad Reply:

    I don’t think I would disagree with much of anything in there. It sounds similar to how I might conceptualize that ‘bigger picture,’ though I must admit, it is challenging ‘translating’ amongst different theoretical communities.

  9. D Says:

    This comment may have already been offered, but this isn’t a critique of actual evolutionary psychological theories. It’s a critique of the use of shoddy science to promote commercial interests. For someone to say this talk adequately critiques real revolutionary psychological principles as put forth by Buss and colleagues is (much like this talk) a complete strawman and intellectually dishonest.

    [Reply]

    Brad Reply:

    Who is promoting commercial interests? How? We obviously disagree about whether Buss and colleagues produce “real revolutionary psychological principles.” Sounds like you’ve caught the faith of the EP paradigm. And I see no dishonesty on my part… I was clear in stating that this was a ‘layperson friendly’ and more ‘entertaining’ form of critique. You accuse me of setting up a strawman argument, but in order for your accusation to hold, you must demonstrate how this is the case, much like I do, as I demonstrated that the EP defenders responding to Watson’s talk were setting up strawperson arguments.

    [Reply]

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