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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 I think this theory of psychology is important to challenge, 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 what I believe to be a more carefully reasoned examination, and more technical set of arguments, I kindly ask you to read my own critique of evolutionary psychology.
I am not at all surprised to see proponents of evolutionary psychology reacting to Watson’s critique with anger and vitriol. 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.
Many, 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 would be absurd since conceptual communities naturally gravitate toward insular thinking that 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, a proponent of evolutionary psychology, 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 (or environmentally-triggered ones), 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)
Clint 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 in more complex ways and set up the necessary conditions for a conscious and sustained self-awareness. 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.
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.
But 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:
Exists in nature, innate, physical, arguably untouched by culture
Based on reasoning, non-physical, 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 innately pre-specified ‘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.
Noel 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.”
With 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 (i.e. Skinner framed his ‘operant conditioning principles’ in the light of evolution), 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.
“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).