My theoretical critique of evolutionary psychology is now finally in print, titled Evolutionary psychology: Neglecting neurobiology in defining the mind, and published in the June 2013 edition of Theory and Psychology. You can find it here.
“Evolutionary psychology defines the human mind as comprising innate and domain-specific information-processing mechanisms that were designed to solve specific evolutionary problems of our Pleistocene past. This model of the mind is the underlying blueprint used to engage in the kind of research that characterizes the field: speculating about how these innate mechanisms worked and what kinds of evolutionary problems they solved. But while evolutionary psychologists do engage in research to confirm or disconfirm their hypotheses, the results of even the most rigorous studies have been open to alternative, scientifically valid means of interpretation (e.g., Buller, 2005; Richardson, 2007). What constitutes “evidence” would seem to vary in accordance with the theoretical assumptions of those viewing it (Kuhn, 1962). Arguments about, or appeals to, “the evidence” may thus involve little more than theoretical bible-thumping or pleading for others to view the “facts” from their preferred theoretical perspective. When theoretical paradigms are unable to agree on what it is that they are looking at, it reminds us that the data are anything but objective, and gives good reason to question the theoretical blueprints being used. This paper argues that evolutionary psychology’s assumptive definitions regarding the mind are often inconsistent with neurobiological evidence and may neglect very real biological constraints that could place limits on the kinds of hypotheses that can be safely posited. If there are problematic assumptions within evolutionary psychology’s definition of the mind, then we also have reason to question their special treatment of culture and learning, since both are thought to be influenced by modular assumptions unique to the paradigm. It is finally suggested that the mind can be adequately understood and its activities properly explained without hypothetical appeal to countless genetically pre-specified psychological programs, and in a way that remains consistent with both our neurobiology and neo-Darwinian evolution. While some of these critiques have been previously stated by others, the present paper adds to the discussion by providing a succinct summary of the most devastating arguments while offering new insights and examples that further highlight the key problems that face this field. Importantly, the critiques presented here are argued to be capable of standing their ground, regardless of whether evolutionary psychology claims the mind to be massively or moderately modular in composition. This paper thus serves as a continuation of the debate between evolutionary psychology and its critics. It will be shown how recent attempts to characterize critiques as “misunderstandings” seem to evade or ignore the main problems, while apparent “clarifications” continue to rely on some of the same theoretical assumptions that are being attacked by critics.”
I hope to be now mostly finished with this topic, as I plan to spend more of my time and energy on others. Here is a quick summary of my previous engagements with evolutionary psychology on this website (in chronological order):
Critique of Evolutionary Psychology (pre-publication manuscript)
I have also received some timely critical comments on my original post involving my pre-publication manuscript. I felt that these comments were clearly stated and demonstrate where evolutionary psychologists and some critics frequently disagree. Below are those comments and my responses to them.
Allen Marks (quoting Brad):
“But while evolutionary psychologists do engage in research to confirm or disconfirm their hypotheses, the results of even the most rigorous studies have been open to alternative, scientifically valid means of interpretation (e.g. Buller, 2005; Richardson, 2007)”
Allen Marks (responding): “Some of which are unequivocally false. Take Buller on the Cinderella effect, the finding that step-parents are vastly more likely to kill their step-children than genetic parents, which Daly and Wilson attribute to the absence of fond familial sentiments that serve as a vehicle of kin selection in humans. Buller offers the alternate hypothesis that because of cultural stereotypes, step-parents are more likely to be investigated when a child dies, suggesting that the number of deaths caused by genetic and step- parents are comparable but most of the deaths caused by genetic parents are overlooked. His main source of evidence is a Colorado study which reviewed various categories of child deaths to see whether the cause was correctly determined and found that genetic parents were more likely to be erroneously exculpated than others. But Buller doesn’t even get the data from the study right– he compares the category of “parents” to “other unrelated (including boyfriend)” instead of the appropriate “other relatives (including step-parents)”. The mistake is not trival: the study concluded that 43% of the child deaths caused by parents were correctly determined as such, versus 47% for “other relatives (including step-parents)” and 86% for “other unrelated (including boyfriend)”. The appropriate comparison provides no support for his claim, which, moreover, is totally incompatible with other data available before the publication of his book. Daly and Wilson note that for his hypothesis to be true for the period they studied in Canada, genetic parents would have to be responsible for 500 child deaths per year, 125 times higher than the average number of reported child homicides, and in fact larger than the number of Canadian child fatalities from all causes except for disease and congenital defect. So unless Buller is positing secret mass graves beneath the soils of Saskatchewan, his hypothesis couldn’t possibly be true.”
Brad Peters (replying): Buller’s approach in his book was to challenge as many individual hypotheses and conclusions as possible in one monstrous tome. While I have made some individual critiques of my own – for example, with regard to the so-called consuming instinct – the paper you read was chiefly a theoretical critique. This is an important distinction, since I am generally not interested in refuting individual claims by evolutionary psychologists when the theory itself remains in my mind the biggest problem. I have stated elsewhere that evolutionary psychologists may often state the right finding for the wrong reasons, so I do not think they are always mistaken, nor do I suggest that their critics are always correct in the kinds of arguments they make.
With regard to your points about Buller, I can say that it would be truly surprising in a 500 page book based on so many study-specific critical arguments, to not find some errors or possible counter arguments. Still, I did not take Buller to be saying in this case that he had a solid counter-explanation to the findings reported by Daly and Wilson. Rather I think he was complaining that these researchers did not seriously control for or even consider certain variables that could undermine their main hypothesis: that “an offspring’s expected contribution to parental fitness is the product of its reproductive value and its relatedness (r) to the putative parent,” which would in part predict an increased incidence of child abuse involving step-parents and non-biological children:
“Substitute parents will generally tend to care less profoundly for children than natural parents, with the result that children reared by people other than their natural parents will be more often exploited and otherwise at risk. Parental investment is a precious resource, and selection must favor those parental psyches that do not squander it on nonrelatives (Daly & Wilson, 1988, p. 3)”
Assuming that Daly and Wilson are correct in noting that Buller erroneously misapplied the Colorado data, it seems to me that it only discredits a small section of his lengthy chapter discussion of the so-called Cinderella Effect. I think his other concerns are still worth noting – including for example, the interpretive assumption by Daly and Wilson that increased incidence of abuse must have been carried out by the genetically-unrelated parent, without verifying whether that was truly the case. Buller also notes that stepfamilies are overrepresented among lower socioeconomic classes, which is in turn associated with increased rates of violent crime and child maltreatment reports. These variables ought to be ruled out before we come to any solid conclusions.
At any rate, I would not be at all surprised to discover that step-parents did indeed have a slightly elevated risk of emotionally neglecting or abusing the children they reside with. But how we interpret such findings is important. Daly and Wilson typically explain this phenomenon through the language of evolutionary game theory, suggesting for example, that there are ‘inclusive fitness payoffs owing to uncertain or low relatedness.’ Assuming the findings are true, a far simpler explanation, and one acknowledged by a minority of evolutionary psychologists, would involve attachment theory… though the causal explanation, now relieved of the burden of ‘kinship selection’ and ‘game theory’ rhetoric, becomes something of a truism: ‘caregivers who do not have strong emotional bonds with their children are at greater risk of being emotionally neglectful and even abusive.’
Why do we need evolutionary psychology to interpret a finding that is better explained by the more elegant and parsimonious theory of attachment – an evolutionary adaptive process described by Bowlby and Ainsworth in the 60’s and 70’s – long before evolutionary psychology came on the scene?
It seems to me that evolutionary psychologists want to say that this ‘Cinderella Effect’ is caused by a genetic dissimilarity between the child and primary caregiver and potential ‘fitness costs’ (emphasizing an innate cause), when the findings might be better explained by socio-emotional factors that determine a particular style of attachment (i.e. we do not ‘inherit’ attachment styles – they are learned). The issue is not whether evolved mechanisms are at play (of course they are), but rather assessing which level of causation holds the most explanatory power.
I have done a lot of attachment work with children and families and am intimately familiar with the research. Step-parents will have a difficult time forming an attachment to a child because they were not involved during the critical period of emotional development. You can speculate all you want about why that is, but the reality is that children who are adopted at birth do not experience notable attachment difficulties in relation to biological parent-child relations, nor are they at higher risk of abuse. The real explanatory power is environmental familiarity and the attachment style of the parent, not genetic similarity, which is what Daly and Wilson ultimately want to assert. I should mention that this model of environmentally-mediated ‘attachment’ has been tested against the genetically mediated ‘kinship selection’ in experiments with rats (Sigling, Wolterink-Donselaar & Spruijt, 2009), where the researchers indeed found that the attachment model better explained their findings.
Allen Marks: “Since you also mentioned Richardson’s book, I’d like to take a poke at that, too. On page 16, Richardson makes the somewhat baffling claim that there are no venomous spiders native to Africa. This is simply false. There are, in fact, around a dozen known species of venomous spiders in Africa  (and probably many more in the depths of the Congo), only one of which is thought to be imported . Reported fatalities are rare, but not unheard of– in fact, in 2007, the year Richardson’s book was published, an Irish nun in Kenya died from the bite of a huntsman . What’s more, even spiders whose venom is not lethal in itself would have posed a much greater threat to our ancestors because of the risk of secondary infection. So there are good reasons to think that the fear of spiders, so common yet so irrational for most of the world’s population, may have been built into the human brain by selection.”
I hope you will see the irony in a book which purports to expose the poor biology and shoddy research methods endemic in evolutionary psychology making such a glaring mistake in the first chapter, a mistake that could have been corrected with a cursory google search.
Brad Peters (replying): You say that Richardson makes the claim that there are “no venomous spiders native to Africa.” Here is what he actually said, within the context of a very brief, and in my view peripheral discussion:
“… So a fear of snakes or spiders, like our fear of strangers or of heights, supposedly serves to protect us from dangers. Having observed that snakes and spiders are always scary, and not only to humans but to other primates, Steven Pinker (1997, 386) says “The common thread is obvious. These are the situations that put our evolutionary ancestors in danger. Spiders and snakes are often venomous, especially in Africa… Fear is the emotion that motivated our ancestors to cope with the dangers that they were likely to face” (cf. Nesse 1990). This is a curious view, actually. Spiders offer very little risk to humans, aside from annoyance. Most are not even venomous. There are perhaps eight species of brown widow, one of the Sydney funnel web, six cases of the brown recluse in North and South America, and one of the red banana spider in Latin America. These do present varying amounts of risk to humans. They are not ancestrally in Africa, our continent of origin. Given that there are over 37,000 known species of spiders, that’s a small percentage. The risk from spiders is exaggerated.”
Richardson seems to be suggesting that the most venomous spiders of the world are not native to Africa, and given the fact that most are not venomous, that the relative risks to our ancestors might have been lower than what Pinker claims. However this discussion is again tangential in my view – part of an introduction to evolutionary psychology… the main book is about methodological problems – why don’t you engage him on them? In addition, it seems to me that all of this talk is still speculation… I am not aware of anyone finding genetic markers for arachnophobia.
I am not opposed to the idea that we are biologically predisposed to fear snakes or spiders. However, I do not think you can infer about biological predispositions by studying adults doing timed discrimination tests comparing snakes or spiders to non-threatening and non-animal objects like plants or flowers: such studies do not adequately control for all of the variables we should want to consider. In my view, a good series of studies demonstrating the innateness of spiders would have to involve the following:
1) Conclusively determining that the fear is indeed cross-cultural (e.g. including comparison to remote cultures where insects or spiders might be part of ritual or diet).
2) Demonstrating that the fear is indeed uniquely specific to spiders (e.g. compare to fear of cockroaches, centipedes, earwigs, and other ‘creepy crawlies’).
3) Somehow rule out the possibility of it being an acquired fear by culture or modelling (e.g. reading books about ‘creepy spiders’ or parents who are anxious of spiders that frequently enter their otherwise pest free home).
4) Somehow rule out the possibility of it being acquired by non-cultural learning (e.g. a child will seldom encounter another small creature that it can watch catch its prey, observe its struggling victim, then watch it become suffocated and devoured. It would not take much more than that to induce a ‘creepy’ feeling about them).
After carefully ruling out some of these alternatives, I might be willing to accept that humans have an innate predisposition to fear spiders. But note that even if there were such proof, it does not then validate the idea that we have likewise acquired biological predispositions for highly resolved socio-cognitive strategies that explain human morality, affiliation for certain literature, consumption of art, and so on.
Allen Marks (quoting Brad):
“which puts into question the falsifiability of their claims and whether these are truly ‘scientific hypotheses’ being tested.”
Allen Marks (responding): “There’s nothing more routine in the sciences (particularly the social sciences…) than to be presented with two competing hypotheses which purport to explain the same body of data. The dispute is resolved through further experiments or observations whose results are compatible with one of the hypotheses but not the other. This does not make the hypotheses unfalsfiable or unscientific, to the contrary, this is precisely how one hypothesis supersedes another and science progresses. Generally speaking, though, a retrodiction of the sort advanced by Buller has less scientific value than the original hypothesis, because, unlike the original, it doesn’t make a risky prediction and attempt to falsify it. Buller is in the business of concocting just-so stories to explain existing data, a charge often but often inaccurately levelled against evolutionary psychologists.”
Brad Peters (replying): I do not disagree with your general assessment of how hypothesis testing should conceptually work, though you seem to have more faith in science than I do (pun intended). When multiple scientists are looking at the same data, but disagree about what it is that they see, and dispute whether it constitutes evidence for a particular claim, it reminds us that our science is anything but objective. The solution must then involve looking at the rational arguments or theoretical assumptions guiding the interpretive process. There is no point in making risky predictions when they are based on problematic assumptions or an arguably unfalsifiable theory.
The problem in the social sciences is that we are seldom dealing with ‘objective’ phenomenon, but rather concepts that rely far more heavily on theory (and in turn critical thinking). It seems to me that the ‘evidence’ is often only as good as the theory, which in the social sciences is based more on logical deduction than objective evidence, as argued in my video post on the relationship between psychological theory and evidence. In short, it is my contention that theory often rules over data, not the other way around, as you seem to suggest.
This brings me to a second point that you bring up about unfalsifiability. If a theory is considered a scientific one, it must ‘stick its neck out there’ or be willing to risk falsification. You must be able to say ‘THIS’ is what it would take to discredit our overall theory or approach and must seriously entertain alternative hypotheses. Buller’s approach was to show how evolutionary psychology does not take adequate risks, since they seldom control for alternative explanations that seem quite reasonable. There is nothing blatantly wrong or unscientific about this.
I have also argued that evolutionary psychology fails to take adequate risks, and that it is perhaps scientifically unfalsifiable since the theory has apparently evolved in ways to address criticism or minimize threats to its validity. This is especially clear as it relates to their treatment of culture, as I discussed in my paper:
“One would suspect cultural explanations to be a potential threat to the validity of any evolutionary psychology explanation relying on the assumption of trait universality, as proof of underlying genes at work. A hypothesis should be instantly weakened, for example, when one finds a culture where the trait in question is either absent or operating in contradiction to what would be predicted by an evolutionary psychology claim. … Interestingly, evolutionary psychologists choose to differentiate between evoked culture and transmitted culture. Evoked culture is confusingly defined by Jaime Confer et al. (2010) as “differential output elicited by variable between-group circumstances operating as input to a universal human cognitive architecture” (p. 118). They in essence suggest that different environmental circumstances can evoke, or activate, some kind of dormant but pre-programmed information-processing module(s), which would in part explain what we view as culture. This may involve an appeal to genetic pre-specification or epigenetics. Though Confer et al.’s definition of transmitted culture is more in-line with how most non-evolutionary psychologists would define culture (e.g., learned behaviors, values, and beliefs transmitted within a group), they go on to propose that “explaining transmitted culture requires the invocation of evolved psychological mechanisms [emphasis added] in both transmitters and receivers” (p. 118). In other words, they seem to suggest that even within cultures, certain kinds of information (e.g., different forms of gossip) are preferentially transmitted between group members in specific ways that served evolutionarily adaptive purposes. They then go on to provide examples that only beg the initial question, and divert attention away from the main problem. They do not address the issue of cross-cultural variability in a way that would satisfy non-evolutionary psychologists, though it would seem they would now like their untested definition of the mind to influence how we even define culture. The concern is thus partly evaded: “We cannot be challenged by cultural variability, because we are claiming culture to be a part of our information-processing modularized paradigm.” It would appear that they are trying to explain away the problem, treating an assumption as a fact, and, moreover, relying on the very assumption critics are trying to question. In part, this all makes sense. Evolutionary psychologists must downplay culture, because for most of us, cultural influences would support the existence of a domain-general and flexible nervous system that can adapt to environmental experiences. But the core principles of evolutionary psychology are biased in a way to dismiss this view, in defense of a version of the mind comprised of domain-specific information-processing mechanisms—it is a requisite theoretical assumption that validates their methodological approach” (p.314-315).
I have made similar observations elsewhere, again related to the treatment of culture:
“Evolutionary psychologist Gad Saad wants to claim that much of human consumerism is caused by biological drives or instincts that held particular survival and sexual fitness advantages in our evolutionary history. Like most evolutionary psychologists, Saad believes that he can use cultural artifacts as evidence of an underlying universal biology. He claims that “cultural products are ultimately created by human minds.” I do not disagree with this statement, but we must remember how the evolutionary psychologist defines the mind, which will help us understand how they will go on to interpret culture. Recall that they view the mind as comprising innate and domain-specific information-processing mechanisms believed to be designed to solve specific evolutionary problems in our distant Pleistocene past. Defining the mind in this way, and committing himself to the philosophical assumptions of the paradigm that he works within, Saad is able to say that he can use the cultural products that he speaks of, in order “to identify some of the evolutionary forces that would have led to the evolution of the human mind.” Like any evolutionary psychologist, Saad wants to uncover the domain-specific biological programs that he believes are hidden in our nature: “we need to find some other ‘fossils’ of the mind, and we can turn to cultural products, as our fossil records.” But as far as Saad is concerned, this is not a historical record of human invention and meaning, but rather one of our common biological innateness. In other words, the paradigmatic assumptions of the evolutionary psychologist, as I have discussed and critiqued elsewhere, prefers to see culture as arising from ultimate biological causes, instincts, or drives. Culture is in this case seen as a ‘proximate’ variable, giving clues or evidence to reveal the assumed ‘ultimate’ biological causes in our underlying genetic blueprint (Modern Psychologist, Delusions of a Consuming Instinct).”
Again, there is something circular, and perhaps unfalsifiable, about a paradigm that reinterprets culture to often mean biology, and grounding that biology not in reality (e.g. discovering genetic markers), but theoretical faith.
Allen Marks (quoting Brad):
“Our biology could conceivably accomplish functional organization by way of very basic, valence-laden neurobiological systems, interacting with our complex environments to dynamically shape the rest of the nervous system.”
Allen Marks (responding): “You need to be a lot more explicit about how these “basic” neurobiological systems can account for the uniformity of human brain development under normal conditions. It’s also not clear how substantially the claim that regions of the brain have a strong innate “valence” to form a particular module differs from the modularity thesis defended by evolutionary psychologists, none of whom would object to the notion that the environment plays an integral role in brain development. I also don’t think any of your claims about neuroscientific consensus hold water– the literature is full of distinguished neuroscientists who are more or less on board with evolutionary psychology.”
Brad Peters (replying): You can refer to Panksepp’s Affective Neuroscience to get a better idea of what I would consider “basic” neurobiological systems. My quote from him is also instructive as to how this approach may differ from that of the evolutionary psychologist:
“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)
It might also be helpful to mention that within the philosophy of mind, I tend to be more drawn to the embodied-embedded or extended theories, as they seem in my view to be less reductionistic. That is, they tend to be more compatible with conscious subjectivity, free-will, intentionality, and so on, without explaining them away as illusions.
You are right to quibble with my use of the term ‘neuroscientist’ – that term is perhaps too broad, and there are an abundance of neuroscientists endorsing rather strange ideas these days. Perhaps it would be more accurate to have said ‘neurobiologist’ in replace of ‘neuroscientist.’ Maybe I am wrong, but I do not think you will find many neurobiologists who will support the idea that men are genetically pre-disposed to favor blondes or purchase Porsches.
Allen Marks (quoting Brad):
“If we accept that the human genome may put an upper limit on the number of pre-programmed adaptations investigators can comfortably hypothesize without potentially jeopardizing the rest of our genetic endowment”
Allen Marks (responding): “Pinker points out in one of his books that animals with a small number of stereotyped, pre-programmed behaviors actually have smaller genomes than comparable animals with more flexible brains (I believe he compares ants and wasps). This may be because the (more) domain-general modules are built atop the existing cognitive architecture, and indeed, most of the adaptations hypothesized by evolutionary psychologists have clear antecedents in other primates at least. Status hierarchies, tool use, war, fear of snakes, tribalism, polygyny and even the rudiments of language can all be found in chimpanzees. So I’m not confident that your “dizzying array of distinct neurobiological modules unique to humans” is anything but a strawman.”
Brad Peters (replying): And yet your confidence in declaring my argument a strawman, is based on some rather dubious claims about the putative similarities between humans and other primates – a common phenomenon when one gets in the habit of humanizing animals and animalizing humans.
I would argue that ‘tool use’ has been greatly exaggerated in non-human animals, where supposed examples are effectively ‘one trick ponies’ lacking flexibility of use, intentioned practice, teaching of young, and explicit conscious awareness of action and cause and effect relationships that would otherwise suggest that the animal understands the concept of ‘tool’ in the way that humans do. For a lengthy critique, I would direct you to Raymond Tallis’ book: Aping Mankind (2011).
Comparing primate aggression to human ‘war’ likewise exaggerates or anthropomorphizes the behavior of non-human animals. Making the comparison means to already assume that it is a valid one – you smuggle the conclusion into the premise. Kenan Malik described this circular reasoning as such: “Violence is a universal, evolved trait. Since it is an evolved trait its earlier forms must be seen in Man’s close relatives. Since analogues of human violence can be seen in our evolutionary relatives, so we have proof that violence is an evolved trait. If you smuggle your conclusion into your method, it is inevitable that you will end up with the answer you want (p. 230).” We cannot assume that similar looking behaviors are caused by the same reasons or serve the same functions. If you are open to being challenged, you might want to read Malik’s book ‘Man, Beast, and Zombie’ (2002), where he spends almost a whole chapter critiquing this fallacious comparison of primate aggression to human ‘war.’
With regard to fear of snakes, I can say that I have yet to be convinced (though I am open to be). Empirical studies have demonstrated that at least certain types of monkeys raised in captivity do not appear to have a natural fear of snakes, nor is it clear that they even have a greater likelihood of acquiring that fear, after researchers control for the variables of movement and novelty. Evolutionary psychologists, such as Confer et al. (2010) contend otherwise, claiming 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.” Yet 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). In my view, these latter studies seem to better control for other variables that could explain the findings (e.g. modern fears & things that move) and overall have a superior methodology, but perhaps you would disagree. At any rate, this suggests, to me at least, that the empirical support for these ‘evolved fear adaptations’ is still very much in question, and for Confer et al. to state otherwise is at best neglectful and at worst academically dishonest. As in the case with arachnophobia, we would want to rule out alternative hypotheses – for example, I would want to visit other cultures where snakes are even given to children as playthings:
I have tried to explain some of the differences between humans and animals in my posts about whether animals or computers have minds and on defining the human animal. I have also argued the differences between: 1) modes of communication shared by humans and non-human animals and 2) human exclusive language. Contrary to your claim, I take the position that animals do not have analogues comparable to human language (it is in my view a difference of kind, not degree) let alone the capacity for abstract symbolic thought. Again, if you are open to being challenged, I would strongly recommend the books by Malik and Tallis. I would also point you to the work of Daniel Povinelli, who works with chimpanzees and has experimentally challenged many assumptions about the alleged similarities between us and them. He clearly demonstrates, for example, that chimpanzees do not even understand the symbolic act of human pointing, let alone the kinds of abstract mental concepts (e.g. weight) that guide much of our human behavior. Here is a brief talk where he describes some of his research:
Allen Marks (quoting Brad):
“But even if the trait in question is found to be ubiquitous across cultures, it still does not rule out the impact of culture. In an age of globalization, the universal spread of democratic and capitalistic values threatens the existence truly independent cultures. As cultures erode and our lived environments become exceedingly similar, it consequently becomes more difficult to measure the direct effects of our shared environments on personality.”
Allen Marks (responding): “There are a number of problems with this claim. …
First, if an evolutionary psychologist or anthropologist studies a certain trait across dozens of different cultures, including remote tribes in the Amazon or New Guinea Highlands who have otherwise adopted few western customs, it’s not very plausible that every last one of them has by sheer coincidence cottoned to the same western cultural norm.” …
Brad Peters (replying): I agree – which is I think all the more reason for cross-cultural researchers wanting to speculate about human universals, to attempt to incorporate the degree of enculturation or westernization into their studies. Yet, most do not. Furthermore, it seems as though the evolutionary psychologists who do consider cultural influences to be a threat to a genetic conceptualization, will rule it out using a rather crude formula:
[measurement of trait in culture #1] subtract [measurement of trait in cultures #2, #3, or #4, etc.] = small difference… therefore, we conclude that the trait is likely the result of some innate genetic pre-specification.
This assumption is problematic for various reasons. First, and as I have already mentioned, trends toward globalization will minimize cultural differences, perhaps causing the uncritical evolutionary psychologist to incorrectly assume that similarities must be due to genetics. Secondly, it does not properly account for cultural commonalities due to other environmental or social factors – e.g. the possibility that various societies ‘figured out’ problems or serendipitously stumbled upon similar traits or customs. Thirdly, it does not properly control for cultural-free learning – that is, traits that could have developed by sheer confrontation with the world. Imagine as a simple example, a child dropping a rock on her toe. She quickly learns that heavy objects dropped from up high will cause squished toes and immediate pain, activating a learned reflex to jump backward upon dropping weighty objects in the future. This jumping action does not need to be ‘taught,’ though it might be observed cross-culturally, and yet it would be absurd to conclude that we had a genetic disposition to do so. The point is not that say that these issues are beyond the reach of science, but rather that most evolutionary psychologists fail to build these problems into their hypothesis testing, due to flawed assumptions related to their paradigm.
Allen Marks: (responding): … “Second, archaeological and historical evidence which predates western contact sometimes provides uncontaminated evidence of universality.” …
Brad Peters (replying): Again, I would not disagree – though evolutionary psychologists seldom work alongside archeologists and historians, and we must also emphasize the word sometimes, since the interpretive process offers plenty of opportunity for contamination. History has been shown to be a revisionist practice, written by the victors of conquered peoples and those who hold power and political sway at any given time. This is as true today as it was with the first civilizations began. The history of science has likewise shown us that the ‘evidence’ will often be made to fit with one’s theoretical assumptions and personal biases. The controversy over the Kennewick man is a perfect example of just how ‘contaminated’ the interpretive process can get.
Personal, cultural, and theoretical biases will also influence which version of ‘archeology,’ ‘history,’ and so on, you will be inclined to consume and fond of citing. Thus, if you prefer a more deterministic view of humanity, your favorite psychologist might be Steven Pinker, your star biologist Richard Dawkins, your preferred neuroscientist Sam Harris, you will have your preferred philosophers of old (e.g. Thomas Hobbes) and new (e.g. Daniel Dennett), environmental historians (Jared Diamond), and anthropologists (Napoleon Chagnon). Depending on your preferred assumptions about what it is to be human, you can find views within various fields to confirm your favored worldview. And provided you do not think too hard, it will all sound quite scientific I am sure. This is why we need to be careful about claims regarding ‘uncontaminated evidence,’ and why we must stress the importance of critical thinking.
Allen Marks (responding): … “Third, anthropologists who study remote tribes often inquire whether a certain cultural practice is recent or as old as living memory, using oral histories as corroborating evidence.” …
Brad Peters (replying): The same issues apply here. That is not to say that we cannot use anthropological methods or draw upon oral histories, but we need to be careful about our biases and assumptions. The anthropologist Jonathan Marks wrote an excellent piece describing just how difficult it is to be scientifically objective in a field that tries to study subjective people. In this same essay, Marks outlines the many theoretical assumptions and methodological errors Napoleon Chagnon made in his study of violence among the Yanamamo, where he sought out to prove that violence is innate and has reproductive advantages. Again, if you assume what you are seeking to confirm, you will find some twisted form of science to back up your claim.
Allen Marks (responding): … “Fourth, there is a startling variety of human behavior along some dimensions (e.g. sexual mores involving non-kin), and a startling uniformity on others (e.g. the mother-son incest prohibition), which cannot readily be explained by the diffusion of western values.” …
Brad Peters (replying): But I never said that it could, which suggests that you are either looking to misrepresent my position to make a point (one that I would not necessarily disagree with), or create a false choice (e.g. genetic explanation vs. diffusion of western values). Again, I was challenging the idea that finding a cross-cultural trait is indicative of innateness, and gave one example (i.e. globalization) that could be a challenge to this idea. Nowhere did I suggest that human universals do not exist, nor did I suggest that human nature could be fully explained by the proliferation of western values.
Allen Marks (responding): … “Fifth, some cultural universals, like war and other forms of violence, are more pronounced in present-day stone age cultures than in the developed world.” …
Brad Peters (replying): Again you appear to be quite comfortable making assumptions that I would challenge. I have already pointed to those who challenge your favoured assumptions about war and violence, but here I take issue with your claim about ‘present-day stone age cultures.’ You cannot assume that modern hunter-gatherer societies can serve as a convenient proxy for our stone-age ancestors. It would involve treating them as though they have been scarcely touched by history or culture, which is both ignorant and absurd. Humans exist as cultural beings and these social groups are anything but static. To quote Jonathan Marks: “All living people are in a state of nature/culture. Nobody is in a state of nature. In fact we don’t even know what such a state of pure nature would be like, because it contains an inherent contradiction – trying to imagine people who aren’t people.”
Allen Marks (responding): … “Sixth, some human universals are also hominin universals, or primate universals, or mammal universals, etc., in which case innateness is almost assured. To put it bluntly: many cultural universals are supported by a veritable mountain of evidence, and your dismissing them out of hand only serves to undermine your credibility.” …
Brad Peters (replying): See my previous comments. Evidence is authenticated in the mind of the individual consuming it, and in the theoretical assumptions they subscribe to. What looks like a mountain of evidence to you, might be a mountain of bollocks to me. Credibility is likewise relative. I question the assumptive paradigms that you presumably use to justify your evidence and you say that my credibility is in doubt. Conversely, I might suspect your credibility by virtue of your uncritical acceptance of your alleged ‘evidence.’
Allen Marks (quoting Brad):
“…and evidence that such mechanisms are likely to have had genetically endowed origins,”
Allen Marks (responding): “Be careful what you say here, because it sounds like you may be inadvertently challenging the heritability of psychological traits, which is not an item of serious controversy.”
Brad Peters (replying): Personally, I believe that there is a genetic component to personality, but I also suspect that it has been grossly over-emphasized by those working within our field. I was not intending to challenge that here, but please tell me what would be so horrible about doing so? Should I be careful because this goes against orthodox psychology that tells us that roughly 50% of our personality is explained by genetics? Most of our ‘data’ on the genetic basis of personality is drawn from twin studies, which have been critiqued by some (e.g. Jay Joseph) on grounds of some severe methodological problems (e.g. equal environment assumption). Furthermore, while it is widely acknowledged that ‘temperament’ is likely to have the strongest genetic basis among personality variables, and Verweij et al. (2010) suggest that:
“… Attempts to unravel these genetic influences at the molecular level have, so far, been inconclusive. We performed the first genome-wide association study of Cloninger’s temperament scales in a sample of 5117 individuals, in order to identify common genetic variants underlying variation in personality. Participants’ scores on Harm Avoidance, Novelty Seeking, Reward Dependence, and Persistence were tested for association with 1,252,387 genetic markers. We also performed gene-based association tests and biological pathway analyses. No genetic variants that significantly contribute to personality variation were identified, while our sample provides over 90% power to detect variants that explain only 1% of the trait variance. This indicates that individual common genetic variants of this size or greater do not contribute to personality trait variation, which has important implications regarding the genetic architecture of personality and the evolutionary mechanisms by which heritable variation is maintained.”
Should we warn these researchers to be careful about what they might be asserting? Why is it so wrong to challenge scientific orthodoxy? Part of the reason why I developed this website is to question what I perceive to be gross illogicality in my profession and trends toward scientism. I realize all too well that many of my concerns will not ever become “items of serious controversy,” but I think it has a lot more to do with the fact that it is simply unfashionable to challenge certain kinds of ideas. In the present day and age we would prefer to view the human being through a deterministic lens. This is why evolutionary psychology has become so popular despite the fact that it is built on a very shaky foundation. From the last paragraph of my finished manuscript:
“The ambitions of evolutionary psychology may cause us to be reminded of a quote often attributed to Einstein: “Make a theory as simple as possible—but no simpler.” Any integrative theory of human nature would necessarily consider evolutionary research, though when the science becomes over-extended, it leads into assumptive speculation and illusory truths. It would seem that a large segment of evolutionary psychology has become so invested in its view of the mind that it is assumed to be true. The research takes over, though its theoretical assumptions may have parted ways with reason and are now influencing the methods of investigation and interpretation of data. Theoretical momentum and positivist leanings will seemingly push the field as far as it will go. However, it may not be too late to slow its progress by tenaciously engaging evolutionary psychologists in debate surrounding their theoretical assumptions; this paper offers a small contribution to that ongoing discussion, with the eventual goal of making room for a psychology that may more responsibly apply evolutionary principles to our understanding of the human mind. These viable alternatives would come from a solid understanding of human neuroanatomy and neurobiological function with more rigorous standards of acceptable research that involve ruling out cultural or environmental factors as very serious alternative explanations. Though they lack the theoretical momentum of the old cognitivism or evolutionary psychology, these 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; Edelman, 1992; Fodor, 2001; Malik, 2002; van Dijk, Kerkhofs, van Rooij, & Haselager, 2008). (p. 318)”