There’s been a lot of kerfuffle on the intertubes about the value of evolutionary psychology, the field that studies the evolutionary roots of human thought, language, and behavior. I want to weigh in here with my answer to the question posed in the title, and my answer is, “Certainly not!”
Now I am known as a critic of evolutionary psychology, and I have been quite critical. For example, I’ve published two scathing critiques (one with Andrew Berry) of Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer’s unfounded theories of the adaptive significance of rape (see references below). I have gone after the popular distortions of evolutionary psychology that appear in the press or books (e.g., my comments on David Brooks’s New Yorker article “Social animal”—an article subsequently turned into a dreadful book). And I have criticized some evolutionary psychologists for failing to police the speculative excesses of their colleagues. But I’ve never maintained that the entire field is worthless, nor do I think that now. In fact, there’s some good stuff in it, and it’s getting better.
I have seen evolutionary psychology begin to mature with its criticisms and disclaimers of its more radical exponents (e.g., Satoshi Kanazawa), and its increasing concentration on evidence and testability rather than just storytelling. Although I don’t keep up with it as much as I once did, I do teach some of it in my introductory evolution class. I have to admit, though, that as the field has evolved, I’ve become less critical of it as a whole. That is, I think, as it should be!
My position has always been that good evolutionary psychology should meet the evidentiary standards of papers on the evolutionary significance of behavior in other animals—standards that are, say, met by papers in the journal Animal Behaviour. Good evolutionary psychology should be able to make either predictions or what I call “retrodictions”—i.e., hypotheses that make sense of previously unexplained or puzzling data. (Darwin made many “retrodictions” in The Origin.) Granted, we can’t go back to the African savanna and witness the evolutionary forces that produce a new trait (hell, we can’t even do that for most traits arising today!), but we can construct reasonable hypotheses about how our behaviors arose and then test them. Or, if tests aren’t possible now, we can make intriguing suggestions that future researchers may find a way to test, as Einstein did with his theory of general relativity. That is not “storytelling,” but the limning of hypotheses that could lead to understanding. “Storytelling” is the endeavor that purports to explain something in a way that can’t be tested, or is satisfied to tell a story without finding ways to test it.
As for those writers who do a good job presenting evolutionary psychology in popular works, I’d suggest both Frans de Waal and Steve Pinker. I know these men, and, believe me, they are no Kanzawas.
And as for academic, as opposed to popular, evolutionary psychology: before you dismiss it whole hog, do me the favor of reading this 2010 paper in American Psychologist by Jaime C. Confer et al. (download free at link; reference below). It’s an evenhanded exposition of the state of modern evolutionary psychology, how it works, what kinds of standards it uses, responses to some common criticisms (e.g., “we don’t know the genes involved”), and, for the critics, examples of evo-psych hypotheses that have been falsified. (One example of a falsified theory is the old “kin selection” argument for the prevalence of homosexuality: the idea that homosexuals, though not reproducing themselves, stayed home and perpetuated their genes by taking care of their relatives.)
If you can read the Confer et al. paper and still dismiss the entire field as worthless, or as a mere attempt to justify scientists’ social prejudices, then I’d suggest your opinions are based more on ideology than judicious scientific inquiry.
Here are a few fields in which I think interesting and worthwhile evolutionary psychology is being done:
- Incest avoidance, especially in those societies that haven’t made a connection between incest and birth defects. Also, the proximate cues for avoiding incest, as in the failure of children raised in a kibbutz to marry.
- Humans’ innate fear of harmful creatures or features, as in spiders and heights, and the lack of innate fears of more modern dangers.
- The variance in offspring number between males and females in various societies, and the differential “pickiness” of males and females when choosing mates
- The evolution of concealed ovulation in humans as opposed to other primates.
- The use of odors and immune-system matching (i.e., MHC genes) as cues for mates.
- The cause of sexual dimorphisms (e.g., size differences between males and females).
- The cause of physical and physiological differences between human ethnic groups (was it sexual selection, drift, or something else?)
- Gene-culture coevolution, as in the evolution of lactose tolerance.
- The evolution or morality using comparative studies with other primates.
- The evolution of language (see The Language Instinct by Pinker).
- Parent-offspring conflict, and cases in which kin are favored over nonkin
- Why we like food that is bad for us (e.g. fats and sweets), and why we feel disgust at certain foods or odors
Now in many of these areas we’ll never get definitive answers, but that’s characteristic of many areas of evolutionary biology, for ours is a historical science. Why, for instance, did feathers evolve on dinosaurs? Probably not for flight, for the evolution of feathers preceded that of flight, but they could they have arisen via sexual selection, species recognition, or insulation—or all of the above. We might be able to make observations that support some of these ideas more than others, but we’ll never have the absolute truth—only answers with greater or lesser probabilities. But science is not about absolute truth; it’s about the best possible explanation we can think of in light of existing evidence. And many areas of evolutionary psychology do support some explanations more strongly than others. Read the Confer et al. paper to learn more.
Anyway, 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. Yes, there’s some dirty bathwater in evolutionary psychology, but there’s also a baby in there!
Confer, J. C., J. A. Easton, D. S. Fleischman, C. D. Goetz, D. M. G. Lewis, C. Perilloux, and D. M. Buss. 2010. Evolutionary psychology: controversies, questions, prospects, and limitations. American Psychologist 65:110-126.
Coyne, J. A. 2000. Of Vice and Men: The Fairy Tales of Evolutionary Psychology (Revew of A Natural History of Rape by R. Thornhill and C. T. Palmer). The New Republic 222(14):27-34.
Coyne, J., and A. Berry. 2000. Rape as an adaptation: a review of The Natural History of Rape, by Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer. Nature 404:121-122.
129 thoughts on “Is evolutionary psychology worthless?”
If humankind is going to keep progressing, we’ve got to understand ourselves, and acceptance of the ancient forces that designed our present brain is crucial to that self-understanding. Almost 100 percent of humans continue to believe in religion and other superstitions, for example, and an understanding of the evolutionary dynamics of this anachronistic foible might are surely key to overcoming it. Evolution has programmed us to suffer constant, and I would argue, unnecessary pain, we are being lied to by our own minds in many ways for evolutionary purposes (cryptic ovulation is one example), and we are not nearly so consciously bright as we should be, given our relatively huge brains. Apologies in advance if a reference to my own book on the subject is inappropriate (I assume this post will be quickly deleted if it’s out of line) but here’s a link to a free pdf with my attempts at summing up and furthering the science of evolutionary self-understanding: http://7secretsbykevinmeredith.com/
All species can progress in some manner, if so by an evolutionary pathway, without “understanding itself” whatever that means. Of course, since it is possible to study ourselves we should do so. But it is no more urgent than other fields.
And we can do better. I think commenter ERV below once noted the sage understanding of ourselves that simple viruses understands us better than we do. (Since they can to various degree populate our cells, fool our immune systems and fool our attempts to stop them.) The key information in a virus, as measured by some information theory measure, is not large…
All other species simply do what they are evolved to do. The human race is the first that can question what it is evolved to do and do differently when logic dictates. We are evolved to consume, despoil and populate without limit, and to feel happiness when we satisfy these drives. Understanding that these drives are vestiges of a vanished past is, I believe, a central component of overthrowing them and is thus uniquely important.
“We are evolved to consume, despoil, and reproduce without limit…”
Citation needed. Especially the “without limit” bit.
Some of us are able to use the greatest survival/reproduction tool conferred on us by evolution – our brain – to see that the best way to ensure propagation of our genes is to avoid the problems caused by consuming, despoiling, and reproducing without limit.
Evolution favors the best consumers and breeders, for all species through all time — no citation needed (I’d be curious to see a citation that says otherwise). But you and I are saying the same thing. The ability to see the flaws in unending consumption and propagation is certainly a feature of the evolved human brain, but it’s not an evolved feature (the distinction is important). The appreciation for long-term sustainability is a by-product, a parasite, a mistake — the manifestation of an intelligence both so powerful and so generalized that it has transcended the evolutionary forces that created it.
No, I don’t think one would find a citation that says something other than what you began your reply with. But is “the best consumers and breeders” really tantamount to “the most gluttonous, habitat-destroying consumers and breeders”?
Wouldn’t such characteristics eventually be selected out, as populations in which greedy individuals increase over the short-term will eventually hit a wall, allowing cooperation and economy to overtake gluttony as dominant characteristics?
Re. first paragraph, evolution makes what it makes. Gluttony, habitat destruction etc. are human moral inventions. Re. second paragraph, I’d need a specific example of the scenario you’re describing, and I’ll reject at the outset anything involving group selection.
Yes, the words “gluttony” and “habitat-destroying” are human inventions, but I’m only using them to describe individuals who consume without limit. I think “gluttony” fills that bill, regardless of when humans became aware of the concept.
And, no, I’ve read enough to know that selection operates on the individual level. I’m no biologist, but I think you can still find traits that benefit individuals in the short-term, but would eventually be weeded out because of their deleterious long-term effects, when too many in the population exhibit them.
My main and original point was to wonder why we can’t include the fact that our brains can foresee problems and try to devise more complex, nuanced plans for gene propagation in that which evolution has made possible for us? I. e., why should we exclude any of our behaviors from being understood in evolutionary terms?
All human behaviors are inescapably the result of evolutionary forces, musical beef, but some results are more direct, e.g. fight or flight, mating, while some are more indirect, the evolutionarily unpredictable, illogical behaviors that come from a brain that evolved to think outside the confines of its own survival and reproduction. It behooves us to be able to tell these sets of behaviors apart, but that doesn’t mean either is being excluded I don’t think.
As a gay man I’m curious, what is the current scientific thinking on how homosexuality came about and persists?
The current scientific thinking tries to decide whether there’s a significant heritable component to sexual preference. In other words, are there specific alleles that predispose people to be exclusively heterosexual and are there other alleles that determine other preferences?
There’s no point in speculating on the evolutionary significance of sexual preferences until that issue is resolved.
Thanks! Are we at all close to resolving that issue?
One of the most promising hypotheses for why homosexuality genes can persist in the population is that they have compensatory effects when they inhabit heterosexuals. If a “gay gene” makes males gay but makes female relative of gay men more fertile, than the benefits for women can offset the costs for gay men. Indeed, there is evidence that female relatives of gay men are more fertile and have fewer complications during childbirth. See here:
Very interesting, thank you as well!
(As another gay man) I really think that should wait until we better understand, not how heterosexuality came about or persists – that seems pretty obvious – but what is the mechanism by which most men are attracted to women and most women to men? Or, since they need not be the same for men and women, what are the mechanisms?
It seems to me the way strayt men are attracted to women is much more similar to the way gay men are attracted to men than it is to the way way lesbians are attracted to women or strayt women to men.
Men’s attraction is more focussed on features – primary and secondary sexual characteristics especially. Men find genitals particularly arousing, but they learned to make do with secondary characteristics (gay men with bulges, strayt Muslim men with ankles and eyes) until the 1970s and Penthouse etc. when they got much more chance to see them.
Women’s attraction (of course I over-generalise) seems much more holistic, focussed on the whole gestalt of the atractee, including tone of voice and personality. This hooks into men’s seeking sex as an end in itself and women’s seeking it as a means to an end.
So there seems to be a male kind of attractedness that gay and strayt men share, and a female kind that lesbians and strayt women share. (This is why alliances between gay men and lesbians are largely political – we have as much difficulty understanding each other on the personal level as strayt men and women do. Sex-on-site venues that have tried opening for women-only nights usually abandon the experiment.)
If we are to understand all that, we need to understand the neural pathways by which sight and the other senses lead to attraction and arousal, and what makes it object-specific. It’s all tide-comes-in, tide-goes-out, at least to me at the moment.
Mano Singham’s blog recently posed the question about how homosexuality arose, and there are some good responses in the comments.
Any explanation should account for instances of homosexuality in all sexually reproducing species, not just humans.
What a great article! I wish they’d change the name to Adaptive Psychology. Because everything evolves, but not everything is adaptive. And didn’t Pinker (I’m paraphrasing here) say that there’s really no such thing as “evolutionary psychology”, because it should merely be a part of basic psychology…..
It would be absurd to argue that animal instincts somehow appeared outside the evolutionary matrix, and certainly absurd to believe that humans are different.
We have instincts, very complex social instincts (i.e. emotions, gut feelings, innate sensibilities) that enable us to construct huge functioning societies. There is also a lot of baggage carried over from our past (including some ugly stuff). We can never understand ourselves unless we include understanding of our psychological roots. And we need to be able to face the ugly stuff if for no other reason than to work around those issues instead of simply denying them.
Just as a reporter following a political corruption story needs to “follow the money”, we need to “follow the gene path” Huge swaths of human behavior make a lot more sense if we simply look at the behavior and ask ‘how would this have affected reproductive success?’
Problem with that kind of inference is that behaviour today has multiple causes other than genetics and selection yesterday, so you can’t legitimately assume that any particular thing people do, even if it’s currently universal, was ever adaptive. It’s harder than it looks.
Yes, and that is why evolutionary psychologists do not study behavior; they study the cognitive mechanisms underlying behavior. The causes of behavior today are multifarious. However, the causes of the adaptive complexity of the psychological adaptations constituting our brains are not multifarious. There is only one known explanation for such instances of adaptive complexity: natural selection.
Rephrasing, we need to “Follow the monkey.”
And now let’s witness how both sides link to this post to prove how wrong the other side is! Good times.
All I can say about EP is that it bores me rigid. Whether it’s true or false to a greater or lesser extent isn’t the point. I’d rather watch grass grow than get further in to EP than I did (10 or more years ago.)
“differential “pickiness” of males and females when choosing mates”
On some blogs [and I’m not saying this is one], that favourable mention would probably be categorised as ‘rape apologetics’. I mean, that one where everybody piles on to represent the field as entirely about justifying sexism, so if you actually refer to studies of sex difference it must be ten times worse.
(sorry, that wasn’t meant to be a reply. Not to that comment, anyway)
In my opinion, EP is WAY to obsessed which evolved differences in the sexes, which is a boring, over-worked topic.
That is a sweeping generalization of a vast and diverse field for which you provide no evidence. Sex differences are but one topic of many in evolutionary psychology. Here is a non-exhaustive sampling of some others: incest avoidance, kin detection, altruism, cooperation, disgust, food taboos, friendship, moral norms, fear, anger, jealousy, cultural learning, cultural evolution, gene-culture coevolution, status and prestige, individual differences in personality, religious rituals, supernatural beliefs, cognitive biases, general intelligence, folk biology, folk psychology, folk physics, inequity aversion, happiness, storytelling, life history strategies, deception, self-deception, parenting, revenge, punishment, forgiveness, aesthetics…
My favorite source to cite for demonstrating the scientific validity of evo-psych is the Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart (MISTRA), who were able to quantify estimates of the components of various behaviours and personality traits due to genes, common environment, and independent experiences. There is solid science in that study that clearly shows large genetic components in how we behave. (It also shows that independent experience contributes much, and more controversially that parenting style has very little effect on the long-term behaviour and personality of their children.)
Looking for that study, I found this critique of it.
It points out that the twins reared separately were usually separated quite late, stayed in contact, and if adopted out, were placed in homes similar to their birth parents’.
Also since it was based on volunteers, it was biased towards twins who were similar – TsRA who were dissimilar would not stay in contact and not both volunteer for the study.
Twin studies are a mare’s nest, and the Minnesota paper is no exception.
But on this “more controversially that parenting style has very little effect on the long-term behaviour and personality of their children”, I don’t see why this should be controversial. I thought it was fairly well-established that peer groups rather than parents play the decisive role in personal development of children. There are no doubt exceptions (Amish, fanatical home-schoolers who try to insulate their kids from the world), but in general the decisive role of parents in molding their children is a understandable but baseless conceit.
“The use of odors and immune-system matching (i.e., MHC genes) as cues for mates.”
Well, in humans, this is not the case. There were originally some studies (and dating sites!) that said ‘smelling’ different MHCs made someone more attractive as a mate.
Using evolution and experimental techniques, however, it is now thought that humans do not have a functional/innervated vomeronasal organ, thus cannot select mates this way, even though other mammals absolutely do.
It is hypothesized that our VNO started losing functionality when primates developed tri-color vision, and began using visual cues to select mates (red butts), rather than odor. Humans are not as good as other animals at most things, but we are better see-ers than sniffers.
I am sympathetic to individuals who study the brain, because the experiments they would like to do (theoretically) are unethical, if not impossible to do. Im an HIV researcher– there are things we would love to do to study the virus, but we *cant*. I get that. So I get that there are experimental problems with evolutionary psychology.
I also get that the media misrepresents evo psych– they misrepresent virology and immunology too. And there are bad evolutionary psychologists. But there are virologists who have published BS in the journal ‘Medical Hypotheses’ too– these things dont mean virology is a bunk field.
And, I have not seen this recent bit of online derision pointed towards similar-but-different fields, like animal behavior. Why is is okay to use evolution, observation, and experimental design to study ants and birds and dolphins and chimpanzees… but NOT HUMANS?
Its odd. Like Cartesian Dualism and theistic ‘humans are special’ coming from atheists…
I smell what you’re cooking. Or, I guess, um, I see what you’re typing.
What’s different with humans you ask? Well, if I were more cynical, I just might suggest that some people when confronted with data that’s inconvenient to their religious-like political beliefs discard the former so as to preserve the latter. But fortunately, as everyone knows, I’m anything but cynical; I’m an optimist!
Steven Pinker suggests precisely that in The Blank Slate. From both sides of the aisle. The left confuses legal equality with genetic equality, and the right is largely populated by folks who insist humans are a special creation of the xian god. Neither seem to want to face the music and follow the rabbit all the way down the hole.
But Pinker always seems so upbeat and affable – no trace of cynicism. He’s probably just good at masking his cynicism.
I get the impression that he (Pinker)just loves to frolic in the playground of ideas.
I guess I was just being cynical about him masking his cynicism, and that I’m not as clever a crafter of jokes as I thought…
I definitely think there’s a thread of anthropocentrism (humans are special) going on in this denialism of evo psych. It’s an extremely common bit of dogma in certain other areas of academia that are closely related to modern radfemism, such as post-modernism, and anti-reductionism.
Postmodernism, as well as most political philosophy, is almost pathologically anthropocentric, the reason being that political philosophy has always been focused on human consciousness as its starting point, all the way back to Aristotle. The field has tremendous difficulty coping with the notion of viewing human beings “from the outside”, as it were. The deconstructivist school in postmodernism, in particular, makes the argument that our knowledge of reality is just a construct within our consciousness (which is trivially true, I suppose) and so questions the reliability of scientific observation, as well as being incredibly hostile to the idea that the “consciousness” they take as their starting point can be understood independently of its own (usually false)perceptions of itself, if that makes any sense. The ecologist school takes a more useful line by starting outside the consciousness rather than within it, but that’s often ignored in favour of the “trendier” postermodern movement and its even nuttier spin-offs.
Maybe I misunderstand, but it seems to me something is missing. Don’t you need a tie between MHC olfaction, if any, and the VNO (say in other species) that enables rejection solely based on absence of VNO functionality?
FWIW, I find relatively recent studies not based on VNO functionality claiming MHC-dependent mate choice in some, but not all, populations. (But these studies don’t smell especially appealing.)
Thanks for that article! In my opinion that GWA study is as similar/robust as other GWAS I’ve read.
There’s some hand-waving concerning the Yoruba as outliers, leading to a new hypothesis that the selection isn’t for maximal MCH dissimilarity but for an optimized dissimilarity due to African populations having greater pathogen pressure.
From time to time a field becomes discredited because there are so many bad researchers who publish bad science. This does not mean that every single researcher in the field is bad, it just means that the small minority of good scientists were overwhelmed by the bad ones.
When this happens, it’s usually a good idea to re-name the field and start afresh. I think evolutionary psychology has reached the point where the discipline can’t be saved. It would be better if the best scientists moved on to a new field such as “Evolution of Behavior” and made sure that the kooks don’t follow them. They need to start new journals with rigorous standards.
That is an extraordinary claim that requires extraordinary evidence, for which you provide none. You and I agree that Kanazawa is a bad apple. In order for you to make a convincing case that he is representative of the field, you would need to name hundreds of other scientists that are just as bad as he is and cite evidence of their incompetence. Lumping an entire group of diverse scholars together and declaring that the majority of them are “kooks” is offensive. You are no better than the creationists who dismiss the entire field of evolutionary biology while feeling exempt from the normal standards of evidence that make rational discourse possible.
Let’s do a test. Pick the December issue of the top evolutionary psychology journal and list the papers that you think illustrate the very best that the field has to offer.
Or, you could respond the challenge on my blog and give me the top ten things that evolutionary psychology has discovered in the past few decades.
If you’re right that the majority of evo psych is “bad science,” then the review boards at some of the top scientific journals in the world would appear to disagree with you. Here are a few links to some commendable evo psych studies (the list is by no means exhaustive):
Here (http://www.ehbonline.org/current) are four papers in the most recent (November) issue of Evolution and Human Behavior.
Sagarin et al. (Jealousy meta-analysis)
Petersen et al. (Punish or repair?)
Delton & Robertson (Social foraging)
Shaw et al. (Fairness vs. Favoritism)
I look forward to hearing your thoughts on them.
Evolution and Human Behavior
I think Larry Moran is writing the obituary prematurely. The quality of the research papers on EP are becoming better, and an undergrad can find better papers than the list that Gad Saad recommended on his (Moran’s) blog.
Psychology itself started as a pretty pseudo-scientific endeavour, but has definitely matured over the decades. It’s not always necessary to abandon a name merely because it has an unfairly tarnished image. C.f. atheism.
“new field such as “Evolution of Behavior”
You mean like the decades old field of Behavioral Ecology, where some of the best minds in evolutionary theory have been studying for years (JR Krebs, Charnov, Davies, the late Maynard-Smith (a pioneer of game theory along with WD Hamilton)?
From time to time a field becomes discredited because there are so many bad researchers who publish bad science.
Please point us to a comprehensive analysis of the published research in EP demonstrating a disproportionately large amount of bad science compared to other fields.
to me this article attacks a strawman. As I think you are aware, the source of the “kerfuffle” is the skepticon 5 talk of Rebecca Watson. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r9SvQ29-gk8)
In it Rebecca took on the ‘science’ stories we see in the news. Stories that got made under the umbrella of evolutionary psychology, but I think all people here will agree it is pseudoscience. Actually, one of the examples was about the way people walk. I don’t know what science that would fall under, but then again, the people who did that ‘research’ probably didn’t know that as well.
Anyway, I think the kerfuffle would benefit from an endorsement from you for the talk above. Rebecca makes it very clear she’s talking about pop evolutionary psychology, and that would be the very same thing you have criticized in the past. The examples she uses do not fall under the topics you mention in this post.
This endorsement would make it clear this article is not a negative response to the talk (and therefore would attack a strawman)
Note that I totally agree with the full content of this post. But then again, I think Rebecca does too (and I think that on the basis of the above talk).
Can you point out the straw man portion? He mentioned there has been of late a kerfuffle (there has been, which makes this topical), and that he’s going to respond to the title of this post (which he then proceeded to do).
The fact that so many people have to defend the subject of her talk is a really good indication that it lacked clarity, and wandered off topic enough that there’s a problem with it.
It’s like a joke. If I have to explain a joke, either the joke sucks, or I suck at telling the joke. Using less extreme languages, there are two problems with Rebecca’s talk:
1) She didn’t put it together well enough. It may have been clear to her, but the slides and other non-verbal content weren’t clear enough to the audience. Again, the fact that there’s *any* confusion over what she was talking about shows this. (note that this is entirely different from agreement or disagreement with her points.)
2) She didn’t present it well enough. Again, this has nothing to do with agreeing or disagreeing with her. It is just that her presentation was not specific enough to keep everyone clear about what her topic was.
There’s quite a few places in the talk where regardless of her intentions, it really does sound like she’s bagging on EP as a *field*.
Now you can deny this and try to point out how she was crystal-clear throughout her talk, but you’re going to spend a lot of time doing so. It is entirely possible to be a fan of hers and yet say “You know what? That talk did wander too much, and I can see how someone could have gotten confused as to her intent/meaning.”
That doesn’t make you a bad person or a hater.
Well, it was clear enough to me. I liked it, I got the humour and I understood that there is a science out there that might do something worthwhile. It’s just not what the public sees. Listen to the talk, it’s there if you pay minimal attention.
Rebecca even explains she does this talk at skepticon and not the bible belt.
I also know there’s a whole field of morons out there that just love to shit on anything RW does, intentionally misrepresenting her, intentionally demonizing what she talks about.
Now I’m not saying you belong to that group. As evidence for that groups existence I would give the remarks on any of her youtube videos.
They’re there and that provides an explanation why this talk has become a kerfuffle where others have not.
And you forgot the 3rd option if one has to explain a joke.
1 the joke sucks
2 The teller of the joke sucks
3 The person the joke is told to sucks (at comprehension for example)
Why did you leave out the 3rd option?
Look, as I said, anyone wanting to argue over this particular talk can go to the websites where it’s been discussed ad infinitum. I won’t approve any more comments about it, okay? Read what I said above!
I disagree, I think what Jerry did was exactly the right approach: stick to the academic issue and avoid any/all mention of individual proponents or critics. I think his approach is more liable to lead the community (whomever you consider that to be) to either partial or full agreement about the substantive issues. Plus it makes any responses using ad hominem or the genetic fallacy immediately apparent, because such responses stand out as addressing a subject Jerry never brought up.
and then watch her talk again.
Please follow your own step 2: You will see that the target of Rebecca’s talk is the popular ‘science’ trash in the media, not anything Jerry is talking about, and not what Ed is waffling about in a piece that’s 3 times as long as it needs to be.
This also explains my strawman remark: The stuff Jerry is talking about is what Rebecca refers to as the stuff real evpsy scientists do, and not the trash that gets in the media. And read Jerry’s OP again. He gives a few instances where critisism does *not* apply, leaving the complete scope of the science outside that to crash and burn.
That’s actually goes much farther than anything Rebecca does in her talk.
But if you want to defend the stuff Rebecca is talking about: feel free to defend this piece that came out after the talk:
Let’s stop talking about this particular episode; there are places on other websites where you can do that. My intention was to clarify my own feelings about the field because there’s some confusion about not only my own opinion, but the value of EP as a whole. This is NOT intended to cast aspersions on anybody else’s talks, and in fact I haven’t seen the talk in question.
Please stick to what I wrote about.
I understand and I will stop doing that. As a matter of fact when rereading your post and reviewing Rebecca’s talk I actually found you go further in condemning the field than RW does.
Thanks for the clarification that your post is not to be regarded as criticism of any talk. Before it could be taken as such, now not anymore. Given that you have not seen the talk in question this is exactly the thing I hoped and asked for.
The idea that Watson was only talking about media portrayals of “pop” EP is untenable, and, even if it were true, irrelevant. Ed debunks this claim with copious quotes in a follow up post you can read here:
Ummm. . . . see above. PLEASE don’t discuss this particular talk here; I haven’t seen it and don’t want the fracas of other websites regarding that talk to spill over here. Again, no more posts about that, okay?
Not a clear talk at all if that was her intention. I watched her talk before the criticism hit the blogs and I was under the impression that she was using those examples as indicators that the whole field was BS.
I watched Ms. Watson’s talk. It is not at all clear that she was talking about pop EP. In fact, it was clear in several portions of the talk that she was condemning the whole discipline. I wonder why you have (mis)characterized it so, since you posted the link.
Long ago I got a bad case of food poisoning from eating raw oysters. To this day I have a strong revulsion, bordering on nausea, from merely the thought of eating an oyster, and have never eaten one since. Before the incident, I loved oysters.
The intensity of this effect has often puzzled me. Other people have mentioned similar experiences with food poisoning. Worth studying?
I’m like that with rum. I got sick on it once in the 1990s, and I gag just smelling it now.
Ditto for me and rum. I drank too much when I was a senior in high school. Haven’t had a drop since. That was in 1968! I don’t feel the same about other forms of alcohol. I guess it makes me a heretical Pastafarian.
Got wasted on Baileys once, took me off the stuff for about 7 years, then I started enjoying it in small doses again.
It almost seems like our brains love us and try to protect us against our will, sometimes…
Baileys Phil, that’s your wild rock’n’roll lifestyle? My mother drinks Baileys and she doesn’t actually “drink”. You are the worst rock star ever.
All other forms of ingestible alcohol still very much welcome.
Rum. Last night of High School in 1984.
Haven’t touched a drop of it since!!!
I’m detecting a pattern here.
It’s a common phenomenon, and can even happen when the sickness is coincidental. Cancer patients are advised to avoid their favorite foods before chemotherapy sessions, so that the sudden onset of side-effects doesn’t cause a future revulsion to that food.
IIRC, in Psychology it is referred to as Recency Effect.
In the common tongue, “vomiting”.
As a big fan of evo psych, i really appreciate this post!
Thank you, Jerry. My discipline is neither Psychology or Biology, but I do understand that honest criticism of an intelectual field can enrich the field in question, by raising the standards. Honest criticism is, such as your criticism on EP, is devoid of personal feelings and ideologies… As much as possible.
It was with some trepidation that I read Jerry’s list of the “good parts” of evolutionary psychology. Imagine my relief when his list corresponded almost exactly with the various chapters and parts of chapters in my own textbook on evolutionary psychology. There is a lot of crap about evolutionary psychology published by soi-dissant “science journalists”, but the same is true about most of science (see the gobs of similar crap published about quantum mechanics or string theory). Rather than dive into a long list of primary references on the subject, if one is interested in the “good parts” of evolutionary psychology, one place to start is an academic textbook on the subject. Here are some (including my own):
Sorry about the crappy formatting and the jpeg. I don’t quite know how to post abbreviated links that don’t do this.
Thanks for this! As an armchair layman I’ve been highly critical to evo-psych because I didn’t see tested hypotheses:
This is popperian, and besides the point I think. As soon as we have tested hypotheses, testability and so falsifiability follows. Falsifiability pass the outsider’s test on having mechanisms of telling what is wrong, and so eventually telling what is right. But it is tested hypotheses that pass the outsider’s test if this is a fruitful area.
Maybe we should call these the outsider’s test class 1 respectively class 2.
For example, religion is class 1 but not class 2 – what is testable is also falsified.
So I was looking for positively tested hypotheses and the area scored:
“A recent example comes from a research program on “adaptive memory.” Nairne and his colleagues hypothesized that evolved memory systems should be at least somewhat domain speciﬁc, sensitive to certain kinds of content or information (Nairne & Pandeirada, 2008;
Nairne, Pandeirada, Gregory, & Van Arsdall, 2009; Nairne, Pandeirada, & Thompson, 2008). …
Using a standard memory paradigm involving a scenario priming task and a surprise recall task, they found that words previously rated for survival relevance in scenarios were subsequently remembered at signiﬁcantly higher rates than words rated for relevance in a variety of control scenario conditions.”
And there are more like that. So unless each and every result have been successfully criticized, I feel good about this.
You wrote, “For example, religion is class 1 but not class 2 – what is testable is also falsified.”
I presume you meant falsifiable and not falsified?
“the limning of hypotheses…”
Wait… did you mean limiting… lining… hmmm…
*google google google google…*
Oh! You did mean LIMNING!!!
I dun learnt me a gnu werd! 🙂
Dang! Now I see that, just after having created a post that probably crossed that line. 🙂
However, one point that might still be of some relevance to your post itself without crossing that line is related to the question of why there is “a lot of kerfuffle on the intertubes” in the first place. And while it is somewhat of a political nature, it is a quote from Steven Pinker and is sufficiently broad – and “meta” – to be of interest and to maybe still pass muster:
Seems to me that the “information-processing circuits that take in delimited units of information and transform that information into functional output designed to solve a particular adaptive problem” – and their evolutionary antecedents – which, according to the Confer paper you linked to, apparently undergirds the theory of evolutionary psychology is decidedly antithetical to postmodernism. Seems to me that that “kerfuffle” isn’t readily resolvable unless one attempts to understand some of the arguments and motivations of the “combatants”.
Wow, what a quote my Pinker! I used to date a History grad student, and his quote describes her position and rhetoric perfectly!
As she got indoctrinated into those beliefs, we would have debates about it, but as she got more “brainwashed”, I started losing respect for her opinion until I no longer thought her worthy of the effort.
Interesting “anecdote” – pretty much along the line of a discussion I had here not too long ago on this site with a woman on the topic of post-modernism; she was somewhat upset, exasperated or apprehensive that her daughter was taking courses in university that had a heavy component of that “philosophy”.
As Pinker suggests here, a rather “pernicious” school of thought:
The current “kerfuffle” being just the latest manifestation of that “confusion”, that conflation, of psychology – and science – with moral and political goals.
Very interesting to see you chime in at this point, Jerry.
Your name has cropped up a fair bit in relation to recent online discussions and I can appreciate you wishing to set out your position in this way.
It seems to me there is something of a prior question which is laid bare by the term “psychological sciences” used in the Conclusion of the Confer paper. The epistemological claim that psychology is a science at all is debatable. That doesn’t mean it is not empirical or reason-based (so is history and sociology), but while these characteristics and necessary for a discipline to qualify as scientific, they are surely not sufficient.
At a general level, it is unclear that human behaviour, either at the level of the individual or in aggregate, is susceptible to the reductionist methodology that characterises the natural sciences.
The problem is particularly acute for evolutionary psychology, which I think has poisoned its own well by pushing outrageously stupid and empirically unsupported propositions over some considerable time. I agree with Larry Moran, that the sensible heads interested in pursuing this research program would be well-advised to start again (new name, new journals, etc) with a tighter focus and definition of their discipline.
“At a general level, it is unclear that human behaviour, either at the level of the individual or in aggregate, is susceptible to the reductionist methodology that characterises the natural sciences.”
In your mind, does this same statement apply to chimpanzee behavior?
First, cultural differences among chimpanzees seem to be a far less significant component of behavioral variation than in humans. But all cultural differences are historical and social products, and are therefore not susceptible to reductionist methodology, regardless of species.
Your quote seemed to be a broad claim regarding “human behaviour“, but now you’re talking about “cultural differences” — nice sidestepping technique.
I wouldn’t have wasted your time with a question about chimpanzee culture!
Reread what I wrote. Analysis of behavior is critically dependent on the role of culture in the species under study: non-existent in species that don’t possess culture, of limited importance for animals such as chimpanzees, and probably the dominant factor in the human animal (perhaps even as a selective pressure on neural organisation!).
The problem for evo-psych is compounded by the fact that the bio-social history in question is still largely opaque to us, even on such fundamental questions as the origin of pair-bonding (Ardipithecus, australopithicenes, Homo erectus?). No surprise then that when they (and many others) get to issues such as same-sex attraction they produce gibberish.
“…and probably the dominant factor in the human animal (perhaps even as a selective pressure on neural organisation!).”
Yes, this is the debate, isn’t it? Thanks for restating it.
And since you’ve tossed out reductionist scientific methods as a tool, how can you possibly arrive at such conclusions?
I did my degree in an anthropology department that encompassed both social and physical anthropology. If nothing else, it gave me some sense of methodological pluralism. I haven’t “tossed out” reductionism, I just think it’s an inappropriate approach to human behavior. That may change with development of disciplines such as neurobiology, but we are not there yet — by a long shot.
So, methodological pluralism. What other methods than “science” should be used? Which of these are evidence based and which not?
Wikipedia has a stub of an article on “methodological pluralism” which references an interesting paper by E.B. Davies which has this as an abstract:
While I haven’t read the entire article yet, it seems to me that while a complete and comprehensive “unified approach … based on reductionism” – a theory of everything – might well be “implausible” or impossible, I think one has to acknowledge that reductionism has provided substantial benefits and continues to do so, not just in physics but in biology and neuroscience. If that is the case then it seems entirely capable of explaining substantial aspects of human behaviour – at least to a quite broad “first approximation”.
For instance, if animal behaviours such as altruism are explainable and tractable using reductionist methodology and perspectives then it seems not unreasonable to expect that that is also the case with human manifestations of similar behaviours, at least to a large degree. Denying that would seem to be rather inconsistent with a belief in human evolutionary history. Not to mention being somewhat incongruous when considering the recent mass murder in Aurora, Colorado where three people – males, if I’m not mistaken – died protecting their partners – women, if I’m not mistaken.
Reductionism – and evolutionary psychology – might not, probably won’t, explain all of human behaviour. But they certainly seem to have a substantial degree of utility for a very large part of it.
I think I largely agree. Certainly the largely undiscovered country of neurobiology seems well suited to standard reductionist methodology. I guess my point was that I’m extremely sceptical about the “scientific” pretensions of psychology in general, and I don’t think yoking it to evolutionary biology has helped much. This is of course a much bigger discussion, and I expect the interest would lie in the qualifications we would apply to our starting positions 🙂
I read the paper Jerry suggested, and I am still just about where I was before on the subject: on the fence. I thought the authors got a little flip about dismissing what they call “domain general” explanations for behavior. In spite of what they say, there is still a tendency for psychologists to look for discrete behavior modules.
Well it’s tricky isn’t it. Take short-term mate selection. One of the topics that Confer et al cite as well-confirmed theory. What observation would falsify that theory?
I went and read one of the papers to see what the arguments and data are. And indeed there is data but there is also a whole range of stories that weave them together that are actually not from the data. The handling of culture that Confer et al mention does not seem to appear in these papers and what passes as cross-cultural (e.g. Netherlands vs US) seems dubious because of course there is a long shared history of gender roles etc that is actually shared.
But worse of course the distinction between culture and evolutionary roots are not sensibly delineated (understandably because it might be neigh impossible to do) but the working assumption simply favors the evolutionary model. For example a consensus observation does not at all require that the basis for the observation is biological. In fact cultural practices with similar pattern can indeed emerge and migrate without biological changes.
The Confer et al article is almost comical to me on that point because of course socialization has to first be justified evolutionarly.
“Given the large amount of effort that parents in all cultures expend on socializing their children, it would defy evolutionary logic if there were no adaptations in parents
associated with socialization practices. Consequently, evolutionary psychologists fully accept the potential importance of environmental influences, whether coming from
parents, siblings within families, or peers, but they suggest that socialization theories will become more powerful if informed by evolutionary psychological analyses (Buss,
2008; Ellis, Jackson, & Boyce, 2006).” Confer et al (2010) p. 117.
What that “evolutionary logic” is beyond a narrative remains unclear regardless. But at least environmental influences has rhetorically been subsumed and justified in the claimed paradigm that is that “evolutionary logic” itself.
Of course it’s rather clear what is suggested. Passing of genes to offsprings is a necessary act of process. But that core does not have the explanatory character that it appears to get necessarily.
For example only a subset of a tribal society reproduces. How in trouble are the genes of that subset of the tribe that did not reproduce? Well it’s not that clear that it really is in such trouble. Yet mating is presented as a very strong selector on an individual basis. Of course the logic says that for men have to mate a lot to pass on their gene (short-term gender differentiation being cited by Confer at al as a success case). Nevermind that their genes might sensibly have propagated just as well through their kin, and that perhaps excessive mating may well have been detrimental to social cohesion. But whatever the story, there surely is a “logic” one can argue for.
I would submit that plenty of skepticism of the style of argumentation is still well justified.
Thanks a lot for the link 🙂
I confess – I am in the pop-evo-psycho camp!
The fundamental premise of evolutionary psychology is that there is such a thing as human nature, and it has a significant effect on human behavior. That premise, obvious to any reasonably intelligent 10 year old, was rejected by the “men of science” in the behavioral specialties for several decades. It took a playwright, Robert Ardrey, to smash that ideologically motivated orthodoxy, an inconvenient truth for the “men of science” which was swept under the rug by Steven Pinker in his bogus “history” of the Blank Slate, and continues to be ignored in the EP textbooks to this day. To the “men of science” really want to go back to that orthodoxy, like dogs to their vomit? I wouldn’t recommend it. Let’s let the old Marxists and related ideologues like Lewontin and Montagu, whose utopias require human beings to be inhuman, die off, and get on with the science.
Not being a social scientist, I can’t speak to the finer-grained details of research as applied to evo-psych. My biggest point of contention has been the dismissive attitudes that some proponents of evo-psych have toward other, more-established psychological disciplines, most notably social psychology. It’s one thing to be excited and even supportive of a new discipline; it’s entirely another to believe that its emergence somehow supplants the existence of vast amounts of pertinent and relevant social research, and then to compare said pre-existing research field to, say, stamp collecting. Such condescension serves nobody well, and merely creates discord where mutual support would better serve all involved. I hope Dr. Dawkins understands my drift here.
What has Prof. Dawkins said about this topic? He has not commented on this thread, so I don’t understand your last sentence.
I have nothing substantive to say about EP, but I do have a question for the collective intelligence of this website’s denizens, related to the third and fourth bullet points in Dr. Coyne’s list: “The variance in offspring number between males and females in various societies, and the differential “pickiness” of males and females when choosing mates” and “The evolution of concealed ovulation in humans as opposed to other primates.”
I’m currently reading “The Red Queen” by Matt Ridley, in which chapters 6-7 deal extensively exactly those questions, along with others. To me, the entire topic is fascinating (and *so* much more informative, incisive and profound than what I “learned” about human nature from religion), but I don’t have the knowledge to analyze whether what he presents is widely accepted, or is yet more of the EP-like just so stories that I have heard about (as an ex-religionist, I take seriously the dictum about using all sources critically!). And, I notice that the book is 20 years old. So, do I accept most of what is in the book as basically trustworthy? Or have the ideas been mostly superseded, disproved, or just ignored? Also, any other recommendations as to what to read for a potentially more recent discussion of the issues involved? Thanks in advance.
Ridley’s book dealt with a lot of hypotheses that were generated from actual observations, but at that point had been poorly tested in the field.
I’d say there has been a lot of work done since then, and the red queen hypothesis has actually NOT been rejected as of yet.
so, I don’t think it’s fair to categorize it as “just so stories”, because all of it was reasonable, and we all knew at some point would be testable and someone would do the field work on it.
It might not have worked out exactly as he predicted, but there was nothing in there that really was untestable.
I know there are much more modern reviews dealing with the same issues though. do a google scholar search on “red queen” and you’ll see some of them pop up. write the authors and ask for a reprint, or grab any article you find interesting by going to your local uni library.
thanks for doing this Jerry.
it’s actually been quite disconcerting seeing an entire field get slammed without any real reference to what the field itself has published as a whole.
it brought back bad memories of how sociobiology was slammed in the 70s.
Isn’t it just the continuation of that old 1970s Sociobiology slamming by a new generation of slammers?
the arguments I’ve seen look quite similar. The critiques of those arguments look an awful lot like the legitimate critiques of Gould’s old “Spandrels” paper.
maybe I’m just getting old, but yeah, it sure looks the same to me.
Ichthyic, Agreed on both points. Jerry did a fair job, but then he actually IS an evolutionary biologist. The current slamming has been done either by complete amateurs, former practicing scientists or those from distant fields seemingly unaware of well established fields as theoretical biology or behavioural ecology.
If they were serious (and credible) they should target critiques for professional scientific audiences (perhaps a journal such as TREE or JTB) rather than to uninformed audiences of like-mind ideology.
I’m most disappointed with PZ’s multi-volume diatribe against the field.
at the start, he even directly mentioned how we typically will rip apart individual papers in conferences and staff/student meetings, but then actually did a very poor job of following this up by you know, actually tearing apart a significant random chunk of literature in EP. Seemed quite cherry picked for effect to me.
this is not what I’m used to seeing from PZ, and again, it’s another reason I’m glad jerry is countering it with a more conservative viewpoint on the issue.
Even with my own background in evolutionary biology, I would feel I was overreaching tremendously in calling for an entire field of scientific endeavor to be shut down because some of the papers in it, just like some of the old adaptationist papers in sociobiology, overreached themselves.
Gould had a good point in reminding all of us in this endeavor not to put ONLY adaptationist spins on things that can be explained in other ways… but one of the major criticisms OF Spandrels, even at that time, was that MOST evolutionary biologists were already using this standard; even the old guard taught me that the adaptationist hypothesis is not the null hypothesis.
Spandrels is a good paper for students to read, but thinking that an entire field of biology has completely ignored the advice in it, and that of thousands of others that have practiced evolutionary biology since, is really just playing a stereotype.
sorry, for the tldr; this thing just vexes me is all.
Not tl; agreed that vexatiousness is vexing, both for potential negative impact on the target field, and erosion of trustworthiness in the source and supporters of the attack.
The referred to paper and the discussion misses the best evolutionary psychology paper to date. Anyone with serious interest in the general subject matter needs to see this. Anyone doing research in it needs to take it seriously on a model.
Moore, B. R. (2004). The evolution of learning. Biological Reviews, 79(2):301–335.
(unfortunately Wiley library and not free)
From the linked paper:
Although both sexes experience jealousy over a partner’s
sexual and emotional infidelity, abundant empirical
evidence from studies employing more than half a dozen
different experimental methods supports the existence of
sex differences in the relative weighting given to cues to
infidelity (for recent reviews, see Buss, 2008; Buss &
Haselton, 2005; and Sagarin, 2005). Independent replication
is the hallmark of the scientific method, however, and
a meta-analysis of 72 studies found a strong effect size
(d 0.64) in support of the hypothesized sex differences
(Hofhansl, Voracek, & Vitouch, 2004), although an occasional
study will fail to find full support for them (e.g.,
Penke & Asendorpf, 2008). The fact that the sex differences
have been documented using highly diverse empirical
methods, ranging from spontaneous memorial recall of
cues of sexual versus emotional infidelity (Schu¨tzwohl &
Koch, 2004) to sex-differentiated patterns of neural activation
using fMRI technology (Takahashi et al., 2006) suggests
that the burden of proof must now shift to those who
doubt the existence of evolved sex differences in the emotion
of jealousy (Buss & Haselton, 2005).
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? (I for instance am a man who has been more worried by emotional than sexual infidelity, and the reasons are pretty much cultural).
I’m no expert in the field, but reading through the paper they seem to completely fail to address this (with one short mention at the start where they say, they just don’t have to have any proof its genetic).
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. After all, one has to dominate the phenomena before you can do the much harder genetic tests for it!
I don’t think you’re being fair, and no, the people you mention don’t just single out this problem (which is often a problem), they dismiss the entire field of evo-psych.
Thank you for your answer. I’m still reading through, just thought I’d mention they include the Hines “vervet-girls-like-red-pots” study with a completely straight face.
From PZ’s multiple posts, I’m sure he doesn’t dismiss the entire field outright, although he’s very loud about what he doesn’t like.
“I for instance am a man who has been more worried by emotional than sexual infidelity, and the reasons are pretty much cultural”
How do you know this? (I mean the “pretty much cultural part” since I can assume your self-description is accurate.)
Steven Pinker’s book “The Blank Slate” is excellent in exploring assumptions about cultural vs. biological influences.
Well I assume its cultural, because I’ve changed in opinion (and emotional reaction) on this during my lifetime. Just seems too much of a bother to me to police another person’s sexual interactions.
Of course one person is only one data point, but what I was getting at with that is that it’s pretty difficult to imagine something like jealousy is evolutionarily hardwired (and nothing else) when one sees it as a mix of experience, culture and opinion in ones own life.
You’ve also probably changed your body hair growth patterns and your shoe size during your life and I’d expect you wouldn’t attribute those changes to culture. Change by itself doesn’t illuminate the relative contributions of culture vs. biology.
Does this mean you’re now a fan of Evo-Psych? I ask, because someone out there thinks you’ve changed your opinion in a big way.
“Coyne has, indeed, been a critic of the field for some time, […] but because of this volte-face and the importance of the field’s having such a prominent new ally, it seems worthwhile to ask how this came about.”
A point by an outsider about one of the points you regard as promising: “The variance in offspring number between males and females in various societies, and the differential “pickiness” of males and females when choosing mates”
I want to talk about that “pickiness” and one to me obvious aspect of it which may not be so obvious to men: First, every woman I know has been trained to be aware of potential rapists and sexual violence. That training alone would make women pickier. Men are larger and have more upper-body strength and choosing not-so-pickily can make one a victim of a crime.
Then there’s the fact that women get pregnant. Even today a woman who is not on the pill will be more hesitant to have sex with a man she doesn’t know very well because he may simply refuse to use a condom and the situation can be very awkward.
My point is that there are some very clear and obvious proximal causes for the difference in mate pickiness between women and men, causes which would operate even if there was no evolutionary adaptation for female pickiness. This calculus is not unconscious in my head. It’s an explicit consideration of the risks and returns.
I’m not arguing that proximal causes would explain the whole difference but they certainly should be taken into account much better than evolutionary psychologists have done in the past.