Another lame attack on evolutionary psychology

September 1, 2013 • 6:46 am

Someone called my attention to a short post about evolutionary psychology at Pharyngula:

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Well, ignoring the obligatory and customary reference to “douchebags,” I was curious about the article that inspired this post. Clicking on the link, I found a piece at the science/tech site io9 called “The rise of the evolutionary psychology douchebag” by Annalee Newitz. 

Newitz happens to be the editor-in-chief of io9, so I guess she can write anything she wants. Unfortunately, she decided to take on evolutionary psychology.  That was a mistake. Her post is godawful: a combination of tarring evolutionary psychology with a few ad hominems that have nothing to do with the field as a whole, and then a poorly informed argument for the impossibility of studying the evolutionary roots of human behavior.

Let me first give a disclaimer. I’ve been a critic of evolutionary psychology, particularly some of its earliest excesses, and attracted some attention with my two published and highly critical reviews (one co-authored with Andrew Berry) of Palmer and Thornhill’s dubious theory that the human brain contains a “rape module” prompting males to rape isolated females.  That was a bad example of the genre, largely because their work was tendentious and because the authors twisted their statistics in an inappropriate way to support the supposed “adaptive” nature of rape.

But the field has moved on and improved, and has made some important advances. I’ve detailed some of these in a previous post, “Is evolutionary psychology worthless?“. These belie the claim that “The fundamental premise of evolutionary psychology is worthless.” As I’ve pointed out, that “fundamental premise” is only this: “the human brain, like the human body, still shows traces of its evolutionary ancestry.” Disputing that on principle is equivalent to disputing evolution as a whole, for it would be odd indeed if our behavior did not reflect at least some of the selective pressures that molded it during the 6 million years of hominin evolution preceding the rise of civilization. Evolutionary psychology shows enormous promise for helping understand where we came from.

That said, there is of course still a bad strain in the field, one mainly seized upon by the popular press, which loves stories about how this or that behavior reflects our ancient evolutionary history.  And some evolutionary psychologists, like Satoshi Kanazawa, have catered to this appetite, eroding their credibility in the process.  But dismissing an entire field because of a few miscreants is a serious mistake, for it waves away the possibility that we can really learn something about what evolutionary forces molded our behavior.  It’s like dismissing evolutionary morphology in humans because, after all, how could it be possible that modern bodies reflect ancient selection pressures? Remember, brains are part of our body.

Nevertheless, Newitz wants to brush aside the whole field as fatally flawed. Her reasons are fatuous:

1.  Two evolutionary psychologists committed fraud.  As she notes:

Evolutionary psychology has often been a field whose most prominent practitioners get embroiled in controversy — witness the 2010 case of Harvard professor Marc Hauser, whose graduate students came forward to say he’d been faking evidence for years. Then there was the case of Diederik Stapel, whose social psychology work shared a lot of territory with evopsych. He came forward in late 2011 to admit that most of his data was sheer invention.

I don’t know much about the story of Stapel, but I do know about the Hauser tale, and the fact is that he was caught by fellow evolutionary psychologists, who (like Frans de Waal) called him out for his misdeeds.

But this is just dumb, for scientists in many other fields have committed fraud as well. It’s like dismissing molecular biology because at least a dozen practitioners have committed fraud. Newitz is simply smearing a field for bad reasons—probably ideological ones.

2. One evolutionary psychologist made a stupid remark on Twitter.  That was Geoffrey Miller from the University of New Mexico, who made this misguided tweet that Newitz reproduces:

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Yep, that was stupid, and Miller was rightfully called out on it.  But what on earth does it have to do with evolutionary psychology? Nothing. Newitz is making a purely ad hominem argument here. If one stupid remark by a scientist is sufficient to denigrate a field, then the entirety of science should be discarded. Newitz also notes that Miller has published some other hypotheses that seem bizarre, and I’ll agree with her here: sometimes I think Miller speculates far beyond the bounds of data, as he did in his book The Mating Mind. But that doesn’t mean that human thoughts and behaviors weren’t molded in part by sexual selection. Lots of scientists toss out bizarre hypotheses (Bill Hamilton in evolutionary biology was one of these), but sometimes they turn out to be correct.

Regardless, it’s journalistically irresponsible to smear a field the way Newitz has done.  So let’s get to her only “substantive” argument against evolutionary psychology:

3. Humans evolve too fast to bear behavioral traces of ancient evolution. 

This is all part of [Miller’s] and many other evopsych researchers’ project to prove that humans haven’t changed much since we were roaming east Africa 100,000 years ago. Evolutionary biology researchers like Marlene Zuk have explored some the scientific problems with this idea. Most notably, humans have continued to evolve quite a lot over the past ten thousand years, and certainly over 100 thousand. Sure, our biology affects our behavior. But it’s unlikely that humans’ early evolution is deeply relevant to contemporary psychological questions about dating, or the willpower to complete a dissertation. Even Steven Pinker, one of evopsych’s biggest proponents, has said that humans continue to evolve and that our behavior is changing over time.

But the classic evopsych douchebag, like Miller, absolutely wants to believe that humans are still in thrall to the same psychological forces that shaped our behavior much earlier in Homo sapiens evolution.

This is not only disingenuous, but reflects Newitz’s ignorance of evolution.

First of all, no evolutionary psychologist claims that human behavior hasn’t evolved at all since we roamed the savannas.  Indeed, Pinker has pointed that out, and I can give my own examples.  Within the last 10,000 years, for example, pastoral populations—those that raise sheep, goats, or cows for milk—have evolved a tolerance for lactose, for animal milk provides a valuable source of nutrition.  They’ve achieved this by simply accruing mutations that keep the “lactase” enzyme turned on, an enzyme that is usually inactivated after humans finish weaning. Genetic analysis shows, too, that this inactivation occurred within the last 10,000 years. So if you consider “milk drinking as an adult” as a behavioral trait (which it is, militated by our physiological tolerance for milk), then yes, it’s evolved recently.  And surely other traits have, too.  But remember that lactose intolerance is a behavior that many humans frequently show, and one that is an evolutionary holdover from our past—a time when milk was available only to babies from their mother’s breasts, and when it was probably disadvantageous to produce an enzyme beyond the time when it was needed.  Anybody who is lactose intolerant and avoids milk, then, is showing a behavior that is an evolutionary holdover from our ancestors.

Our penchant for fats and sweets can be seen the same way. It’s certainly not good for us—at least those of us who live in carb- and fat-laden cultures—but we still crave that stuff. This is an evolutionary holdover from a time when fat and sugar were valuable resources. Contra Newitz, this behavior almost certainly does reflect the deep relevance of early evolution to contemporary behavior.

The fact is that we diverged from our common ancestor with chimps about 6,000,000 years ago, but “civilization” with its novel selective pressures has been around only 20,000 years.  That’s only 0.3% of the total time encompassed by our lineage.  If one estimates, say, 20 years per generation, that’s about 1000 generations of human evolution: an eyeblink compared to the three hundred thousand generations in which we experienced selection within small bands of hunters and gatherers. Do we really expect that one thousand generations will completely efface behaviors evolved during 99.7% of the duration of the hominin lineage?

One way to answer this question is to look at whether we retain morphological traits that are holdovers from our “early evolution.”  If that’s the case, then one can infer that we probably still show behavioral holdovers from our past as well. And the answer here is unequivocal.  Here are some morphological traits no longer seem adaptive but haven’t yet evolved away, or can’t because of evolutionary constraints.

  • wisdom teeth
  • bad backs
  • fetal yolk sacks (which are empty)
  • our tailbone
  • goosebumps (adaptive in our relatives for erecting hairs)
  • skin fold at the corner of our eye (remnant of nictitating membrane)

I could go on, but the point is that these morphological traits are not useful (some are positively harmful), but persist as evolutionary remnants.

Why shouldn’t behavior be the same? After all, evolved behaviors actually reflect evolved morphology: morphological and developmental patterns of our brain’s wiring. Here are a couple of behavioral traits that, I think, reflect our deep evolutionary past:

    • Higher variance in male than in female reproductive success due to differential behavior of the sexes
    • Weaning conflict between mothers and their infants
    • Preference for relatives over nonrelatives (kin selection), and xenophobia (useful for when we lived in small groups)
    • Fear of spiders and snakes

Some of these can in principle be tested: for example one could do studies to show whether the fear of spiders is innate or learned. And there are other tests as well, and also some evolutionary psychology theories that have been falsified.

It’s simply nonsense to dismiss the field on the grounds that there’s no way that human behavior could show traces of its deep evolutionary past. We already know that some behaviors apparently show such traces, and morphology certainly does.  Yes, it may often be hard, or even impossible, to show with great certainty that some of our behavior reflect ancient selection pressures. But are we really going to say that evolutionary psychology is bunk?

The real reason why people like Newitz and others (that includes P. Z., I think) dismiss evolutionary psychology in toto is because they find it ideologically unpalatable: they don’t like its supposed implications. They presume that evo-psych somehow validates misogyny or the marginalization of women and minorities. They will deny this to their dying breath, of course, and pretend that it’s purely a scientific issue, citing a few anecdotal studies that are indeed laughable.  But I think we know where these people are coming from. Evolutionary biology itself has been used to justify racism or the sterilization of supposedly “defective” humans, but we don’t dismiss evolutionary biology because of that. Likewise, we shouldn’t dismiss evolutionary psychology just because some cranks draw “oughts” from “is”s.

When you read a statement like this:

“Developmental plasticity is all. The fundamental premises of evo psych are false”,

then you know you are dealing with ideology rather than science. The fundamental premise of evolutionary psychology is simply that some modern human behaviors reflect an ancient evolutionary history.  It would be odd if that were completely false.  And developmental plasticity is not all. If that were the case, then why do we still have wisdom teeth and bad backs?

156 thoughts on “Another lame attack on evolutionary psychology

  1. Look, even after two posts on the subject I’m at a complete loss as to what you think the beneficial, interesting, and legitimate research products of evopsych actually are. I think it would be/would have been helpful (especially in the previous post) if, instead of merely making oblique reference to the research you think redeems the field, you actually linked to it.

    1. Look, even after two posts on the subject I’m at a complete loss as to what you think the beneficial, interesting, and legitimate research products of evopsych actually are.

      Here’s a list of the major research areas of evolutionary psychology, from Wikipedia. Took me about 30 seconds to find it with Google.

      Sense and perception
      Learning and facultative adaptations
      Emotion and motivation
      Family and kin
      Interactions with non-kin/reciprocity
      Evolution and culture

      Robert Trivers, who is generally considered a pioneer in the field, won the 2007 Crafoord Prize in Biosciences (equivalent of the Nobel) for his work on reciprocal altruism, parental investment, and parent-offspring conflict. Trivers’ work provided the foundation for more recent work by other leading researchers in the field in the areas of mating, parenting and kin relationships.

          1. Because I asked for examples of the best evo psych research, and you gave me a list of topics that evo psych has researched. Did you not understand the question? Or are you just being purposefully obtuse?

            1. No, you asked for a list of “the beneficial, interesting, and legitimate research products of evopsych” and I gave it to you. As for your new request for the “best” EP research, Trivers’ work on parental investment, altruism, etc. is probably as good as any in the field. As I said, he was awarded the Crafoord Prize for it.

              1. Actually, it was toto who made that request, not Justin. And far from providing a short list of results from evo psych research, all you have provided is a short list of the areas of research. No products, no results.

              2. No, it was Justin who asked for it. Read his comment again. And I’m not sure what you mean by “products.” The research itself is “products.”

              3. Justin merely asked what “the beneficial, interesting, and legitimate research products of evopsych actually are”. At no time did he ask for a list.

                toto asked for “a short list of a few “true and non-obvious” results from evo psych research”.

                You can research all you want, but until you arrive at a conclusion or hypothesis, the research has not produced any result beyond a pile of notes.

                I am aware that this exchange could, all too easily, hog the thread, so my last word on the matter will be this.

              4. Gosh, you must be bored today. But I’ll play along:

                Justin merely asked what “the beneficial, interesting, and legitimate research products of evopsych actually are”. At no time did he ask for a list.

                An answer to that question is necessarily a list.

                You can research all you want, but until you arrive at a conclusion or hypothesis, the research has not produced any result beyond a pile of notes.

                Empirical data, hypotheses and theories are all examples of the “results” of EP research. These “results” include research that has won the equivalent of the Nobel Prize.

    2. Isn’t evopsych the key to the shocking death-rate of children at the hands of step-parents? The alpha male kills his predecessor’s cubs to increase the survival of his own.

      1. Yes, Martin Daly and Margo Wilson, among others, have been studying this issue for 20 years. They have documented a genetic basis for the much higher rate of violence and abuse committed by stepparents against their stepchildren, compared to biological or adoptive parents.

        1. “Isn’t evopsych the key to the shocking death-rate of children at the hands of step-parents? The alpha male kills his predecessor’s cubs to increase the survival of his own”
          “Yes, Martin Daly and Margo Wilson, among others, have been studying this issue for 20 years. They have documented a genetic basis for the much higher rate of violence and abuse committed by stepparents against their stepchildren, compared to biological or adoptive parents”
          Gary W

          What is so interesting about the exchange above is that academic psychology is, once again, found wanting. It seems to me that modelling and studies upon Big Data are nothing compared to Common Observation. The above researchers, Daly and Wilson, should really get out more.
          My own 20 year study of swallows shows that new males will pluck non-related chicks from the nest and leave them to die on the ground. (The female doesn’t attempt to carry-on feeding them) So their hypothesis may have credibility. But in humans there is another, glaring explanation that comes from observation. It is about ‘jealousy’ (or, rather, envy of attention) A young mother will often be distracted from her new lover, even in mid-sentence, to attend the baby. Will show extraordinary (compensatory) affection for her baby over and above the affection she will give to her new lover. And she will make it clear that her new lover is an addition, and not an intrusion into her relationship with her infants. Anybody who has been a step-parent, or who knows step-parents may have seen this rather painful hourly. Cooler, educated new lovers are usually able to make accommodation for the ‘step-parent rejection’. But among poorly educated people, without an ability to control anger, there is so often violence towards the non-related kids. There are many cases where the male violence can even be directed against their own kids on account of ‘attention envy’. In one recent notorious case, the father arranged to meet his ex-wife on a London bridge, where he snatched the baby from the pram and threw the child into the river, where it was never found. He was reported top have said that if his wife refuses to share the baby, then she will not get it.
          And so Daly and Wilson may have some traction, but only by neglect of ‘experiential information’.

          1. Jealousy, envy, and anger are not explanations of human behavior. They’re part of the behavior we’re seeking to explain.

            1. Thank you for that thought. It seems to me that it does not address the parallel problem of infanticide, where, for example, during a custody battle, the father will go so far to kill his own children rather than accept very limited contact. It is reported almost monthly in the British press and the reports go back at least as far as the 1880s. In the case I mentioned above, the father requested to meet his wife and child on a bridge, probably with the intention of killing the child if she continued to block his access to it. Reading-up on the case, I saw that the judge failed to understand ‘attention-envy’ and referred to the man’s ‘wickedness’ before giving him a long prison sentence.
              Secondly, it is not just ‘attention-envy’ at the root of the step-parent problem. There seems to me evidence that the young mother often deliberately plays upon the ‘attention-envy’ of her new beau, exacerbating it, perhaps as part of the usual female test of her new man’s level of commitment. I have watched it very closely.
              The envy provoked is sudden and violent, and often results in astonishing acts such as a young man, scarcely out of his teens, suffocating the unrelated baby of his new lover. Sadly, the murderous male often seems bewildered by his own actions. The Social services are not up to understanding ‘attention-envy’, because it doesn’t seem reasonable, unless you have been a step-parent yourself. I feel that the two (envy and genetic advantage) are usually unrelated, and that any attempt to minimise the obvious causes of that ‘attention-envy’ ( by rewording it simply as ‘envy’ or ‘jealousy’) in favour of a generalised theory of genetic advantage, is deliberately to ignore the root of the problem.

              1. What “obvious causes”? Why should “attention-envy” (as you call it) be a powerful motivator to violence? That’s what needs explaining.

                Saying that a man’s violence is caused by “attention-envy” is little better than saying it’s caused by his violent tendencies. It’s just putting a different label on the behavior, without getting anywhere near the root causes.

              2. Thank you for your comments. I am a great one for observation trumping theory. And since I grew up among poor Working Class families in London in the nineteen forties and fifties, I spent a lot of time observing step-families from the inside. The difficulty in the formation of step-families is that it takes a long time; often years, and in that time the children often prove a constant source of friction. The problems are acute at the beginning of the formation of the step-family, but grow acute once again when the kids hit adolescence and deliberately play a parent against a step parent. I could spend hours discussing it. As an aside, the most uncomfortable step-family I knew well was set-up by Ronnie Biggs, the Great Train Robber!
                I do, however, feel that you are ignoring my mentions of infanticide by natural fathers, which, according to Daly and Wilson’s figures, is a lesser problem. It may account for only 5% (approximately) of parental slayings of children, but it is of significance in indicating that it is an unfortunate confusion to try to explain the Cinderella problem in terms of genetic advantage. That problem is that once psychologists have proposed a useless and misleading theory so the whole of the Social Services act upon it as if it is the truth, and as a consequence so many people suffer. And I am surprised that the idea that violent anger in step-families owing to the strong feelings relating to the jealousies of relationships, seems of no significance to you.
                You ask why ‘attention-envy’ should lead to violence. Are you serious? The British newspapers and television programs are full of incidences in which fights break-out over girlfriends. Last week the British cook and vegetable man Greg Wallace allegedly lost his temper and violently attacked an acquaintance who looked-at, or pinched, his new young wife. The violence engendered by introducing a third party in any romantic twosome is too common to be seriously doubted. The envy of a man for the undivided attention of his girl seems to me to be a glaring, and blindingly obvious cause of violence toward the third party, the child.
                I know that it is provocative to say so, but since taking psych as university and realising that it is built upon identifiable failure to come to terms with basic truths concerning human belief and behaviour, I have noted over the years the appalling record of psychology in all its forms to bring anything to the table of ideas. My book, ‘Origins and Belief and Behaviour’ 1900 pages, gives long chapters that satisfyingly identifies Psychology as a cult curiously parallel to religion. The psychologist’s take upon the Cinderella Problem is just another example of psychology’s many howlers. I might be wrong, of course, but I have followed Daly and Wilson’s work, and have been greatly disturbed by it. If they persist in their unfortunate theory, then the problems faced in custody battles will be all the worse for it.
                When you say….. “They’re part of the behaviour we’re trying to explain” – it sounds like you are part of the team, and in which case I may have an urgent need to forward my own experiences from the inside step-families.

              3. You ask why ‘attention-envy’ should lead to violence. Are you serious?

                Yes, I’m serious. I’m not questioning whether it leads to violence; I’m asking why it does. You still haven’t begun to address that question; you just take it as a self-evident fact of human nature that jealousy leads to violence, and provide more anecdotes to illustrate that fact.

                But why is in our nature to feel jealousy and express it violently? That’s the sort of question that evo-psych seeks to address but that you, apparently, don’t even recognize as a legitimate question.

              4. Dr Kusnick, thank you for your response. In my experience such disagreements tend to lead to fresh understandings, I hope, for both sides. I now see that I have assumed that the cause of violence owed to ‘protective-jealousy’ or ‘attention-envy’ was self-evidence, but clearly it is not. By the way I use anecdote as example and evidence, not as data. I am from the Working Classes (Blue-Collar) and despite many years in the USA, France, etc., and of mixing exclusively with Middle Class (white-collar) friends, I still understand the world as I had perceived it as a child. For me that ‘Worker’ world-view is a precious resource.
                Typically, Workers respond to what they see as threats with immediate violence or thoughts of violence. The Middle classes have a culture of controlling aggression. In my experience ‘Worker families’ in the UK, France and the USA suffer much higher levels of violence between family members as a means of settling disputes. In France it is notoriously so. And so too, in Ireland. But generally it is a world-wide phenomenon. By far the most frequent cause of violence in and outside the family is caused by what the Workers call ‘jealousy’, which is better expressed as ‘attention-envy’. Men fight over girlfriends; gay men fight over boyfriends. Girls sometimes fight over boyfriends. For those who fight, the reason for their anger and aggression is not fully clear to them. They put it down as ‘jealousy’. (Wrong word) When it is the sudden fear of loss of a favoured new partner by the intrusion of a third party (sometimes a baby from a previous relationship)
                And I know that the high level of family violence in Workers families is not fully understood by Middle class researchers. I know this because when British TV installed cameras inside Worker’s homes and the middle class public observed, for the first time, the high levels of aggression between family members, many viewers expressed shock, and a few said that it brought them to tears. I grew up among youngsters many of whom showed bruises and complained that they had been ‘walloped’ by their fathers.
                But more to the point is the violence surrounding the dating scene. I, myself was ‘beaten-up’ several times by previous boyfriends of my girlfriends. It was a regular hazard. It stems from the extraordinary feelings and attachments that spring-up between girls and boys in the dating scene. And it springs from the subsequent violent anger felt by men when they feel that the object of their affection is being taken from them. This seems particularly acute after the step-father has invested time and effort in developing the new relationship, only to have it jeopardised by the non-related kids. Sometimes, the first sign of an emotional attachment between a man and a woman is the sudden outburst of threatening violence from the man should you talk inadvertently to ‘his girl’, in not realising that she is ‘his girl’.
                If my explanation fails to address your question, perhaps we can make some progress by you framing the questions differently and with more detail. Please don’t give-up on the exchange.
                I repeat that I have a concern that psychologists may, once again, force into the courts a false explanation for step-parent violence towards children. If you are part of a team looking into the Cinderella Problem, please do not overlook my testimony but bring it to the attention of others in the team.

              5. I’m not a Dr, nor am I a member of a research team. I’m just an interested reader of this site.

                You urge me not to give up, but we’ve hit the indentation limit, and frankly I can’t see that we’re making much progress here. You continue to simply list (at great length) instances of violence, rather than engaging with the question of why such emotions as jealousy and anger exist in the first place.

                If bad science sometimes makes its way into the courts, the solution is to do more and better science, not to reject the entire field of behavioral science in favor of personal observations and anecdotes.

                And that really is all I’m going to invest in this particular line of argument.

  2. To me, recognizing that there are psychological aspects of a species that are genetic (products of natural selection) and not learned is about as easy as recognizing the existence of gravity. Are there actually people walking around who think that these psychological responses are learned?

    The tendency to feel protective of one’s offspring
    Sexual attraction

    If anyone thinks these things are learned, how do they explain the fact that a multitude of animal species exhibit the same psychological traits? Do they agree that a mother bear, a mother orangutan, etc are genetically programmed to be protective of their offspring due to natural selection, but think humans were somehow immune to that same evolutionary process?

    1. +1 And really, don’t all human “emotions” direct or nuanced/distorted manifestations of the same survival instincts we see in the fear, affiliation and competitive behaviors exhibited by our vertebrate cousins? I’m not a scientist and have only a tourist’s distant view of evo psych, but I was under the impression that there is some real science behind the explanations I’ve heard for these shared behaviors and instincts. But maybe that’s just us anthropomorphizing again, in the way that I often feel my computer is messing with me for sport. I would not be surprised either way.

      Perhaps fossils don’t reveal about our brains what they show about our physiological ancestry (beyond brain volume and nerve pathways, but I do suspect those are quite meaningful in themselves), but there are so many ways of observing living things which I would expect to speak volumes. If brain scans of human and chimp males show the same region of the brain lighting up when the subjects are exposed to yummy noms or an attractive potential mate, I would be skeptical of the leap to some “natural” rape instinct, but since the evidence for common ancestry would be supported why not the evidence for our reliance on evolved brain functions?

      Having attended the births of my five daughters, I can report that there are plainly animalistic, if you will, scripted and instinctive – not learned – behaviors that kick in for the mom and also for the dad (as was the case during their conception by the way!). The doctors and nurses have demonstrated several newborn reflexes – there are more than a dozen if I recall, but several can’t be demonstrated in the delivery room, for want of a swimming pool in the case of the mammalian diving reflex – and the theory as I understood it was that they were not selected out because they support nursing, clinging to mama’s back fur, etc.

      Maybe because these are speculative and deductive rather than “hard” science, but to the extent the deductions come from observation of other species, it could also be that science just hasn’t developed yet. If the theories for newborn instincts have been falsified I would be surprised because I can’t imagine what evidence there could be apart from the mammalian reflexes and the survival benefit they plainly appear to provide.

      Is the slam then against evo psych in the speculative leaps made beyond the lizard brain? I’d buy that for a dollar! Not to harp on the “rape gene” issue, but I think the kindest thing you can say about it is that it is a premature conclusion to say that it does or does not exist. I have a bias against it because I don’t want to believe I carry a rape gene – but I don’t like the sound of lots of things that are true! That’s not science, either!

      Again, speaking as a non-scientist, I think even speculative work has its value, as long as the data isn’t fudged. If nothing else, it seems to me we gain some clarity from those who dissect the speculative work, in terms of what we can and cannot support or falsify. On the other hand, science is still working on the map of the brain, and there remains all kinds of work to be done in even understanding how much of our supposed “learned” and “cultural” behaviors really are just expressions of our animal inheritance buried down there between the limbic system and the brain stem.

      Whatever “real” scientists might think of the state of evo psych and those who toil into it, it’s very exciting to think we could come to a deep understanding of how our brains came to be! The contribution the field could potentially make to medicine alone could be, pardon the pun, mind-blowing! The fact that it so far has little to show is not an argument against its existence, and the relentless battering from the scientific community can only be helpful in making a “real” science out of it – assuming the batterers themselves don’t fudge their evidence!

      1. Dang. I need to not use html tags if I can’t preview before posting! One un-closed em and my whole post becomes a half-italic mess.

    2. No one (besides a largely apocryphal fringe of blank-slaters) claims that all psychological traits are learned.
      However, the problem with citing sexual attraction, loneliness and the desire to protect one’s offspring as examples of evolutionary psychology, is that they’re obvious. We’re a social species with a very low reproduction rate, and you don’t need an entire scientific discipline to tell you that disinterest in reproduction, vulnerability due to isolation, and allowing offspring to die are unconducive to gene propagation.

      As alluded to above, a scientific discipline needs to make non-obvious predictions. To use your example of gravity, it means very little to predict that a dropped rock will fall. It means a great deal more to predict the future trajectory of a comet. What does evolutionary psychology have in this respect?

      1. Evolutionary psychologists have made numerous predictions. A few examples of important and non-obvious predictions that have been confirmed through experiment and observation, from four different areas of EP research: mating, altruism, memory and perception:

        Parental investment theory makes predictions about sex differences in the criteria used to select mates.

        Theories about kin altruism make predictions about differences in the willingness to behave altruistically towards kin vs. non-kin.

        The adaptive memory hypothesis predicts that memory is especially sensitive to content relevant to evolutionary fitness.

        Hypotheses about adaptive bias in visual and auditory perception make predictions about the operation of human perception.

        1. There is a burgeoning field of research in shifts in sexual attraction throughout the ovulatory cycle in women, with increases in attraction to masculine facial features (and other purported “good genes” indicators) during peak fertility. Such a prediction is non-obvious and could not have been made without an evolutionary perspective. Here are some links to other evo psych papers that produce non-obvious findings:

          1. Looking at these papers, all of their subjects (except for one meta-analysis) are based upon monocultures of subjects; undergraduate college students or British women. Drawing evolutionary conclusions about the entire human species based upon this narrow sampling seems impossible.

            It is extremely difficult to separate our enculturation from our evolved behavior; it seems to me that a good experiment in evolutionary psychology would require blocking, with samples from many different cultures. In that fashion, differences could be more easily attributed to *actual* evolved differences, rather than cultural differences.

            It strikes me as rather like someone going into a zoo and obtaining behavioral data on a population of spider monkeys there. From that data, the researcher concludes that spider monkeys prefer to eat at 7 am and 4 pm, with a snack at 1:30. It may be accurate for *that* population, but extrapolating this to ALL spider monkeys is inaccurate.

            1. It is extremely difficult to separate our enculturation from our evolved behavior;

              Depends on the nature of the behavior. The hypothesis that the desire for sex, for example, is the product of “enculturation” rather than a basic biological drive isn’t plausible. Attributing a behavior to “culture” isn’t really an explanation anyway. It just raises the question of why a culture is the way it is. If a behavior is biologically adaptive (say, the division of labor by sex) it isn’t surprising that cultural norms arise to amplify and institutionalize that behavior.

              1. By that line of argument, religion is “biologically adaptive” because cultural norms have arisen to amplify and institutionalize behavior.

                So many things VARY across cultures, it’s clear that culture changes our behavior. Whether it’s regional (deep south US versus PNW) or national (Japanese versus Saudi), culture is a huge confound. And teasing out the cultural effects that are actually *adaptive* versus convenient, fallout of which faction won which dispute, environmental, etc…. is much more challenging than people seem to believe.

              2. Religion may indeed be adaptive in primitive cultures. Or it may be a byproduct. I don’t think anyone knows for sure.

                No one denies that culture influences human behavior. EP researchers are obviously aware of this fact. It doesn’t mean they can’t distinguish biological from cultural influences. Not that the two can be cleanly separated conceptually anyway, as many cultural norms clearly arise from the influence of biology.

              3. “EP researchers are obviously aware of this fact. It doesn’t mean they can’t distinguish biological from cultural influences. Not that the two can be cleanly separated conceptually anyway, as many cultural norms clearly arise from the influence of biology.”

                EXACTLY. So it seems obvious to me that, to evaluate what is cultural versus what is evolutionary, the experimental method should be to see what is universal across cultures. And I’ve not seen evo psych papers that do that. If it’s *obvious* that “many cultural norms clearly arise from the influence of biology”, then it shouldn’t be so difficult to demonstrate those norms across most cultures. And those are papers that I’ve not seen.

              4. Have you even tried looking for lists of human cultural universals? It seems as if you’ve not searched, but are waiting for the paper to somehow materialize in your hands. Start with Donald Brown’s book “human universals,” which has a long list.

                Do your homework.

              5. A behavior does not have to be universal across cultures to be strongly determined by biology. Many important behaviors are known to be universal (see anthropologist Donald Brown’s list of “Human Universals”), but even if the behavior is observed in a only a large number of cultures rather than all of them, that may be strong evidence that the behavior is rooted in biology. Also, cross-cultural analysis is only one type of evidence regarding the possible influence of culture. Scientists can also look for the same or similar behavior in other species not subject to cultural effects, and can look to see how a behavior changes within a culture over time. Also, even absent any of these methods, it is not rational to assume a cultural explanation if there is no evidence for it or if there is evidence against it. For example, if a culture has a strong taboo against adultery but adultery is common in that culture anyway, it’s likely that the behavior is occurring despite the culture and not because of it. And finally, despite the fact that you haven’t seen cross-cultural analysis in EP research, it is in fact quite common. David Buss’s work on mate preference, for example, has involved research in dozens of countries with widely varying cultures, histories and socioeconomic conditions.

              6. In case it isn’t clear, my previous comment was a response to Sonja, not Jerry (I completely concur with Jerry’s response).

            2. RedSonja,

              You’re incorrect in that the “Sex and Drugs” paper includes an mturk sample which is not based on college students but on people of various ages and demographics. And in fact, the results of that study have been recently replicated across cultures (see here):


              Of course, you’re right that it’s imprudent to make strong evolutionary claims based solely on data from college students. But none of these papers do so. They simply say things like “our hypothesis was confirmed but more research is needed.” It is the media that often makes the strong claims, not the researchers themselves. And so what if college students are the initial go-to population? You got to start somewhere, and why not start where there are the fewest practical hurdles?

            3. It strikes me as rather like someone going into a zoo and obtaining behavioral data on a population of spider monkeys there.

              Good example. Do you dismiss all behavioral research conducted in zoos, primate research centers, etc., because some of the results are biased by the artificial environment?

      2. There is a burgeoning field of research in shifts in sexual attraction throughout the ovulatory cycle in women, with increases in attraction to masculine facial features (and other purported “good genes” indicators) during peak fertility. Such a prediction is non-obvious and could not have been made without an evolutionary perspective. Here are some links to other evo psych papers that produce non-obvious findings:

      3. “No one (besides a largely apocryphal fringe of blank-slaters) claims that all psychological traits are learned.
        However, the problem with citing sexual attraction, loneliness and the desire to protect one’s offspring as examples of evolutionary psychology, is that they’re obvious.”

        If all but a “fringe” agree that psychological traits can be genetic, than we are in much better shape than I thought. I dont mind debate about how to best study/test the hypotheses of evo-psych. But since, as Jerry pointed out, the majority of the attacks on evo-psych seem to be motivated by ideology, I assumed the critics think that the very idea of inherited psychological traits is laughable.

        The next question is, what is “obvious”? Is it obvious, for example, that humans tend to be more sexually protective of their daughters than their sons because of genetic programming? Dose the fact that this behavior occurs in animal species affect the answer to that question?

        1. Which species do (does?) this occur in? Because my perception is that this is mostly a cultural adoption of “boys will try to ‘get’ sex from girls, girls must not ‘give’ sex to boys, dads must keep their daughters ‘pure’ until marriage from the dirty boys.”

          1. It follows from parental investment theory. Women make a much smaller minimum investment in reproduction than men. Therefore, men compete for sexual access to women. Therefore, sexual access to women is a precious commodity that must be protected. Steven Pinker cites research indicating that in a large majority of human societies, when two people get married a payment is involved, and in virtually all cases the payment is made by the groom’s family to the bride’s family.

            1. I’m familiar with parental investment theory. What I’m asking is *which species* does this occur in besides humans?

              1. I don’t know. I didn’t say it occurred in other species. I’m pointing out that EP provides a powerful and well-supported theory to account for it.

            2. Since nesting has ended, I just want to point out that the comment I initially replied to about this stated that

              “Is it obvious, for example, that humans tend to be more sexually protective of their daughters than their sons because of genetic programming? Dose the fact that this behavior occurs in animal species affect the answer to that question?”

              And I was asking for examples of the animal species referenced.

              1. I dont have a list of species for you, but I’ve read about such behavior with regard to different species. The last such article I read was about zebras. While I cant find the article I read, Wikipedia makes mention of the behavior, saying

                “When a mare reaches sexual maturity, she will exhibit the estrous posture, which attracts nearby stallions, both bachelors and harem leaders. Her harem stallion (usually her father) will chase off or fight stallions attempting to abduct her.”

                This would seem to increase her reproductive success if her father can successfully drive off small, weak, or unmotivated males, but not big, strong, highly motivated ones.

    1. This article is basically a call to Christians to explain their reasons for belief to the rest of us, and not just hide away in churches congratulating each other on how much better than the rest of us they are. This seems like a reasonable request to me.

  3. “First of all, no evolutionary psychologist denies that human behavior hasn’t evolved at all since we roamed the savannas.”

    Did you mean to say, “First of all, no evolutionary psychologist CLAIMS that human behavior hasn’t evolved at all since we roamed the savannas.” ??

  4. “The real reason why people like Newitz and others (that includes P. Z., I think) dismiss evolutionary psychology in toto is because they find it ideologically unpalatable: they don’t like its supposed implications. They presume that evo-psych somehow validates misogyny or the marginalization of women and minorities.”

    Yes, that was certainly the case with my EvoPsych-hating ex girlfriend. LOL

    The funny thing is, if “developmental plasticity is all”, then we have no reason to object to slavery, misogyny, or any other type of “oppression”. We only see the “victims” of such systems as “oppressed” because we recognize that they have an inherent desire to make their own choices, manage their own lives, choose their own mates, express their own desires, etc. If humans were “blank slates”, programed by culture, then anyone who’s culture tells them they should be a slave would be fine with that.

    1. “They presume that evo-psych somehow validates misogyny or the marginalization of women and minorities.”

      The verb is the problem. Evo-psych probably can provide reasons for the existence/persistence of these behaviors but that hardly equals validating them. In fact such explanations might give us more tools for combatting said behaviors.

      1. As a parallel, evolution (and nature) is often cruel, wasteful, and inefficient – but (as Richard Dawkins, for example, points out repeatedly) that is no justification for us behaving the same way.

        I would think that would apply equally to evo-psych.

        (And even if evo-psych did provide justification, that wouldn’t automatically mean it was false. In fact it might potentially offer some insights into modifying such behaviour, which surely would be a good thing).

    2. There’s also a “free will” aspect, I think. People imagine that if a behaviour is genetically predetermined then behaving that way couldn’t have been the result of free choice. What they don’t necessarily appreciate is that the same thing applies to learned behaviours. At least if a proportion of behaviour is a part of one’s evolutionary heritage, so that we are not blank slates, then we may have some intrinsic resistance to being culturally programmed according to the whims of a mad dictator.

  5. 2. One evolutionary psychologist made a stupid remark on Twitter.

    That is a little disingenuous, I don;t know much about EvoPsych and honestly don’t really care about it at all, but the problem with that tweet isn’t the tweet itself but that he then went on to claim that his evo psych research backs up the tweet and he was not wrong when he said it.

    1. Which doesn’t change the fact that the transgressions of one individual can’t be used to vilify an entire discipline…

        1. And DNA would be invalidated by some of the stuff Watson has said over the years…

          Science is done by humans, but it’s not reliant on individual humans for its predictive powers and usefulness. I think too many people naturally tend to argue from authority, and so they think that a wrong scientist implies a wrong science.

        1. Ummm. . . would you care to point out to me where in the i09 article it says that evo psych research backs up the tweet? He said the tweet was part of a project and that’s all.

          Now I expect you to apologize for calling me disingenuous and for misrepresenting the article.

  6. I’ve heard similar arguments for rejecting statistics. Because there has been deceit in the past, therefore we should disregard any and all statistics!! Okay, so we just won’t use any math to prove or predict outcomes – let’s use, I don’t know, poetry instead!

    It seems highly probable that humans have had the same brain since the last ice age (~10,000 yrs ago) so it would make sense that we are dealing with the same wiring and a bunch of adaptations that have hung around.

    1. Okay, so we just won’t use any math to prove or predict outcomes – let’s use, I don’t know, poetry instead!

      ROFL! Though you only have to listen to many religious apologists talking, to know that they do just that!

  7. The problems of Evolutionary Psychology are largely the same ones that plague ‘regular’ Psychology. Poor experimental design, ill-conceived hypotheses, low sample size, and unrepresentative samples. Now there is much research that does not suffer from the above but the majority of it does.

    1. Fair enough, but regular psychology often gets a free pass on this stuff while evo psych gets pilloried. There is a double standard. And in fact, evo psych suffers from these problems even less than regular psych. Evo psych does far more cross-cultural research, including research on hunter-gatherer societies, than regular psych. And, oftentimes, evo psych hypotheses are not “ill-conceived,” but follow straightforwardly from evolutionary theory (e.g. parental investment, reciprocal altruism, life history theory, etc.)

    2. If this is true we’ll have to find a way to improve. I don’t think that we’ll ever have a full and complete understanding of human behaviour without reference to evolutionary psychology.

  8. “for scientists in many other fields have committed fraud as well.”

    People in EVERY field have committed fraud. It’s so common it’s almost as if it’s an evolutionary tactic to assure the survival of the individual’s progeny.

    For someone to reject evolutionary psychology completely wouldn’t they be taking the stance that 100% of human behavior is learned? Yet we see that some behavior in other species is learned but accept that other behavior in those species is instinctive. Anyone who has seen a baby for even a few minutes knows that they do things they haven’t been taught. They use their hands to grip objects, in exactly the correct way that a primate with an opposable thumb would do. They also figure out how to put them into their mouths and how to throw them without any coaching. How do the anti-evo psychs explain those behaviors?

  9. I wish more people would pay heed to Dan Dennett’s advice from his latest book, Intuition Pumps:

    Sturgeon’s Law is usually put a little less decorously: Ninety percent of everything is crap! Ninety percent of experiments in molecular biology, 90 percent of poetry, 90 percent of philosophy books, 90 percent of peer-reviewed articles in mathematics – and so forth – is crap. Is that true? Well, maybe it’s an exaggeration, but let’s agree that there is a lot of mediocre work done in every field… A good moral to draw from this observation is that when you want to criticize a field, a genre, a discipline, an art form,… don’t waste your time and ours hooting at the crap! Go after the good stuff, or leave it alone. … Let’s stipulate at the outset that there is a great deal of deplorable, stupid, second-rate stuff out there, of all sorts. Now in order not to waste your time and try our patience, make sure you concentrate on the best stuff you can find, the flagship examples extolled by the leaders of the field, the prize-winning entries, not the dregs.

    1. ‘Now in order not to waste your time and try our patience, make sure you concentrate on the best stuff you can find, the flagship examples extolled by the leaders of the field, the prize-winning entries, not the dregs.’

      Such as Nobel Prize winners in literature? Read any Pearl Buck lately, Prof. Dennett?

      P.S. the ‘crap poetry’ index is apparently on the rise; for many years it was said to be holding at 83%.

  10. “The real reason why people like Newitz and others (that includes P. Z., I think) dismiss evolutionary psychology in toto is because they find it ideologically unpalatable: they don’t like its supposed implications. They presume that evo-psych somehow validates misogyny or the marginalization of women and minorities. They will deny this to their dying breath,”

    I’m really glad you’ve pointed this out. As much as I used to appreciate PZ’s bl*g, he’s become dogmatic to the point it sometimes negatively affects his *science*. He’s showing the black and white thinking / low effort cognition we typically associate with strong religious views.

    You still do nuance and complexity. This website is an oasis.

    1. Plus One.

      I would like to see Jerry a bit more nuanced in the free-will debates though, not everybody equates free-will with support of religions only. Just the fact, as in this EP debate.

      And yes, P.Z. is getting more fundie-like… (atheistic fundies –> athefs?)

        1. PZ’s blog post rate is probably no less (and no more) than our host’s.

          Irregardless (heh), how little or how much either posts has nothing whatsoever to do with the topic.

          1. “…these EP papers almost universally seem to find rationalizations for the status quo, that they take existing behaviors in our culture and slap on a just-so story to claim women’s roles or the place of minorities is biological or natural or genetic or determined by 100,000 years of selection. If I were to turn this argument around, and say that supporters of EP are all ideologically driven fellow travelers of Kanazawa and Murray and Herrnstein (which I am NOT doing here, by the way), we’d immediately recognize this as a beautiful example of poisoning the well.”

            I don’t really understand the issue with the first part of this. The researchers are explaining the existence of these things, not condoning them. He says he isn’t saying all EP people are ideologically driven, but still seems to take issue with what EP is doing and what they are studying and their explanations for it. I don’t see how this is any different than biologists studying evolution, to which many Christians say that evolution = holocaust, eugenics, and that if we are just animals we might as well act like them, and to which PZ would reply that and ought isn’t an is. I don’t see why EP should be any different.

  11. One problem with a lot of the critics of Evolutionary Psychology is that they give the impression that the entire discipline is useless to the point that it reflects negatively on the study of psychology in general.

    Biology and Psychology not only make a lot more sense if you understand evolution, they can also help you understand why you are the way are. And understanding is the way we improve ourselves.

    It would be a shame if people dismissed an entire field that might very well help contribute to our well being.

    Be skeptical, not cynical.

  12. I place great store in observation being the foundation of our beloved science. In academia, traditionally, too much is always erected upon too little observation. Now, on account of fresh obs. almost all academic beliefs have a half-life of about 50 years. And my liking for Obs. stems from the fact that I was at several universities in the sixties, since when, almost everything I learned (which was largely theoretical) has been abandoned. You should be so lucky! Best part of observation (and my speciality) are concatenations of observations for which there are no obvious explanations. I have stored those observations from extended visits to 70 countries, including spells of 20 years in different countries and on different continents. The most puzzling finding is that the same identifiable groups, having near identical characteristics, exist, unbeknown to each other, in countries and continents far apart. You could swap a clerk from Cincinnati Federal building with a clerk in any government office anywhere in the world, and they could start work within an hour! The procedures and traditions are the same. All human beings exist, not as individuals, but as members of familiar groups. And those same identifiable groups evolve in parallel. Evolutionary convergence, if you will.
    The evidence for evo-psych might be seen in the way that humankind has learned to extend brain-power by external information storage, and by enhanced methods of communication (books, specialised journals, television and the internet) Our brains seem not to be what they were once. They have weighty add-ons; intellectual tools, if you like. Brain-tools. On account of those brain-tools, many beliefs and understandings from my childhood (WWII) have no viability, and will never come around again. And isn’t it remarkable that our children can run with technology that still requires us older folk to reflect a bit before tapping the keys? Are we going through a time of rapid cerebral evolution?
    It is my observation that there was a time when a particular mutation in the workings of the brain gave a family, and then larger groups, quite profound social advantages. The mutation led to the improbable and senseless idea that there existed a notional hierarchy of authority. It led to the great civilisations whereby the people allowed rulers. The great civilising leap forward for humankind was the false idea that there existed a notional hierarchy of authority, in which case, those lower in the order of things found themselves obliged to make group decisions which did not necessarily accord with selfish self-interest. It led to leaders with hereditary rights, and it eventually led to democracy.

  13. Academics like PZ Myers seem to feel that because they know everything, it is impossible for evolutionary psychology, a field about which they know a little less than nothing, could be anything more than pseudoscience. To demean what they do not, or refuse to understand, they puff themselves up with indignation and flail against the Freddys they see lurking in the shadows.

    PZ is also hates recapitulation (along with my favorite German evolutionist (flawed in other ways) Ernst Haeckel), and maintains that both are discredited and dead. Haeckel’s recapitulation (not the Freddy variety portrayed by SJ Gould, PZ and fundies) and modern EvoPsy have indeed become tinged with voodoo-ish ‘species memory’ cultism, and when subject to strawman distortions can be made out as evil fabrications that oppose the Pharyngula-certified ‘feel-good’ street view that man arose, POOF, shiny, good, and untainted by monkey business. I think that this denialism, infused with a heady yet unmapped dose of Naturalistic Fallacy, may be the drug driving PZ’s ideological warp.

    That said, history shows that we must share PZ’s concern, if not his interpretation. Whatever insights EvoPsy may reveal, there are always those ready to impart to them some malicious twist, and the assimilation of EvoPsy views into general knowledge will require a large measure of reasonableness, understanding, and perhaps charity.

      1. I take issue with all his arguments, as a matter of principle.
        Jerry’s going to get mad at me, but PZ Myers is my bête noire; I can’t help myself.

          1. I was kicked out and accused of being sexist. I made a clumsy remark and the pack went nuts….it was a mess.

            Never again.

    1. PZ can’t stop making enemies. He made one of me a long time ago (not that he’d care). Whatever he’s for, I’m against (usually). I guess he’s entitled to his opinion; I just don’t respect it anymore.

      1. “Whatever he’s for, I’m against (usually).”

        Well, okay.

        People like PZ’s style, or they don’t. He’s made friends and as many enemies. Whatever.

        But thank god and all the saints that you’ve staked out an ideological position that keeps you from having to actually think.

          1. Well, that’s fine, and also, not what you originally said, which was “whatever he’s for, I’m against (usually).” You’ve skipped a step, and the step you’ve skipped is thinking.

            1. Nope, the process is this: Over time I read and listened to and considered what PZ had to offer (I actually did some thinking, Marta); I observed that PZ is mostly full of shit and his opinions are mostly worthless, therefore I figured out that I can save myself some time and declare everything he writes or ever will write a complete waste of my time and energy. How’s that? It works for me and I don’t feel like I’m missing a thing! But look at all the time and energy I’ve spent explaining this to you. I’m exhausted!

            2. I know how JT feels. Like JT, I used to frequent PZ’s brawl^H^H^H^H blog. But then I got so tired of the wolf-pack mentality of [some of] the commenters I stopped (and besides, I discovered WEIT).

              With particular reference to your point, Marta, about thinking – there are more rewarding blogs to follow and more interesting things to think about, more than I have time for, so why bother with PZ’s? It’s a similar argument to the few occasions when Christians have urged me to read the Bible – I have better things to do with my time, thank you. It’s not a lack of thinking as your snarky comment at TJ would imply, it’s a preference to direct my thoughts in a more ejoyable/profitable direction.

    2. Tulse, here’s a typical example of Myers’ stupid strawman complaints about EP:

      the kinds of questions we see most evolutionary psychologists exploring (dating or writing dissertations) represent novel challenges that aren’t easily explained by simply citing ancient tribal organization or food gathering practices

      First of all, neither “dating” nor “writing dissertations” are important areas of EP research. Perhaps by “dating” Myers means EP work relating to sexual behavior and mating, which are important areas of research (and of which research into “dating” is a small component). But more importantly, I very much doubt that any evolutionary psychologist has claimed or would claim that these aspects of human behavior are “easily explained by simply citing ancient tribal organization or food gathering practices.” That’s just another gross misrepresentation of the field by Myers.

      Myers goes on to say:

      If that were the kind of thing evolutionary psychologists study — and I’ve said this multiple times now — the deep generalities of human behavior, rather than the parade of nonsense about foraging for berries and it’s effect on women’s shopping preferences, I’d have no complaint at all about EP.

      Contrary to Myers’ claim, virtually all EP work is concerned with “the deep generalities of human behavior.” See the list of primary EP research areas I posted above. Most EP work is concerned with broad, cross-cultural, species-typical aspects of human behavior relating to mating, parenting, violence, sex differences, perception, cognition, etc. But instead of discussing this work, Myers seizes on a handful of marginal papers on marginal questions (e.g. women’s shopping preferences) and declares them to be representative of the field.

      1. So where’s the work being done in those areas? Why only refer to it obliquely? Why not link to some papers and let us judge if EP is actually producing good work, or is just a pseudoscience?

        1. The resistance among critics of EP to making even a small effort to actually learn something about the field they’re attacking really is astonishing.

          Google is your friend. Try searching on “evolutionary psychology papers” or “evolutionary psychology research” or some such. You will find numerous links that take you to the primary literature as well as summaries and overviews by scientists who are actually working in the field.

          A good place to start is the Center for Evolutionary Psychology. Another good source is the journal Evolutionary Psychology. Its free archive of papers goes back to 2003.

          1. I’m not looking for a random sample of papers. I’m looking for examples of the “legitimate” evo psych research that, apparently, redeem a field which even Coyne and its other defenders seem to agree has a problem with pseudoscience. So I don’t expect that a few minutes of clumsy Googling are going to produce any of the research you guys think is the best the field has to offer.

            Like the man said, I’m trying to grapple with the best examples of the field, not the worst. Why are evo psych’s defenders so reluctant to say what that is?

          2. I’m not looking for a random sample of papers. I’m looking for examples of the “legitimate” evo psych research that, apparently, redeem a field

            You’ll have to actually show that there’s something wrong with the field before it needs to be “redeemed.”

            Absent evidence to the contrary, you may assume that any EP paper published in a reputable scientific journal is “legitimate” EP research. EP papers are published in the top general science journals — Nature, Proceedings of the Royal Society, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, etc. — as well as specialized journals like Evolutionary Biology.

            1. Dr Coyne, respectfully

              Justin here in this thread, as well as others elsewhere, have asked (repeatedly) for examples of papers that you and Gary W regard as being good quality. Gary W’s response so far is to tell those of us who are curious about some examples you both regard as counterpoints to PZ’s argument that we should, essentially, stop bothering you and go the library. Gary W helpfully gave some topics up thread and some journals that are likely to have these papers.

              But it should be clear that Gary W is dodging the question and AFAICT you haven’t responded either.

              I think PZ is wrong on this and that both Gary W and you, Dr. Coyne, are exactly right. But I am an not an expert in the field and so whilst I could use Gary W’s helpful topic advice and look through the journals he cited for EP papers, that doesn’t really answer the question. Can you (or Gary W) give a specific example of what you regard as a quality EP work, so that if I (and others) have access to it we can better understand why you are right and PZ and his cohorts are wrong.

              Personally, though I have an understanding of evolution (I am an Molecular Biologist) so the technical aspects of an EP paper probably won’t daunt me, I am not well enough versed in the field to really say which are good and which are not, though for some it may be easy to discern. But that’s not the point of my or Justin’s question. We’d like an example of what you think represents quality EP research.

              1. We don’t have the burden to show you that EP is “good” science. EP is a recognized science practiced by recognized scientists at recognized universities and published in recognized scientific journals.

                If you claim that EP is not a a “legitimate” science, that its basic premises are fundamentally wrong, or that published EP work is pervasively and seriously flawed then you have the burden of producing evidence to support that assertion. So where is your evidence?

              2. Thank you, Davidpinsof! I am sincerely interested in this field partly because of the controversy in this blog but also because it sounds like an intensely fascinating topic. Plus, several of these are not behind pay walls so I don’t have to go to the U of W library to read them! Many thanks.

                Gary W. I make NO -zero- Nada claims about EP. I am completely a novice WRT the published work. I was NOT making a claim. You, however, were. I WAS asking you to back up your claim, even though I am quite certain is is trivially easy to do so. I was not the only one either. I simply do not understand your reluctance to answer a simple question about your claims. You dodged around it a number of times , which is what prompted my post. I find your behavior in this regards obtuse at best. davidpinsof behaved much better in this regard.

              3. Gary W. I make NO -zero- Nada claims about EP.

                So you’re not claiming that EP is bad science, or fundamentally flawed or plagued by poor work, or any of the nonsense spouted by PZ Myers and his ilk? Terrific.

                You, however, were.

                I’ve made lots of claims. What claim specifically are you referring to?

              4. Gary W

                Conversations, or debates for that matter, are only useful if all parties make honest efforts to engage. You’ve danced around the question many times and derailed new responses by changing the subject (the one to Justin at the very top of the thread is particularity egregious). Your response here is more of the same, so it is clear that any discussion with you is useless.

                davidpinsof did provide some good links with examples of sound work in EP for my edification and for that I thank him. As good as these may be, however, he is not Dr. Coyne (nor are you) so the question remains; what do “you think the beneficial, interesting, and legitimate research products of evopsych actually are” (quote from poster Justin at the top of the comments).

                I hope it it obvious that I am posing that question to Dr. Coyne as it is clear you have no intention of answering it.

              5. so the question remains; what do “you think the beneficial, interesting, and legitimate research products of evopsych actually are”

                Asked and answered: EP work in the areas I listed in response to Justin is “beneficial, interesting, and legitimate research products of evopsych.” A particularly good example of EP research is Robert Trivers’ work on parental investment, altruism and parent-offspring conflict, for which he won the Crafoord Prize. There, that’s the third time I’ve said it now.

  14. So the fact that some people enganged in personal improprieties invalidates an entire field of science. Seems very anti-intellectual. Reminiscent of creationists “arguments” to invalidate hominid evolution based on Piltdown and Nebraska man.

  15. regarding his constant reference to “psych student surveys”, he doesn’t realize that many EP studies examine responses to controlled stimuli. Also many patterns examined in many EP studies had been observed using other methods in countries and cultures around the world; so any one particular study is a not “stand alone” document in this regard, but serves to provide part of a bigger picture about how people respond to gender ratios (for example) in their environment (real or perceived).

  16. If I may venture off at a tangent to the topic, I want to dispute the claim that goosebumps serve no useful function. They may no longer serve their original function (erecting hairs for warmth or threat display) but that doesn’t mean they’re useless.

    My claim is that goosebumps are an integral component of our somatosensory feedback circuits. When I watch (say) an especially moving ballet performance, the goosebumps I feel are not just an incidental side-effect; they’re how I know that the performance is exceptional, in the same way that pounding pulse and altered breathing patterns tell us when we’re in love. We feel strong emotions not just in our heads, but with our entire bodies, and goosebumps are an important part of that system.

    1. You can ascribe a purpose to anything, even tailbones and wisdom teeth, but knowing that you enjoy ballet doesn’t get your genes to the next generation, so I think that, evolutionary speaking, they have no use. Shakespeare’s in the same boat, though, so they’re in good company. Our genes just don’t care for the same things we do.

      1. …knowing that you enjoy ballet doesn’t get your genes to the next generation…

        One can imagine a situation in which it might. The woman sitting next to me, for instance, might prefer a man who responds deeply to beauty over one who doesn’t.

        But just-so stories aside, the more general point is that being (literally) in touch with our feelings seems like it might be adaptive in a way that wisdom teeth are not.

        I grant that this is speculative, and it’s not an idea I care to defend to the death. But I do think Jerry’s dismissal of goosebumps as obviously useless is a bit too facile and overlooks the possibility that they’ve been exapted for some other purpose.

  17. I used to spend a great deal of time over at PZ’s blog and enjoyed it, but then I found WEIT and I’m happier here. No one is perfect and I disagree with PZ on a number of issues, of which this is certainly one. PZ seems to be a prisoner of the “Blank Slate” hypothesis (see Pinker’s excellent book so entitled) which was very popular in his youth, but can no longer be supported by anyone with a respect for the evidence. It is however extremely popular with the left wing because it entails that no one is responsible for their own failures, it is all the fault of society. Of course if you’re a determinist then the problem is less of an issue.

    It is logically necessary that a person consists of effects of their genes and their environment, there just is nothing else in the recipe. How anyone can suppose that our genes form everything about us but somehow take a hands off approach when it comes to the brain eludes me. Your brain is built by your genes and your environment in cooperation, genes evolve, therefor obviously, so do brains and so does behaviour. We are not infinitely plastic, there are biological limits to what our brains can do. Evo-psych is trying to explain them. We should remember that psychology is the study of the most complex thing in the known universe, it is not easy.

    1. The issue, here, is that there’s a substantial amount of daylight between “human cognition is the result of evolutionary adaptations to environments that are different than the ones in which we live now” and “evo psych is a legitimate and effective field of scientific inquiry”, regardless of the efforts of evo psych proponents to conflate opposition to the latter with opposition to the former.

      That evo psych is attempting to answer these questions does not mean that it has, or that it is capable of, at least in its past and current incarnations. Maybe it is, but how would I know from Coyne’s words on the subject – he refuses to present any of the evo psych research that he apparently finds so impressive and probative. By all means, let’s judge the field by its best work. Why won’t evo psych proponents present any of it?

      1. regardless of the efforts of evo psych proponents to conflate opposition to the latter with opposition to the former.

        I haven’t seen anyone do that. On what grounds do you oppose the proposition that “evo psych is a legitimate and effective field of scientific inquiry?” Make sure you provide citations to support any empirical claims you make in your answer.

        By all means, let’s judge the field by its best work. Why won’t evo psych proponents present any of it?

        I gave you an extensive list of EP research topics above, including work that was awarded the equivalent of the Nobel Prize.

  18. Developmental plasticity is just about entirely not all. The very ability to adapt brain wiring is a function of other hard-wiring. It doesn’t happen by magic.

    A rough analogy would be a computer device with firmware and an application programming interface. What you do with the device is very plastic, but it all builds on having a functional device driven by that firmware.

    The brain absolutely has the equivalent of hard-wired firmware, many times over. All environmental influences on brain development are filtered through that hard-wired design. And that hard-wired design is built by genes, which exist in their present population by passing through the evolutionary process.

    To deny these really basic facts takes the subversion of reason to ideology, which is certainly what’s been driving Myers for the last few years at least.

  19. Yes, I love points about ideology. A veneer of half-hearted rationalizations, cannot hide the obvious and real reasons for the opposition, no how many faux denials are made.

  20. Several people requested examples of good evolutionary psychology. Not sure the example below counts, but it provides a biological explanation for what has been a puzzling phenomenon, so it is at least in the spirit of evo psych. The authors themselves still consider this to be a hypothesis that needs a lot more testing but the evidence is pretty intriguing at this point. The genetics—or lack there of—is also interesting. We see an important aspects of a human characteristic (sexuality) possibly being explained as an epiphenomenon of a gender enhancing mechanism. This is not adaptive story telling but a non-adaptive explanation.

    Homosexuality as a Consequence of Epigenetically Canalized Sexual Development
    William R. Rice, Urban Friberg and Sergey Gavrilets. The Quarterly Review of Biology , Vol. 87, No. 4 (December 2012), pp. 343-368

    1. That paper is pure speculation. No mechanism is laid out. Just that epigenetics exists in early development therefore it could possibly explain some stuff. I hope that’s not the height EP research.

  21. I love how PZ objects to the claims of an ideological drive when the very thing to which he links us refers to EP supporters as “douchebags”. Really? We’re to believe that he and the article’s author are calling a group of scientists douchebags because said scientists don’t put out good enough work? Come on. He’s saying it because he doesn’t like what a few rogues use EP to justify.

  22. The disagreement between PZ and Prof. Coyne allows a rarish opportunity to make real progress in understanding human thought processes, well away from the clap-trap of ‘Academic psychology’ And the likely result of a fresh understanding is to realise that most academic subjects carry within them two very human, and mutually opposing, systems of thought. The first, and by far the most common, is the tendency of all academics to seek-out explanations from within the confines of their padded cells which confirm the false assumptions of their conscious mind. That, sadly, is the thought-processes to be found in religion and in almost all of the Social sciences. Take the following…

    “…the mind is a set of information-processing machines that were designed by natural selection to solve adaptive problems faced by our hunter-gatherer ancestors.”

    Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer – Leda Cosmides & John Tooby

    That statement is far from the truth. The most successful human brains throughout human history have had a dedicated ability to form ‘solution-beliefs’ which together, form ‘solution-ideologies’. In order to develop solution-ideologies, the human brain engages in selective observation, miss-observation and observation-avoidance along with an ability to reorganise perceptions of the world around it toward the aim of verifying inherent false but satisfactory explanations, already contained in the memory. The History of Ideas shows this to be true….”
    From ‘Origins of Belief and Behaviour’ The Introduction. 2005.

    The second, an, alas, minor cerebral activity to be detected within academia concerns something called ‘truth as a strategy’. We all know about this. Newton is said to have formed an interest in the cosmological world the better to understand his gods. The uncommon aptitude some people have for seeking underlying truths of natural objects and events, springs out an anomaly in human thought processes. One might almost call it neurotic behaviour to eschew the false explanations provided by the ancients (always cunningly abstract as in the bible) and to seek fresh and rather contradictory explanation for natural phenomena by way of close observation we call experiment.

    In other words, all humans almost all of the time are dedicated to forming ‘solution ideologies’. Clearly PZ complains about the former system (solution-ideology) while Prof Coyne (for reasons unknown) admires the latter, (truth as a strategy)

  23. Re: Dan Dennett quoting Sturgeon’s Law that 90% of everything is crap. I think that it can be nuanced a little.
    “…It is a feature of all academic research that it moves, like fashions, through a process of accumulation, utter rejection, followed by the formulation of new theory. And out of all that revelatory excitement, very little continues as hardened universal truth. The rest is academic fluff. And so, having studied a broad range of disciplines at four major universities, I came to the conclusion that very little of academic work achieves a lasting currency. Most academic beliefs have a half-life of fifty years.

    “…it isn’t what we know that’s important, it’s what we believe that is not true that’s important” Wise saying.

    – Estimated Knowledge-Content of Common Academic Subjects…

    Mathematics 75%
    Physics 50%
    Chemistry 50%
    Biology 30%
    Economics 20%
    Medicine 20%
    History 5%
    English Literature 5%
    Media Studies 5%
    Political Science 5%
    Philosophy 5%
    Archaeology 5%
    Anthropology 5%
    Sociology 2%
    Psychology 1%
    Theology 0%

    That is to say that, maybe 95% of what is believed by, say, history academics, is false! How could that be? They work by examining historical documents. Surely there can be no such profound slip-up between reading a documents and drawing historic conclusions from that reading? How is it possible that ten thousand professors can all get it so wrong? The answer is an intriguing one. And it begins a long journey into reassessing the very nature of ‘knowledge’ itself….”

    From Introduction. “Origins of Belief and Behavior” 2005

    Most academics should burn their theses and books before history does it for them. But where do these figures come from?

    • Listening to old and retired academics who look back upon the demise of their best work done 50 years before.
    • Looking at academic text-books from fifty years ago.
    • Taking into account the failure of many academic disciplines in recognising the true and wider boundaries of their subject-matter.
    • Understanding the delusional nature of human beliefs contained in The History of Ideas.
    • Confronting academics and rubbishing their beliefs before their very eyes.
    • Understanding the part played by the desire for ‘solution-ideology’ in all human research.
    • Suffering a terribly sceptical mind.

  24. To all of you: please read “Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind”,by David Buss. All questions will be answered.

      1. I have often seen people here talking about evolutionary psychology without seemingly knowing what they are talking about. I really don´t want to get into polemics, but I suggest Jerry Coyne, P. Z. Myers and all who participate in this blog read David Buss´ book on that subject. I´m sure they´ll be able to get relevant information on the various studies and independent tests that certify the scientific seriousness and fertility of this research program.

  25. I begin all my thinking about EP with Cosmides’ and Tooby’s Primer. They make it quite clear that the basic EP approach is based on a computational model of the mind in general. And in specific, it’s based on an extensive modularity in mental functions.

    The first is on a spectrum with Ray Kurzweil, i.e., it is highly speculative while difficult to reconcile with the facts of biology. The second has since run into extremely difficult questions about how genes can determine these modules when the human genome has turned out to be so small. Frankly, it seems to me that rejecting EP on this basis is closely analogous to rejecting parapsychology on the basis that it contradicts the facts of physics.

    When people, as here, redefine EP as the proposition that human behaviors evolved, in contradiction to the highly esteemed even by themselves Cosmides and Tooby, I am of course not convinced. In fact, the crude falsification instead tends to convince me that it it the EP supporters who are ideologically driven.

    EP supporters seem to have gone all in with Steven Pinker’s pop science writings. One big generalization he pushes is the notion that the Standard Social Science Model was an ideological construct. He also misrepresents the SSSM as having the same view of human nature as B.F. Skinner. I wasn’t doing a scientific survey in the Sixties, but as I recall, the behaviorists’ view of the plasticity of the mind to learning most certainly was not the prevailing model. The SSSM and its view of human variability due to culture, contrary to Pinker, was created by empirical study that refuted old essentialist views of human nature. See Harris’ Rise of Anthropological Study for an overview in one field.

    Like all EP pop science writers, Pinker will occasionally write something crazy without the slightest indication he’s aware of it. One I remember most clearly was his citation of a study that a survey (of college students I believe) found that most males with go with a stranger for sex, but most females would not. As I recall that was supposed to prove a difference in male and female sexual desires. The survey made no effort to adjust for fear on the part of female respondents, neither for fear of going off with a stronger stranger nor for fear of social disapproval. It was worthless, yet Pinker either knowingly cited junk science, or didn’t know the difference.

    This may seem a little beside the point, but the Newitz article linked to a Steven Pinker lecture. I couldn’t force myself to listen to him because the topic appeared to be “Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence.” (Newitz I think is Jewish, if you think that’s relevant.) I don’t have much hope that Pinker was debunking it. Here’s a critique for those of you who imagine that EP produced some good work there:

    I suppose if we were playing debates, ignoring this link loses the debate. If Pinker debunks “Natural History,” then Newitz destroys her own case. Or, if Pinker touts junk science, she proves her case with an unrebutted argument. The funny thing is, io9 is a junky media site devoted partly to SF, and any tech is only there as a concession to the fans who like the S in SF.
    The site is not a serious journal, nor is Newitz a serious writer (even if she’s winning on points today.) Frankly, it seems as though the whole thing was just a joke. If the joke’s on you, it’s unpleasant of course.

    This has all run very long, even though I’ve tried to be fairly brief on each point. But I must say in my defense that it seems it would have been ruder to just take drive by shots. Putting all this in I hope makes it clear this isn’t a personal attack on weit.
    However, weit writes: ◾Higher variance in male than in female reproductive success due to differential behavior of the sexes

    This is supposed to be a major advance by EP, both intrinsically important scientifically and well supported. PZ Myers agrees. I think PZ has it wrong. First of all, the opaque language is confusing. Every reproductive success is a success for a male and a female, and there is no variance between the sexes. This is trivial, so it seems this meaning is unlikely, forget that.

    Guessing at what the soundly established scientific contribution of EP is supposed to be, PZ means either that some men succeed much more often than any woman (and more men fail than women,)while proportionately far more women succeed; or, that women in general follow a k reproductive strategy and men in general follow an r reproductive strategy. The second would be a mischaracterization of the k and r strategy concept so I think that it cannot be what PZ meant either.

    But the problem for PZ in the first is not to my knowledge very well established at all. Perhaps that’s my unfamiliarity with the EP literature? There is a slightly more subtle but even more devastating problem. Namely, the differential behaviors in the mental module for reproduction posited by PZ in this interpretation entails a difference in propensities for sexual activity between men and women.

    So far as I know, EP doesn’t dare specify whether the women’s module has a genetically determined propensity for strength; some unknown or variable markers for virility; equally unknown or variable markers for sexual attractiveness. Worse, there seems to be no effort whatsoever to contrast to alternate hypothese, such as, women’s sexual activity is determined by the rewards, which is the orgasm that also constitutes a male genetically determined propensity, but also, depending on culture, a claim to life-giving sustenance, or simply the luxuries due a rich man’s wife.

    PZ forgot that Nature does experiments too. The advent of birth control is separating the costs of birth from sexual activity for women. The propensities revealed for women frankly are not obviously different from those for men, unless you refuse to allow for social/cultural pressures. EP is notorious for failing to explain celibacy or homosexuality as adaptive. I note above that some (which I expect will become all eventually) EP theorists have given up “explaining” homosexuality by EP, and have redefined the problem by declaring homosexuality as a developmental.

    Does anyone really want to deny that there is no ideological baggage in EP?

    I’m sorry, but PZ would have done better to rename EP “Oakland.” There’s no there there.

    1. Evolutionary psychology is not a pseudoscience: its hypotheses can be tested independently of the theory they are intended to ‘save’. See articles and books from David Buss, Leda Cosmides, John Tooby, etc. and from

    2. Your rambling discussion of EP analysis of mating and reproduction is confusing. I’m not really sure what you’re trying to say. We do have clear evidence of greater variance in male reproductive success than female reproductive success. This is predicted by parental investment theory. For biological reasons, men are the lower-investing sex, so men generally compete for sexual access to women rather than the reverse (the same pattern is observed in virtually all animal species that share this investment model). Some men are more successful at this competition than others. Hence the greater variance in male reproductive success. Sex differences in mate preferences also follow from parental investment theory. As the lower-investing sex, men tend to attach more importance to characteristics associated with fertility, such as youth, while women tend to favor characteristics associated with being a good provider for offspring, such as responsibility and high social status. There are a variety of complications and elaborations, but this is the basic pattern for our species.

      1. All perfectly reasonable theories, Gary W. Which is why ideological ‘progressives’ hate them. If the theory goes AGAINST the pure notion of social engineering, they will fight it.

  26. As I’ve pointed out, that “fundamental premise” is only this: “the human brain, like the human body, still shows traces of its evolutionary ancestry.”

    You also need the premise that these traces are important, as you describe here: “Yes, it may often be hard, or even impossible, to show with great certainty that some of our behavior reflect ancient selection pressures.”

    But that shows up in whether the field will be fruitful or not.

    1. ” . . . the human brain, like the human body, still shows traces of its evolutionary ancestry.”

      I would say that to deny this perfectly reasonable idea should exclude a person from the privilege of adult conversation.


    Among the primates, idiopathic scoliosis apparently is only prevalent in humans. Scoliosis can be extremely debilitating of course. It’s been suggested that this is because of our evolutionary rapid elongation of the lumbar during the transition to bipedalism that makes us more susceptible. This doesn’t explain scoliosis in the thoracic spine however.

  28. Put simply, evolutionary psychology is the only field of inquiry that will tell us why religion exists in the first place. You would think atheist would appreciate that fact, but for some reason people think that EP is *only* about male/female psychological differences. Ironically, I think that is also explained by the architecture of our brains which was created by evolution; namely the availability heuristic.

  29. What about the ‘fight or flight’ response?
    Human beings tend to panic and run, or fight, at the same time.

    Look at financial markets. Most people ‘panic’ and sell at the same time, just as most people tend to suffer from irrational exuberance and buy into a stock at the same time. In fact, good traders KNOW THIS about human nature and profit quite handsomely from it. When is the best time to sell a stock? When the price is driven up by irrational exuberance and the general public steps in to buy it. (A trader friend of mine said that the best time to sell a stock is when it’s featured on the news – because that’s when the unwitting PUBLIC steps in to buy it.) Likewise, the best time to BUY a stock is when the public panics and drives the price down.

    ‘When there’s blood in the streets, there’s money to be made’ is a CLASSIC traders quote. Good traders KNOW that the majority of people will act the SAME WAY at the SAME TIME.

    And how could they do that if there were NOT some similar traces of biological/ancestral behavior in humans? I know people who live on yachts because they understand this.

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