Did a philosopher make evolutionary psychology impossible?

Subrena Smith, an assistant professor of philosophy at The University of New Hampshire, has made a bold claim in the journal Biological Theory (click on screenshot below). She claims to have found a fatal flaw in the practice of evolutionary psychology, one that renders the entire discipline “impossible”. Click below to read the article for free:

Here’s the abstract in which she identifies the flaw (there are actually more than one) and pronounces the discipline “impossible”:

Her article has garnered quite a bit of approbation among those who think that evolutionary psychology is a worthless enterprise, including, apparently, the site Gizmodo, which published a worshipful interview with Smith (click on screenshot below to read it):

Well, has she done what she aimed to: brought down an entire discipline? My judgment is “no—certainly not.”  She doesn’t even come close. What she does is list a set of standards that, Smith thinks, must be met for an evolutionary psychology explanation to be credible, and these standards are so rigorous and hard to meet that no study has met them or can meet them. Ergo, evolutionary psychology—done the way she wants—is “impossible.”

I believe that her overly excessive requirements bespeak Smith’s lack of understanding of how evolutionary biology is done. And that, I believe, comes from the fact that Smith is not a practicing scientist, but rather a philosopher, all of whose degrees were in philosophy. I usually don’t bring up credentials when discussing an argument, but I think her concentration on philosophy is relevant to her belief that evolutionary psychology fails to meet all tests of being a scientific field. Philosophers tend to be absolutists who require a clam claim to follow a set of strict rules.

Let me briefly say that I’m not a wholesale fan of evolutionary psychology, as a lot of it involves adaptive storytelling that is untestable. Often sample sizes are too small to be useful, and confirmation bias is strong. But that doesn’t apply to the whole discipline!

It is not ridiculous to think that, just as our bodies were shaped by natural selection acting on our ancestors, and that some of those ancient morphology persists  (the shape of our spine, men being bigger and stronger than women on average, and so on), so our minds have been shaped by natural selection as well, and we still show traces of those evolved behaviors today. (Parental care is an obvious one, as is concern for one’s relatives, and so, I think, are the average differences in sexual behavior of men versus women).

Indeed, Smith seems to agree with me here. She doesn’t object to an evolutionary analysis of human mentation and behavior (“evolutionary psychology” in small letters), but to an extreme form of the discipline that she capitalizes as “Evolutionary Psychology.” The thing is, a lot of us don’t accept “Evolutionary Psychology”, at least as Smith construes it in her paper (my emphasis below):

If the arguments that I have presented in this article are sound, the methodological defects of Evolutionary Psychology are so profound as to be unrectifiable, and consequently Evolutionary Psychology is not possible. Evolutionary psychologists simply do not have the methodological resources to justify the claim that the psychological causes of contemporary behaviors are strong vertical homologs of the psychological causes of corresponding behaviors in the EEA. The result for evolutionary psychology (as contrasted with Evolutionary Psychology) is less clear. No one should contest that the human mind is a product of evolution, and evolution must therefore enter into an explanation of human psychology in some way.

Evolutionary Psychology rests on three pillars: the massive modularity hypothesis, the claim that modular structures evolved as adaptations to recurrent challenges in the EEA, and the tacit assumption that mental structures can be individuated and so license claims about strong vertical homologies. These three components, taken together, are inconsistent with the competing hypothesis that evolution fashioned the human mind as a domain-general or modestly modular learning system.

But if the human mind is a product of evolution, and that evolution impacts human psychology, then she’s already conceded that there’s a valid program of “evolutionary psychology.” What she objects to in the capitalized version are its contentions that “adaptive” modern human behaviors—things like sexual behavior, mate guarding, jealousy, male displays like courting danger and showing off—are represented as “modules” (separable neural networks coding for feelings and behaviors). She also objects to other issues, which I’ll get to presently.

Well, I don’t care much about “modules”; if behaviors are evolved, then there must be some neuronal network that facilitates their appearance. Frankly, I don’t know what a “module” is, but if Smith is right and evolution must explain some of our psychology, then those explanations involve evolution of our nervous system. Modules, in my view, don’t at all need to be separate neuronal “compartments”, for we have no idea of how the brain is structured to produce behaviors. Very different behaviors might involve some of the same neurons.

Smith also claims that evolutionary psychology is different from evolutionary morphology because behaviors, unlike bodies, are flexible, and can vary depending on the environment and other circumstances. But that, too, fails to negate the value of evolutionary psychology. The value of parental care as an evolved trait is not negated because some parents neglect or even kill their children. The evolved difference in male versus human sexual behavior is not negated by the presence of some people, like gays, who fail to conform.  The goal of evolutionary psychology should explain general tendencies, not absolutes. This insistence on absolutism and dogmatic programs of proof derives, I think, from Smith’s training in philosophy.

Smith also insists that not only must our behaviors be adaptive now, but we must show that they were adaptive in our ancestors, which of course is impossible (as it is for all traits in all creatures!). Further, and this is her big issue, we must show that the “modules” that produced an adaptive behavior in our ancestors are genetically related to, and the ancestors of, the “modules” we use today when performing the related behavior. This insistence on showing exact evolutionary homology between a behavior and its “module” today and its ancestral “module” in the past is what Smith calls the “matching problem.”

That too is overly stringent: how could we possibly show that the exact neuronal pathways involved in, say, males being promiscuous, are the same as those in our hominin ancestors? Smith is asking too much here. What we can do is use comparative data (do other primates show similar differences in sexual behavior?) as well as concocting tests (e.g., do males who are less promiscuous have fewer offspring?), and, if our predictions and comparative analyses continue to support our hypothesis, then we get increasing confidence in it.

Smith uses the example of greater male than female sexual jealousy as her sole example of Evolutionary Psychology nonsense: males are (and should be) more sexually attentive and jealous of their female partners because they can’t be sure of the paternity of their offspring (females can cheat). In contrast, females are much more sure of the paternity of their offspring, and so shouldn’t worry as much if their partner copulates with another woman. This, too, can be tested: one test (suggested by Matthew Cobb) is to see if this phenomenon obtains in those societies in which people don’t connect sex with reproduction (there are difficulties with that test, of course). There are other tests of the adaptive value of sexual jealousy as well, including measuring reproduction and paternity. The point is that one can do tests that either strengthen or weaken one’s confidence in a hypothesis, and we don’t really need to figure out what is going on in our ancestors so long as the phenomenon there also seems adaptive. And we don’t need to know anything about ancestral versus current “brain modules”.

Evolutionary biology is not about finding absolute truth, but about inference to the best explanation, and that is what Smith fails to understand. I suppose Smith would consider all phylogenies (family trees of species) unreliable unless we have a complete fossil record of all the species involved, including the common ancestors!

Indeed, one example that Smith gives of a trait that to her seems truly evolved by natural selection in humans is the eye-blink reflex. But, as Edward Hagen shows in his critique below, she uses exactly the kind of inference which she says is subsumed in the unreliable methodology of evolutionary psychology: presumed stories about the adaptive value of that reflex, comparative studies of other species, and so on. I will leave you to read Hagen’s critique, which is polite but trenchant, in the pages of The Evolution Institute (click on screenshot below).

Why is a philosopher critiquing evolutionary psychology? While other philosophers, most notably Philip Kitcher, have written valuable critiques because they were concerned about the lax standards of the discipline, Smith has another reason as well. As you might suspect, it’s because she sees Evolutionary Psychology (capital letters) as somehow vindicating racism and sexism. We can’t have that, and so we must dispose of the discipline.

Of course “is”s don’t imply “ought”s, as I keep saying, and no finding of evolutionary psychology could ever tell us how to treat other people morally and legally. But Smith doesn’t seem to see it that way. Rather, she presents a caricature of evolutionary psychology that might have applied in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but doesn’t apply any longer. This is from her interview at Gizmodo (my emphasis):

The evolutionary psychologists I engage with are not silly people. They are thoughtful and philosophical about these matters. However, the attractiveness of evolutionary theory coupled with peoples’ ideological biases forces them to not be as careful as they might be otherwise. I think that the consequences for our world when we misappropriate evolutionary accounts are really serious. People are saying that people of color have smaller brains, which is not true, or that women aren’t as great as men, which is not true... I think we have a special responsibility, when we say evolution made us that way, to recognize that people will read “innate” or “hardwired” as synonymous with evolution. We should be especially careful to not be making claims like these, which can have consequences.

There you have it ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades—a strong objection to evolutionary psychology on the grounds that it facilitates racism and sexism. I don’t think that’s a reason for opposing a scientific discipline, but a reason for opposing the unjustified misuse of a scientific discipline. I, for one, would find it very odd if people like David Buss, Steve Pinker, Robert Trivers, or Randolph Nesse would sign on to the propositions that people of color have smaller brains and that “women aren’t as great as men.” Smith is faulting an entire discipline for the misuse of it by some people—a hundred years ago.

___________

Smith, S.E. 2020.  Is Evolutionary Psychology Possible? Biol Theory 15, 39–49.  https://doi.org/10.1007/s13752-019-00336-4

51 Comments

  1. GBJames
    Posted May 19, 2020 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    sub

  2. Mike Mayer
    Posted May 19, 2020 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    Paragraph 5:

    “Philosophers tend to be absolutists who require a clam to follow a set of strict rules.”

    clam should be claim.

    • Posted May 19, 2020 at 10:17 am | Permalink

      oops. I’ll fix

      • EdwardM
        Posted May 19, 2020 at 10:24 am | Permalink

        This doesn’t quite read right; “The evolved difference in male versus human sexual behavior …”

        • Posted May 19, 2020 at 10:45 am | Permalink

          I hope he leaves it that way, as a sarcastic foreshadowing of the final paragraph. ^_^

    • EdwardM
      Posted May 19, 2020 at 10:17 am | Permalink

      Now, now, I’m no philosopher but even I require all my clams to follow strict rules. They get unruly if I don’t, you understand.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted May 19, 2020 at 11:28 am | Permalink

        You let one of those great big geoducks get outta line, you’ve lost control of the entire bed forever.

        • EdwardM
          Posted May 19, 2020 at 11:49 am | Permalink

          It’s those damn Quahogs, you gotta set some limits or pretty soon they get out of hand you’ll yelling at them to clam up.

          • grasshopper
            Posted May 19, 2020 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

            Casting pearls before quahogs: a clam can be sufficiently irritated to produce a pearl of wisdom.

      • loren russell
        Posted May 19, 2020 at 11:53 am | Permalink

        …said the Walrus to the Carpenter…

    • Posted May 19, 2020 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

      I’ve just returned to try to finish reading this after almost choking myself from accidentally snorting a soft drink at the “… clam…” following “…a set of strict rules.” My brain wanted to accompany that image wherever it might lead instead of further reading. Now that I haven’t died from nasally inhaled Cola (rather than from Covid-19), I will attempt to read this with as much seriousness as I can muster.

      Thanks for the laugh (and the snort).

  3. Posted May 19, 2020 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    Her argument — that evolutionary psychology presupposes consistency in the architecture of the mind over millennia — seems fairly humdrum, but in a ploy that seems increasingly common in academia and the media, she merely hooks it to a wildly exaggerated extension (“therefore impossible”) as clickbait. It seems to have worked and got her the attention that assistant professors need to advance their careers. I’m sure she get her tenure soon.

    • rickflick
      Posted May 19, 2020 at 10:39 am | Permalink

      That was my thought as well. Someone probably pointed out the weakness in her case, but, of course, there’s a career to promote.

    • janklaassens
      Posted May 20, 2020 at 5:58 am | Permalink

      An affirmative action career.
      With a few papers and 2 citations.

      No good can come from this for the image of women and minorities.

  4. Steve Gerrard
    Posted May 19, 2020 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    “Philosophers tend to be absolutists who require a clam to follow a set of strict rules.”

    Though I believe it is a typo, I quite like this statement regarding the excessive fussiness of philosophers.

  5. Posted May 19, 2020 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    “women aren’t as great as men.”

    Sounds like something tRump would say. Nothing can dislodge that sort of mentality.

    • Posted May 19, 2020 at 11:40 am | Permalink

      I was not able to understand what she was saying there. Not as great about what?

      • darrelle
        Posted May 19, 2020 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

        I think she was being intentionally vague. Her argument is aimed at people who won’t ask her to specify what she means by “great.” People that get her argument understand what she means and would likely roll their eyes at someone asking for specifics.

        Of course, when it gets down to the science, which is what she is claiming to be doing, then such vagueness doesn’t work. This makes me think that she either doesn’t have a very good idea about how science works or, more likely, she is attempting to use the authority of science to support something else that is her true purpose.

        • GBJames
          Posted May 19, 2020 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

          Those possibilities aren’t mutually exclusive, of course. Her understanding of science is likely poor and still she seeks to use its authority as a rhetorical device.

  6. EdwardM
    Posted May 19, 2020 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    Hagen completely demolished her “matching problem”. It’s odd that she would so badly misplay that as the refutation is simple and obvious. My guess is that there is a Woke version of Morton’s Demon lurking in her brain.

  7. KD
    Posted May 19, 2020 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    I presume educated scientists would have to acknowledge that Gould was wrong, either intentionally or unintentionally in his critique of Morton’s measurements of skull sizes, as Morton’s results have been scientifically replicated twice.

    I am also aware that there are some large sample studies on brain volume which anyone can look up on Google. I understand that one can always call for larger samples, and raise questions about causation and the significance of (perhaps trivial) differences in brain volume.

    I don’t know how science is possible when there are some very clear cut empirical questions that have been studied extensively and the defenders of science carry on as if they don’t exist. Brain volume is pretty easy to measure with modern imaging machines after all.

    If you can’t even mention clear cut, politically incorrect scientific data, how can you even begin to address less-clear cut, controversial questions? Or perhaps this explains why the discourse is stalled around discussing what is a priori possible?

    • JohnE
      Posted May 19, 2020 at 11:27 am | Permalink

      At least a couple of papers subsequent to the University of Pennsylvania study have acknowledged that the differences do exist, while arguing that they are irrelevant and that Morton’s motivation for the research was, in fact, the widely prevailing belief at the time that Caucasians were superior. See:
      https://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.2007008

      Click to access KAPGOM.pdf

      • Dominic
        Posted May 19, 2020 at 11:44 am | Permalink

        Not sure physical differences on a minor level are that important., & surely not regarding behavioural traits?

        The problem with humans is learnt cultural behaviours that could be novel & have no relationship to any ancestral, evolved, inherited behaviours.

        I find Evolutionary Psychology (Capitals) to be a persuasive way of looking at the world, & so call me naïve but it is a useful heuristic if imperfect. Modules possibly are overplayed – it is like trying to unmix a cake though – past a certain level different ‘modules’ overlap.
        Humans are animals, get over it!

        • Adam M.
          Posted May 19, 2020 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

          Well, there is a modest but positive correlation between brain size (and/or brain size divided by body mass) and intelligence. It’s not known, however, whether this is causative in modern humans, or whether the racial differences is brain size have any relation to the racial differences in intelligence.

          • Dominic
            Posted May 19, 2020 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

            Human brain size has been decreasing for some time. Cro-magnon or early modern humans in https://phys.org/news/2010-03-cro-magnon-skull-brains-shrunk.htmlEurope for example

            But measuring intelligence? I do not think there is one measure that could be agreed on.

          • Torbjörn Larsson
            Posted May 19, 2020 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

            Correlation, which is what would interest Smith in principle, but not causality, which would interest the racists she wants to disempower. E.g. adolescent plasticity makes persons that has hemispherectomy because of developmental problems routinely function cognitively better [!].

            “Studies have found no significant long-term effects on memory, personality, or humor,[23] and minimal changes in cognitive function overall.[24]”

            [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hemispherectomy ]

      • JohnE
        Posted May 19, 2020 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

        Sorry! I had no idea that posting the link would actually embed this article!!!

  8. Posted May 19, 2020 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    Requiring clams to follow strict sets of rules is a fool’s errand. As Ze Frank points out, “Clams are stupid. I’m sorry, I said it.”

    • Posted May 19, 2020 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

      “Clams are stupid. I’m sorry, I said it.”

      But then, numerous supposedly big-brained humanoids are also. Witness the behaviors of some of our brethren/sistern during the Covid-19 pandemic.

      I haven’t the necessary scientific background on human intelligence in relationship to size of the brain vs. the skull to have credibility but, my tendency is to think that currently we have no way to determine how jam-packed any human brain might be with neurons, synapses and their inexplicable connections in any size skull. We do seem to know, however, that brains are not all wired precisely the same and that some individuals who lose brain function in one area can develop it in another. So, does skull and brain size really matter all that much?

      And, I’ve never really understood why some scientists seem to think that individuals with one skin pigment color vs. another might have lesser or greater brain capacity. How will they work out their thinking in regards to extreme variations in skin pigment colors that have arisen over however many jillions of years humans have intermixed with one another regardless of so-called race or color?

  9. eric
    Posted May 19, 2020 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    If adaptive behavior isn’t “modular” and a change in (the genetics behind) one behavior requires/causes changes in another, how does this undermine EP? Sure that makes the problem more complex (are behaviors A and B both adaptive, or is B just a spandrel on A?), but there’s not a lot of truly independent-from-any-other-feature physical adaptations either, so why should we expect, assume, or require behavioral adaptations to have this sort of independence?

  10. Posted May 19, 2020 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    She also does not realize that one can have non-cognitive indicators of cognitive adaptations. For example, perhaps, the elephant trunk as an indicator of cognitive facilities of elephants. Her example in humans surrounds running as adaptation, rather than (she says) being sneaky. This is immediately a false dichotomy as well, but is more of a mistake of the kind I just mentioned.

  11. Steven Meyerson
    Posted May 19, 2020 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    D’ont get your knickers in a twist! She doesn’t argue that the brain hasn’t evolved or that eveloution is false. Just that the particular ly dubious version of evolutionary psychology is impossible.PZ Myers at Pharangula is very complimentary.

    • Posted May 19, 2020 at 11:46 am | Permalink

      I know what she argued, and I counterargued that her version of Evolutionary Psychology is so extreme that no experiment could ever satisfy it, not just in EP but in regular evolutionary biology.

      As for P.Z. Myers being “very complimentary,” I wouldn’t take that as a seal of approval of her work!

      And as for you, you’re a rude person and have proven, in your last comment, that you didn’t even read what I wrote. You’re invited to leave, making sure that the door doesn’t hit your knickers-clad bum on your egress.

  12. Steven Meyerson
    Posted May 19, 2020 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    Don’t dismiss her because she is a philosopher. Remember that Dandy Dan Dennet says evolution is the universal solvent.

    • Posted May 19, 2020 at 11:40 am | Permalink

      You didn’t read the piece, did you? I didn’t dismiss her because she was a philosopher, I addressed her arguments head on, and then tried to understand her rhetorical tactics as a byproduct of a philosophical education. So many people like you seem to willfully misconstrue (or not pay attention to) what I said.

      As for “Dandy Dan Dennet” (his name has two “t”s, by the way), there was no need to mock him.

  13. Curtis
    Posted May 19, 2020 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    A philosopher claims to know so much more about biology than biologists that she can throw out an entire field. What more needs to be said?

    She is an arrogant, misguided fool who sees a way to further her career by spouting nonsense that pleases her equally ignorant colleagues. Unfortunately, it has already been successful.

  14. Posted May 19, 2020 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    The one thing that holds up is the distinction that there is a pretty solid mainstream region of the field, called evo psych, and a fringier part of the field, called Evo Psych. But everyone knows there are these two areas, including those who wish to bring the whole thing down for ideological reasons.
    And of course the headlines in the media and the conclusion of the papers’ Abstract fail to parse that out.

  15. Posted May 19, 2020 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    I found the Smith paper thoughtful in some respects, her criticisms right on for certain targets, but wouldn’t it be appropriate in a paper centered in some ways n behavioral homology, especially vis a vis morphological homology, to be conversant with literature on that topic? I’ll self-servingly cite two below. Note that from an ethological perspective, the first step in individuatng behavior is careful, repeatable description, and also see Lewontin quote in the second paper–ideologically driven claims can come from various directions!
    Greene, H. W. 1994. Homology and behavioral repertoires. Pp. 369-391 in B. K. Hall (ed.), Homology: the Hierarchical Basis of Comparative Biology. Academic Press, San Diego.
    Greene, H. W. 2017. Evolutionary scenarios and primate natural history. American Naturalist 190 (suppl.):S69-86.

  16. grasshopper
    Posted May 19, 2020 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    Calling Ken Ham.

    “Evolutionary Psychology” vs. “evolutionary psychology” makes me think of the macro vs. micro brouhaha in another evolutionary context.

  17. Hob Gadling
    Posted May 19, 2020 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    “Of course “is”s don’t imply “ought”s, as I keep saying, and no finding of evolutionary psychology could ever tell us how to treat other people morally and legally.”

    We live in a society where people generally don’t acknowledge or outright reject the is-ought distinction. Naive moral realism is the order of the day. People do claim to derive oughts from is’s, and are generally inclined to accept moral arguments that purport to do so. Isn’t it possible for evolutionary psychology to be scientifically sound, and yet still extremely dangerous in such a society?

  18. KD
    Posted May 19, 2020 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    I couldn’t get a link to her paper, just her abstract, and I am surmising from the article here.

    Morphology doesn’t dictate behavior, and behavior doesn’t dictate morphology. People develop skills and as they do so, their brains develop certain neurological networks, but it is not the case that two people with the same skill necessarily have the same network pattern, or even similar patterns. Moreover, people have strokes and so forth and relearn behaviors, which creates new networks (presumably) from the old network that generated the behavior.

    At the same time, morphology puts limits on the potential for behavior. You are not going to lift something over your head that exceeds the tensile strength of your connective tissue, at least not for long. You aren’t flying (naturally) with a human body.

    As I understand the argument, genes dictate/determine/influence morphology (subject to environment) and while morphology puts constraints on potential behavior, it doesn’t dictate behavior (the way a gene dictates the morphology of the human heart). So because you can’t trace behaviors back to morphological correlates and you can’t correlate morphology to genes, so you can’t have proof of evolution operating on behaviors affecting genes?

    [Wouldn’t it be enough if certain behaviors lead to certain genes being over-represented in future generations even if there was zero correlation between behaviors and genes? I’m thinking of the Bronze Age, where genocidal war combined with polygamy did a good job of creating a bottleneck in the Y chromosome.]

    Assuming I am fairly stating the argument, can we not make the same argument about lead poisoning? Exposure to lead poisoning correlates to certain behavioral patterns, but since we don’t know exactly how lead poisoning affects neurology, and we don’t know how those neurological changes affect behavior, we can’t prove that exposure to lead causes behavior problems, so drink up Flint. Is this an unfair strawman?

    BTW Ayn Rand propounded a nice philosophical proof on how smoking cannot cause cancer before she died of lung cancer.

    • KD
      Posted May 19, 2020 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

      A couple points that are missed in the meta around these discussions.

      There is much hue and cry about Social Darwinism (dead and resurrected in Evo Psychology purportedly) and how Social Darwinism isn’t biology. The reality is that Social Darwinism in sociology grew out of the Realpolitik tradition, not biology, and to the extent there was influence, it was Realpolitik on biology, not vice versa.

      Second, something like Realpolitik can be derived from basic game theory problems like the prisoner’s dilemma. It may be that some behaviors come to be because they are the most efficient solution to a game-theory type scenario, regardless of biology, but these strategies then affect gene frequency and thereby affect human evolution. So whether they are initially “caused” by biology, its hard to see how they don’t get inevitably “biologized” over successive generations. [Violence is expensive, so social hierarchy is useful for minimizing violence, and so complex social animals have social hierarchies, whatever their genes say.]

      Whether you are a blank slate or not, if you really don’t trust your fellow prisoner, you should rat them out every time. Also true whether intelligent design or creationism is true. What you often see is strategic behavior nested in some kind of evolutionary explanation, which is then critiqued as non-scientific because biology. It doesn’t actually matter what biology says. Its pretty obvious men are going to be more inclined to sexual jealousy than women given the obvious importance of kinship even if Genesis is true. [Evolution merely suggests why kinship might be important.] Its obvious that any collective endeavor will invite free-riders given the innate selfishness of people (but again, evolution helps explain that selfishness).

  19. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted May 19, 2020 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, I enjoyed that!

    And this explains much. I did not see Ryan F. Mandelbaum’s article, which was presented at Gizmodo – much commented on – and RealClearScience – no comments. But the day after I got linked to Subrena Smith’s paper in a comment discussing a work in evolution of self control about how “”evolution” of self-control or of any other ability … is another kind of those many “impossible” (and methodological unsound) studies, whose claims are absolutely unfalsifiable.”

    My response after browsing Subrena Smith’s paper and trying to assess what Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation (EEA) is – where I of course came to think of articles on the topic here:

    Traits evolve, and behavior traits are no different. It is nowadays possible to test for adaptability in biology [ https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4409029/ , https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5457800/ ].

    Your link goes to an article criticizing evolutionary psychology from the point of philosophy – which of course is exactly what you call an area of “those many “impossible” (and methodological unsound) studies, whose claims are absolutely unfalsifiable”! (The author is, by the way and by way of poisoning the well, a liberal arts college assistant professor that is rather facile since she has published an article in Aeon, which is a journal which is associated with superstition.)

    The paper of the article here is an archaeological motivated study of an evolutionary psychology topic – they call it the field of evolutionary cognitive archaeology (ECA).

    It has been fashionable to criticize evolutionary psychology and one subset of criticism of lack of testability likes to speculate in a strawman concept of “Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation (EEA)” [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolutionary_psychology#Testability_of_hypotheses ], which originates with psychoanalysis [!; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Bowlby ] many decades ago where it is still used. This criticism is what your linked article promotes. “Robert Kurzban suggested that “… critics of the field, when they err, are not slightly missing the mark. Their confusion is deep and profound. It’s not like they are marksmen who can’t quite hit the center of the target; they’re holding the gun backwards.”” [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolutionary_psychology ]

    YMMV on the usefulness of evolutionary psychology may vary, but there are prominent evolutionary biologists that assert that it is valuable and acceptable as of a decade back [ https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/12/10/is-evolutionary-psychology-worthless/ ]:

    “Now I am known as a critic of evolutionary psychology, and I have been quite critical. For example, I’ve published two scathing … But I’ve never maintained that the entire field is worthless, nor do I think that now. In fact, there’s some good stuff in it, and it’s getting better. I have seen evolutionary psychology begin to mature with its criticisms and disclaimers of its more radical exponents (e.g., Satoshi Kanazawa), and its increasing concentration on evidence and testability rather than just storytelling. Although I don’t keep up with it as much as I once did, I do teach some of it in my introductory evolution class.”

    “And as for academic, as opposed to popular, evolutionary psychology: before you dismiss it whole hog, do me the favor of reading this 2010 paper in American Psychologist by Jaime C. Confer et al. (download free at link; reference below). It’s an evenhanded exposition of the state of modern evolutionary psychology, how it works, what kinds of standards it uses, responses to some common criticisms (e.g., “we don’t know the genes involved”), and, for the critics, examples of evo-psych hypotheses that have been falsified. (One example of a falsified theory is the old “kin selection” argument for the prevalence of homosexuality: the idea that homosexuals, though not reproducing themselves, stayed home and perpetuated their genes by taking care of their relatives.)”

    [On https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1751696X.2020.1747246 :] The current paper uses ECA method of “bridging theories” to establish correlations between archaeological evidence, behavioral interpretations and neural architecture. (Correlations that, of course, immediately show causality as regards genes and putative behavior. For the archaeological part I would think they have to do longitudinal studies to establish causality between established behavior and tool styles.)

    In doing so they define self-control thoroughly and then establish 5 measures from experimental study of tool making and ape behavior, and with that they can establish a phylogenetic hypothesis.

    There are many ways to test these measures and trees, apart from the structure itself there are associated genes as well as fossil finds of ape (including human) tools that can be added now and in the future and be explored, in order to accept or reject the observed correlations.

    [ https://phys.org/news/2020-05-evolution-self-control.html ]

  20. Posted May 19, 2020 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    “EP would exclude reading cognition as a possible psychological adaptation because reading abilities do not reliably develop in all humans – many populations are non-literate, and many individuals within populations can fail to learn how to read.”

    Being an addictive reader, the above statement rankles. Readin’ and Ritin’ are not the only abilities that have evolved for communicating knowledge, and we have been communicating using a significant variety of means for an inordinate amount of time. Not just humans, but other animals also. Before reading, so-called humans communicated via: gestures, vocal calls, drumming, signal fires, mime, dance, art, memorization by specialists such as Bards, theater, use of runes and other inscribed or written symbols, development of alphabets, assigning sound patterns to such symbols, teaching our progeny how to do all or part of the above. Many life forms have developed methods to short circuit the learning curve of the next generation by teaching them somehow, using a large variety of methods. Our long prehistory and history of means of conveying knowledge just happened to develop into writing and reading.

    Even now, I imagine that bacteria and viruses that make up a huge amount of my physical being have means of communicating with each other, even though I doubt that they can read, as we understand reading. However, I have often accused them of being responsible for some of the very bad poetry I’ve/we’ve written.

  21. aljones909
    Posted May 19, 2020 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

    Appeal to consequences fallacy:

    Concluding that an idea or proposition is true or false because the consequences of it being true or false are desirable or undesirable. The fallacy lies in the fact that the desirability is not related to the truth value of the idea or proposition.

  22. Posted May 19, 2020 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

    The link to Smith’s paper has been paywalled, but I inserted a legal link that now works.

  23. Roo
    Posted May 19, 2020 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

    It seems to me that you could frame this issue the opposite way. If our psychology does not reflect evolution, then presumably it is the rather arbitrary result of environmental influences or blank-slate-ism. If that is the case, there should be equally stringent criteria for identifying what human behaviors are clearly maladaptive in an evolutionary context, but make a great deal of sense in terms of chance environmental inputs.

    It seems to me that when such behaviors exist, they are typically either: a) Called ‘disorders’, not typical human behavior (for example, an inability to feel pain) b) Where they appear to exist, tend to deal with the details of life, while evolution appears to account for the broader themes. For example, people might like an unusual food, or enjoy quirky activities on a date – but the broader themes – that we like to eat, that human courtship is a thing – seem clearly linked to our survival history. In the interview, Smith gives an example of not being able to say definitively if our ancestors avoided predators by running or hiding. Whether or not that’s true (that it would be very hard to answer such a question, I mean) I don’t know, but the fact that they were avoiding from predators, and that we do the same, seems pretty undeniable. If a snarling dog comes charging down the street, some people’s instinct might be to run and some people’s instinct might be to freeze, motionless – but almost no one’s instinct would be to, I don’t know, run at the dog and shout “Now stop that Pluto!” because they happened to see this in a cartoon as a child and so that was their only environmental learning experience regarding dealing with a snarling dog, meaning this was their arbitrary learned response.

    I think there is obviously a huge grey area in that mix, where we can never know if a behavior is a spandrel, a result of current social mores, or even just a ‘mistake’ of sorts, in that evolution does not, as I understand it, result in perfect, 100% efficiency (the blind spot on the retina is often used as an example of this.) It’s certainly true that the immediate survival value of things like music, literature, or purely academic curiosity (about topics such as space, in cases where people have no expectation of ever going there or benefitting from such knowledge) is not clearly apparent. And obviously we can be conditioned away from our more instinctive ways of being, especially if this is something we’re exposed to early (children sitting in desks all day and learning to read in school, for example). So I agree that there will always be areas where the true origin of a behavior or cognitive process is difficult, maybe even impossible, to suss out – but that is a subset of cases. There are also cases where the evolutionary origins of a behavior seem quite obvious.

  24. John Reynold
    Posted May 19, 2020 at 11:36 pm | Permalink

    I wonder what she would have thought of the tabula rosa side of the argument as put forth by PZ Meyers when he explained it with gesticulations of his hands about his head and blithering ‘Plasticity is all! Plasticity is all!’

    Sorry, can’t find video of the years ago conference he did this at.

  25. janklaassens
    Posted May 20, 2020 at 5:55 am | Permalink

    “behaviors, unlike bodies, are flexible”
    But the same holds for bodies, since humans can be born without sensitivity to pain. Does that make humankind a painless animal?
    In fact, in gender studies, such reasoning is applied to sex: intersex people exists, therefore humans don’t have biological sex. Perhaps this is where Smith’s draws inspiration from? One hopes not. But her concern for racism points at an activist agenda (which is wrong, because as Pinker often says, we hand actual racists a real tool if we don’t objectively study biological differences).

    Moreover, one wonders whether the same standard would invalidate Darwin in his own time, when the means of DNA sequencing, etc weren’t available to us. DNA was not even known. How could we suspect that Darwin will even have the means to solve the “matching problem.”

  26. David Wood
    Posted May 20, 2020 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

    Male jealousy due to paternity is testable and has been. I believe I read this in one of Michael Shermer’s article. Males are more jealous and threatened when females have sex with another male. Females are more jealous and threatened when males fall in love with another female and therefore more likely to withdraw their support.


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