Pinker on evolutionary (and nonevolutionary) psychology, and a general observation on evo-psych

November 13, 2022 • 12:30 pm

Here’s a brief (13-minute) video by Steve Pinker about evolutionary psychology that packs in a lot of information.  The theme is how our brains and behaviors may reflect our evolutionary past, sometimes in ways that were adaptive and still are (our fear of snakes and spiders, our disgust at bodily fluids that might be carry pathogens, our preference for kin over non-kin, and the effect of human facial expressions on other people’s behavior); sometimes in ways that were adaptive to our ancestors but may not be so today (e.g., our preference for fats and sweets, which may actually be harmful); and sometimes might not reflect evolution by natural selection at all. For the last case Steve offers music, saying there’s no good theory he knows for why our strong preference for music and rhythm might be adaptive. (Yes, I know that some have said that music-making men might leave more offspring because their music gets them more mates, but that just begs the question. Why does it appeal to those mates?)

The lesson to me is that, contrary to the evo-psychology dissers, we can understand a fair bit about our present behaviors from looking at how they might have been adaptive in the past. And this, including nonadaptive atavisms like our love of sweets, is all part of evolutionary psychology.

In Stanford I quoted P. Z. Myers—a well known, vociferous, and misguided critic of evo-psych as a discipline—for saying, “The fundamental premises of evo psych are false”.  That’s an arrant falsehood because the fundamental premises of evolutionary psychology are simply that our brains and our behaviors, like our bodies, show remnants of natural selection that produced evolutionary change in our ancestors.” Recently trying to defend himself, Myers blustered that he never said brains weren’t evolved, and that I’m guilty of misrepresenting his views. Well, P.Z. said this a week ago:

The brain is a material product of evolution, and behavior is a product of the brain. There are natural causes for everything all the way down. And further, I have great respect for psychology, evolutionary biology, ethology, physiology, anthropology, anatomy, comparative biology — and I consider all of those disciplines to have strong integrative ties to evolutionary biology. Does Coyne really believe that I am critiquing the evolved nature of the human brain? Because otherwise, this is a completely irrelevant statement.

Evolutionary psychology has its own special methodology and logic, and that’s what I criticize — not anthropology or evolutionary biology or whatever. Somehow these unique properties get conveniently jettisoned whenever a critic wanders by, only to be re-adopted without reservation within the exercise of the discipline. And that’s really annoying.

What I object to in evolutionary psychology is that their stock in trade is to make observations of behavior in a single species, often in a single population, and then to infer an evolutionary history from that data point. You don’t get to do that. It’s not that the observations are invalid (they’re often interesting in their own right), or that it’s not possible that human behaviors carry a strong genetic component — it’s that you simply can’t draw an evolutionary conclusion from the simple existence of a trait in a population. Yet evolutionary psychologists do, all the time.

No, I’m not saying—and never said—that Myers denies the “evolved nature of the human brain.” Where did he get that idea? I was critiquing exactly the view he espouses here: that the entire discipline of evolutionary psychology is bogus, doing weak experiments that aren’t further tested, that it suffers from its own self-serving methods that yield weak inferences that can’t be disproven, and that hypotheses about the historical natural selection on our ancestors offer virtually no insight into modern human behavior. As for the claim that evolutionary psychology studies are usually limited to one human population, or only to H. sapiens, that’s bogus, too. Multiple populations are often used to test generalizations about our species at present, and there are often parallels drawn with animals. After all, Darwin’s 1872 book was called The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, and while he was off the mark sometimes, those were early days, and the methodology was to make evolutionary inferences from observations across species.

Yes, the field has had its share of shoddy work, but there are strong conclusions, too (Steve mentions a few, and I could mention others about kin favoritism, male vs. female sexual behavior, etc.). The brain is not only a product of evolution by natural selection, but so are many of our modern behaviors, and to brush off an entire field because of some shoddy work at the field’s inception is ludicrous.

26 thoughts on “Pinker on evolutionary (and nonevolutionary) psychology, and a general observation on evo-psych

  1. I always had the impression PZM doesn’t like evopsych because it used to explain, and thus justify, what is. And he doesn’t like things the way they are, so such explanations must be derided. He is exactly like the people who claim there are no physical differences among male and female athletes, because they don’t want there to be any differences. You may dislike what evidence suggests, but you don’t get to ignore it if you are going to be based in reality and not fantasy.

  2. Pinker’s discussion of music at the end was intriguing. As ubiquitous as it is in human societies, there may be no evolutionary/survival/ genetic advantage to it. I wonder if it has a connection not to language per se, but to expressive patterns of speech. Someone who didn’t deliver information in a flat tone, but modulated their voice up and down with emphasis — a “musical” voice — would perhaps have been better (or seem to be better) at communicating.

    I can’t help but think though of those videos on YouTube where people or small orchestras play music for animals, who seem to enjoy it or at least find it interesting. It may then have some pre verbal connection. Or not.

    I’m not sure if Pinker’s brief discussion answered PZs objection, but I enjoyed it or at least found it interesting.

    1. [ can’t help commenting on the easy fun item of music before listening/reading ]

      There’s a “following response”, which some argue is a neurological phenomenon – easy to show with repeated sound patterns. A YouTuber (not me) says it helps people get to sleep.

      I also consider : Beethoven’s 9th in a symphony hall compared to Beethoven’s 9th on kazoos – clearly, there’s more than just the notes.

      Modern pop music seems to reflect cities, transport, repetition, …

      Not only _what_, but _where_ is the sound – the music?

    2. Saw this just the other day:

      Now scientists have discovered that rats also find rhythmic beats irresistible, showing how they instinctively move in time to music.

      This ability was previously thought to be uniquely human and scientists say the discovery provides insights into the animal mind and the origins of music and dance.

      “Rats displayed innate – that is, without any training or prior exposure to music – beat synchronisation,” said Dr Hirokazu Takahashi of the University of Tokyo.

      “Music exerts a strong appeal to the brain and has profound effects on emotion and cognition,” he added.

      While there have been previous demonstrations of animals dancing along to music – TikTok has a wealth of examples – the study is one of the first scientific investigations of the phenomenon.

    3. It’s possible that there is some low level biological and neurological reason why recognition of ‘organised sounds’ promotes fitness… perhaps the recognition of mating calls or the identification of predators. Music may be a social elaboration of these built in genetic predispositions.

  3. Perhaps overstating it a bit, but would it not be the case that a flat-out denial of evolutionary psychology is really a species of quasi-creationism? If our psychological attributes *didn’t* come from evolution, isn’t that the only other option?

    In other words, how is denying evo-psych different from denying that the human body evolved?

    1. It’s also a species of blank slate-ism, a view favored by many adherents of critical social justice (i.e. the woke).

      1. Agreed (except that I don’t think that wokeness has anything to do with social justice; I consider it to be a grab for social power; the criticisms of it as fundamentally racist have been pointed out by John McWhorter and a number of posts and comments on this web site).

        But, I have been wondering–is Pinker’s book “The Blank Slate” a good read? I’m sure it was, but I’m not sure if it’s sufficiently current. I do know that the subtitle is “The Modern Denial of Human Nature”. Thanks for any advice.

        1. It is a good read but as you said, it is outdated. If you want a book with a similar theme of how genes influence individual differences, I recommend Innate by the neuroscientist Kevin Mitchell or Blueprint by behavior geneticist Robert Plomin.

          1. I second the suggestion of The Ape That Understood the Universe. A clear, thorough, and, I think, convincing explanation of evolutionary psychology.

    2. Quasi-creationism was in the position taken by some US scientists in the 1990s vis a vis the human mind: Some random mutation sometime around 50 to 100 mya ago created grammatical language and “behavioral modernity”, a kind of true humanness that those people believed only modern Homo sapiens possesses (a scientific sounding version of “soul”). In that view, taken e g by Ian Tattersall, at least in those days, there is a line that separates humans from all other animals, and that line goes right through the homo lineage, with Neandethals safely on the other side. In the 60s, Chomsky took the position that language can’t be evolved, I think he changed his mind on that one.

  4. “What I object to in evolutionary psychology is that their stock in trade is to make observations of behavior in a single species, often in a single population, and then to infer an evolutionary history from that data point”. Well, he is wrong about that. Evolutionary psychology does not merely propose post-hoc hypotheses; many hypotheses were proposed before any observations were conducted, solely based on evolutionary theory and adaptationist considerations. Take for example the prediction that women are more disturbed than men by emotional infidelity, while men are more disturbed by sexual infidelity (later confirmed by data). Another example are a number of sensory effects such as the auditory looming bias. Furthermore, the ideas are not based on only one species; for many things, specially related to sex and parental investment, the ideas are based on broad patterns in the animal kingdom.

    1. Perfectly true, the hypotheses were there before the data was, from theoretical considerations and general observations in the animal kingdom that however may or may not hold under the varying conditions of pleistocene and holocene human societies. I will be the first to concede that the pathologic, extremely controlling type of jealousy that often ends in a femicide is a male rather than a female phenomenon. But these males are not typical males. The data on the emotional vs sexual infidelity thing turned out not to be universally replicable (e g, and may not be true under conditions of availability of contraception and when one compares what is comparable (when your partner visits a prosititute or a swinger club during a business trip, it is not the same thing as when he/she is in love and in an intense relationship with someone else, independently of who has which sex).

  5. Is it possible that PZ has Pinker envy? He has no scientific accomplishments to speak of but seems to feel qualified to critique those who do.

  6. I haven’t followed evo psychology for many years now, but in the years that Buss dominated the field, I’d agree with PZ Myers. Buss made sweeping generalization from verbal statements he got from US psychology undergraduates, ignoring that this population was atypical for homo sapiens as a whole and that verbal statements do not necessarily reflect true behavioral preferences. (Empirically, there is often a negative correlation between professed and revealed preferences!). Also, he assumed that humans did not evolve much since the pleistocene, which we now know is very wrong, and he cherry picked which actual data from historically extant hunter and gatherers he would use and which not. In one of his seminal studies he reported only the mean instead of the median for non normally distributed data, which massively distorted the overall impression by giving inappropriate weight to a few rare outlier datapoints.
    In the 80s, I defended the plausibility of the existence of some biological differences in behavioral propensities between men and women against blank slaters, then along came Buss and a few others if his ilk who did such bad science and made such sweeping conclusion from ambiguous data that I found myself arguing against the “men from Mars and women from Venus” extremists.

  7. Regarding the evolution of music, I came up with a hypothesis that I hadn’t heard before – maybe you can let me know if it makes sense:
    Music evolved (in connection with primordial theatre – retelling and reenacting relevant stories and myths, using much of the same neural circuitry as speaking and movement) to signal to the members of your tribe that you are capable of feeling the full range of human emotions, i.e., you are not a psychopath, autistic or otherwise limited in your emotions. To sing a song convincingly, or to play a piece, or to act out a scene, it helps a lot to actually feel the emotional content, and if you can’t, it might because your heart is not in it; likewise, if you hear a moving song, and you are conspicuously unaffected, it might be that you are missing the ability to feel that particular emotion.

  8. ” music gets them more mates, but that just begs the question. Why does it appeal to those mates?”
    Thank you for using the expression “begs the question” properly.

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