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.

Freddie deBoer attacks “Blank Slateism”, posing questions for those who deny the importance of genetic variation in human behavioral variation

July 24, 2022 • 12:30 pm

After I read the piece below by Freddie deBoer on his Substack site, a piece that’s a critique of Blank-Slateism and of those who deny that variation in genes influences variation in behavior, I decided to look him up. I found three relevant bits of information in his Wikipedia biography, quoted directly below (Wikipedia spells his name DeBoer, with a capital “D,” though the man himself writes “deBoer”).

  • DeBoer identifies himself as a “Marxist of an old-school variety”.
  • DeBoer’s first book, The Cult of Smart, was published in 2020 by All Points Books.  Gideon Lewis-Kraus, writing for The New Yorker, says the book “argues that the education-reform movement has been trammelled by its willful ignorance of genetic variation.” Lewis-Kraus groups deBoer with “hereditarian left” authors such as Kathryn Paige Harden and Eric Turkheimer in their shared emphasis on the importance of recognizing the heritability of intelligence when formulating social policy.

In DeBoer’s case, though, he seems to think that the genetic basis of variation in intelligence can help inform social and educational policy, while, as I noted in my review of Harden’s book in the WaPo, although she recognizes that intelligence (her construal of it is “educational attainment”) is highly heritable, with a lot of inter-individual variation based on genes, she insists that knowing that genetic basis (or a kid’s genetic “endowment”) should play no role in educational policy—or at least she doesn’t suggest one.  By the way, the Wikipedia article mentions some strong criticism of deBoer’s book.

And the third bit of information:

  • DeBoer has been a teacher at both the high school and college level.

I don’t care much about his politics when he writes about behavior genetics; I can assess what he says without knowing he was an “old-school Marxist”. That may help condition his views that people try to downplay the importance of genes, though I’d think that a Marxist would emphasize . I haven’t read his book, so I can’t comment there, but I was interested that he’s taught on several levels, so has some experience when he claims that it’s very, very difficult to change student achievement by changing educational methods.

It’s a short article; click below to read it:

Now there are hardly any people who believe in an entirely blank slate, and all of us think that traits like intelligence are ultimately the products of genes interacting with environments. So yes, there’s a genetic contribution to nearly all human traits. The question taken up by deBoer, however, is about the variation in a trait among individuals—how much of that variation is produced by variation in the genes among individuals as opposed to environmental varitaion (or various sorts of interactions). As I’ve said before, the proportion of observed variation in a trait among individuals in a population due to variation in their genes is called heritability. It ranges, of course, from 0% to 100%, or, expressed as a fraction, from 0 to 1.0.  (I’m leaving out technical details here, for by “genetic variation” I mean “additive genetic variation”—the genetic effects that can be selected on either naturally or artificially. The higher the heritability, the greater the effect of genetic variation on trait variation.

At any rate, as Harden says in her book, the heritability of many human traits is quite high. This has been shown in a variety of ways: adoption studies, twin studies (raised together and apart), and “genome-wide association studies” (GWAS)—Harden’s own method.

If I were asked to give a figure for the heritability of IQ or academic achievement, I’d say “about 50%”. What that means is that about half of the variation that we see among individuals within a population is due to variation among individuals’ genes in that population, the rest being due to environmental variation, non-heritable genetic variation, and interaction variance.  Many other human traits have high heritability, as do many traits in other animal species. In fact, among thousands of artificial selection experiments in plants and animals, I know of only three that failed to produce a response, and only when heritability is zero do you fail to get a response. (Two of those happened to be my experiments, selecting on directional asymmetry in flies.) Darwin was right when he said in On the Origin of Species, “Breeders habitually speak of an animal’s organization as something quite plastic, which they can model almost as they please.” That attests to the ubiquity of variation in populations of captive animals, and that variation is undoubtedly greater in larger wild populations.

The upshot is that we expect nearly all human traits to show heritability within populations, with some of the values being quite high. Remember, though, that heritability is a figure that applies only to individuals in a specified population who on average experience the same variation of environments. You can’t extrapolate the heritability within a population to different populations, who may live in different environments or have different genes. Thus, although there’s substantial variation in Caucasians (as Harden shows) for academic achievement, you cannot say that the difference in academic achievement between American Caucasians and minorities in America is also based on genetic differences between groups. Why? Because there are environmental differences among groups that affect academic achievement. Genetically extrapolating from within groups to between groups is arrant error that has fueled a lot of racism.

But as far as I see, deBoer is simply addressing the blank-slate position that “not much of the variation we see in populations for intelligence (or anything else) has anything to do with genetic variation.”  This Blank-Slateism is characteristic of the “progressive” Left, who adhere to the extreme malleability of human behavior, and also explains why so many on the Left are also opposed to the claims of evolutionary psychology. It’s the same mindset that denies the importance of genes on behavior today that also denies the importance of genes affecting modern human behavior having been installed in our genome by natural selection. To see this viewpoint, have a look at A Blog That Shall Not Be Named, but one that you all know.

After that bit of boring instruction, on to deBoer, who wants Blank-Slaters to answer nine questions.  Before he poses them, he argues that the modern tendency of people to be snarky and  jokey, and the tendency to be divisive and willfully ignorant on social media, has kept people from really seeing the merit in a view that a lot of human behavioral variation is due to variation in their genes. I’ll quote:

But the urge to joke – driven, no doubt, by getting more “engagement” for doing so than by actually being constructive – has driven out substance from almost every online space I can imagine. It’s a nightmare, like a shitty open mic night you can’t escape.

Critics of behavioral genetics, the academic subfield devoted to the exploration of how genes influence cognition and behavior, are a good example. Although I believe it’s overwhelmingly likely such influence exists, that position is perfectly subject to criticism, and since historically people have gone very wrong in interpreting that relationship good criticism is important. But online, even very well-informed critics of behavioral genetics spend almost all of their time ridiculing and loling rather than arguing. This problem is particularly acute in this domain because so many want to dismiss any consideration of how genes influence how human beings act by saying that anyone who asks elementary questions in that regard is a Nazi.

Indeed. The reason that this kind of work is denigrated is simply because people working on human behavioral genetics are all thought to have a racist or sexist agenda, or even favor eugenics. But the genetics of human behavior is a fascinating field, if for no other reason that it tells us that a lot of variation in things like alcoholism, school achievement, smoking, risk-taking, and so on, are based on variation in genes. What are those genes? How do they influence our behavior? Many of these questions can be answered without being a Nazi!

deBoer has a specific practical reason to be interested:

This is all particularly frustrating for me because my concern with genes and cognition has always been very practical. My first book lays out the case that the assumption that all students are perfectly equal in potential, integrated into educational ideology in large part by John Dewey, has profound negative consequences for our education system – and hurts no one more than students who struggle in school. I have already detailed how blank-slate thinking brought us No Child Left Behind, the most disastrous educational policy in the history of our country. The entire charter school ideology, which empowers plutocrats to defund public schools and attack teachers and their unions, depends entirely on the idea that students all have exactly equal inherent ability and that any suggestion otherwise is a way to dodge accountability. This discussion is not theoretical; it has teeth, and our public schools are in the crosshairs. It’s beyond frustrating that asking elementary questions about genetics and behavior is greeted with jokes and not with arguments.

As I said, I haven’t read deBoer’s book and so can’t speak about how blank-slateism led to the No Child Left Behind policy. But it’s up to deBoer, as it was up to Harden, to tell us exactly how the genetic variation for achievement which clearly occurs within populations can be used to improve education for everyone. The paragraph above implies that you can’t use genetic information to improve education (Harden’s position), but can use it to avoid educational programs that assume everyone can achieve the same heights given the right environments. But are there such programs? How would genetic knowledge lead us to change the educational system? Maybe deBoer tells us in his first book, but he doesn’t tell us here. (He does say that knowing that there are different genetic potentials for achievement would have forestalled the “No Child Left Behind” program. Assessing that claim is also above my pay grade).

Anyway, here are a few questions deBoer would like Blank-Slaters to answer. At first I thought he was confusing variation among individuals within a population (the right question) with variation among populations (the wrong question), but he wasn’t. I’ll give and comment on seven of his nine questions. And yes, I agree with deBoer that many people, especially on the Progressive Left, try to ignore most of these questions:

  • The nervous system and brain are produced by the same basic process of genetic transmission from parents to child as any other part of the body. We’re developing greater knowledge over time of how genetic variants influence the development of brain structures. How could it be possible that differences in the genome would result in no differences at all in the functioning of the brain and greater nervous system, which produce our cognition and behavior? Wouldn’t this amount to some sort of Cartesian dualism where the mind and the body are entirely separate, the kind of thinking that was left behind hundreds of years ago?

Note here that he’s talking about genetic variation (“differences in the genome”), though he should have emphasized “within a population”.

  • Do you believe that animal cognition and behavior are influenced by the individual animal’s genome? Does a given dog’s particular genome influence its cognition and behavior? If not, how is it that some dogs can be selectively bred to be more or less aggressive, more or less friendly? If genes can influence the cognition and behavior of animals how could it be that genes don’t influence the cognition and behavior of humans, who are after all just another species of animal?

This is a good question. Although we have culture, it’s hard to believe that we’re so exceptional among animals that most of our behavioral and cognitive traits have a heritability of near zero. (Remember, you can artificially select animals to have all sorts of different behaviors. And natural selection has done that in the wild. Note that his statement “genes can influence the cognition and behavior of humans” is a bit misleading. Of course it does, but the question is one of genetic variation among individuals, not the development of cognition within an individual.

Two more questions:

  • Even ardent environmentalists will generally concede that some people are predisposed toward athletic success or are born beautiful. What is fundamentally different between a genetic predisposition towards athletic talent or physical attractiveness and a genetic predisposition to being good at math or bad at chess?
  • Often, fraternal siblings have significantly different performance on academic and cognitive metrics, even if born less than a year apart and despite sharing the same parents, home, family environment, family income, access to resources, and privileges. How does a purely environmentalist perspective account for this difference? How is it that children who are very closely matched on a great many environmental and familial variables often differ profoundly in various attributes of academic ability and personality

Below is the one question I think is ill-posed. An environmentalist perspective could account for child prodigies, for an “accident” of development might confer neuronal wiring that could lead to such prodigies. “Idiot savants” (Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man” portrays one) could be the result of some quirk of development that affects the brain in a way that makes one both autistic but also extremely accomplished in one area. But it doesn’t even have to make you autistic. A developmental anomaly can just be a neuronal developmental accident having nothing to do with a specific mutation. In fact, deBoer inadvertently supports an environmentalist perspective here by noting an absence of prodigies among the siblings of prodigies:

  • How does a purely environmentalist perspective account for child prodigies like Terry Tao, who was doing differential equations at 8 years old, or Awonder Liang, who defeated a grandmaster in chess at 9 years old? Are their parents just that much better than the average parent? If so, why do prodigies almost never have fraternal siblings who are also prodigies? Did the parents forget how to raise children to be geniuses? Why has no one been able to replicate the parenting that produces prodigies and geniuses?

The next two are good questions, and if you answer them honestly you’ll be admitting that a substantial proportion of variation in human achievement, behavior, and personality rest on variation in genes (go look up estimates of heritabiltiies for human traits):

  • Are long-observed familial tendencies in schizophreniabipolar disorder, and other psychiatric conditions real? If yes, then that would mean that we can identify some genetic influences on behavior and cognition. Similarly, there are proposed genetic influences for developmental and cognitive disorders that impact behavior and thinking.
  • What it means that identical twins resemble each other in cognitive and personality outcomes whether raised together or apart, or that adoptive children resemble their adoptive siblings in such outcomes no more than they do a random person, is a matter of serious and sustained controversy. But that those dynamics exist is not a matter of controversy; a tremendous amount of data demonstrates that these tendencies exist summatively, whatever their origins. What are purely environmentalist explanations for this tendency? Why are adoptive siblings so often profoundly dissimilar to each other and similar to their genetic siblings despite being raised in very different environments?

His points are good ones, and will make Blank-Slaters squirm.

Finally deBoer brings up the lack of efficacy in improving schooling as evidence for genetic variation that isn’t malleable to environmental changes, like improved methods of education:

  • How is it that massive changes in environment and schooling have been found, over and over again, to prompt no changes in academic outcomes? What is the purely environmentalist explanation for this?

Well, you could say that there are cultural differences between children of different groups that haven’t been properly addressed by education (John McWhorter, for instance, thinks that teaching kids reading by phonics could help efface the gap in achievement between whites and blacks). Or there may be educational methods that we haven’t thought of yet. deBoer may well be right that there are inherent (i.e., genetic) differences in potential for achievement between individuals that prevent any educational reform from creating more equal and higher outcomes. But I’m not convinced from this last assertion that the explanation is genetic. This question differs from the rest in that there is no genetic data to support it save the difficulty of educational reform.

Let me emphasize that I’m largely in agreement with deBoer. Blank-Slateism is dominating the scientific views of the Extreme Left, and it’s had an inimical effect on research, rendering some scientific questions taboo not only to being researched, but even discussed. What deBoer needs to tell us is what he recommends we should do about the inefficacy of schooling. Perhaps his view is “nothing: we can’t change unequal outcomes.”


Freddie deBoer on “the new attractive”

May 20, 2022 • 12:30 pm

The title of this new piece from Fredie deBoer’s Substack (it’s free, but subscribe if you read often) seems to be paradoxical, but it refers to the fracas that started (or was intensified) by the new Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue (henceforth “SI”; see the models here).  Actually, companies like Victoria’s Secret an others have started to realize that not all women look like underfed runway models, and have started selling items and sizes that are suitable for women who are closer to the average.

The new SI features women who are curvier (or older) than models that have traditionally featured in this popular issue. One of them, Yumi Nu, is shown below.

Click to read:

As expected, there were howls of outrage from men who wanted to see the traditional models decked out in a few square millimeters of cloth, and didn’t have any truck with women who didn’t look like Heidi Klum. One of these men was, of course, Jordan Peterson, who emitted this hurtful and thoughtless tweet, I suppose because he feels that it helps the world when he says whatever’s on his mind:

First of all, “not beautiful” is his opinion; there are plenty of men, including deBoer himself, who find Nu attractive.  People can argue about whom they find beautiful, and often there’s a sort-of consensus, at least among men, but there’s no denying that beauty, at least as conveyed in a photo, is subjective, and to deem someone “ugly” who looks like Nu is reprehensible. (I’m not taking up the issue of whether using “curvy” models is bad because it sometimes glorifies unhealthy weights. I wrote about that a while back.)

At any rate, I think we agree that beauty, at least in photographs, is subjective but not wildly divergent. But there’s enough divergence that every “type” of man or woman can be seen as attractive by others.

But that’s not what deBoer is on about: he’s on, properly, about those people who say that is our responsibility as social-justice inclined people to find everyone beautiful, whether we consider them too fat, too skinny, too ugly, or, if you include personality, too unpleasant. (Everyone knows that personality plays a huge role in who we see as “beautiful”, but we’re talking about pictures in a magazine.) If someone finds Nu unattractive, then he doesn’t have to pursue her.  The argument being bruited about, though, is that we must find people like Nu attractive, for it’s a form of “fat” discrimination you don’t.  Unfortunately, each person has a standard of beauty. This also goes when we’re talking about transgender people. I have heard cis men chewed out, for example, because they said they didn’t find trans men as attractive or as suitable sexual partners. If you don’t, then you’re “transphobic”.

This latter movement to shame people for who they find attractive or not is what deBoer is discussing, and I tend to agree with him.  What attracts us is a complex mixture of physical and psychological attractiveness, depends on our own unique brains, and it’s virtually impossible to be attracted to someone who doesn’t meet what standards of “beauty” each of us have. And shaming them if they don’t is ludicrous.  It reminds me of people telling others that they should believe in God because it’s good for them and for society; yet for people like me it’s simply impossible to force myself to become a believer. Some tastes are simply unalterable, even in the face of social justice hectoring. You can’t make someone who is wild about Rembrandt become attracted to Warhol paintings.  The need to do so as an imperative is what I call “psychological fascism”. This attitude, by the way, is completely different from arguments about things like morality and political beliefs, where minds can change.

But the whole point here is to quote deBoer’s trenchang summary of the issue, an so I’ll give a long quote from the end of his piece. The emphases are mine.

And here’s the point: the question that supposedly gets raised by these periodic controversies, which of course Sports Illustrated and other magazines actively court, is “can fat women be sexy?” The answer to that is of course. But they’re sexy because of human attributes that are no more egalitarian or fair than body fat percentage is. A fat person can be beautiful, and people of all races can be beautiful, and trans and cis people can be beautiful, and disabled people can be as well. But ugly people can’t be beautiful, and how is that any less of an “injustice”? The reality is that physical attraction is not equitable, just, or fair, as it operates under a visceral logic that’s immune to the intellectualized politics of what we intend, and who we get horny for is in large measure part of our evolutionary endowment as an animal species. That which is not genetically conditioned is still powered by psychological animal spirits that are beyond our understanding or control. And what I don’t understand is why this circumstance is perceived to be any fairer or in line with social justice than someone only being into thin women. Why will you get canceled, in certain spaces, for saying that you’re not attracted to fat women but not if you say that you’re not attracted to unattractive women? It’s not remotely internally consistent.

I have brought this up before, usually to howls of anger, but…. I’ve spent my adult life in lefty spaces (media, academia, and activism), and have been surrounded by people who embrace non-traditional masculinity and endlessly critique the traditional form. And those gay men and straight women among them? Yeah, they almost inevitably liked traditionally masculine men when it came to sex and romance. The mind conceives but the body desires. I’d go to academic conferences and see women give impassioned presentations about how conventional masculinity is rape culture, but then later that night at the mixer they weren’t exactly rushing to flirt with the sensitive 5’7 guys. Because you don’t choose who you’re attracted to.

I’m all for diversifying the bodies we see in media, but we have to always bear in mind that no one can control who they’re attracted to and there’s nothing deficient about a man who isn’t attracted to a particular fat woman. I think it’s great to highlight different kinds of bodies, but it’s great because bodies are attractive in different ways – we’re still bowing to the god of being hot, who will never be woke. Widening concepts of sexiness represent progress, but not feminist progress. It’s not some blow struck against patriarchy or whatever. (I assure you that patriarchy is not threatened by sad guys jacking off to heavier models than they used to.) And it’s a symptom of a broader cultural addiction to trying to shoehorn every last development in human society into some reductive social justice frame that doesn’t fit. “There’s more ways to be attractive than our society has traditionally recognized, and actually a lot of guys find some fat women very hot” is a perfectly progressive and coherent message, a good one. Far better, anyway, than the mental gymnastics that people try to perform to somehow make hotness subject to the demand for equality and justice.

As you know, I’m someone who believes that, for example, some lucky people are born inclined to be smart, or good at making music, or with an artist’s temperament. Some people deeply disagree. But nobody I’m aware of doubts that some people are just born beautiful, and life for the beautiful is not the same as life for the rest of us. We’re all dealt a hand, and we play it. Why can’t we accept that simple wisdom?

Once again: Was E. O. Wilson a racist? His closest colleague says “no way”!

April 6, 2022 • 10:00 am

The accusations that biologist E. O. Wilson was a racist began with an unhinged article in Scientific American, which gave no evidence at all and, as a sign of its scholarly deficiencies, also accused Gregor Mendel of being a racist! Oh, and, based on semantics alone, it also claimed the statistical “normal distribution” was racist!

Of course, the racist hit-piece mode began before that, perhaps with the horrific death of George Floyd or even before that. And while in some ways the “racial reckoning” is a good thing, it’s also had bad side effects, including the rush to label many famous scientists of the past as racists, when in lots of cases the evidence was either thin or (as in the case of T. H. Huxley, in the opposite direction).

There have since been more scholarly arguments claiming or at least implying that Ed Wilson was a racist (see my post here and an NYRB paper here), as well as some defenses of Wilson, including here and the piece by Wilson’s close colleague Bert Hölldobler I’m highlighting in this post.

The more rational attacks on Wilson, though, have suffered by leaning too hard on Wilson’s association with Canadian psychologist J. Phillippe Rushton, who certainly seemed to have been a racist. Wilson sponsored a paper in PNAS coauthored by Rushton, wrote a favorable review of a paper Rushton tried to publish (but rejected another one), and wrote a letter of support for Rushton when he was about to be fired. (See also Greg’s addendum to my post here.) What people don’t seem to realize is that the paper sponsored by Wilson also had as a co-author Wilson’s protégé Charles Lumsden, whose work Wilson was constantly trying to promote. Rather than supporting Rushton’s ideas, Wilson’s sponsorship could be seen as a way of advancing Lumsden’s career.  And defending Rushton against being fired could be also be seen as a simple defense of academic freedom, or, as Hölldobler does below, as a reflection of Wilson’s own trauma about being attacked on ideological grounds.

All in all, I simply can’t sign onto the slogan “Ed Wilson was a racist” based on what I know of him, what I knew from associating with him, nor from a few guilt-by-association accusations ignoring the possibility that Wilson was probably trying to promote his own colleague Charles Lumsden, not support Rushton’s racism. Nor will I run with those who imply that Wilson supported racist ideas because he was sympathetic to racism.  For right now, it’s best to await further analysis that involves a broad reading of Wilson’s correspondence.

When that full correspondence is eventually sifted (it hasn’t been), we’ll know more. Using my Bayesian sense, for now I’d say that it’s way premature to call Wilson a racist, or imply that he was sympathetic to racism, but we should remain open to the evidence. From what I know of his own work, in fact, I see not a smidgen of racism, which to Wilson’s detractors seems to rest solely on Wilson’s association with Rushton or his advocacy of sociobiology, which Wilson denied promoted racism (see below).

So here we have another defense of Ed against these accusations by perhaps his closest professional colleague, Bert Hölldobler, another ant biologist who shared a floor at Harvard with Wilson.  Bert co-wrote the magisterial book The Ants, with Wilson, and, knowing Bert, I can say that by no means was he an uncritical admirer of Wilson. Bert took strong issue, for example, with Wilson’s late-life conversion to group selection as an explanation of human behavior—and many other evolutionary phenomena. But he was well placed to assess Wilson’s character and the accusations against it.

Hölldobler does so in the magazine piece below published on Michael Shermer’s Skeptic site and Substack site. The two pieces are identical, and you can see them by clicking on either of the screenshots below.  Shermer has a preface in the Substack site that there is more to come:

Note from Michael Shermer: In response to the calumnious and false accusations of racism and promoting race science against the renowned Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, made shortly after his death (so he can’t defend himself) by the New York Review of Books, Science for the People, and Scientific American, I asked his long-time collaborator and world-class scientist Bert Hölldobler to reply, since he worked closely with Wilson for decades. I have penned a much longer and more detailed analysis of the affair, which will be published in the coming weeks. Watch this space and subscribe here.

And Michael prefaces Bert’s piece at the Skeptic site with this subtitle:

Is there vigilantism in science? Was the renowned Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson wrongly convicted of racism and promoting race science in the court of public opinion? Yes, says his long-time collaborator and world-class scientist Bert Hölldobler.

(Hölldobler and Wilson are in the photo below.)


Bert keeps a low profile about personal stuff like this, so it’s both remarkable and a testimony to the strength of his feeling about Wilson that he wrote this rather long defense of the man. While Bert doesn’t suggest that it’s possible the PNAS affair was motivated by Wilson’s desire to promote Lumsden rather than Rushton, he does indict Wilson for his favorable review of Rushton’s paper in Ethology and Sociobiology (Lumsden wasn’t an author), which Bert calls “a serious misjudgment”. As for Wilson’s trying to prevent Rushton’s firing, Bert argues—and this may be true—that he was motivated more by trying to prevent others from being persecuted as Wilson himself had been (by Gould, Lewontin, and other Leftist biologists, argues Hölldobler).

And, familiar with Wilson’s own views and his vast record of publication, Hölldobler vehemently denies that Wilson wrote anything that was racist. Indeed, he says, Wilson decried racism.

Read the piece and decide for yourself, but I’ll give a few quotes by Hölldobler. I am not an unthinking fan of Bert dedicated to supporting him or Wilson, but did know both men, admire their work, and think that before you start slinging terms like “racist” against one of the most distinguished ecologists and evolutionists of our era, or implying he was sympathetic to racism and racists, you should read Bert’s piece.

I’ll give more quotations than usual in case you don’t want to read the paper—though you should.

Sadly, there are some quotes that don’t put my advisor, Dick Lewontin, in a very good light. But I don’t reject them, for I know well about Lewontin’s ideological biases.  I also know for a fact that Lewontin despised Wilson and, when I interviewed Lewontin about his life, the discussion about Wilson was the one part he wouldn’t let me put on tape.

Here Bert accosts Lewontin for denying that there was any evolutionary/genetic basis for human behavior:

It was a point that Dick Lewontin himself acknowledged when he showed up at my office the next day, apparently eager to soften what he had said. Although I respected Lewontin as a scientist and colleague at Harvard, I did not appreciate his ideologically driven “sand box Marxism.” When I asked why he so blithely distorted some of Ed’s writings he responded: “Bert, you do not understand, it is a political battle in the United States. All means are justified to win this battle.” In fact, it is nonsense to claim that Ed Wilson’s comparative and evolutionary approach to behavior in any way endorses racism. This was a case of a scientist’s views being distorted to suit someone else’s ideological goals.

The “money quotes” by Bert below are in bold:

I always thought that a basic tenet of collegiality is to first discuss differences of opinion in person, especially when the opposing party are members of the same university, even the same department. The Lewontin lab was located on the third floor of the MCZ-Laboratories (Museum of Comparative Zoology), and Wilson had his office on the fourth floor. What prevented Lewontin, Gould, and other members of Science for the People from coming up and knocking on Ed’s door to discuss with him their disagreements? In a letter written to the New York Review of Books and sent on November 10, 1975, Wilson explained that he felt “that actions of the letter writers represent the kind of self-righteous vigilantism which not only produces falsehood but also unjustly hurts individuals and through that kind of intimidation diminishes the spirit of free inquiry and discussion crucial to the health of the intellectual community.” Thus, Science for the People launched its political war, and as is so often the case with ideologues, they erected a straw man to tear down with bravura.

I could go on with many more apposite quotes. The point is I never found one statement in his writings that would indicate that Ed Wilson followed a racist ideology. This was the invention, or rather the falsehood, created by the International Committee Against Racism (INCAR), members of which physically attacked Ed at the beginning of an invited lecture he was to deliver at a meeting of the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science). This is intellectual fascism. In fact, even Lewontin made clear that Wilson is not a racist. As Lewontin said in an interview with The Harvard Crimson on December 3, 1975: “Sociobiology is not a racist doctrine, but any kind of genetic determinism can and does feed other kinds, including the belief that some races are superior to others. However, this is very far from Wilson’s intuition. Because Wilson is concerned with the universals of human nature — his chief point is that we are all alike.”

Here’s Hölldobler on Wilson’s defense of Rushton—the pivot on which the accusations of racism rest:

Having now looked at the work by Rushton with greater attention, it is clear to me that Ed could not have paid much scrutiny to Rushton’s work but rather was motivated by the impression he got from Rushton’s own description of his plight, namely, that he was being persecuted by far-left wing ideologues, as Wilson himself had been after publication of Sociobiology. Note too that Rushton had strong academic credentials as a former John Simon Guggenheim Fellow and a fellow of the Canadian Psychological Society. Nevertheless, Ed’s recommendation of a manuscript submitted by Rushton to the journal Ethology and Sociobiology, in which Rushton wrongly applied Wilson’s r-K selection model, was in my opinion a serious misjudgment. When Wilson encouraged Rushton to pursue this line of investigation and advised him not to be discouraged, at one point warning him “the whole issue would be clouded by personal charges of racism to the point that rational discussion would be almost impossible,” my guess is that Wilson’s response was colored by his own and painful experience and decision to continue with his work despite vicious attacks from Science for the People, rather than an in-depth examination of the of Rushton’s paper. If we could ask Ed today, I am sure he would say: “I made a mistake, I was wrong.” But a misjudgment made when reviewing a paper for a journal does not make Ed Wilson a racist or a promoter of race science!

Bert points out Wilson’s own arguments that biology does not justify racism:

In fact, in a note to Nature (Vol. 289, 19 February 1981) Wilson wrote “I am happy to point out that no justification for racism is to be found in the truly scientific study of the biological basis of social behaviour. As I stated in On Human Nature (1978), I will go further and suggest that hope and pride and not despair are the ultimate legacy of genetic diversity, because we are a single species, not two or more, one great breeding system through which genes flow and mix in each generation. Because of that flux, mankind viewed over many generations shares a single human nature within which relatively minor hereditary influences recycle through ever changing patterns, between the sexes and across families and entire populations.” In the 2004 edition of his book On Human Nature Wilson wrote: “most scientists have long recognized that it is a futile exercise to try to define discrete human races. Such entities do not in fact exist. Of equal importance, the description of geographic variation in one trait or another by a biologist or anthropologist or anyone else should not carry with it value judgements concerning the worth of the characteristics defined.”

And the money quote at the end. Here Hölldobler assesses the most serious and scholarly attack on Wilson as a racist, the paper in NYRB by Borello and Sepkoski:

In the recent New York Review of Books article, “Ideology as Biology,” by the historians of science Mark Borrello and David Sepkoski, I feel the authors make too much out of Wilson’s encouragement of Rushton which, as I said, was probably motivated more by his own painful experiences with politically provoked distortions of his work and unfair attacks, than by in depth scrutiny of his correspondent’s views. Looking at Rushton’s work today, when most experts agree that these kinds of IQ tests are biased and have to be taken with a grain of salt, Wilson’s positive response to Rushton’s pleas appears to me naive. I assume that he realized this later too, because to my knowledge he never cited Rushton’s work nor mentioned it in conversations I had with [Wilson].

Given Wilson’s numerous articles, books, lectures and public statements, which contain nothing even remotely supportive of racism, it seems unfair to zero in on this limited correspondence with a single colleague to be waved like a red flag to tarnish a scholar’s reputation. This may not be what Borrello and Sepkoski intended, but their disclaimer that they wanted to distance themselves from any scarlet letter activism and “cancel culture,” was gainsaid by the prevailing theme of their analysis that Ed Wilson was closely aligned with a racist, which in today’s culture of hyper-sensitivity to all matters of race and racism, they had to know would scuttle the reputation of one of the greatest scientists of our time. Such self-righteous vigilantism is highly unjust and distortive.

Greg echoed this sentiment in his addendum to my post that you can find here.

Overall, my present judgment is that attacks on Wilson, calling him a racist or implying he was, are tendentious and supported almost entirely by his association with a man who was a racist, Rushton. But in Wilson’s own work, as Bert notes above, there is not a line “even remotely supportive of racism.” If Wilson was a racist, why this absence of evidence, and the guilt-by-association ploy? Yes, Bert says that Wilson’s favorable review of Rushton’s paper was a misjudgment, and one that Wilson would probably admit today. But if that’s pretty much all that the critics have got, then we can let the dog bark but let our caravan move on.

Why is there such a rush to judgment here? Why the winnowing out of a long and productive life of a few bits of equivocal evidence to indict someone as a racist? Is this going to eliminate racism, or accomplish anything—even if such accusations were true (and I’m not convinced they are)?

I’m not going to psychologize any of the authors who attack Wilson or trawl through the history of biology trying to sniff out racism in figures like Mendel and T. H. Huxley, concluding that they were either racist themselves, sympathetic to racism, or “racist-adjacent.” But trying to exhibit your own virtue, or to place yourself on the “right side of history”, can be a powerful incentive. And that, at least, must explain a lot of the recent attacks on famous evolutionary biologists as racists.

Daniel Finkelstein defends E. O. Wilson (and mocks Scientific American) in the Times of London

January 5, 2022 • 11:45 am

I don’t subscribe to the Times of London, so I count on my UK readers to alert me to anything interesting there. And today two of them did: Readers Pyers, who said the article below was “a superb piece”, and reader Adrian, who said this of the same piece (quoted with permission):

Been following your posts on E O Wilson and that horrific Scientific American article about him. [JAC: see that article here.]

Just noticed this morning that the Times (UK) has weighed in on the issue via a regular op-ed writer, Danny Finkelstein. Finkelstein is a regular contributor to the paper, and is a Tory peer. He belongs however to a very liberal strand of Toryism, and wouldn’t have much in common with the current Tory party, I imagine. I consider myself centre left, but very much like his writing. He always makes me think and question my own biases. He’s one of my go-tos for getting a sensible conservative view on the world – so in that respect, in my view, he sort of fulfills the same role that Andrew Sullivan does on US issues.

Anyway, his take on the cancelling of E O Wilson is a good one. And he also stands up for Paige Harden too – seeking to build a consensus around the idea that truth is not a left or right wing political issue.

I confess to feeling bamboozled by life at the minute. It seems only a minority of the people I consider to be on ‘my team’, the centre left (there are honourable exceptions of course), are keen to stand up against the revisionism that is currently de rigueur. I do find myself increasingly agreeing with some folk I would once have considered odd bedfellows, on the centre right. Maybe I’m just getting old, or maybe it is the polarised times we live in? I can’t quite decide between these options.

I currently tell myself that the extreme pathologies on the left and right of politics need to be opposed, and if that means centre left and centre right find common ground, then that is a good thing.

Now you won’t get anything but a few paragraphs if you click on the screenshot below, but the text is available via judicious inquiry. If you do have a Times subscription, you’ll get to see the whole thing. At any rate, I’ll give some quotes to show its tenor. Adrian has already informed us about author Daniel Finkelstein.

It is a remarkably well written and thoughtful piece, which defends Wilson against that idiotic attack in Scientific American, and also defends Kathryn Paige Harden, a left-winger whose recent book argues that the Left cannot ignore the palpable fact of genetic differences among people (my WaPo review of her book is here).  We are not, say Finkelstein and Harden, blank slates.

I can do no better than quote the author himself on a few selected topics (I’ve chosen the quotes and grouped them).

The ideological opposition to sociobiology (now called “evolutionary psychology”):

Last week EO Wilson died, and the world lost one of its leading scientists. The professor had started by studying fire ants and his knowledge of ants was peerless. But he had broadened as he had aged and had begun to consider human beings. Humans are animals too, after all, so our social organisation, our behaviour, our hierarchies, our urges will, to some extent at least, be the product of our biology.

This, the foundation stone of sociobiology, seems an unremarkable observation, but it provoked a remarkable reaction. Marxists and radicals, well represented in American universities, saw it not as a scientific hypothesis but as a political attack. Their argument was that human behaviour was overwhelmingly the product of social and economic organisation. Humans were, in essence, a blank slate, one very much like another. If Wilson was right, then this idea was wrong. If Wilson was right, societies were going to be harder to change. If Wilson was right, people might not come out equal even with all the social engineering in the world. So Wilson simply couldn’t be allowed to be right.

The weapon of choice in the battle to take down sociobiology was the accusation of racism. . .

The Scientific American screed:

Indeed one of the most useful results of studying the genetic and evolutionary basis of human behaviour has been that it has shown that the Nazis and other racists are wrong. And Wilson was quite clear about that. But unfortunately the accusation that Wilson was a racist was not made only by students. It was made by other academics seeking to protect unconvincing leftist ideas about social organisation. And it is still being made. A couple of days after Wilson’s death, Scientific American published an article by a University of California associate professor, reviving the charge of “racist ideas”.

It was an astonishingly muddled article whose vague arguments slip out of one’s hands every time one tries to grasp hold of them. Its appearance owed more to intellectual and political fashion than to rigour.


Kathryn Paige Harden on genetics:  I gave Harden’s book a mixed review. The first part, which shows the substantial genetic differences between individual humans—differences that affect our performance and chance of success in life—is very good, and well worth reading. It is the second part, where Harden discusses what social engineering can be done to make people more equal, that I criticized, for she offered no credible solutions. (Granted, solutions are very hard!).  Finkelstein:

Many of our abilities are heritable.

If we ignore this we are making social policy impossibly hard. As the egalitarian and geneticist Kathryn Paige Harden argues in her recent book The Genetic Lottery: “Genetic differences between us matter for our lives. They cause differences in things we care about. Building a commitment to egalitarianism on our genetic uniformity is building a house on sand.”

We don’t have to live with the outcome of genetic disadvantages. That would be like saying that although I’m short-sighted I shouldn’t be allowed glasses. But we do have to recognise genetic differences, or we end up denying glasses on the grounds that short-sightedness is the fault of capitalism and we need to nationalise the water industry first.

The idea that discovering natural difference in capacity is somehow right-wing is deeply puzzling. The truth doesn’t have a wing, it’s just the truth. But it’s not just that. There is a randomness to genetic inheritance, just as there is in economic inheritance. With the latter it is left-wing to observe this randomness and argue that we should help the disadvantaged poor. Why would people on the left not wish to even acknowledge the randomness of genetic inheritance? It is perverse.

The three reasons to rebut the ideological challenge to evolutionary psychology:

There are three reasons to rebut this challenge firmly. The first is that it is our duty to Wilson, a very great scientist. His contribution to the understanding of animal behaviour — of ants, of humans, of all nature — has been profound and it would be both cowardly and a tragedy to allow his reputation to be attacked when he is no longer here to defend himself against a baseless charge.

The second and even more important reason is that Wilson was achingly, obviously right. How likely is it that human beings are the one species whose capacities and behaviour aren’t largely influenced by biology? If every other animal’s behaviour demands an evolutionary explanation, how can it possibly be that ours does not?

He then refers to ideologically based criticism of palpable truths—like the fact of substantial genetic differences between individual humans adduced by Harden:

. . . Which is the third reason for defending Wilson and the study of sociobiology. Scientific methods and the search for truth matter. The accusation that sociobiology is racist rarely rises above the level of saying that as the Nazis were interested in genetics, genetics must be Nazi. It’s a bit like attacking Linda McCartney’s soya-based sausages on the ground that Hitler was a vegetarian.’

Finkelstein’s conclusion:

As we develop our capacity to study our genes we are going to learn more about human nature. We must be allowed to talk about that, even if the things we discover unsettle political activists and the orthodoxy they have adopted. We must defend good science against bad politics.

If the controversy over EO Wilson teaches us that, than the great scientist will have rendered us one final service.

This may be enough of an excerpt to satisfy you. If not, well, you know what to do.

Sex with a stranger? Evolutionary psychology and sex differences in behavior

June 6, 2021 • 9:15 am

In the early days of evolutionary psychology—that is, when it was just beginning to be applied to humans—I was rather critical of the endeavor, though not so much about “sociobiology”, the application of evolutionary principles to animal behavior. A lot of the early evo psych stuff on humans was weak or overly speculative.

Since then, I’ve mellowed somewhat in light of replicated research findings about human behavior that show phenomena predicted by or very consistent with the theory of evolution. Not only are the phenomena predicted and replicated, but they are in line with what other animals show. Further, researchers have also falsified some alternative explanations (“culture” or “patriarchy” is the most common one).

I’ll add here that the disturbingly common claim that evolutionary psychology is “bogus” or “worthless” as an entire field is ridiculous, both in principle and in practice. In principle, why should human behavior, or behavioral differences between the sexes, be the one area that is exempt from evolutionary influence, especially given that we evolved in small hunger-gatherer groups for at least five million years, on top of which is overlaid a thin veneer (about 20,000 years) of modern culture? That position—that all differences between men and women, say, are due to cultural influence—is an ideological and not an empirical view. If physical differences, both between sexes and among groups, are the result of evolution, why not mental ones? After all, our brain is made of cells just like our bodies!

In practice, there are several types of human behavior that, using my mental Bayes assessment, I consider likely to reflect at least some of the workings of evolution, past and present, although culture may play a role as well. There will be an upcoming paper on these fairly solid evo-psych behaviors (I’m not an author), but I’ll highlight it when it’s published.

In the meantime, we have one behavior, described in this 2017 article from Areo Magazine, that describes a “universal human behavior” involving sex differences, and a behavior that’s likely to reflect our evolutionary heritage. Although the article is four years old, it’s worth reading. The author, David P. Schmitt, has these bona fides:

David P. Schmitt, PhD, is Founding Director of the International Sexuality Description Project, a cross-cultural research collaboration involving 100s of psychologists from around the world who seek to understand how culture, personality, and gender combine to influence sexual attitudes and behaviors.

See also his Wikipedia page, which describes him as “a personality psychologist who founded the International Sexuality Description Project (ISDP). The ISDP is the largest-ever cross-cultural research study on sex and personality.”

The article, which I recommend you read, is chock-full of data. Click on the screenshot for a free read:


The behaviors Schmitt discusses in this longish but fascinating and readable piece are summarized in the first two paragraphs (there are lots of references should you want to check his claims):

Choosing to have sex with a total stranger is not something everyone would do. It probably takes a certain type of person. Quite a bit of evidence suggests, at least when it comes to eagerly having sex with strangers, it might also take being a man. Let’s look at the evidence.

Over the last few decades almost all research studies have found that men are much more eager for casual sex than women are (Oliver & Hyde, 1993; Petersen & Hyde, 2010). This is especially true when it comes to desires for short-term mating with many different sexual partners (Schmitt et al., 2003), and is even more true for wanting to have sex with complete and total strangers (Tappé et al., 2013).

Of course this is “common wisdom” in American culture: it is the heterosexual guy who does the pursuing, and does so without many criteria beyond the lust object having two X chromosomes, and he’s still often rejected, while women are far choosier about who they mate with.

There are many studies, described and cited by Schmitt (usually using lab experiments or good-looking students on campus approaching members of the opposite sex) that show the same thing. An attractive man propositioning a woman for sex is accepted about 0% of the time, while, in the opposite situation far more than half the males accept a sexual proposition from an attractive female stranger. Here are two studies, but there are more:

In a classic social psychological experiment from the 1980s, Clark and Hatfield (1989) put the idea of there being sex differences in consenting to sex with strangers to a real life test. They had experimental confederates approach college students across various campuses and ask “I’ve been noticing you around campus, I find you to be very attractive, would you go to bed with me tonight?” Around 75 percent of men agreed to have sex with a complete stranger, whereas no women (0 percent) agreed to sex with a complete stranger. In terms of effect size, this is one of the largest sex differences ever discovered in psychological science (Hyde, 2005).

Twenty years later, Hald and Høgh-Olesen (2010) largely replicated these findings in Denmark, with 59 percent of single men and 0 percent of single women agreeing to a stranger’s proposition, “Would you go to bed with me?” Interestingly, they also asked participants who were already in relationships, finding 18 percent of men and 4 percent of women currently in a relationship responded positively to the request.

This of course jibes with the behavior of many animals (in my flies, for example, males will court almost any female, even wooing pieces of dust or small blobs of wax), while females repeatedly reject males. It’s true of primates in general, and of many animal species. And it makes evolutionary sense. If a male mates with five females instead of one, he’s likely to have five times more offspring. In the reverse situation, though, a female who mates with five males in a short period will have roughly the same number of offspring as if she mated just once. That’s because she makes a huge investment in eggs and (in some species like ducks) maternal care, and so she should be selected to be choosy about her mates, looking for a male who is fit, healthy, may have good genes, and, if there’s parental care, will be an attentive father. Since the male has far less to lose, and far more to gain, by repeatedly mating with different females, this explains the strategy of “wanton male versus choosy female” sexual preference. These are likely to be evolved sexual behaviors.

This of course is a generalization. There are certainly picky men and women who are less choosy about their partners. But it’s a generalization that holds up not only in the “choice” studies I just mentioned, but in other aspects as well. Psychological studies show that (here I quote Schmitt, bolding is his)

. . . men have more positive attitudes towards casual sex than women, have more unrestricted sociosexuality than women, and generally relax their preferences in short-term mating contexts (whereas women increase selectivity, especially for sexual attractiveness.

. . . Cognitively and emotionally, men are more likely than women to have sexual fantasies involving short-term sex and multiple opposite-sex partners, men perceive more sexual interest from strangers than women, and men are less likely than women to regret short-term sex or “hook-ups.”

Considering sexual fantasies, men are much more likely than women to report having imagined sex with more than 1,000 partners in their lifetime (Ellis & Symons, 1990).

Behaviorally, men are more likely than women to be willing to pay for short-term sex with (male or female) prostitutes, men are more likely than women to enjoy sexual magazines and videos containing themes of short-term sex and sex with multiple partners, men are more likely than women to actually engage in extradyadic sex, men are more likely than women to be sexually unfaithful multiple times with different sexual partners, men are more likely than women to seek one-night stands, and men are quicker than women to consent to having sex after a very brief period of time (for citations, see Buss & Schmitt, 2011).

Here’s a table reproduced in the Areo paper taken from Buss and Schmitt (2011), where you can find the original references. Click to enlarge.

These patterns hold in nearly all studies in different parts of the world. That in itself suggests that culture may play an insignificant role in the difference I’m discussing.

Now if you’re thinking hard, you can think of at least four non-evolutionary explanations for these behaviors (I’ve combined disease and pregnancy in #3 below). Both, however, have been shown to be unlikely to be the major explanation for the sex difference in choosiness.

1.) Patriarchy: These could be cultural differences enforced by the patriarchy and socialization. Why a patriarchy exists itself may be evolutionary (e.g., males are stronger and thus can control females more easily than the other way around), but male dominance itself is not the explanation we’re testing here. Schmitt explains why (beyond observed cultural universalism), this is unlikely to explain the entire behavioral difference (all emphases are the author’s):

For instance, Schmitt (2015) found sex differences in the sociosexuality scale item “I can imagine myself being comfortable and enjoying ‘casual’ sex with different partners” were largest in nations with most egalitarian sex role socialization and greatest sociopolitical gender equity (i.e., least patriarchy, such as in Scandinavia). This is exactly the opposite of what we would expect if patriarchy and sex role socialization are the prime culprits behind sex differences in consenting to sex with strangers.

How can this be? Why are these sex differences larger in gender egalitarian Scandinavian nations? According to Sexual Strategies Theory (Buss & Schmitt 1993), among those who pursue a short-term sexual strategy, men are expected to seek larger numbers of partners than women (Schmitt et al., 2003). When women engage in short-term mating, they are expected to be more selective than men, particularly over genetic quality (Thornhill & Gangestad, 2008). As a result, when more egalitarian sex role socialization and greater sociopolitical gender equity “set free” or release men’s and women’s mating psychologies (which gendered freedom tends to do), the specific item “I enjoy casual sex with different partners” taps the release of men’s short-term mating psychology much more than it does women’s. Hence, sex differences on “I enjoy casual sex with different partners” are largest in the most gender egalitarian nations.

Overall, when looking across cultures, reducing patriarchy doesn’t make these and most other psychological sex differences go away, it makes them larger (Schmitt, 2015). So much for blaming patriarchy and sex role socialization.

2.) Fear of injury. In general, men are stronger than women (this is almost surely the result of evolution affecting competition for mates). Perhaps women are leary of accepting propositions from unknown men because they might get hurt, as do many prostitutes. But several studies show that safety alone cannot be the whole explanation:

Clark (1990) was among the first to address the issue of physical safety. He had college-aged confederates call up a personal friend on the phone and say “I have a good friend, whom I have known since childhood, coming to Tallahassee. Joan/John is a warm, sincere, trustworthy, and attractive person. Everybody likes Joan/John. About four months ago Joan/John’s five year relationship with her/his high school sweetheart dissolved. She/he is was quite depressed for several months, but during the least month Joan/John has been going out and having fun again. I promised Joan/John that she/he would have a good time here, because I have a friend who would readily like her/him. You two are just made for each other. Besides she/he has a reputation as being a fantastic lover. Would you be willing to go to bed with her/him?” Again, many more men (50%) than women (5%) were willing to have sex with a personally “vouched for” stranger. When asked, not one of the 95% of women who declined sex reported physical safety concerns were a reason why.

3.) Fear of pregnancy and/or disease. Since venereal diseases can be passed in both directions, I’m not sure that disease is a good explanation, though perhaps women are more likely to get serious disease than are men. As far as pregnancy is concerned, there’s at least one study showing it can’t be the sole factor:

Surbey and Conohan (2000) wondered whether worries of safety, pregnancy, stigma, or disease were what was holding women back from saying yes to sex with a stranger. In a “safe sex” experimental condition, they asked people “If the opportunity presented itself to have sexual intercourse with an anonymous member of the opposite sex who was as physically attractive as yourself but no more so (and who you overheard a friend describe as being a well-liked and trusted individual who would never hurt a fly), do you think that if there was no chance of forming a more durable relationship, and no risk of pregnancy, discovery, or disease, that you would do so?” On a scale of 1 (certainly not) to 4 (certainly would), very large sex differences still persisted with women (about 2.1) being much less likely to agree with a “safe sex” experience with a stranger compared to men (about 2.9).

So, sex differences in agreeing to sex with strangers are not just a matter of safety issues, pregnancy concerns, slut-shaming stigma, or disease avoidance. Controlling for all of that, researchers still find large sex differences in willingness to have sex with a stranger.

There’s a lot more in this paper, including Schmitt’s critique of the two papers cited widely as disproving the “pickiness” hypothesis. Both papers, however, suffer from extreme methodological flaws, and in both cases the results support the “pickiness” hypothesis when the flaws are corrected.

You can read the hypothesis and judge for yourselves, but I think this is one of the best examples we have of evolutionary psychology explaining a difference between men and women in behavior*. As I said, it’s shown up throughout the world in different cultures, it’s paralleled in many species of animals, alternative explanations fail to explain the data, other, unrelated data support at least a partial evolutionary basis of the choice difference, and the few papers that claim to disprove it wind up actually supporting it.

Aside from “universal” behavior like sleeping, eating, or wanting to reproduce, which are surely instilled in us by evolution (and nobody questions those), we shouldn’t ignore differences between groups, especially the sexes, as having an evolutionary origin. It’s likely that morphological differences between geographic populations, like the amount of melanin in the skin, are adaptive responses to natural selection, so why is behavior the one trait that is always off limits to evolutionary explanation?  It’s ideology, Jake.

h/t: Steve Stewart-Williams


*As a reader points out below, and even more obvious evolutionary difference is that the vast majority of men are sexually attracted to women, and vice versa. That would be hard to explain as a result of the patriarchy or of socialization.

An evolutionary psychology book that shows the discipline’s value—but not the value of memes

September 15, 2020 • 9:00 am

I’ve just finished reading Steve Stewart-Williams’s recent book The Ape That Understood the Universe (Cambridge University Press, revised edition 2019). I recommend it highly as a good way to get not only an introduction to evolutionary psychology, but also to see why the discipline is worthwhile and why its detractors are often misguided. Click on the screenshot if you want to buy it from Amazon US.

I have to hedge my encomiums a bit, because while most of the book—the first part that deals with evolutionary psychology—is excellent, the second bit, only the last 64 pages, is weaker. That’s the bit that deals with memes, the popular but, I think, misguided view that we can understand human cultural evolution by assuming it’s propelled by memes, “units of culture” first dreamed up by Dawkins in The Selfish Gene. While memetics sounds good at first glance, and has become incorporated into popular jargon as “an item that’s gone viral on the Internet”, I have always questioned its value as a way to understand how ideas and objects spread in human culture—indeed, supposedly creating human culture. I explained my criticisms in a 1999 Nature book review of Susan Blackmore’s book The Meme Machine, and won’t reiterate them at length here.

But the biggest part of the book is well worth reading, particularly because Left-wing biologists have denigrated evolutionary psychology at length, calling it not only worthless, but meaningless. I won’t name these miscreants, but suffice it to say that their motivations are largely ideological: they think that if human behavior—particularly behavioral differences between groups and especially between men and women (but also behavioral “universals”)—are partly instilled in our genome by natural selection, then that will justify xenophobia, misogyny, and all kinds of bigotry.

This claim isn’t true, of course. As I’ve mentioned repeatedly, to say that our evolutionary past justifies how people should treat others, or construct a morality, is deeply misguided: “the naturalistic fallacy.” And to accept that natural selection has molded human bodies and physiology, and has done so within the last 10,000 years (see here), but then to deny that natural selection has affected human behaviors, including differences between the sexes that sometimes parallel those seen in animals, is a nonsensical and unparsimonious view.

Further, evolutionary psychology as a discipline is neither worthless, unproductive, nor tautological. After describing how natural selection operates on genes (including kin selection and the production of cooperative behaviors), Stewart-Williams takes up some topics in evolutionary psychology and shows that the discipline has indeed produced testable and confirmed hypotheses, particularly those involving aspects of human sexual behavior as well as behavior toward kin and group-mates (“altruism”).

Stewart-Williams is no uncritical booster of evolutionary psychology, readily admitting that some of its advocates have gone overboard. But you don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, and in an appendix called “How to win an argument with a Blank Slater”, Stewart-Williams takes up and rebuts some of the most common criticisms of the discipline (e.g., “evolutionary psychology is the latest incarnation of genetic determinism”, “hypotheses in evolutionary psychology are either just-so stories or are unfalsifiable”, and so on). Hypotheses in the discipline are often testable and falsifiable, and one of the strongest parts of this book is the description of data that support hypotheses about the evolution of behavior, as well as some description of tests that have failed. Like Darwin, Stewart-Williams is always anticipating readers’ queries and criticisms, and addresses them throughout the book.

The discussion of human “altruism”, always a puzzling topic, is also quite good, with Stewart-Williams lucidly describing the various ways what we think of as “selfless behavior” could evolve (kin selection, small-group tit-for-tat strategies, and group selection, which he considers unlikely). All in all, I strongly recommend you read at least the first 218 pages on evolutionary psychology, as well as Appendix A on arguing with Blank Slaters.

You should also read the last chapter on memetics (“The Cultural Animal”), but do so with an especially critical eye. Although Stewart-Williams’s aim in the book is to explain human behavior and society as a result of both biological and cultural evolution, he’s much more successful with the former than the latter. That’s not to say that he doesn’t have good insights into cultural evolution, for he does. It’s just that the addition of “memes” doesn’t, in my view, add much.

I’ll give just one example. Most of us love apple pie and ice cream, and Stewart-Williams considers this a meme whose spread needs explanation. The classical explanation of memetics is that ideas spread when they parasitize human brains and have features that are good for the memes themselves to spread, though those features may not be adaptive for individuals or society (he uses smoking as one example). So it goes with apple pie à la mode:

. . . the ultimate criterion which determines whether a meme will spread is not whether it benefits us or our groups, but whether it benefits the meme itself.

Two examples will illustrate the point. [JAC: I give just the first.] The first is apple pie and ice cream. The apple-pie-and-ice-cream meme has prospered in human societies because it powerfully activates the brain’s pleasure centers—more powerfully, in fact, than anything in our natural environment. Eating too much of the stuff isn’t good for us, but that’s irrelevant. The meme proliferates, not because it’s good for us but purely because it’s good for itself—purely, that is, because it’s good at proliferating. To be clear, it doesn’t want to proliferate or know what’s good for it, any more than genes do. It’s apple pie! The idea is simply that if we want to understand which memes come to predominate in a culture, then rather than looking at how memes affect our fitness or the fitness of our groups, we need to look at how they affect their own chances of being passed on.

But to assert that the apple-pie-a-la-mode meme has properties that make it good at proliferating is simply tautological, and not in the way that the spread of genes is said to be tautological. What, exactly, about this meme helps it spread itself among Americans or Brits? What makes it good for itself? As far as I can see, nothing. What makes it spread is simply that apple pie and ice cream taste good, and taste better than alternatives like, say, donuts and ice cream. While Stewart-Williams admits that this dessert “activates the brains’s pleasure centers,” the real explanation for why this dessert “meme” is popular would involve understanding why it tastes better than alternatives. As I wrote in my Nature review of Susan Blackmore’s book:

. . . Blackmore’s enterprise has two fatal flaws. First, she has got the chain of causation backwards. The claim that memes created major features of humanity is equivalent to the claim that the main force driving the development of better computers has been the self-propagation of software. In reality, computers are usually designed for speed and capacity, which then permits the development of new software. Similarly, the self-replication of memes does not mould our biology and culture; rather, our biology and culture determine which memes are created and spread. What a world of human psychology is obscured by Blackmore’s mantra, “If a meme can get itself successfully copied it will”! To me, memetics boils down to the following obvious theory: ideas tend to spread if they cater to our desires to have love, comfort, pleasure, power, sex, the attention and admiration of others, a meaningful life and a way to evade the awful fact of mortality.

This brings us to the biggest problem: memetics seems completely tautological, unable to explain why a meme spreads except by asserting, post facto, that it had qualities enabling it to spread. One might as well say that aspirin relieves pain because of its pain-relieving properties. The most interesting question — why some memes spread and not others — is completely neglected. Why did Christianity take hold during the waning days of the Roman Empire? You won’t find the answer, or any way to attain it, in memetics. (This, by the way, makes memetics utterly unlike biological evolution. The spread of genes through natural selection is not tautological because one can predict their fate through their known effects on replication and the reproduction of their carriers.)

Nothing is gained in understanding the spread of apple pie and ice cream by considering it a “brain parasite,” which Stewart-Williams does.

I think Stewart-Williams recognizes this problem with memetics, for he deals with it in Appendix B: “How to win an argument with an Anti-Memeticist”. Here we find the following passage, which starts with a criticism of memetics in italics and then the his rebuttal in plain text.

The hallmark of a good scientific theory is that it generates research: it makes novel predictions about the world, which lead scientists to make otherwise unexpected discoveries. Memetics, however, has been woefully unsuccessful on this front. Indeed, the field’s flagship journal, The Journal of Memetics, had to close its doors because it didn’t get enough submissions.”

[Stewart-Williams’s answer]: This is the “if you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” criticism. Of all the criticisms on offer, it’s probably the one that worries me most. In the end, though, I think it fails. It is certainly true that memetics has yet to deliver much in the way of new research. It’s also true that many specific meme-based explanations have yet to be adequately tested. However, when it comes to evaluating a theory or explanation, what we ultimately want to know is not how many publications it’s generated, or how many surprising discoveries, bur rather something more basic: whether or not the theory is true.  That, in the final analysis, is what science is all about.  And despite the current research shortfall, there’s good reason to believe that, at least in its general outline, memetics is indeed a true and accurate theory.

But how can we know if a theory is true if it doesn’t propose tests or potential falsifications? Stewart-Williams tentatively accepts the truth of memetics because he says it makes sense: cultural entities appear “designed to benefit themselves”, even if they harm individuals or groups. (Yes, too much pie is bad for you, or, as the jolly Almus Pickerbaugh said in Arrowsmith, “too much pie makes pyorrhea.“)  But how, exactly, does the apple-pie-and-ice cream “meme” benefit itself? Can you predict this in advance from simply the existence of the combination? Well, perhaps you could predict it if you knew how its gustatory constituents interacted with human brains, but that’s a psychological explanation that has nothing to do with the “self spreadability” of the pie-and-ice cream meme.

In the end, you have to judge whether a theory is true based not on intrinsic plausibility but on whether it survives empirical tests. In my view, the empirical “tests” of memetics boil down to post facto explanations of why something spread based on some characteristic of the cultural unit itself. And here memetics has, as Stewart-Williams admits, failed. It doesn’t explain much and doesn’t seem falsifiable because memeticists always seem able to confect a reason why something had to spread, independent of human tastes, needs, or psychology. It is intrinsically an unfalsifiable theory.

I’ve written a lot about memes because it’s a bugbear of mine, not because it’s the major topic of Stewart-Williams’s book. It isn’t. And so I recommend that you read the book, if for no other reason than to see why the critics of evolutionary psychology are largely misguided. But you’ll also learn a lot about how natural selection works, and how it’s forged an appreciable part of human behavior.

Steve Stewart-Williams on the value of evolutionary psychology

August 26, 2020 • 10:15 am

When I give talks about why Americans reject evolution so frequently, I refer to Steve Stewart-Williams’s excellent book from 2010: Darwin, God, and the Meaning of Life: How Evolutionary Theory Undermines Everything you Though You Knew.  It goes through reason after reason why evolution not only undermines our ideas, but why that undermining makes people resistant to evolutionary biology and its conclusions. It explained to me, for instance, why 27% of American Catholics are creationists, embracing Biblical literalism despite the fact that the Church itself explicitly accepts evolution. Those people, like many, just can’t get past the naturalistic and non-human-centric implications of evolution. The book is like a bucket of cold water tossed on the idea that evolution doesn’t conflict with religion.

Steve has a newer book, published in 2018 (click on screenshot below to go to Amazon site). I haven’t yet read it, though it’s coming to me through my library, but it’s apparently a discussion of the evolution of culture (“evolution” that’s both genetic and cultural), as well as a discussion of the merits of and problems with evolutionary psychology.

 Stewart-Williams is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus, and I’ve written about some of his work here, describing why he thinks that the difference between human males and females in levels of aggression has a substantial evolutionary basis.  But, as the interview below shows, in which he speaks with Pablo Malo at the site La Nueva Ilustración Evolucionista (“The New Evolutionary Enlightenment”), Stewart-Williams doesn’t accept whole hog all the claims of evolutionary psychology, and is sometimes quite critical of them. In other words, Stewart-Williams’s attitude towards the discipline is similar to mine. Read the interview by clicking on the screenshot below. There’s an English translation so you don’t have to use Google translate except for the introduction (or if you speak Spanish):

Stewart-Williams’s take on evolutionary psychology also differs from that of biologists on the “progressive” left who reject evolutionary psychology as a whole, dismissing it as a farrago of “just-so stories” and untested (and untestable) hypotheses. You can see this attitude, for instance, in people like blogger P. Z. Myers, who should know better, and his minions. Yes, the discipline has its “soft underbelly,” as I’ve described, but it’s also led to informative insights, and simply cannot be swept away with unwarranted ridicule. Dismissal of evolutionary psychology as a whole (see another dismisser below) comes not from a scientific attitude, but an ideological one: if human behavior evolved over millions of years, just like human bodies and physiology (one can’t deny the latter), then perhaps we are partly slaves to biological determinism, and, worse, behavioral differences between men and women might be in part the result of evolution.

I think the evidence for evolved differences is pretty solid, but blank-slaters, who happen to populate the progressive Left, deny this determinism because they mistakenly think that evolved differences somehow imply moral differences. As Steve Pinker showed in his book The Blank Slate, and I’ve said many times, the idea that evolution tells us what is right and wrong is a fallacy—the “naturalistic fallacy”.

But I digress. I’ll just say once more that the blatant dismissal of evolutionary psychology as a discipline is not only unwarranted, but ignorant and ideologically based. To think that human bodies are the product of evolution but human minds are not can only be the product of some overweening and blinkered ideology.

On to the interview. It’s in both Spanish and English.. I’ll highlight the main points in bold, and any quotes from Steve will be indented:

Some of evolutionary psychology is weak and “silly”, and can comprise “just-so stories”. 

A third reason I decided to write Ape was that I wanted to present a somewhat circumspect view of evolutionary psychology – one that met the critics halfway on a number of issues. This includes the common criticism that evolutionary psychologists too often overextend the adaptationist mode of explanation, seeing adaptations in all sorts of psychological and behavioral tendencies that probably aren’t adaptations at all. My response to this criticism is: Guilty as charged. Evolutionary psychologists have sometimes put forward some pretty silly adaptationist hypotheses, and we need to be a bit more careful about that
But a lot of it is sound, though not “proven”—but of course no science is “proven”. We just accrue more or less confidence in hypotheses as we do more tests. So the declarations of people like philosopher Subrena Smith, who declared that doing evolutionary psychology was “impossible”, are badly mistaken. (I discussed Smith’s paper here, and Steve Pinker’s ideas about it here.) 

Evolutionary psychology certainly isn’t perfect, but I have to say I wasn’t particularly impressed with [Smith’s] critique. The idea that that EP is impossible – not just difficult, but impossible – strikes me as so extreme that I’m a little surprised so many people took it so seriously. It also strikes me as awfully convenient that, of all the sciences, the one we can rule out a priori, on purely logical grounds, just happens to be one that many people dislike and object to for explicitly political reasons.

Smith’s argument is basically a sophisticated reboot of the old retort that “behaviour doesn’t fossilize.” She claims that there’s ultimately no way to show that the psychological tendencies underpinning people’s behaviour today evolved in prehistoric times to perform the same functions that they currently perform, and thus that evolutionary psychology is impossible in principle.

Is she right? Well, one reason to doubt that evolutionary psychology is impossible is that… people are already doing evolutionary psychology: They’re gathering evidence bearing on evolutionarily informed hypotheses, and this evidence nudges up or down our confidence that these hypotheses are accurate. Sure, no one has provided evidence that proves any hypothesis in evolutionary psychology with the certainty of a mathematical proof. But that’s true of every claim in science. Scientists can only ever nudge our confidence up or down. Perhaps this is harder in EP than in some fields (although the replication crisis in psychology and elsewhere suggests that it’s not as easy as we thought in any field). But saying that it’s harder is very different than saying that it’s impossible.

And in some cases, it isn’t even particularly hard. Consider hunger. Strictly speaking, we can never say with 100% certainty that this psychological capacity evolved in our prehistoric ancestors, or that it had the same function back then as it does today (i.e., motivating us to seek and consume food). But it seems reasonable to think that it did. Indeed, it seems unreasonable to think otherwise – unreasonable, in other words, to think that our ancestors did not experience hunger or that the primary function of hunger back then was unrelated to eating. And if you accept that, I think you also have to accept that there’s no in-principle reason to reject any and all evolutionary psychological hypotheses, even if others are more difficult to evaluate. For a more detailed response to Smith’s paper, see Ed Hagen’s excellent post on the topic.

Few evolutionary psychologists now accept two views they’re often accused of: “Massive modularity” (the brain comprises various semi-independent modules that code for different behaviors), and the “Environment of evolutionary adaptedness”: the idea that our behaviors all show adaptations to the life of our ancestors on the African savannas. The latter, at least, would be foolish given the evidence that humans have undergone palpable evolutionary change in the last 10,000 years. Stewart-Williams prefers that evolutionary psychologists just analyze human behaviors using well-established evolutionary principles like kin selection, parental investment, reciprocal altruism, and the like.

Refutations of the “Cinderella Effect”: the demonstration that parents are more brutal toward their stepchildren than their biological children, are weak. (These were mostly raised by Hans Temrin.) According to Stewart-Williams, the data come down pretty much in support of the Cinderalla Effect. If further studies buttress those data, it would be good evidence for an evolutionary-psychology explanation based on relatedness and parental investment. It makes sense that you’d treat your biological children better than those unrelated to you, and you might even abuse the latter if it favors the prospects of the former. (Remember, lions that invade a pride immediately kill all the cubs from the mothers, and then inseminate the mothers, yielding cubs that are related rather than “step-cubs”.)

The idea of memes hasn’t been that productive in understanding human cultural evolution, but there are a few suggestive examples of memes evolving simply because they have self-propagating characteristics. One of these examples involves witch hunts, and was published last year by Hofhuis and Boudry. I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve been a pretty severe critic of “memetics.”

The Himba people of Namibia have a 48% rate of non-paternity; that is, half the children in a family aren’t fathered by the “father.” Isn’t that a refutation of evolutionary theory? Stewart-Williams explains why we’d sometimes expect these anomalies.

Disparities in representation of males vs. females in different areas don’t always demonstrate sexism and bigotry, as many assume. They could just be differences in preference, and perhaps some of these are the result of evolved behaviors. I’ve made this point many times before, but it still goes over the head of many “progressives”, who fail to realize that there is, for many cases of unequal representation, a competing hypothesis to the idea of “structural discrimination.”

Here’s what Steve says about that in response to a question:

What are you working on now? What mystery would you like to unravel next?

I’m working on two main projects at the moment. One is a theoretical paper with Lewis Halsey, looking at the causes of gender disparities in STEM. As everyone knows, men outnumber women in certain areas of STEM, including mathematics, computer science, and physics. As everyone also knows, the most common explanations for the gender gaps are discrimination and socialization. We argue, in contrast, that although discrimination and socialization are part of the story, they’re not the whole story. We make two main claims in our paper. The first is that factors other than discrimination contribute to gender gaps in STEM; these include, in particular, average sex differences in interests and life priorities. The second is that these average differences aren’t due entirely to socialization. Socialization plays an important role, but the differences are also partly inherited.

People sometimes assume that if you admit a role for biological factors in shaping STEM gender gaps, you must think nothing should be done about those gaps. But that’s not our view. We are wary of overly coercive fixes, such as offering people monetary or other incentives to make career choices they wouldn’t otherwise make, and affirmative-action policies that, in effect, discriminate against men and lead people (including the benefactors of such policies) to secretly wonder whether they really earned their success. But that doesn’t mean we should do nothing. We should let young people know about all the science careers on offer, and make clear that these are options that women as well as men should consider. We should make sure we highlight the scientific achievements of both sexes, rather than focusing unduly on men. We should encourage people to accept and support women (and men) who make gender-atypical choices. We should put policies in place that reduce the possibility of bias against either sex, including gender-blind evaluation of job applications, research grants, and the like. And we should do what we can to make science careers compatible with the demands of motherhood (and fatherhood).

Having done all that, though, we should respect the choices that people make about their own lives and careers, even if this doesn’t result in perfect gender parity. In other words, we should aim for equality of opportunity, rather than equality of outcome. People are ultimately going to be happier if they pursue the careers that most interest them.

There’s a lot more to the interview than this, so if you want a level-headed take on evolutionary psychology, I’d recommend that you have a look at the interview, and perhaps read Steve’s latest book.
Steve Stewart-Williams



Are human facial expressions universal in which emotions they express?

August 24, 2020 • 1:00 pm

The latest issue of Science Advances has a provocative and clever piece of research aimed at answering a long-standing question—one considered by Charles Darwin himself: are the facial expressions associated with human emotions universal across all cultures? And, if so, is that the result of evolution? The paper suggests that, at least for a limited set of emotions, the answer is yes to both questions. You can read the paper by clicking the screenshot below, or reading the pdf here. The full reference is at the bottom.

Cowen and Keltner note that there have been a fair number of attempts to answer this question, all involving going to remote areas where there is little contact with Westerners, and seeing if people in those areas match photos of Western expressive signals (joy, anger, sympathy) with similar words in their native language. The results have been mixed. That, one would think, already suggests that perhaps facial expressions aren’t universal. (Cultural similarities could be due to either cross-cultural transmission of expressivity, or to a common evolutionary heritage, but dissimilarities among different populations already suggest that culture can’t cause similarities.)

However, the authors suggest these tests are not dispositive, and suggest a better way to see if expressions are universal. What they did was to look at ancient Mesoamerican artworks that depict facial expressions associated with different situations, isolated the facial expressions, got modern observers to guess the emotions depicted, and then asked whether Westerners would judge those expressions to be ones appropriate to the situation depicted by the artwork.  If there was a correlation between the judgements of which emotions were shown on faces, and those that other people guessed would appear in the situations depicted in the sculptures, this would suggest (but not prove) that expressions are not only universal, but perhaps universal because evolution made them universal.

The authors examined tens of thousands of Mesoamerican artifacts (going back to 1500 B.C.) archived by museums, and found 63 pieces of art that met their three criteria for this study:

  1. subjects were portrayed “within one of eight identifiable contexts” (torture, being held captive, carrying a heavy object, embracing another person, holding a baby, in fighting position, playing a ball sport, and playing music).  Examples of each of these are given in the figure below.
  2. The facial expressions could be clearly visible.
  3. The artworks (sculptures and vessels) were deemed authentic by authorities.

Here are examples of the eight contexts for emotion; see the caption for details:

(From paper): Fig. 1 Ancient American sculptures with discernible faces and contexts. (A) Captive from Tonina archeological site (Mexico, 690–700 CE). Photo credit: Mauricio Marat, Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia. (1 July 2019). (B) Tortured, scalped prisoner from Campeche (Mexico, 700–900 CE). Baltimore Museum of Art, Kerr Portfolio 2868, photo by J. Kerr. (C) Maya man carrying large stone (Mexico, 600–1200 CE). Kerr Portfolio 8237, photo by J. Kerr. (D) Joined couple (Mexico, 200–500 CE). Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) AC1996.146.21, gift of C. M. Fearing. (E) Maya woman holding child (600–800 CE). Princeton University Art Museum 2003-26, gift of G. G. Griffin. (F) Kneeling Maya warrior with facial tattoos and shield (Mexico, 600–800 CE), detail. Earthenware and pigment, 15.9 cm by 10.8 cm. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco 2009.38.2, gift of G. Merriam and J. A. Merriam. (G) Maya ballplayer (Mexico, 700–900 CE). University of Maine HM646, William P. Palmer Collection. (H) Colima drummer (Mexico, 200 BCE–500 CE). LACMA, Proctor Stafford Collection, purchased with funds provided by Mr. and Mrs. Allan C. Balch.

They then isolated the faces from the contexts so that the modern subjects could just look at the faces but not see what the subject was experiencing in the artwork. The 325 subjects were asked them to describe the facial expressions using 30 categories of emotion (e.g., “awe”, “anger”, “shame”, “fear”, and so on and 13 “affective features” like “arousal” and “dominance” (see categories in figure below).

Independently, they asked 114 different subjects, also modern Westerners, to judge what emotions they would expect someone to show in each of the eight situations above. These people were not shown the artworks but simply given the eight situations verbally and asked what emotions you’d expect people to evince.  They then correlated the first subjects’ judgments on what emotions were portrayed by the faces with the expectation of what emotions should be shown from the eight situations, described in words, chosen for analysis.

Here are the correlations between the “read” of subjects from looking just at the faces with the emotions expected judged from subjects looking at the context described in words.

(from paper): Fig. 2 Accordance between emotions perceived in sculptures’ isolated face depictions and Western expectations for the emotions that unfold in eight portrayed contexts. To calculate the accordance between sculptures’ expressions and Westerners’ expectations, we correlated the participants’ average judgments of the emotions and affective features associated with each isolated face and each context across the eight contexts and divided by the maximum attainable correlation given sampling error (see Materials and Methods). Correlations are generally positive, indicating that facial muscle configurations portrayed in ancient American sculptures align, in terms of the emotions they communicate to Westerners, with Western participants’ expectations for the emotions that unfold in different contexts. Error bars represent SEs. Here, we excluded 10 emotions and 1 affective feature used seldom enough that <1/3 of the covariance in judgments was explainable, as a result of which SEs were very large.

Correlations above zero are positive; that is, the expectations of what you’d feel aligned with the subjects’ “read” of the artworks’ faces. As you see, of the 32 emotion categories assessed, 27 had correlations above zero, which alone says something (if there were no correlation, roughly half of the values would be above zero and half below). More important, only six of the 27 positive correlations had standard errors that overlapped zero, or “no correlation”; the rest were statistically significant.

This shows that, in general, the emotions expected by people hearing about the eight contexts for the artwork were those actually discerned by people who looked at the faces of the artwork. And that means that the emotions we expect to see in a modern situation were those that people read from artwork of ancient civilizations. This is turn suggests that at least some facial expressions are “universal”, and people can read them fairly accurately, even in sculptures, as reflecting what people are feeling in a situation. Because these cultures were far removed from ours, this also suggests that the facial expressions weren’t culturally inherited across the ages—that is, we don’t learn the expressions to show determination or distress or the other emotions from others, but express them innately.

One could, I suppose, argue that the Incas and Mayans simply passed on their facial expressions culturally to us as their descendants, but that’s a big stretch since the route for that kind of cultural transmission is dubious: we’re not the descendants of these Mesoamericans. Alternatively, the expressions could have been culturally inherited from our mutual ancestor who lived at least 60,000 years ago when H. sapiens left Africa to populate the world.  If you’re a blank-slater, that’s the argument you’d make.

But it seems more plausible to me that smiling and scowling and showing distress and pain are innate features of our behavior, though I can’t adduce hard evidence for it except that a). babies who haven’t been socialized to show facial expressions of joy or distress still show easily interpretable expressions, presumably before they’re socialized; b). other primates have readable facial expressions without our kind of culture; and c.) one can make a plausible evolutionary hypothesis that humans might have evolved to show expressions that other humans could read: “honest signals.” None of this adds up to a strong evolutionary-psychology argument, but one can agree, from the results above, that there is some universality across millennia in how humans show emotions on their faces.

Finally, the authors used a method called “principal preserved components analysis” to gather in one basket the main “dimensions” (combinations of emotions) that best explain the correlations shown above. From this they determined that three combinations of factors combine to explain at least five types of facial expressions on sculptures. Those expressions, the ones most easily seen as “universal, are these:

  1. “pain”, often in the context of torture
  2. “determination”/”strain”, in sculptures showing heavy lifting
  3. “anger”, usually in sculptures depicting combat
  4. “elation”, seen in “contexts of familial or social touch”, and
  5. “sadness”, as in being held captive after defeat.

The paper has other analyses, but these are the main conclusion. The authors also give several caveats, and you can have a look at those.

The tentative takeaway lesson is that, even after millennia, we can pretty accurately read the facial expressions of people from different cultures.  That is, there are some universals, at least between ourselves and Mesoamericans, in the expression of emotions. Whether that be the result of cultural inheritance or a universal code for expression that resides in our DNA (or a combination of these factors) can’t yet be discerned, but I’m betting on a largely biological-determinism explanation. And so are the authors, at least judging from their final paragraph:

The present results thus provide support for the universality of at least five kinds of facial expression: those associated with pain, anger, determination/strain, elation, and sadness. These findings support the notion that we are biologically prepared to express certain emotional states with particular behaviors, shedding light on the nature of our responses to experiences thought to bring meaning to our lives.

Here are a few more faces and the contexts in which they appear (see paper for explanation), but I think you can guess pretty well.

h/t: cesar

Cowen, A. S. and D. Keltner. 2020. Universal facial expressions uncovered in art of the ancient Americas: A computational approach. Science Advances 6:eabb1005.

Steve Pinker weighs in on the “evolutionary psychology is impossible” paper

May 19, 2020 • 1:30 pm

After I wrote my critique of Subrena Smith’s anti-evolutionary-psychology paper this morning—hers titled “Is evolutionary psychology possible?”—I sent the link to Steve Pinker, who’s quarantining on Cape Cod. He wrote back with some nice words of approbation, but added a few points. I thought these points were good, relevant and, as the first two weren’t made by either me or critic Edward Hagen, I asked Steve if I could quote him. He said yes. So add these criticisms to those leveled this morning. (Steve’s words are indented.)

All your points are exactly right. The motive seems to be the slipshod politicizing I exposed 18 years ago in The Blank Slate: if we’re blank slates, there can’t be differences between races, which would make racism impossible; therefore to combat racism we must believe that humans are blank slates. It fails both in philosophical coherence (racism is not an empirical hypothesis that might be shown to be true or false) and in accuracy — most evolutionary psychologists argue for a universal human nature. Also, a philosophical argument against evolutionary explanations in psychology ultimately falls apart when it unwittingly “refutes” even the most unexceptionable evolutionary explanations, such as sexual desire or protectiveness of children. And ironically, though this argument claims to be based in the philosophy of science, it seems unaware that within that field “argument to the best explanation” is generally considered the only means by which science of any kind is done — science never makes apodictic pronouncements based on a prior list of methodological precepts.

A couple of other observations [about Smith’s argument]:

—“Massive modularity” [JAC: a term Smith uses as an inherent part of “Evolutionary Psychology”] is not a term that was ever, to my knowledge, used by an evolutionary psychologist. As far as I know it was coined by that foe of natural selection, the late Jerry Fodor, as a term of abuse (and partly to protect the brand of Modularity, which Fodor introduced to philosophy and cognitive psychology in 1983). I’ve always argued that “module” is a misleading metaphor; we should be thinking about specialization. The brain isn’t spam, but the specialization of information-processing systems, like that of organ systems, needn’t be into encapsulated modules (Fodor’s definition); the systems have to talk to each other, share subroutines, pass information back and forth, and so on, just like the circulatory system and the digestive system do.

—This is a point in the fine print of EP, forgotten even by many of its practitioners, but the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness should not be confused with the Pleistocene or the hunter-gatherer lifestyle — it’s a time-weighted composite of selection pressures right up to the present (since natural selection never sleeps). We’ve spent more of our time as humans in a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, and, ironically for the PC police, the simplifying assumption that “EEA = Pleistocene” guarantees human biological equality, since we were all hunter-gatherers then, whereas different groups transitioned to agriculture and civilization at different times subsequent to then. And so if we continued to evolve since then, some groups could be more biologically adapted than others to literacy, settled life, governance, and so on. So the Pleistocene-EEA idealization is simple and convenient. But it’s far from necessary, and I think is an impediment, because it requires being more gratuitously committed to savannah-caveman scenarios. Many selection pressures are more or less unchanged since the dawn of the Holocene — paternity uncertainty, infant care, avoiding toxic foods, securing allies, etc. And for many others the most dramatic dividing line is not Pleistocene-Holocene or hunter-gatherer/agriculture, but urban, educated modernity (knowledge of science and statistics, professional employment, universal information, access to the legal system, modern medical care) versus every other lifestyle. An American 19th century farming village, or a favela or peasant society in the developing world, has pretty much the same face-to-face social network, with a pre-scientific knowledge base and a remoteness from legal and professional institutions, as a hunter-gatherer society 10K years ago. What’s key is avoiding the assumption that humanity is adapted to a modern urban or suburban college-educated lifestyle, not assuming that we have the same brains as hunter-gatherers (whether or not we in fact do).

—I think that one important direction of evolutionary psychology (and medicine, and biology in general) is to look for statistical signs of selection in the genome. This showed that the modern version of FOXP2, involved in language and speech, was a target of selection (though not on the recent rapid sweep originally hypothesized, probably earlier). But this method works best in the rare cases where single genes with large effects can be identified. Now that we know that virtually all behavioral variation is under the control of many genes with minuscule individual effects, I wonder whether there are techniques that can assess signs of selection across an entire vector of genes rather than individual genes.