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" the difficulty of disentangling culture and biology."
September 20, 2012 11:45 PM   Subscribe

IT AIN’T NECESSARILY SO: 'How much do evolutionary stories reveal about the mind?'

Stephen Jay Gould, NYRB :Darwinian Fundamentalism

David J. Buller - Evolutionary Psychology: A Critique(PDF)
To summarize, the fundamental theoretical tenets of Evolutionary Psychology are these. First, the human mind consists of ‘‘hundreds or thousands’’ of ‘‘genetically specified’’ modules, or special-purpose computational devices, each of which is an adaptation for solving a specific adaptive problem. Second, the information-processing functions of modules are designed to solve the problems of survival and reproduction that were faced by our Pleistocene hunter-gatherer ancestors. And, third, evolved modules collectively constitute a universal human nature. In the sections to follow, I will argue that each of these tenets is mistaken.
Buller's Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature - A Preview (Scientific American) and a review.

University of California at Santa Barbara's Center for Evolutionary Psychology has a rebuttal.
posted by the man of twists and turns (118 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
Apparently sociobiology has spread simply because those with an hereditary predisposition to accept and champion sweeping, just-so style explanations tend to attract a disproportionate share of resources and hence enjoy greater reproductive success. That is the real story which science is now revealing - it has nothing to do with naive views about the 'truth' or otherwise of the theories.
posted by Segundus at 12:14 AM on September 21, 2012 [19 favorites]


Just as sociobiology downplays the role of culture in humans I say biology downlplays culture in animals. Leopards got spots because spots are cool.
posted by Ad hominem at 12:28 AM on September 21, 2012 [5 favorites]


From the review and rebuttal, it sounds like the same thing is likely to happen here that happened around Marshall Sahlins's critique of sociobiology long ago (the reader reviews at the link are pretty good).

The big picture of the critique makes perfect sense: we should avoid just-so stories, avoid getting carried away with metaphors, look around for disconfirming evidence as much as confirmation, and start from the obvious point that human behaviors and the reasons for them vary greatly. But the critic will be wrong on enough details to appear foolish and discredited or, worse, oblivious to some amount of work that's actually careful and thought-provoking.

What I wish we could always have sitting in front of us when this topic comes up are vast reams of evolutionary psych that are total garbage, sitting beside 100 years of dry, ordinary, reasonable data on human variation collected by ethnographers worldwide. It would make some of the critical overreaching more understandable.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 12:34 AM on September 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


Thanks for the post I read half of this article a few days ago, and I thought it was concise, incisive and very well-written. I kept nodding in agreement.
posted by faustdick at 3:13 AM on September 21, 2012


The stupid of EP burns.
posted by spitbull at 3:58 AM on September 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


Why Men Won't Ask for Directions, by Richard C. Francis, is a provocative, well-argued critique of the current state of sociobiology.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:45 AM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


You may not agree with the conclusions of every paper published in every biology journal, but if you believe that our behaviour was shaped by selective pressure, then you believe in evolutionary psychology.

The hard agnostic stance regarding the development of the nervous system (i.e. I don't know and you don't either) doesn't jibe well with discoveries made in the fields of behavioural genetics, ethology, and evolutionary biology.
posted by Human Flesh at 5:08 AM on September 21, 2012 [6 favorites]


if you believe that our behaviour was shaped by selective pressure, then you believe in evolutionary psychology.

i dont want to have to believe anything. i want to see the evidence, the hypotheses, the conclusions. for some reason certain scientific disciplines attract believers and when this happens you have to approach what they say with ...well... scientific skepticism.
posted by dongolier at 5:14 AM on September 21, 2012 [13 favorites]


I believe that withholding judgement about whether or not we are endowed with behavioural adaptations is a misinformed form of scepticism.
posted by Human Flesh at 5:29 AM on September 21, 2012


...or at least a poorly informed type of scepticism that doesn't seem very scientific.
posted by Human Flesh at 5:31 AM on September 21, 2012


Withholding judgment would be. But looking at various theories side by side and examining the evidence for them and deciding which one is the most likely explanation *is* scientific. And while critiques of the scientific rhetoric may be unscientific, they're not bad reasoning.

Argh, so much I want to say, but I have to go teach 18 year olds about pig hearts _right now._ This thread is going to be so good and it's all going to happen before I get back! Where's your evo psych NOW?!
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 5:41 AM on September 21, 2012


I believe that withholding judgement about whether or not we are endowed with behavioural adaptations is a misinformed form of scepticism

In the very loosest and weakest sense of "behavioural adaptations" you're probably right. We have an evolutionary history and it has an obvious causal role in our behaviour. But that's pretty much a tautology with pretty much a tautology's power to inform. If you want to say something meaningful about what these adaptations might be and how they may affect behaviour and interact with culture, you need evidence that can convince a determined sceptic. It's like the distinction between the strong and weak forms of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The fact that the weak form is pretty much obviously true has done nothing to save the strong form from the mountain of evidence showing it to be unfounded.
posted by howfar at 5:54 AM on September 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


You may not agree with the conclusions of every paper published in every biology journal, but if you believe that our behaviour was shaped by selective pressure, then you believe in evolutionary psychology.

I'm completely on board with the idea that psychology is shaped by selective pressure. Evolutionary psychology, on the other hand, is an attempt to discover what those selective pressures were and determine their outcome, when the truth is no one can ever really know.

The result is a lot of simplistic reasoning and guess work that quite often ends up confirming the biases of the arguer. I think this is the problem people have with the whole discipline.
posted by Summer at 5:56 AM on September 21, 2012 [9 favorites]


Is the statement: "we are endowed with the capacity to find carbohydrates reinforcing" a strong claim or a weak claim?

Summer, do you really think that the methods used to establish evidence of selection are purely based on pseudoscience and/or armchair conjecture?
posted by Human Flesh at 6:05 AM on September 21, 2012


A fairly weak claim, I'd argue. In itself it doesn't tell us very much, if anything, about how that capacity influences actual behaviour in actual people. It is highly suggestive, but we can't simply reason ourselves from the capacity to an explanation of exhibited behaviour. We need evidence for the steps in between.
posted by howfar at 6:10 AM on September 21, 2012


the truth is no one can ever really know

Why? It looks as though we know very little now, but saying we can never know seems shortsighted.
posted by adamdschneider at 6:28 AM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


I am reading Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel. In whole, it is an excellent book, however, I find it frustrating when he tries to explain everything with retrofitting evolutionary theory. In science, we often don't know. Not knowing is not the same as having a weak science, it just means there are gaps to fill in. It is human nature to want an explanation even when the only available explanation is weak. Such explanations weaken the confidence in the science.
Soft sciences need to say they don't know or else couch their explanations better as working theories.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 6:29 AM on September 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


Human Flesh: do you really think that the methods used to establish evidence of selection

No one's denying selection happens.

From your link:

However, inferences of selection are challenged by several confounding factors, especially the complex demographic history of human populations

So this is the crux of the matter. Without a time machine you can't know what pressures any population was under at any point in time, all you can do is make an educated guess. And let's not forget our evolutionary history stretches back to the beginning of life, not just to the beginning of humans.

Even if you did know exactly what pressures our ancestors were subject to, you wouldn't be able to say conclusively 'pressure x led to adaptation y'. Again, you could make an educated guess, but you'd be in danger of confirmation bias.
posted by Summer at 6:46 AM on September 21, 2012 [5 favorites]


It seems that a poor understanding of evolutionary psychology would make it difficult to follow population genetics, physical anthropology, and ethology journals. The account of our history that evolutionary biologists have given us isn't perfect, but I can't support the idea that we know little about the selective pressures that influenced our behaviour. There are more behavioural genetics papers published than anyone could hope to read.
posted by Human Flesh at 7:02 AM on September 21, 2012


There are more behavioural genetics papers published than anyone could hope to read.

There are more astrology books published than anyone could hope to read.
posted by notyou at 7:18 AM on September 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


Evolutionary psychology is an attempt to deny the importance of culture, and assert the primacy of the purely physical. Morris Edward Opler analyzed this tendency in his 1944 article, "Cultural and Organic Conceptions in Contemporary World History." He argued that, "[h]uman history is the story of the diminishing importance of the body and the increasing importance of the superorganic or cultural." He goes on to posit a gigantic struggle within human society between the two views, going so far as to say that, "the rise of the Nazis and the present war itself are simply a phase of the overshadowing struggle between the two world conceptions, the organic and the cultural." From this point of view, contemporary evolutionary psychology is a resurgence of the kind of physicalist, anti-cultural thinking that inspired the Nazis. This new movement is promoted by people who broadly identify with the Left, and thus the movement can be labelled a kind of Left Fascism.
posted by No Robots at 8:02 AM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


This new movement is promoted by people who broadly identify with the Left, and thus the movement can be labelled a kind of Left Fascism.

Hmm. Apart from all the right wing people who support it of course. I think you're going to need some evidence that there is a particular left-wing tendency in evo psych, else it rather looks like it might be a projection of your own prejudices.
posted by howfar at 8:05 AM on September 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


Oh, I'm sure many rightists are right behind EP. However, the danger comes from those leaders of the movement who protest that they are good leftists, people like Dawkins.
posted by No Robots at 8:09 AM on September 21, 2012


the human mind consists of . . . computational devices . . . .information-processing functions of modules . . .

Someone is already wrong.

Either the author has mischaracterized the tenets,
or the tenets are proceeding from an unsupported (I'd say invalid) assumption.

The mind is not a computer and its actions are not "information processing."

I hope I'm still around when this notion finally has its Michaelson-Morley moment.
 
posted by Herodios at 8:20 AM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't think I'd characterize evo-psych as a leftist movement. I'd characterize it as a racist and sexist intellectual thread that appeals to people who identify as intellectuals, would never say overtly misogynist or racist things, but haven't really attempted to address their own racism and sexism. I'd hazard that you're going to pick up more liberals than conservatives in that net -- conservatives that haven't addressed their own racism just say racist things.

The eugenics movement in the US, which did in fact play a heavy role in the adoption of eugenics laws in Europe, was the same sort of movement. It's science so it's real! WE CAN MAKE THE WORLD BETTER! Nevermind that the science wasn't really very good, and that plenty of people were saying that this was really just class warfare. Plenty of very liberal, progressive folks were on the front lines of pushing eugenic sterilization laws, fervently telling themselves and others that this was a good application of science to human problems. Conservatives aren't just making it up when they say that Margaret Sanger was a total racist -- she totally was.

But they didn't adopt this way of thinking because it's Leftist. It's really really not. It's really pretty awful and backwards and not at all progressive. They adopted this way of thinking because they were intellectuals who weren't smart enough to realize that their Emperor had no clothes.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 8:22 AM on September 21, 2012 [13 favorites]


What Made of Star Stuff said.
posted by No Robots at 8:24 AM on September 21, 2012


The basic social problem with evolutionary psychology is that it threatens the existence and purpose of moral philosophy. EP says that you are an animal, with instincts, and that your particular behaviours, whatever they are, are not done because you are smart and moral, they are done because your instincts drive you to do them. Your culture has made up stories (the field of property law, for example) that are post-hoc rational and moral justifications for things that your instincts were always going to make you do anyway.

This is profoundly threatening to human self-importance. Instinctually, it provokes self-defence, which manifests itself as rational arguments against EP (you can tell these ones because they argue against old theories, long-dismissed from the mainstream of the field, and call the evidence weak), and moral arguments against it (you can tell these ones because they use the words "racist" and "sexist" a lot).

Racism and sexism are to EP, as granite and quartz (or any other specific rocks) are to geologists. They are interesting things, and the evolutionary psychologist wonders how and why they were formed, and what they might indicate about a culture. The builder and engineer and architect work out how to build with rocks. They might have a passing interest in geology, but largely it is a different field. The moral philosopher and lawyer and demagogue argue for, and against, cultural privileges. EP isn't particularly relevant to that argument.

As many evolutionary psychologists repeatedly point out over and over again, and are hilariously told over and over again that they should know, by demagogues: EP as a field does not lend itself to experimentation. It's hard to get creating a new culture past the ethics committee. Theories are raised and dismissed largely on their ability to fit with the evidence, and by how much apparent sense they make. It is extremely difficult to come up with a truly "valid explanation" of any element of human behaviour and it is not EP scientists who make most such claims, it is science journalists who make the claims on their behalf.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 9:18 AM on September 21, 2012 [7 favorites]


I'd characterize it as a racist and sexist intellectual thread that appeals to people who identify as intellectuals, would never say overtly misogynist or racist things, but haven't really attempted to address their own racism and sexism.

While I like your analysis of leftist evo psych, I'd also suggest that it has plenty of supporters who would and do say overtly misygonist things, but like to back them up with the veneer of science. Even overt racists like to pretend they've got reason on their side.
posted by howfar at 9:20 AM on September 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


Joe Quirk vs Anne Innis Dagg. Actual EP vs populist misconceptions of it.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 9:22 AM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Is the evolutionary account of every aspect of physiology suspect, or is it only the evolutionary accounts of nervous and endocrine systems that are problematic?
posted by Human Flesh at 9:29 AM on September 21, 2012


Is the evolutionary account of every aspect of physiology suspect, or is it only the evolutionary accounts of nervous and endocrine systems that are problematic?

Now who's picking on a straw man?
posted by howfar at 9:32 AM on September 21, 2012


Conservatives aren't just making it up when they say that Margaret Sanger was a total racist -- she totally was.

No, as just discussed in the conservative history thread, she totally wasn't.
posted by dgaicun at 9:33 AM on September 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


Yeah, the arguments against even trying in this area all seem pretty knee-jerk blank slatist and appear to assert that culture is some magical substance that comes from some vague, unanalyzable place rather than from human brains formed by evolution.
posted by adamdschneider at 9:45 AM on September 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


Human Flesh: You may not agree with the conclusions of every paper published in every biology journal, but if you believe that our behaviour was shaped by selective pressure, then you believe in evolutionary psychology.

The problem here is that practically everyone, even B. F. Skinner behaviorists agrees that human behavior has been shaped by selective pressure. Most people looking at the human mind and how it works have generally agreed that aspects of it, including its broad plasticity, came about via evolutionary processes.

Evolutionary psychology tends to go a bit beyond that in ways that are neither good evolutionary biology or psychology. To start with, you need a reliable and valid way to measure the behavior in question, and psychometrics has repeatedly run into problems even on concepts that have been kicked around for over a century. Then, you need to establish the degree of heritability for a given trait vs. environmental variance. The "Blank Slate" of behaviorism wasn't a literal model, it was a methodological limitation around the fact that genetic variance in behavior is difficult to manipulate as an independent variable.

And then if you're going to construct any kind of evolutionary hypothesis you need some sort of method for figuring out when it evolved and how. And that strikes me as a difficult project.

The closest relatives we have to compare to are pre-Pleistocene. The best you can do for most behaviors from a cladistic standpoint is say that either those things came before or after our common ancestor with chimps. Even that's a tricky claim to make, because it's possible that humans and chimps independently evolved the capacity for murder. You also have to deal with problems of interpreting non-human behavior.

Molecular biology would be a help here, but we only have potential contributing genes for all but a few human behaviors. We can't, at this time, reverse-engineer those adaptations from gene sequences, or reliably estimate when those particular alleles developed.

I see a clear difference between how cognitive psychologists, cognitive scientists, and evolutionary psychologists work with human behavior. The cognitive psychologist proposes theres a biological function underlying a given behavior, but doesn't make claims about the evolutionary origin or OBE. It may have evolved in the Pleistocene or the pre-Cambrian. The cognitive scientist might deconstruct the logic of that behavior as the function of a simple neural system, which might evolve independently in multiple cases.

The evolutionary psychologist looks at a human behavior, and says, without a shred of evidence, that it evolved in a science-fiction model of Australopithecine hunter-gatherer sexual selection. We don't fully understand the sexual selection strategies of living primates, much less primates known only from a handful of fossils and tool fragments.

There's more to developing and testing hypotheses about evolutionary origins and selective pressures than pulling a Rudyard Kipling looking at a trait.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 9:59 AM on September 21, 2012 [16 favorites]


From this point of view, contemporary evolutionary psychology is a resurgence of the kind of physicalist, anti-cultural thinking that inspired the Nazis.

Had Godwin even been _born_ in 1944?
posted by Dr Dracator at 10:06 AM on September 21, 2012


Nothing the Left Fascist loves more than yelling "Godwin!" at his critics.
posted by No Robots at 10:09 AM on September 21, 2012


From the first link:

Perhaps it shouldn’t matter whether evolutionary psychologists can prove that some trait got incorporated into human nature because it was useful on the African savanna. If they were really in the history business, they wouldn’t spend so much time playing Hot or Not with undergraduates.


1) New default response for conversational evopsych/sociobiology: acquired
2) ... I remember the hot or not website. And the burning, burning shame.
posted by skrozidile at 10:10 AM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Racism and sexism are to EP, as granite and quartz (or any other specific rocks) are to geologists.

Interesting comparison, let's roll with it.

Granite: Hundreds of varieties.
Hominids: Five.

Granite: Standardized classification system based on composition.
Hominids: No consensus, reliability, or validity for cross-species comparisons.

Granite: Radiometric dating.
Hominds: Dating of genes might be possible, if only we had the genes.

Granite: Formation conditions can be experimentally recreated.
Hominids: Limited by population in most species. Genetic manipulation considered generally unethical.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 10:24 AM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Nothing the Left Fascist loves more than yelling "Godwin!" at his critics.

Ha! That's priceless. "If you disagree with me, you're a Nazi; and if you point out that that's Godwinning the thread, you're a Double Nazi!!"

Yeah, I think I'll skip this thread, thanks.
posted by yoink at 10:27 AM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Had Godwin even been _born_ in 1944?
He was born in 1956. People compared things to the Nazis before then just as things fell down before Newton was born, but that doesn't mean that the tendency to compare people to Hitler is the result of evolutionary survival pressures.
posted by Obscure Reference at 10:32 AM on September 21, 2012


Here is my crackpot psychology theory. The reason that Steven Pinker and his cohert like "playing hot or not with undergraduates" is because this line of inquiry keeps the students' attention and gets the profs favorable course evaluations. The 18-22 year olds are more interested in sex than they are in anything else so when this crap (the idea that I have a genetic program to stick my dick into any fertile female any where at any time is crap) is the topic of the lecture, the lecturer is like a rat in a Skinner box being conditioned to go further on and on and on and on.

I wish I could google up the story about the undergraduate who conspired with his classmates to condition their lecturer to stand in the corner of the room by giving him positive non-verbal feedback whenever he approached it. That may have been an apocryphal story but that is exactly what is going on here.
posted by bukvich at 10:41 AM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Evolutionary psychology, on the other hand, is an attempt to discover what those selective pressures were and determine their outcome, when the truth is no one can ever really know.

There are more behavioural genetics papers published than anyone could hope to read.


It seems to me this points to the best possible theory On the Origins of Evolutionary Psychology. We have many more universities, grad students, post docs, and professors than ever before - and this absolutely mandates the publishing of more peer-reviewed papers. More academic journals are a necessity. Academia is basically in the business of providing credentials (a PhD which used to be a ticket to the middle class) and publishing peer-reviewed papers. As I understand it, liberal arts studies are slowly being shit-canned in favor of hard sciences. Which means more grad students that may truly be interested in literature, history, etc, are pushed into science. Evo Psych and other sociobiology thus fulfill a large economic need. There has to be a place where anyone smart and talented enough and adept at making apparently logical arguments can publish basically fact-free bullshit theories (let's face it, at least three quarters of what even the most intelligent and best educated people believe is probably bullshit) in an academic journal and get credentialed if they make the right friends and their writing fits within the template provided by existing ideology.
posted by Golden Eternity at 11:27 AM on September 21, 2012


I'm of two minds on this. Evolutionary Psychology in the upper-case suffers from a major case of just-soism, to the point where much of it (particularly the "science of morality") seems to exist just so that an author can claim that favored features of his or her own culture are universally and/or inevitably positive. The mere fact that Muslim (or Soviet, or Roman, or Hopi, or Nazi, or Han, or Norse Icelandic, or...) cultural features are rarely held up by writers like Harris as universal or inevitable traits -- even when they are much more widespread than 20th century American-style egalitarianism or even the Golden Rule, historically speaking -- should strike any observer as highly suspicious.

That said, human beings are animals. I won't be surprised if a greater understanding of neurobiology upturns the idea of free will as it is currently conceived, reframing human behavior as something closer to the interaction between biology and environment (including culture) than to a series of "free" choices made by a "free" consciousness... and I agree with aeschenkarnos that much of the opposition to lower-case evolutionary psychology is actually opposition to this idea. It is very likely that the biology of the brain does have a massive influence on human behavior and human culture, and vice versa; the problem with Evo Psych is that it fails to explore the latter possibility, assuming instead that all human brains (and thus the entire breadth of human culture) have been shaped solely by one mechanism working in one "universal" environment amidst just one set of challenges and adaptions.

Buller's point about the plasticity of the brain fits the evidence much better than EP does.
posted by vorfeed at 12:26 PM on September 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


Here's two more points about why evolutionary psychology isn't evolution:

The first is the claim that just-soism is necessary for psychology to be sciency. But a fair bit of biology doesn't engage in speculation about etiology due to limited data or irrelevance to the question being asked. You don't need a comprehensive evolutionary history of every trait of your pet species in order to study it. (In fact, I'll make the argument that just-soism is likely the weakest and least general aspect of evolutionary biology.)

The second is the assumption that all observed traits must have been "selected for." Microbiologists routinely monkeywrench quirks of microbial physiology that exist because some other metabolic process was optimized. Just because you can make tasty sourdough with wild microbial beasties doesn't mean those yeasts evolved for bread-making. Especially in psychology which is fraught with methodological issues of validity, it strikes me as a big leap to say that the behavior of checking items on a Likkert scale is the trait that's "selected for."
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 1:43 PM on September 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


OK, thanks for providing the link to the Planned Parenthood fact sheet, dgaicun. I come by my association of Sanger with eugenics honestly -- I did a lot of writing in my masters about the history of eugenics, and read a lot of the work of some of her correspondents like Havelock Ellis. However, I didn't actually focus on Sanger, since she was being covered by other people in our project. (And it's probably not really fair even to say that Ellis was a racist -- but he sure was a classist and pretty dumb about heredity.)

Mmm mmm, this foot sure tastes good.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 1:45 PM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


It doesn't help that a lot of the behaviors I see sociobiology / evolutionary psychology attempt to explain are pretty WEIRD(previously).
posted by the man of twists and turns at 2:22 PM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


It seems that a poor understanding of evolutionary psychology would make it difficult to follow population genetics, physical anthropology, and ethology journals.

What do you think population genetics journals concern themselves with? Do you actually read Evolution, AmNat, TREE, Behavior, Genetica, or JEB? (I bow out on "physical anthropology." I'm an evolutionary biologist, not an anthropologist.) Besides the obvious, that Evolutionary Biology is not Anthropology, and very few scientists in EEB/EEE departments or publishing in EEB/EEE journals concern themselves with humans, the application of just-so stories to observed distributions of traits is considered a bug, not a feature.

I have a "poor understanding of evolutionary psychology", despite feeling like I have a professional obligation to develop an understanding so that I can refute it more efficiently. The truth is that reading the material makes me ill and make my head spin, in the same way that trying to watch jerky hand-held-camera film does -- I keep trying to focus, but everything is just so wrong. But I read popgen journals just fine. I attended something like 100 talks at the Evolution conference in Ottawa this summer, and my poor understanding of evolutionary psychology was not a hindrance. The only talks I saw scheduled that had anything to do with humans had to do with language evolution, by the way -- people applying phylogenetic programs to language trees. That's out of literally thousands of talks, most of them self-selected by people who consider themselves Evolutionary Biologists or in allied disciplines. (I mean, seriously, this one person READ A POEM for her "talk". Poetry>EvoPsych.)

(In fact, I'll make the argument that just-soism is likely the weakest and least general aspect of evolutionary biology.)

Just-soism is not a part of evolutionary biology. That's why it's a derogatory term. It's hard work to DEMONSTRATE that Trait Z is maintained in a population because it confers advantage delta-W to fitness. The work of evolutionary biologists is gathering actual factual evidence for this, and building it into a general theoretical framework -- building a better understanding of what forces are at work in evolution, what their relative importance is, why we see the diversity in nature we do, what the predictable outcomes are of evolutionary forces currently at work, and what interventions might be effective to drive desirable rather than undesirable outcomes. The actual reasons Trait Z is maintained in a specific population is really super-uninteresting.

And evolutionary forces are NOT synonymous with positive, monotonic natural selection. Evolutionary forces include drift, antagonistic coevolution, positive and negative frequency dependent selection, non-transitive fitness dynamics, transient maladaptation, and genetic hitchhiking (Hill-Robertson effects).

Cognitive Science and Psychology and Anthropology can tell you that human behaviors and perceptual and cognitive biases and other patterns exist. Genetics and genomics can give clues to genes underlying behaviors, sometimes. But saying a behavioral trait -- especially a social behavioral trait -- exists BECAUSE it conferred a specific fitness advantage in a bygone environment is not what Evolutionary Biology can do for you.

This coffee shop wants to close, so I'll have to stop ranting. Apologies for brevity, crankiness, and jargon addiciton.
posted by endless_forms at 2:45 PM on September 21, 2012 [15 favorites]


Without a time machine you can't know what pressures any population was under at any point in time, all you can do is make an educated guess. And let's not forget our evolutionary history stretches back to the beginning of life, not just to the beginning of humans.

That argument could be used against evolutionary biology in general—not just evolutionary biology as it applies to behaviour.

The fact is that selective pressures haven't stopped influencing the distribution of genes. You don't need a time machine to look at how allele frequencies compare to Hardy–Weinberg equilibrium. You don't need a time machine to see how the distribution of traits vary between different populations (both living and dead).

Nor do you need a time machine to read about the Balding–Nichols model, the Fisher-Muller Model, the Coolidge effect, the Price equation, runaway selection, the handicap principle, koinophilia, sperm competition, Bateman's principles, negative selection, assortative mating, stabilising selection, and diversifying selection.

Are you sceptical of evolutionary psychology in general, or only evolutionary psychology that applies to humans?
posted by Human Flesh at 3:26 PM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Evolutionary biology itself is the real hydra. Evolutionary psychology is just one of its more menacing tentacles.
posted by No Robots at 3:44 PM on September 21, 2012


I'm glad that endless_forms eponysterically came in here and gave a better explanation for the relationship between EP and evolutionary biology. Evolutionary biology, as I am currently teaching it in all 3 classes this semester, relies on homologies (shared common ancestral traits), whether fossil, modern morphological, or molecular. None of those things can currently be directly related to psychology. I suppose one could try to look for psychological homologies in modern creatures independently of physical data, but given the vast psychological diversity of all organisms of whose psychology I am aware (i.e., all members of a species don't all act the same) one would be hard pressed to tease apart psychological homology from psychological homoplasy (shared traits due to chance not common ancestry) in the noisy diversity of life. I certainly have no information about and can say nothing about the psychology of our hominid ancestors, or our common ancestor with the other primates, or our common ancestor with the other tetrapods, or our common ancestor with the other fish (we are of course just very fancy fish) because the fossils tell us nothing about psychology.

Scientists can and do speculate on behavior of our shared common ancestors based on the behavior of the descendents. Look at the discussion of dinosaurs tending their young, which largely grows out of our understanding that birds are the last remnants of the dinosaur clade. But nobody believes that the behavior of modern birds is forever dictated solely by the actions of their dinosaur ancestors.

Regardless, as endless_forms did an excellent job of explicating, much evolution that happens is not due to natural selection but to the other evolutionary forces. The expectation of EP proponents that every human behavior can be explained by natural selection suggests the shallowest understanding of the roots and development of the vast diversity of life we see. If there was ever an EP just-so story that suggested that cave men started dominating women due to genetic drift (random chance) following population collapse due to a natural disaster, I have not heard of it.

In summary, I do not teach EP in biology class, not to my non-majors, not in my introductory majors class, and not in the upper level Evolution class. There is no EP in any of the major undergraduate evolution textbooks, as far as I know (most of them are on my bookshelf--I've only skimmed some of them, so I could have missed a passing reference). Whatever the validity of EP, it has no real importance as part of the modern academic understanding of evolutionary biology (and of course all biology is evolutionary biology).
posted by hydropsyche at 4:18 PM on September 21, 2012 [7 favorites]


Psychology is the study of the behaviour of humans and other animals. Sex is a behaviour. Introductory textbooks on evolution cover sexual selection. Sexual selection is one of the more important things that evolutionary psychologists study. There is a great deal of overlap between various disciplines within the biosciences.

Evolutionary Psychology has been tarred and feathered, so some people make a big show of distancing themselves from the term. Sometimes they like to say that it's only pop-evopsych that's worthy of contempt and/or admonition.
posted by Human Flesh at 5:51 PM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


The way I teach sexual selection to my students, and the way it's taught in, say, Campbell Biology, is this:

Sexual selection is when mating is not random, violating one of the conditions of Hardy-Weinberg. There can be sexual selection in which males compete for female attention or females compete for male attention. Examples of intrasexual selection include the head butting among the ungulates, in which the males compete for the privilege of mating with the females. Intersexual selection in which females choose which male to mate with is very common, particularly among birds, fish, and amphibians. Female preference appears to have caused speciation in those groups several times, for instance it appears to be one of the causal factors for the adaptive radiation in the cichlids of Lake Malawi. In habitats where foraging is not particularly time consuming, female selection has sometimes led to very complicated courtship rituals, such as in the birds of paradise and the bower birds. In some cases, the traits females appear to select on, such as amphibian call length, may be correlated with other traits which are actually adaptive, such as the rate of larval development. In other cases, such as the birds of paradise, the traits the females select for appear to be maladaptive for the environment--i.e., they make them more likely to get eaten while doing a silly dance. etc.

For the upperclassmen, we go into more detail, examining different scenarios quantitatively and looking at the difference in pressures of different kinds of selection.

None of that really has anything to do with EP as commonly discussed. What do you think I am leaving out of my teaching?
posted by hydropsyche at 6:39 PM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Did you know that bowerbirds are especially interesting to evolutionary psychologists? They're often referenced to illustrate mating displays.

EP as commonly discussed? It seems like you're dipping into no true Scotsman territory. Mating behaviours are among the fundamental things that evolutionary psychologists study.
posted by Human Flesh at 7:11 PM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Okay, if you want to call any discussion at all of sexual selection EP, then I spend about 15 minutes each semester in my intro classes discussing EP. For the upper level Evolution class, we've spent 15 minutes so far and will spend a couple hours during the end of the semester--I've devoted one of the last classes to discussing modern research into sexual selection. We may talk more about cichlids, bower birds, and birds of paradise, maybe some amphibians and ungulates.

So, you got me, I do indeed devote a tiny fraction of my time each semester to your definition of EP. EP, insofar as it is merely a discussion of sexual selection as one of the several forces that cause evolution, without loaded jargon and just-so stories, is a tiny compinent of evolutionary biology.
posted by hydropsyche at 7:25 PM on September 21, 2012


I am reading Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel.

Mitt Romney loves that book.
posted by homunculus at 11:33 PM on September 21, 2012


Are life history theory and the Westermarck effect hoaxes created by pseudoscientists?
posted by Human Flesh at 2:24 AM on September 23, 2012


Please explain how life history theory is EP. As far as I know, it was developed by evolutionary biologists and ecologists, not psychologists. I have a hard time calling something that applies equally to plants "psychology". Do most EP proponents talk about plants at all?
posted by hydropsyche at 7:22 AM on September 23, 2012


Evolutionary psychology is the branch of evolutionary biology that studies behaviour.

The fact that plants have hormones doesn't stop biopsychologists from researching hormones. Behavioural geneticists study genes even though plants have genes too. Have you heard of consilience? Disciplines within science should (and do) overlap.
posted by Human Flesh at 9:25 PM on September 23, 2012


The term r/K selection (which is often referenced in life history theory) was coined by the famed sociobiologist (and entomologist) E. O. Wilson.
posted by Human Flesh at 9:38 PM on September 23, 2012


Human exceptionalists can accept most theories in biology as long as they're not applied to humans. Exceptionalists bristle, though, when someone points out that human behaviour isn't exempt from the principles of biology.
posted by Human Flesh at 10:22 PM on September 23, 2012


Granite: Standardized classification system based on composition.
Hominids: No consensus, reliability, or validity for cross-species comparisons.
What? You've never heard of Haplogroups?
Granite: Radiometric dating.
Hominds: Dating of genes might be possible, if only we had the genes
You should check out the abstracts from the European Society for the study of Human Evolution 2012 meeting (PDF). Susanna Sawyer et al. compare neanderthal and denisovan genomes from the Altai
posted by Human Flesh at 5:56 AM on September 24, 2012


Evolutionary psychology is the branch of evolutionary biology that studies behaviour.

You keep saying this, but I know an awful lot of behavioral ecologists and evolutionary biologists who study animal behavior who would disagree. They do not consider themselves to be "evolutionary psychologists" or the research that they do to be "evolutionary psychology" Perhaps "evolutionary psychology is one field in which the evolutionary basis of behavior is studied" would be a more accurate description.

I do not believe human behavior is exempt from biology. I'm a biology professor for goodness sake! But I do acknowledge the many decades of research by anthropologists, psychologists, and sociologists which show that culture is one evolved aspect of being human and that it plays a very large role in human behavior. In general, I don't teach human behavior in my biology classes, leaving that up to the several departments of social science on campus. Many EP proponents don't seem to notice that culture exists as a gigantic influence on human behavior, one that seems to change at the population scale at a much more rapid rate and be much more diverse than human alleles.
posted by hydropsyche at 7:55 AM on September 24, 2012


Human exceptionalists can accept most theories in biology as long as they're not applied to humans. Exceptionalists bristle, though, when someone points out that human behaviour isn't exempt from the principles of biology.

How is it exceptionalism to demand that hypotheses about the evolution of behavior in human beings be held to the same standard of evidence as claims about the evolution of metabolic features in bacteria?

On the contrary, I'd say that evolutionary psychologists are engaged in a form of human exceptionalism in that hypotheses about the behavioral traits humans have are fielded with a much lower standard of evidence than traits elsewhere in evolutionary biology. That and the ridiculous infatuation with the pleistocene is weird given how much of human cognition and behavior appears to be common among mammals and/or vertebrates.

There's something deeply weird going on when behaviorists and cognitivists are accused of supernaturalism and/or exceptionalism. The entire premise of behaviorism is that conditioning (a trait far better studied than anything the evpsych school has fielded on sexuality) is a cognitive characteristic shared among vertebrates, and therefore, the learning processes of rats, pigeons, monkeys, dogs, and humans differ in degree, but not kind. Cognitive psychology likewise can point to the ways in which vertebrates appear to process information in similar ways. (Just across my feeds this week, New Caledonian Crows and human children appear to make similar inferences about invisible agents.)

Behaviorists can say that conditioned learning evolved; and cognitivists can say that the inference of invisible agents evolved. We don't need to invent a causal model of unknown selective pressures on barely understood genetic factors in order to do so.

What? You've never heard of Haplogroups?

1: Show me that you can reliably measure the function of those cognitive organs at with sufficient validity to 2: show me that you can separate the genetic and environmental contributions to that behavior then 3: Show me that the distribution of that behavior is restricted to the Haplogroups. So far, that's only been done to very specific and rare forms of family-linked learning disabilities and mental illnesses.

You should check out the abstracts from the European Society for the study of Human Evolution 2012 meeting (PDF). Susanna Sawyer et al. compare neanderthal and denisovan genomes from the Altai

Not especially relevant since what matters is the specific gene for the trait in question. One can say that many blood clotting genes appear to be repurposed digestive enzymes, and propose a mechanism by which those genes became more and more specialized for clotting. We can't do that in psychology except for a handful of very specific cases.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 8:27 AM on September 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


Many EP proponents don't seem to notice that culture exists as a gigantic influence on human behavior, one that seems to change at the population scale at a much more rapid rate and be much more diverse than human alleles.

Name one.
posted by Human Flesh at 8:37 AM on September 24, 2012


There's something deeply weird going on when behaviorists and cognitivists are accused of supernaturalism and/or exceptionalism.

Who made that accusation? Behaviorism and Cognitive Science are compatible with evolutionary psychology. Cognitive scientists like Daniel Dennett write about evolutionary psychology.
posted by Human Flesh at 8:45 AM on September 24, 2012


How is it exceptionalism to demand that hypotheses about the evolution of behavior in human beings be held to the same standard of evidence as claims about the evolution of metabolic features in bacteria?

Could you please refer to specific claims that a researcher has made?
posted by Human Flesh at 8:51 AM on September 24, 2012


The term r/K selection (which is often referenced in life history theory) was coined by the famed sociobiologist (and entomologist) E. O. Wilson.

I was not aware that there was much debate about the role of K-selection on human behavior and development. The central problem for evolutionary psychology here is that K-selection among primates probably isn't pleistocene or even cenozoic in origins, and the best evidence for that influence isn't behavioral, its anatomical.

Who made that accusation? Behaviorism and Cognitive Science are compatible with evolutionary psychology. Cognitive scientists like Daniel Dennett write about evolutionary psychology.

Stephen Pinker, quite famously.

Could you please refer to specific claims that a researcher has made?

Specifically, Thornhill and Palmer strikes me as famously weak.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 9:04 AM on September 24, 2012


Thornhill and Palmer? I asked for specific claims.
posted by Human Flesh at 9:17 AM on September 24, 2012


You keep saying this, but I know an awful lot of behavioral ecologists and evolutionary biologists who study animal behavior who would disagree. They do not consider themselves to be "evolutionary psychologists" or the research that they do to be "evolutionary psychology"

You seem to have an essentialist view of the word evolutionary biology. Look at how researchers in the past tried to distance themselves from the term sociobiology by inventing the term evolutionary psychology (arguably, there are differences between sociobiology and evopsych).

Researchers have good reason to avoid the tired debates that surround evopsych. Look at the invectives above. Would you like to be called a Nazi who makes up just-so stories? Someone apparently thinks that behavioural genetics can be dismissed like astrology.

After having a pitcher of water poured on his head at a meeting for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, E. O. Wilson said the incident, 'may be the only occasion in recent American history on which a scientist was physically attacked, however mildly, simply for the expression of an idea.'
posted by Human Flesh at 9:37 AM on September 24, 2012


1: Show me that you can reliably measure the function of those cognitive organs at with sufficient validity

I don't know what you're talking about. What do you mean by cognitive organs?

2: show me that you can separate the genetic and environmental contributions to that behaviour then

Researchers sometimes compare monozygotic twins to dizygotic twins.

3: Show me that the distribution of that behavior is restricted to the Haplogroups.

What? I can't parse that sentence.

So far, that's only been done to very specific and rare forms of family-linked learning disabilities and mental illnesses.

Maybe you should read this PDF.
posted by Human Flesh at 9:56 AM on September 24, 2012


No, I just think that there are different, sometimes overlapping disciplines in science and that people are allowed to identify themselves and their discipline rather than having a new name thrust upon work they have been doing under a different name for decades.

For instance, I am an ecosystem ecologist. I have a lot in common with microbial ecologists and geochemists, but ultimately we all have slightly different areas of expertise, slightly different backgrounds, slightly different commonly used techniques, etc. We work together sometimes. We also work separately on similar questions, but come at them from different angles. I think that sort of multi-disciplinarity in science is good, that fertile ground can be found in multi-disciplinarity, and new discoveries can be made by continuously asking questions in different ways.

You seem to want to call people evolutionary psychologists who do not call themselves that, for instance physical anthropologists, behavioral ecologists, or evolutionary biologists who include behavioral homologies in their study. I'm not sure why you feel like old disciplines have to be given a new name, a name which those researchers themselves do not identify with.
posted by hydropsyche at 10:00 AM on September 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Human Flesh: Thornhill and Palmer? I asked for specific claims.

It's not my problem if you don't recognize one of the seminal works in this debate.

I don't know what you're talking about. What do you mean by cognitive organs?

It's also not my problem if you don't recognize one of the fundamental theoretical claims made by evolutionary psychologists that distinguish them from other forms of psychology.

Researchers sometimes compare monozygotic twins to dizygotic twins.

Yes, and twins studies have been complicated by the fact that twins usually share a common cultural, if not familial environment. But twins studies are only helpful for pinning down genetic contributions to variance if you have a rigorous instrument for measuring the trait in question.

What? I can't parse that sentence.

It's also not my problem if you're ignorant of one of the basic concepts of cladistic analysis.

Maybe you should read this PDF.

Again, irrelevant because the paper only points to genetic correlations among traits (not very controversial). They do not identify the the specific genes in question. It's also not my problem if you're ignorant of how evolutionary hypotheses are developed using molecular biology.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 10:08 AM on September 24, 2012


I'm not sure why you feel like old disciplines have to be given a new name, a name which those researchers themselves do not identify with.

The name doesn't matter. I'm just trying to figure out what claims people are refuting besides the claim that the nervous and endocrine systems evolved. Sometimes it's good to avoid certain terms in order to understand an argument.
posted by Human Flesh at 10:29 AM on September 24, 2012


It's not my problem if you don't recognize one of the seminal works in this debate.

It is if you want to be clear. Why did you even bother to reply? Were you just trying to announce your superiority?
posted by Human Flesh at 10:31 AM on September 24, 2012


It is if you want to be clear.

If you're going to presume to lecture other disciplines, perhaps you should have a basic understanding of them, as well as the basics of the theory you're advocating, and the history of key works in this debate.

Evolutionary psychology makes two interrelated claims:

1: human cognition can be described modularly as a set of evolved cognitive organs
2: these cognitive organs can best be understood in terms of adaptive explanations about the ancestral environment.

My objection to #1 comes from psychology. Most human behaviors have not been described with sufficient validity or reliability in order to create a "taxonomic" model.

My objection to #2 comes from biology. Adaptive explanations for traits require a fair bit more evidence than is currently available for most human behaviors. This goes back to #1. Until genetic contributions to behavior are pinned down with a better reliability than exists currently, credible adaptive explanations are untestable.

(Note that this isn't a denial that the trait evolved. I can say that humans evolved a limited short-term memory without theorizing about the number of sabertooth tigers that pre-human primates faced.)

To use an example of just-soism that I don't find to be credible: the loving-uncle/aunt theory of homosexuality as a form of kin selection. Is it plausible? Possibly. However human sexuality has not been studied to such an extent that we can reliably talk about it just on the terms of behavior, much less as a cognitive organ. We don't have a solid genetic model that allows us to say how many genes are involved, much less what kind of selective pressure(s) might have been involved. We can't say that this is a sign of a caveman mind vs. a chimp mind vs. a monkey mind or even a vertebrate mind.

Again, it isn't a denial that the trait evolved. I can say that the population genetics lottery likely contributed to my sexuality, without needing to speculate about the family and kinship structures of my evolutionary ancestors. Without a solid quantitative model of how nature v. nurture works in that area, it's all back-of-the-napkin bullshit.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 11:44 AM on September 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


I am not anywhere near a biologist (just a random internet idiot basically) but this Slate article sums up my aversion to BS Evo Psych theories I see tossed around all the time: New Study Is Good News for Women Who Want Men Who Cook and Clean



There’s nothing inherently wrong with evolutionary psychology—our thoughts and behaviors have been shaped by millions of years of hominid evolutionary history ... But too often ... Researchers identify a pattern of behavior, usually some stereotypical sex difference (in part because it’s easy to measure whether men and women score differently on a standardized test), construct a scenario in which that behavior would have been adaptive in the distant past, and say the behavior is therefore evolutionarily selected and encoded in our genes.
...
It’s tricky to disprove the notion that some human trait is the result of evolution. The logic is circular: if some trait exists, it must not have been fatal to our ancestors and it may have helped them reproduce. To critique a claim of evolutionary privilege, you have to show that the trait has no genetic component and therefore can’t be inherited, or demonstrate that the trait is instilled by culture, not necessarily biology.
...
And that’s the real lesson of evolutionary psychology. The main quality evolution acted on over all those millions of years was our ability to adapt

-- Laura Helmuth
posted by Golden Eternity at 12:01 PM on September 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


Golden Eternity, that made my day.

Not to mention that the mate selection stuff just falls apart when you include same-sex couplings! (Unless you get them to tell you which one of them is the "man" in the relationship?)
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 12:45 PM on September 24, 2012


My objection to #1 comes from psychology. Most human behaviors have not been described with sufficient validity or reliability in order to create a "taxonomic" model.

Experimental ablation and studies on brain damage are good evidence for brain modularity.

My objection to #2 comes from biology. Adaptive explanations for traits require a fair bit more evidence than is currently available for most human behaviours.

Our feeding and mating behaviours either evolved or they're the product of intelligent design. What's the alternative? The evidence of evolution is much stronger than the evidence for the idea that gods (or other powerful beings) gave us the capacity to find food and sex reinforcing.

I can say that humans evolved a limited short-term memory without theorizing about the number of sabertooth tigers that pre-human primates faced.

Do you understand that that's a straw man, or do you really think that sabertooth tigers are an essential part of evopsych?

To use an example of just-soism that I don't find to be credible: the loving-uncle/aunt theory of homosexuality as a form of kin selection. Is it plausible? Possibly.

A poorly supported theory doesn't invalidate a domain of study.
posted by Human Flesh at 3:17 PM on September 24, 2012


I think you need to read that entire comment again. Talk about straw men.

CBrachyrhynchos was not saying human beings did not evolve, and accusing them of arguing in favor of intelligent design or special creation demonstrates that you are not arguing in good faith.

CBrachyrhynchos as just saying that it's a long way from stating the obvious "all human beings, like every other living thing on hurt, are the products of evolution" and saying "these particular human behaviors are related to the conditions of our Paleozoic ancestors". The former is something that every biologist on earth agrees with. The latter is currently complete conjecture of the sort that is largely rejected in evolutionary biology.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:29 PM on September 24, 2012


"these particular human behaviors are related to the conditions of our Paleozoic ancestors"

That sounds like an objection to the finer details of a theory, not an objection to the validity of a discipline.
posted by Human Flesh at 4:58 PM on September 24, 2012


The latter is currently complete conjecture of the sort that is largely rejected in evolutionary biology.

But not evopsych? Is the tenuous (or absent) support one of the things that you look for before deciding to classify something as evopsych?
posted by Human Flesh at 5:06 PM on September 24, 2012


Yes, my experience is that purporting to be EP operates at a lower standard of evidence than that purporting to be evolutionary biology, physical anthropology, or behavioral ecology. As the FPP shows, this is a commonly held belief among biologists such as Gould, etc.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:22 PM on September 24, 2012


Don't you think it's problematic that your definition of evolutionary psychology is something that no evolutionary psychologist would accept?
posted by Human Flesh at 5:34 PM on September 24, 2012


Our feeding and mating behaviours either evolved or they're the product of intelligent design. What's the alternative?

Isn't it possible that we evolved a capacity to incorporate a huge variety of different learned behaviors that are not encoded directly in our genes but as a sort of blank slate on which all kinds of different cultural traits could be imprinted? Perhaps this sort of thing has given humans an advantage over other species - and as an unintended consequence gave us the ability to invent all kinds of ridiculous nonsense, religious or otherwise. This seems like a bad form of argument. Either (insert my idea here) is true or creationism must be true. I think we can concede that Evo Psych speculation makes more sense than creationism, but don't we need a higher standard than that before an idea is given credibility as a scientific study? This seems like a we-must-know-everything-or-religion-is-true thei-phobic mentality. It is interesting that some of the most homophobic people turn out to be gay; it seems to me that some of the most thei-phobic people form beliefs in a religious manner - there must be an answer for everything and little if any standard of evidence is required.
posted by Golden Eternity at 5:36 PM on September 24, 2012


CBrachyrhynchos was not saying human beings did not evolve, and accusing them of arguing in favor of intelligent design or special creation demonstrates that you are not arguing in good faith.

I'm trying to get CBrachyrhynchos to voice objections to a particular field of study without resorting to straw man definitions of the field of study. Evopsych is obviously wrong if you define it a pseudoscience. The term evolutionary psychology can have a non-pejorative meaning, though.

I can understand religious objections to the idea that our nervous system evolved. I have a hard time modelling the person who usually accepts the evolutionary perspective, yet feels the need to define evopsych as a pseudoscience.
posted by Human Flesh at 5:39 PM on September 24, 2012


Isn't it possible that we evolved a capacity to incorporate a huge variety of different learned behaviors that are not encoded directly in our genes but as a sort of blank slate on which all kinds of different cultural traits could be imprinted?

Geneticists don't deny the existence of culture.

I think we can concede that Evo Psych speculation makes more sense than creationism, but don't we need a higher standard than that before an idea is given credibility as a scientific study?

Evolutionary psychology is a domain of inquiry. Whether or not any given evopsych paper is cogent is different from the question of whether or not the field of evopsych should exist. Is the idea that we have behavioural adaptations really that controversial?
posted by Human Flesh at 6:05 PM on September 24, 2012


Experimental ablation and studies on brain damage are good evidence for brain modularity.

But not necessarily behavioral modularity above a certain level of complexity.

Our feeding and mating behaviours either evolved or they're the product of intelligent design. What's the alternative?

There's an important difference between arguing that something is an evolved trait, and arguing for a specific adaptive explanation. The latter is not generally necessary for evolutionary biology, it's not necessary at all for psychology.

I'm trying to get CBrachyrhynchos to voice objections to a particular field of study without resorting to straw man definitions of the field of study.

It's not a straw man, it's the definition of the field as expressed by advocates such as Stephen Pinker and developed by researchers such as the above mentioned Thornhill and Palmer. What I described above is specifically, how evolutionary psychologists distinguish themselves from behavioral psychology and cognitive psychology (both of which agree that the mind is an evolved system.)
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 6:54 PM on September 24, 2012


Which "specific adaptive explanation" is essential to your definition of evolutionary psychology?
posted by Human Flesh at 7:09 PM on September 24, 2012


Which "specific adaptive explanation" is essential to your definition of evolutionary psychology?

Well again, a central problem in evolutionary psychology is "just-soism," the attempt to explain modern psychological human traits as not just features of an evolved organism, but the product of imagined ancestral environments that apply a specific type of selective pressure on human genes. For example, in "How the Mind Works" Pinker attempts to explain childhood food preferences in terms of paleolithic parenting styles and poison avoidance. But we don't know whether this trait actually originated in the paleolithic, have little understanding of how earlier species of humans may have raised children, and the actual selective mechanisms at work may not be obvious.

Setting aside the problem that young children stick a variety of things in their mouth anyway, this additional "just-soism" provides little descriptive power beyond what developmental psychologists have already said about children, that they're the product of complex and explosive neurological and hormonal changes. Pinker's claim relies on some shaky assumptions about the ancestral environment. (Exactly how varied was the diet at that point? What was the abundance of non-noxious but toxic plants?) The trait may even be maladaptive if there's considerable seasonal changes. The developmental effects of extended breastfeeding are not addressed in the model. And there's no way to test among alternative models of paleolithic culture.

This isn't just a problem of evolutionary psychology by the way, it's a problem for evolutionary biology. A key difference here is that advocates of evolutionary biology are willing to admit that they dont' know (due to a lack of comparative features or evidence) exactly how a particular trait developed, in contrast to advocates of evolutionary psychology who huff and puff about exceptionalism and supernaturalism when their just-soism is challenged.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 6:04 AM on September 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


Evolutionary psychology is a field of study, not an assertion made by Steven Pinker. If there were a branch of biology that studied the same things that evolutionary psychologists study, but was referred to as something other than evolutionary psychology, would you be happy?
posted by Human Flesh at 6:12 AM on September 25, 2012


Human Flesh: What you can't seem to grok is that there's evolutionary psychology is more than just a field of study, it's a particular school of thought that makes specific methodological and theoretical claims.

There already is a field of study that looks at human behavior as an evolved system, it's called psychology interestingly enough.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 8:27 AM on September 25, 2012


'The psychologist looks at a human behavior, and says, without a shred of evidence, that it evolved in a science-fiction model of Australopithecine hunter-gatherer sexual selection.'

Would you endorse the above statement?

I think it's important to distinguish the subject matter of a discipline from the claims made by individual researchers. Your description of evopsych methodology isn't one that someone in the field would accept. It's possible to criticise a paper without glibly dismissing a broad and multi-faceted discipline.
posted by Human Flesh at 9:21 AM on September 25, 2012


If you're going to maliciously edit quotes to remove key words, we're done here.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 9:42 AM on September 25, 2012


I don't think you understand my motive for removing the word evolutionary.
posted by Human Flesh at 9:49 AM on September 25, 2012


I understood your motive. Your motive did not justify the malicious edit, because it's framed in terms of a question that I've already clearly stated an answer to.

I'll point to the definition of evolutionary psychology from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as a point of reference. "What is important to note about the research guided by these theoretical tenets above is that all behavior is best explained in terms of underlying psychological mechanisms that are adaptations for solving a particular set of problems that humans faced at one time in our ancestry." (emphasis added)

That, in turn, is based on Tooby and Cosmides, which I don't have access to so here is a statement of the field by Cosmides and Tooby
"The key to understanding how the modern mind works is to realize that its circuits were not designed to solve the day-to-day problems of a modern American -- they were designed to solve the day-to-day problems of our hunter-gatherer ancestors." (emphasis added)
That strikes me as a problem because some forms of cognition (such as conditioning and vision) appear to be much much older than the last 10-million years of hominid evolution. Further on they make it clear that evolutionary psychology is adaptationist rather than phylogenic.
"Adaptations are problem-solving machines, and can be identified using the same standards of evidence that one would use to recognize a human-made machine: design evidence.... Finding that an architectural element solves an adaptive problem with "reliability, efficiency, and economy" is prima facie evidence that one has located an adaptation (Williams, 1966)."
Well, that's well and good, but prima facie design evidence is only the start of a hypothesis. You still need to test the hypothesis that an adaptation was a response to this problem rather than that problem. For reasons I've stated above, I don't find this design logic to be generally testable as applied to human behavior. It's not testable for a wide variety of traits in biology. Even something as simple as design logic applied to camouflage and mimicry can be deceptive.
"Their focus on adaptive problems that arose in our evolutionary past has led EPs to apply the concepts and methods of the cognitive sciences to many nontraditional topics: the cognitive processes that govern cooperation, sexual attraction, jealousy, parental love, the food aversions and timing of pregnancy sickness, the aesthetic preferences that govern our appreciation of the natural environment, coalitional aggression, incest avoidance, disgust, foraging, and so on (for review, see Barkow, Cosmides, & Tooby, 1992). By illuminating the programs that give rise to our natural competences, this research cuts straight to the heart of human nature." (emphasis added)
I don't think it does because, in their rush to look for design "evidence" (just-soism), evolutionary psychologists are jumping past a ton of problems with reliability and validity of their claims. You can't claim something is a Darwinian adaptation at all if don't have a strong model for how genetics and environment interact, and that just doesn't exist for things like cooperation or sexual attraction.

Here's a definition by Edward Hagen:
Evolutionary time, the time it takes for reproductively efficacious mutations to arise and spread in the population, is often taken to be roughly 1000-10,000 generations; for humans, that equals about 20,000-200,000 years.... A major lesson of evolutionary psychology is that if you want to understand the brain, look deeply at the environment of our ancestors as focused through the lens of reproduction. If the presumptions of evolutionary psychology are correct, the structure of our brains should closely reflect our ancestral reproductive ecology. (emphasis added)
So there's three more evolutionary psychologists that identify EP as a discipline focused on a particular theory ("stone-age brains") and method (design evidence) for examining human cognition distinct from other approaches in the field.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 11:15 AM on September 25, 2012 [4 favorites]


For the tl;dr.

Evolutionary Psychologists (Pinker, Thornhill, Palmer, Toomy, Cosmides, and Hagen) have clearly made theoretical and methodological claims dependent on speculation about the behavior of human ancestors.

Psychologists in general, do not.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 11:25 AM on September 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


That strikes me as a problem because some forms of cognition (such as conditioning and vision) appear to be much much older than the last 10-million years of hominid evolution.

Our ancestry goes back to the very first organism. There is no rule that requires researchers to focus on the years 400 000 BCE - 20 000 BCE. Evolutionary psychologists emphasise our forager past because we've been foragers for longer than we've been farmers. Mismatch theory is only one of the things that evolutionary psychologists study.

Just as there was a backlash against the copernican conception of the solar system, there is a backlash against the evolutionary perspective. People cling to creationism and hard agnosticism regarding the evolution of our behaviour for similar reasons. The hard agnostic stance seems unconvincing in light of the fact that evidence for the idea that our feeding and mating behaviours helped us is stronger than evidence for the idea that our feeding and mating behaviours are mostly maladaptive or fitness-neutral.

You can't claim something is a Darwinian adaptation at all if don't have a strong model for how genetics and environment interact, and that just doesn't exist for things like cooperation or sexual attraction.

That criticism applies to evolutionary biology—not just evolutionary psychology. Darwin didn't know how genes and their environment interact. Genes are not the only things that evolve.

A hypothesis with a moderate probability of being correct is still better than a hypothesis that has a low probability of being correct. If you accept that our brains evolved, then it follows than much of our behaviour is adaptive. Maladaptations and fitness-neutral traits exist, but they will not spread as effectively as adaptations. I've already mentioned a few of the techniques that biologists use to identify and classify selection. You don't need to understand the mechanism under which a trait is expressed in order to speculate on whether or not a trait is adaptive. Do you think that it's presumptuous to claim that the Coolidge effect and the Westermarck effect are adaptations?

What do you call the people who study the evolutionary history of behaviour if evolutionary psychologists are not up to the task? I don't think psychologist is the right word. There are plenty people who research biology and psychology who don't investigate our evolutionary history. Calling something a just-so explanation implies that the explanation lacks evidence. Every day, though, researchers gather more evidence that supports the evolutionary perspective over the creationist and agnostic positions.
posted by Human Flesh at 6:38 AM on September 26, 2012


The loving-uncle/aunt theory of homosexuality as a form of kin selection? Childhood food preferences in terms of paleolithic parenting styles and poison avoidance? None of that is important. What's important is this: we evolved. Our brains evolved. We have adaptations. Some of those adaptations are behavioural. It is possible to identify an adaptation. Though we will never have perfect certainty, every day researchers collect more data about our constitution. Some of those data give us clues about our origins.
posted by Human Flesh at 6:53 AM on September 26, 2012


Since there seems to be some disagreement about the term evolutionary psychology, lets make things more explicit.

Evolutionary psychology1: The study of the evolution of behaviour.

Evolutionary psychology2: The practice or writing just-so stories about the evolution of behaviour.

If you think that research on our evolution can be valid, then it seems like you're saying that you're a better evolutionary psychologist1 than evolutionary psychologists2.
posted by Human Flesh at 7:33 AM on September 26, 2012


Since there seems to be some disagreement about the term evolutionary psychology, lets make things more explicit.

I did in my last two posts. Science is, in part, a social practice in which theoretical ideas are expressed and refined via the process of iterative publication. It's important to note that science is quite explicitly interetextual in this regard. So I have no reason to accept a definition of evolutionary psychology different from the way in which Pinker, Thornhill, Palmer, Toomy, Cosmides, and Hagen have described their theories and methods as distinct from other approaches to human behavior.

The criticisms relevant here are not coming from creationists or people agnostic about evolution. They're coming from people demanding that evolutionary psychology be held to the same degree of theoretical and methodological rigor as evolutionary claims about birds, dinosaurs, mammals, insects, plants, and bacteria. Evolutionary psychology as defined by Cosmides and Toomy strikes me as deeply flawed in theory and practice.

That criticism applies to evolutionary biology—not just evolutionary psychology.

It does indeed. The ability to shoot down theories about evolutionary history that are not supported by the available evidence is a key feature of how evolutionary biology works. It's interesting that you can be skeptical of claims about the evolutionary history of feathers or endosymbiosis without being called a creationist or agnostic.

For example, I just learned this month (animals were never my thing) that fossil trackways are identified by their own "species" name but not strongly identified with a specific fossil species. The methodological problems in making inferences about soft-tissue distribution, behavior, and locomotion justify a fair bit of skepticism in that area, so why not here?

Do you think that it's presumptuous to claim that the Coolidge effect and the Westermarck effect are adaptations?

As a cognitive psychologist, I have no problem with saying these are adaptations. But saying that a trait is an adaptation is different from trying to develop an adaptationist theory based primarily on design evidence. (Cosmides and Toomy) The Coolidge effect arguably falsifies the theoretical assumptions described by Cosmides, Toomy, and Hagen because it's been documented in rats and hamsters. While the Westermarck effect is an adaptation, I can think of multiple causal adaptationist models and no strong way to test any of them.

What do you call the people who study the evolutionary history of behaviour if evolutionary psychologists are not up to the task?

Evolutionary biology isn't primarily about "history," especially when there's a lack of comparative, fossil, or genetic evidence one can use to build and test historical hypotheses. Quite a bit of evolutionary "history" is a black box between two points of phylogenetic comparison.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 9:36 AM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


So I have no reason to accept a definition of evolutionary psychology different from the way in which Pinker, Thornhill, Palmer, Toomy, Cosmides, and Hagen have described their theories and methods as distinct from other approaches to human behaviour.


Pinker, Thornhill, Palmer, Toomy, Cosmides, and Hagen did not confess that the practice of evolutionary psychology must involve the creation of just-so stories.
posted by Human Flesh at 9:50 AM on September 26, 2012


The criticisms relevant here are not coming from creationists or people agnostic about evolution.

I didn't mean agnostic about all evolution. I meant agnostic about the validity of evolutionary psychology1.
posted by Human Flesh at 9:54 AM on September 26, 2012


Evolutionary biology isn't primarily about "history," especially when there's a lack of comparative, fossil, or genetic evidence one can use to build and test historical hypotheses.

Okay, you don't like evolutionary psychology2. I don't like evolutionary psychology2 either. What do you call evolutionary psychology1?


posted by Human Flesh at 10:02 AM on September 26, 2012


I have no problem with saying these are adaptations.

It seems that we both agree with the following statements:

1. We evolved.
2. Our brains evolved.
3. We have adaptations.
4. Some of those adaptations are behavioural.
5. It is possible to identify some adaptations.
6. Though we will never have perfect certainty, every day researchers collect more data about our constitution.
7. Some of those data give us clues about the origin of some traits.


Where do we disagree?
posted by Human Flesh at 10:07 AM on September 26, 2012


It's interesting that you can be skeptical of claims about the evolutionary history of feathers or endosymbiosis without being called a creationist or agnostic.

You can either accept a position, reject a position, or be agnostic. What's the fourth option?

I would think it was strange if someone claimed to accept natural selection, but adamantly claimed that all research on the evolution of, say, the circulatory system must be pseudoscience. Of course you don't hear many objections to non-human evopsych. It's the discussions of human tendencies that ruffle feathers.
posted by Human Flesh at 10:30 AM on September 26, 2012


I don't think it does because, in their rush to look for design "evidence" (just-soism), evolutionary psychologists are jumping past a ton of problems with reliability and validity of their claims.

Your Cosmides and Toomy reference does not support the above statement.
posted by Human Flesh at 10:36 AM on September 26, 2012


The Coolidge effect arguably falsifies the theoretical assumptions described by Cosmides, Toomy, and Hagen because it's been documented in rats and hamsters.

What makes you think that?
posted by Human Flesh at 10:50 AM on September 26, 2012


Pinker, Thornhill, Palmer, Toomy, Cosmides, and Hagen did not confess that the practice of evolutionary psychology must involve the creation of just-so stories.

Not in so many words. They explicitly define evolutionary psychology in terms of the behavior and environment of extinct hominid populations. But very few behavioral hypotheses about extinct populations (of any kind) can be sufficiently tested. So you have a circular argument of using modern human behavior to make inferences about extinct hominid behavior to support claims about modern human behavior. I call that a "just-so story."

Those stories may be plausible, but plausible isn't testable.

#7 strikes me as dubious because very few claims about the cognition and behavior of extinct populations are testable. Which is all the more reason why we need to rescue the great apes while we can, because once they're dead, our empirical black box expands from ~5 MYA to ~30 MYA.

General theories about how evolution shapes behavior are probably better studied in families that have more than a half-dozen members, with all but one going extinct. Primatologists are working on comparing cognition among our closest relatives, and anthropology makes guarded claims about the development of human cognition and behavior grounded in evidence. Cognitive science studies the human mind as an evolved system.

What makes you think that?

Because Comides, Toomy, and Hagen claim that human cognition can be best understood through the problems and environment faced by extinct populations in the recent geological past. If the Coolidge effect applies to multiple mammals, then by the principle of parsimony the strongest evolutionary claim is that it developed much earlier.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 11:01 AM on September 26, 2012


Because Comides, Toomy, and Hagen claim that human cognition can be best understood through the problems and environment faced by extinct populations in the recent geological past.

When do they think the Coolidge effect first arose? When people write about the stone age mind, they don't necessarily mean that every facet of the animal's mind has its origins in the stone age.
posted by Human Flesh at 11:12 AM on September 26, 2012


#7 strikes me as dubious because very few claims about the cognition and behavior of extinct populations are testable.


I think there's a big difference between very few and none. Do you think it's possible to create a plausible account of the evolution of a behavioural trait?
posted by Human Flesh at 11:16 AM on September 26, 2012


Those stories may be plausible, but plausible isn't testable.

Some evolutionary accounts are much more plausible than others. EP1 helps us build a better model of the past. That model will never be perfect.
posted by Human Flesh at 11:22 AM on September 26, 2012


If a (wo)man is offered a fact which goes against his(her) instincts, (s)he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, (s)he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, (s)he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his(her) instincts, (s)he will accept it even on the slightest evidence. The origin of myths is explained in this way.
--Bertrand Russell
posted by Golden Eternity at 11:24 AM on September 26, 2012


#7 strikes me as dubious because very few claims about the cognition and behavior of extinct populations are testable.

If your epistemological stance is so agnostic that you can't support #7, why do you accept 1-6? Don't they run into testability problems too?
posted by Human Flesh at 11:38 AM on September 26, 2012


If your epistemological stance is so agnostic that you can't support #7, why do you accept 1-6? Don't they run into testability problems too?

The beauty and triumph of evolutionary biology is that you don't need to produce the missing links. You can make comparisons across hundreds of species in dozens of families and infer common-ancestor relationships. I can say that human cognition evolved because the characteristics of human cognition and behavior are perfectly compatible with behavioral, anatomical, physiological, and genetic common ancestor relationships across primates, mammals, and vertebrates. So I don't need to understand the behavior or environment of Homo erectus or Pan prior or the ur-stimulus-response vertebrate in order to say that human cognition evolved. 1-6 are descriptive claims that can be supported via phylogenetic comparison.

Since #7 involves modeling the specific effects of environment on population genetics, I think it's a lot harder to do with extinct populations of organisms.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 2:33 PM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Since #7 involves modeling the specific effects of environment on population genetics

That's not what I meant when I wrote #7.
posted by Human Flesh at 2:39 PM on September 26, 2012


I can say that human cognition evolved because the characteristics of human cognition and behavior are perfectly compatible with behavioral, anatomical, physiological, and genetic common ancestor relationships across primates, mammals, and vertebrates.

So what do you call EP1 if you don't like the term evolutionary psychology?
posted by Human Flesh at 2:44 PM on September 26, 2012


So I don't need to understand the behavior or environment of Homo erectus or Pan prior or the ur-stimulus-response vertebrate in order to say that human cognition evolved.

Neither do evolutionary psychologists.
posted by Human Flesh at 2:47 PM on September 26, 2012


They explicitly define evolutionary psychology in terms of the behavior and environment of extinct hominid populations.

Not exclusively. I don't think any evolutionary psychologists think the limbic system originated in the miocene.
posted by Human Flesh at 3:06 PM on September 26, 2012


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