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"5 Ways Psychology Needs to Evolve"
February 18, 2013 12:50 PM   Subscribe

On the veldt psychologists often had to resort to just so stories to explain human behaviour, which is why we evolved five methods to make evolutionary psychology better.
posted by MartinWisse (33 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite

 
One thing that underlies a lot of this that didn't get mentioned there, but I've seen elsewhere, is that humans are very prone to teleological thinking. The idea that things and processes have purposes pollutes the language of evolution all over, but particularly in evo-psych. (Heck, it even gets overused in poli-sci, where people explicitly do set up processes with aims, but just because a process was set up that way doesn't mean the outcome was intended, e.g. the two party process coming out of winner-take-all elections.)

Any time anyone tells you that something evolved to do something else, it deserves a cocked eyebrow. It's an easy shorthand, but it can be really distorting when thinking about stuff like this. (And just as a hunch, I'd say that the general teleological outlook of a lot of organized religion really plays into this.)
posted by klangklangston at 1:12 PM on February 18, 2013 [22 favorites]


To add a sixth, evolutionary psych is most plausible when it works from the bottom up rather than the top down.

Are some emotions basic? If so, how many of them are there, and how are they related to our non-basic emotions? What is the neuroanatomical basis of these emotions? Do they occur in other mammals, or are we only projecting if we think that anger in chimpanzees is anything like anger in humans? Having done all that, then you can start constructing testable theories about the evolutionary history of emotion and why having the ability to feel disgust was adaptive. A lot of work like that has been done and it's really interesting.

It seems to me that evolutionary psychology is in about the same place as early modern astronomy: some researchers doing solid empirical work and sorting out the fundamentals, others building grand, weakly grounded theories and some still doing astrology.

I'd say that the general teleological outlook of a lot of organized religion

You might be interested in work that's being done on the origins of teleological thinking.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 1:25 PM on February 18, 2013 [7 favorites]


When I think of evo psych I like to imagine a slightly mad-looking fellow sitting at a table in a big library, staring at all his notes as he frantically whispers "but WHY is my penis not blue?!"
posted by Doleful Creature at 1:41 PM on February 18, 2013 [11 favorites]


I think the larger problem with evopsych is it tends to attract the kind of dudes who justify staring at women's chests or, for that matter, leering at underage girls with "Heh, I can't help it, it's EVOLUTION. I'm just naturally attracted to them." It's the Reddit of psychological fields.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 1:43 PM on February 18, 2013 [18 favorites]


jstyutk - was there supposed to be a specific paper about the origins of teleological thinking at the "Centre for Human Evolution, Cognition, and Culture" site?
posted by thelonius at 1:49 PM on February 18, 2013


The insistance on adaptationist explanations, particularly ones located within the recent evolutionary past, strikes me as odd from a biological point of view. It's often the case that we can do little more than describe when a trait likely originated in a common ancestor, and I don't think psychology is even to that stage.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 1:53 PM on February 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


One thing that underlies a lot of this that didn't get mentioned there, but I've seen elsewhere, is that humans are very prone to teleological thinking.

Very true; what's more, we're also prone to imputing teleology/intentionality to processes which are actually teleonomic (via Wikipedia):

the quality of apparent purposefulness and of goal-directedness of structures and functions in living organisms that derive from their evolutionary history, adaptation for reproductive success, or generally, due to the operation of a program. Teleonomy is related to programmatic or computational aspects of purpose.
posted by clockzero at 1:54 PM on February 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


My Bio 101 professor spent a full class explaining the problems with much of the theorizing in this area. That lecture has been of more use to me than anything else I learned from her. This sort of stuff is constantly in the news and a million guys want to explain the supposed evolutionary basis for why they can't get a date.
posted by Area Man at 2:06 PM on February 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


Ghostride The Whip, did you see this piece by the same author that was linked in the article? A guy writes in trying to argue that hebephilia (a sexual preference for pubescent children) is part of the "normal male sex drive". Clancy does a very thorough job of taking apart why it would not qualify as an adaptive trait resulting from natural selection, and how it's actually counter-productive to reproductive success more often than not.

Note, she isn't saying that a behaviour should be permissible if it is indeed a result of natural selection, merely that this pseudo-scientific bastion of "but my evolutionary sexual needs are being repressed by society" is just as much of a nonstarter as any other qualitative arguments (or lack thereof).
posted by Phire at 2:18 PM on February 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


What a great article. I hate the prescriptive nature of Evo Psych. You never see them saying "Well, we evolved to be selfish, so we need to drastically alter our genes in order to save the world." Nope. All you ever hear is "We evolved to be selfish, so my selfishness makes me better than you!"
posted by rebent at 2:24 PM on February 18, 2013 [5 favorites]


From clockzero's link on teleonomy: The term was coined to stand in contrast with teleology, which applies to ends that are planned by an agent which can internally model/imagine various alternative futures and, enables intention, purpose and foresight. A teleonomic process, such as evolution, produces complex products without the benefit of a guiding foresight.

We are the Shakespeare written by those infinite monkeys on their infinite typewriters, selected by a harsh editor.
posted by Mental Wimp at 2:25 PM on February 18, 2013 [5 favorites]


Biologists make a wide variety of claims involving evolution, which requires different kinds of evidence and standards for falsifiability:

1: This trait evolved.
2: This trait evolved in a common ancestor of a given phylogenetic group.
3: This trait evolved in a common ancestor of this group during a given time period.
4: This trait evolved as a product of a specific selective pressure.

Most of psychology tends to fall squarely into #1, with allowances made for environmental factors. Evolutionary psychology (as defined by people claiming themselves such) jumps to #4 having made multiple assumptions about 1-3. And I don't think you can generally make that jump.

Certainly not through Likert-scale surveys of graduate students.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 2:28 PM on February 18, 2013 [7 favorites]


I did, Phire, that's what got me thinking about it.

I think a lot of the ideas of evolutionary psychology are interesting, but I know I personally (and I suspect a lot of others) see a "well according to evolutionary psychology" lead-in and roll our eyes expecting another justification of various terrible behaviors or sexism "because evolution, nothing we can do!"

But, for example, I've been doing some reading on emotion and anxiety disorders basically being the same "Holy crap, a lion! Freak out! ALL SYSTEMS ON ALERT!" reaction mis-wired to mundane things like speaking in public or strangers, and I find that really, really interesting.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 2:45 PM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


I mostly agree with this article.

But I'm not really thrilled with the "W.E.I.R.D." acronym. A person or a culture isn't "Industrialized", the country or society they live in is. A government is "Democratic". Not everyone in the West is "Rich" (who are almost always "Educated"), but if this is a specific sub-set, then call them "Affluent" or "Vile Bodies". If we're only talking about undergrads in psych experiments, then call them "Undergrads". If we're merely talking about people who live in the Western-World in general, then just call them "Western".
posted by ovvl at 3:25 PM on February 18, 2013


jstyutk - was there supposed to be a specific paper

One place to start on the cognitive and psychological foundations of religious ritual is McCauley & Lawson's book Bringing Ritual to Mind. Also, a nice long stack of papers by McCauley. Here's a paper on the naturalness of religion that gives some of the basics. We've got fairly solid evidence that humans tend to anthropomorphize causation, that agent-based narratives are easy for us to remember, etc. (p.23-26) On that basis we can start asking why existing religions in various cultures have the commonalities we observe. The payoff of the book is a set of predictions about the ways systems of religious rituals change over time. It's all pretty dry reading, but it sure beats the Headline: Breaking News approach of bad evolutionary psych.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 4:21 PM on February 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


"But I'm not really thrilled with the "W.E.I.R.D." acronym. A person or a culture isn't "Industrialized", the country or society they live in is. A government is "Democratic". Not everyone in the West is "Rich" (who are almost always "Educated"), but if this is a specific sub-set, then call them "Affluent" or "Vile Bodies". If we're only talking about undergrads in psych experiments, then call them "Undergrads". If we're merely talking about people who live in the Western-World in general, then just call them "Western"."

That's a weird (no pun intended) objection to a critique of oversampling, and one that reads as oddly provincial. To begin with, undergrads in Western countries are relatively rich compared to the global median, even if individually they're poor compared to other Americans. But that really gets to how misplaced this objection is — you're thinking about these folks as individuals and these labels not representing their (likely your) unique snowflake existence. But it's a descriptor of a population where these attributes do all overlap enough to be generalizable (and that's part of the problem).
posted by klangklangston at 4:38 PM on February 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


Evolutionary psychology, the study of human psychological adaptations, does not have a popular or scientific reputation for being rigorous, even though there are rigorous, thoughtful scientists in the field.


Oh man. Even science writers on the subject make baseless claims.

Please, this is not so much about rigor, as it is about a splinter field that is based on notions so fundamentally flawed that everything that follows is poisoned. The field is basically a study in reducing things to complete absurdities.
posted by clvrmnky at 5:44 PM on February 18, 2013


Ghostride The Whip, did you see this piece by the same author that was linked in the article? A guy writes in trying to argue that hebephilia (a sexual preference for pubescent children) is part of the "normal male sex drive".

Oh my God that guy. It is, as has often been lamented, impossible to punch somebody in the face over the internet, but here Clancy demonstrates that at least it is possible to punch somebody in the face with science over the internet.
posted by Countess Elena at 6:17 PM on February 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


One thing that underlies a lot of this that didn't get mentioned there, but I've seen elsewhere, is that humans are very prone to teleological thinking.

Well put. When I run into things like this, my go-to response is that we need to remember that evolution is entirely rear-wheel drive, so to speak. It only pushes, never pulls.

Well, that's not entirely true, but the exception is I think what throws so many people (laypeople, generally) off about it - breeding. That is to say intentional breeding as applied by humans to other species. To most people, science is about as about as its application, and this is as close to an "application" of evolution as most people will ever come near, so it's understandable that the fallacies would occur.
posted by Navelgazer at 8:58 PM on February 18, 2013



What a great article. I hate the prescriptive nature of Evo Psych. You never see them saying "Well, we evolved to be selfish, so we need to drastically alter our genes in order to save the world." Nope. All you ever hear is "We evolved to be selfish, so my selfishness makes me better than you!"


No one has ever, ever said this.

On the other hand, opponents of evolutionary psychology have imputed this motive to its practitioners more times than I can count.
posted by lambdaphage at 9:18 PM on February 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


Whatever the flaws of evo psych, at least it acknowledges the biological fact that women have babies and men don't, and that this has important implications for human courtship and sexuality, and that alone means it possesses much more insight than its most vehement opponents ever will. Craigslist casual encounters, anyone?
posted by bookman117 at 12:23 AM on February 19, 2013


o_0

Tell me more of your "Women have babies" theory I am sure it will be rigorous and insightful
posted by klangklangston at 12:25 AM on February 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Please, this is not so much about rigor, as it is about a splinter field that is based on notions so fundamentally flawed that everything that follows is poisoned. The field is basically a study in reducing things to complete absurdities.

Compared to the rigorous logical and scientific foundation of every other kind of pyschology?
posted by empath at 2:18 AM on February 19, 2013


That's a weird (no pun intended) objection to a critique of oversampling, and one that reads as oddly provincial. To begin with, undergrads in Western countries are relatively rich compared to the global median, even if individually they're poor compared to other Americans...

Well, yes, of course. This is the problem with the WEIRD description, which frame of reference do you want, global or American? If it's an American reference, then rich doesn't always apply. If it's a global reference, then E,I,R,D are all implied if you say Western in the first place.

But that really gets to how misplaced this objection is — you're thinking about these folks as individuals and these labels not representing their (likely your) unique snowflake existence. But it's a descriptor of a population where these attributes do all overlap enough to be generalizable (and that's part of the problem).

Hey Klangs, I'm not OPMUS, you are.
(Odd, Provincial, Misplaced, Unique, Snowflake)

(But actually, I do come from a province.)
posted by ovvl at 5:36 AM on February 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Wait a minute, the person who wrote this article studies the evolution, energetics, and endocrinology of female reproductive cycles. If there is anyone who understands the effects of women having babies on behavior and biology, it is probably Dr. Clancy.
posted by ChuraChura at 5:58 AM on February 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Um. Are there lots of scientists who deny that women have babies and men don't? I'm curious to learn about this scientific discipline of yours, that is so easily trumped by the academic rigours of evo-psych.
posted by Phire at 7:27 AM on February 19, 2013


Misguided Nostalgia For Our Paleo Pasts
In short, we have what the anthropologist Leslie Aiello, president of the renowned Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, called "paleofantasies." She was referring to stories about human evolution based on limited fossil evidence, but the term applies just as well to the idea that our modern lives are out of touch with the way human beings evolved and that we need to redress the imbalance. Newspaper articles, morning TV, dozens of books, and self-help advocates promoting slow-food or no-cook diets, barefoot running, sleeping with our infants, and other measures large and small claim that it would be more natural, and healthier, to live more like our ancestors. A corollary to this notion is that we are good at things we had to do back in the Pleistocene, like keeping an eye out for cheaters in our small groups, and bad at things we didn't, like negotiating with people we can't see and have never met.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:06 AM on February 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Opponents of evolutionary psychology must come to terms with the fact that it is evolutionary biology itself that is the problem. We need a new paradigm for biology, which will in turn furnish a rational basis for psychology. Condemning evolutionary psychology is merely striking at the branch, when what is needed is to kill the root, ie. evolutionary biology.
posted by No Robots at 8:22 AM on February 19, 2013


Newspaper articles, morning TV, dozens of books ... claim that it would be more natural, and healthier, to live more like our ancestors.

A corollary to this notion is that we are good at things we had to do back in the Pleistocene, like keeping an eye out for cheaters in our small groups, and bad at things we didn't, like negotiating with people we can't see and have never met.


That is not a corollary to that notion, it is a completely separate idea. The first is the naturalistic fallacy, the second is a set of empirical questions that have real implications for how we understand ourselves.
posted by AceRock at 8:40 AM on February 19, 2013


lambdaphage: "No one has ever, ever said this.

On the other hand, opponents of evolutionary psychology have imputed this motive to its practitioners more times than I can count.
"

Yes, perhaps I was indulging in a bit of hyperbole. Mostly it is just the headlines that say this, followed by the moral outcry of "how dare you science away my religion!" which is a response I also despise.

Come to think of it, I'm just as uncomfortable having people prescribe religious morals despite scientific evidence, as I am to have people use science to promote "natural" values that contradict my values. I guess in the end, I like my values regardless of who disagrees with them.
posted by rebent at 9:15 AM on February 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think we could have a much better discussion if folks were willing to discuss the actual literature in evolutionary psychology and cite the claims they consider to be beyond the pale. Note that If the field is as rife with bunglers as folks suggest, this should be trivially easy. A good place to start would be The Adapted Mind, edited by Barkow, Cosmides and Tooby.

I have made this suggestion before, without any takers. I hope to be pleasantly surprised this time.
posted by lambdaphage at 3:53 PM on February 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Misguided Nostalgia For Our Paleo Pasts

That might deserve it's own FPP.
posted by homunculus at 5:23 PM on February 20, 2013


homunculus, you of all people should be familiar with the "add it as a link, see it days later as an FPP" phenonmenon.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 6:34 PM on February 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


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