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Feb 11 2013

Worth Getting Right

Last July, I was on a panel at SkepchickCon on gender differences. Someone from the audience asked, “Is there any good evolutionary psychology out there?”

My answer:

No.

After everyone was done laughing, I gave my real answer. I pointed out that evolutionary psychology is incredibly difficult to do well. It requires the accumulation of a lot of information that isn’t always easy or inexpensive to get. It requires lines of evidence from several disciplines to be considered together to even approach the proof required to say that the brain contains mechanisms to determine behavior that evolved in humanity’s pre-agricultural history.

Kate Clancy (of the vary appropriately named Context and Variation) has a wonderful post up today about five ways in which evolutionary psychology as usually practiced fails to meet the standards required to be considered good. She hits one of my peeves–methodology geek that I am–operationalizing variables:

In some studies of evolutionary psychology, a never-before-used variable is often created to serve as a proxy for what they really want to know. Not too long ago I took issue with a “maternal tendencies” variable. Because they couldn’t assess maternal behavior in these young, childless undergraduate women, they asked them how many children they wanted to have. The more children these eighteen and nineteen year olds wanted, the more maternal they were.

Yet desired family size at eighteen, and maternal tendencies as a future mother, are very, very different things. As I pointed out in my post on this, there is too much context-dependence embedded in when you ask women how many kids they want for it to tell you anything with much biological meaning.

So, make sure you’re measuring what you think you’re measuring. And validate the heck out of any new proxy you come up with.

Kate is always wonderful on the topic of overly simplified variables, particularly when it comes to the tendency of researchers to assume fertility rather than measuring it.

In today’s post, she also makes a great post about using undergrads for this research that had never jumped out at me before:

The two reasons oversampling from WEIRD people is bad is first that oversampling in general is bad, but second that being WEIRD puts you about as far removed from the conditions in which we evolved as you can get. WEIRD stressors are chronic and psychosocial (which makes them great if that’s your research interest, otherwise not so much). They have a lot of weird (ha ha) immune problems, possibly related to under-challenging their immune systems when young. They tend to survive the major childhood illnesses but then die of heart attacks, strokes or cancer. Many of them delay childbearing into well into their reproductive years and breastfeed for a short duration if at all, meaning they have eight to ten times as many menstrual cycles as the average forager. And they tend to have nuclear families, rather than breed cooperatively in large groups, sharing the parenting load among peers and across generations.

This makes WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) research subjects excellent for using as a contrast with, say, modern hunter-forager societies, but ought to tell you why projecting backward without a lot more evidence is a big problem.

Go read all of Kate’s post. It will go a long way toward helping you understand why a lot of us don’t find the vast majority of evolutionary psychology terribly convincing.

22 comments

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  1. 1
    Nathair

    So what would you point to as an example of the good evolutionary psychology that is out there?

  2. 2
    Steersman

    So the fact that there are 10 times as many men in prison as there are women is only a consequence of “social constructions”? That there are 4 times as many women as men who are diagnosed with histrionic personality disorder is entirely due to “The Patriarchy”? That “men have a much stronger taste for no-strings sex with multiple or anonymous partners, as we see in the almost all-male consumer base for prostitution and visual pornography” is only a figment of Steven Pinker’s imagination and totally not a case of genetic differences influencing gender specific behaviours?

    Methinks you’re hugging a little too closely several trees to notice the rather large and problematic forest.

  3. 3
    Stephanie Zvan

    Tsk, tsk. Methinks you can’t read.

    Not that I didn’t know that already. Shoo.

  4. 4
    Stephanie Zvan

    Nathair, I generally recommend Hrdy, though it isn’t your classic, module-based evo psych. I have a post I need to get time and brain power to write up that handles the evo psych implications of its topic pretty well too.

  5. 5
    Steersman

    Unless you’re prepared to refute those facts I would say they knock your null hypothesis into a cocked hat. And likewise with your consequential claim – at least by insinuation and innuendo – that evolutionary psychology has no credibility whatsoever.

    And not dealing with them doesn’t add much lustre to the claim of “Freethought”.

  6. 6
    Stephanie Zvan

    What null hypothesis are you attributing to me exactly?

  7. 7
    Steersman

    You said:

    Okay, a more full answer is that of course we recognize that genes have a direct effect on the brain. Without genes, we wouldn’t have brains. However, that isn’t what it means when we reject the idea, based on lack of discriminatory data, that a particular behavior is driven by our genes.

    It means that, given just how flexible our brains are, the body of research produced so far has failed to prove that this particular behavior, at this particular level of granularity, is determined by our genes. The null hypothesis, that our genes are responsible more generally for the organization of our brains and behavior, still stands.

    Apart from the conjecture that that seems to be either a case of sloppy editing – “we reject the idea, based on lack of discriminatory data, that a particular behavior is driven by our genes” apparently being inconsistent with the subsequent description of the null hypothesis, the likely intent being “more generally for the organization of our brains than our behaviour” – or a case of intellectual dishonesty, I would say the facts I quoted earlier are, as mentioned, just a shade inconsistent with that null hypothesis.

    And if that is the case – that genes influence strongly if not dictate gender-specific behaviour, our psychology – then I would suggest that that null hypothesis really doesn’t qualify. Rather difficult to insist that all swans are white – as an example of a null hypothesis – when one has a black one staring one in the face. At least for those with some commitment to intellectual honesty.

    But even apart from the question of the null hypothesis, you still haven’t addressed how those cases are not examples of gender-specific behaviour and psychology being determined or strongly influenced by our genetic inheritances.

    Rather remarkable that so many seem to balk at the idea that our behaviours have a significant genetic component to them. I think it can be laid at the doorstep of some fuzzy and categorical thinking – that the argument is that our behaviours have to be entirely genetic or entirely “socially constructed”, the former necessitating viewing humans as lock-step automatons – when it is rather obvious that those behaviours are idiosyncratic – showing significant variations throughout the population – and, even if genetically influenced to a greater or lesser extent, still subject to significant levels of voluntary and social control. As the American moralist Philip Wylie put it many years ago, “We aspire to the discipline of the instinct by the heart and the mind.” But bad karma – not to mention bad science – to put our heads in the sand and refuse to admit the sources of our behaviours.

  8. 8
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    Because they couldn’t assess maternal behavior in these young, childless undergraduate women, they asked them how many children they wanted to have.

    This gives n=me proxy headache.

    ————-

    Unless you’re prepared to refute those facts

    What facts were those, exactly?

    And not dealing with them doesn’t add much lustre to the claim of “Freethought”.

    A claim based on your previous, unproven assertions, both in in general and with respect to what Stephanie may or may not have said about such things.

    I’ve got an idea: Why don’t you back up your claims. Lay your cards out, as it were, so you can have a meaningful discussion, rather than attempting to play the baiting game, which doesn’t work to well. And you’re probably better than that.

  9. 9
    Steersman

    F [nucular nyandrothol] said (#198395):

    Unless you’re prepared to refute those facts

    What facts were those, exactly?

    The ones I described in my previous post (#2):

    So the fact that there are 10 times as many men in prison as there are women is only a consequence of “social constructions”? That there are 4 times as many women as men who are diagnosed with histrionic personality disorder is entirely due to “The Patriarchy”? That “men have a much stronger taste for no-strings sex with multiple or anonymous partners, as we see in the almost all-male consumer base for prostitution and visual pornography” is only a figment of Steven Pinker’s imagination and totally not a case of genetic differences influencing gender specific behaviours?

    F [nucular nyandrothol] said (#198395):

    I’ve got an idea: Why don’t you back up your claims. Lay your cards out, as it were, so you can have a meaningful discussion, rather than attempting to play the baiting game, which doesn’t work too well.

    Ok, although I wonder how willing Stephanie is to actually allow a discussion that raises questions about the “conventional wisdom” in this rather benighted neck of the woods since she has me in moderation, but here goes:

    1) 10 times as many men in prison as there are women: here;
    2) 4 times as many women as men who are diagnosed with histrionic personality disorder: here;
    3) men have a much stronger taste for no-strings sex with multiple or anonymous partners: here;

    Though it should be noted that the link for the third case is to an online copy of the Gender chapter in Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate. And while that chapter does not provide the primary sources of that piece of information, it does provide numbered references so I expect they are available in the book itself.

    In addition you might also want to read that chapter in some detail as it has a great many other cases of significant differences in behaviour by gender – or at least tendencies that are expressed to a greater or lesser extent throughout the populations of men and women.

  10. 10
    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk-

    Steersman
    Hey, how about you put up some evidence that the fact that there are 10 times more men in prison than women IS a result of biology? And why do you hate men so much?

    That “men have a much stronger taste for no-strings sex with multiple or anonymous partners, as we see in the almost all-male consumer base for prostitution and visual pornography” is only a figment of Steven Pinker’s imagination and totally not a case of genetic differences influencing gender specific behaviours?

    That’s a funny one, given that in our society the social cost for women engaging in such behaviour is so much higher than the social cost for men (if there is a cost indeed as opposed to a gain).
    Ever heard the words slut and stud?
    Now, tell me, which one of those is negatively connotated and which one positively?
    And which one describes a woman who has lots of casual sex and which one describes a man who has casual sex?

  11. 11
    Klango

    That there are 4 times as many women as men who are diagnosed with histrionic personality disorder is entirely due to “The Patriarchy”?

    So it’s either entirely down to patriarchy, or entirely down to genetic differences? How nuanced.

    Given that we know that patriarchal culture tells men to be strong and not to seek help, I think we can be confident in saying it plays at least some part in this stat (if accurate).

  12. 12
    shari

    good post – i don’t put a great deal of thought toward why an area of science – EVO-Science – is so hard to do well.

    I don’t put a lot of thought toward much at this hour as it is.

    I think another (um, sorry) variable that could screw up these types of studies is the fact that hormones in an individual (implicated in some agressive, thrill-seeking behaviour) are pretty environmentally reactive (or do I mean affected?) – i hear about a LOT of stuff that basically sucks the testosterone out of boys (and someday, there will be a parenting use for this!!) as well as data on how many friggin’ hormones are in the US water supply due to agriculture and birth control measures. And fertility treatments. To say that they could muddy the water (sorry) on causality is an understatement!

    Also, the ‘maternal” study (how many kids ya want?) is funny. At 18 I wanted none. Fair enough, I would have been a sucky parent at 18!!! When finally stable (young 30′s), I thought I wanted three or four. Having achieved two, the energy required for 3 seems unattainable…..

    Tough to make those factors hold up in a study….

  13. 13
    Nick Gotts

    Steersman, you’re making a fool of yourself. Stephanie’s thesis is here is that evolutionary psychology is extremely difficult to do well, and that the field has serious methodological problems. These claims do not imply that there are no innate psychological differences between men and women, which you are attributing to her as a hypothesis.

    That’s a funny one, given that in our society the social cost for women engaging in such behaviour is so much higher than the social cost for men (if there is a cost indeed as opposed to a gain). Ever heard the words slut and stud? – Giliell

    Even apart from that, suppose for a moment there were no such social pressures, and that men and women do not in fact differ innately in any relevant psychological respect. Which sex risks more in a casual sexual encounter, as a simple matter of observable fact? Women of fertile age risk unwanted pregnancy (unless on contraception), and are also on average at greater risk of violence or coercion, since men are on average physically stronger (I know no-one who argues that this difference is not in part innate). So if the sexes have exactly the same cognitive machinery, they will still end up behaving differently on average, because the risks they face are different. But on top of such secondary effects of physical differences, as long as society is significantly sexist, the social contingencies faced by men and women are different even when no physical differences are relevant, and we must take that into account when trying to explain current differences in their average behaviour. (As it happens, my hunch is that there are in fact some innate psychological differences between women and men on average, one obvious candidate being men’s greater physical aggressiveness. But then again, maybe that’s just an effect of being stronger, and so more likely to be successful in employing violence.)

  14. 14
    Nick Gotts

    Sorry, the middle paragraph of #10 should be blockquoted.

  15. 15
    Ben Zvan

    I did a search for good evolutionary psychology. There are at least 15 good studies, I guess, but I don’t know how well they’ve been reviewed. http://sandwalk.blogspot.ca/2009/06/great-profound-and-valuable-works-of.html

  16. 16
    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk-

    Nick Gotts
    I think your post highlights how much speculation this actually is.
    If we talk about “an evolutionary perspective”, would an unplanned pregnancy be a plus or a minus? There’s also the hypothesis that women are hornier during their fertile days, so I could equally propose that during their fertile days (which women keep pretty much a secret even to themselves) women seek lots of casual sex to increase the chance of a pregnancy.
    Thing is, we just. don’t. know.
    Same as the fear of being overpowered: How much is cultural? How would this be in a society in which bodily autonomy was truely respected? Would you still be afraid because there will always be some criminals (another assumption)? Point in case being that in Switzerland the typical front-door has a handle and is unlocked during the day. Clearly people there are not afraid of somebody sneaking in and stealing stuff or murdering them.

  17. 17
    Steersman

    Giliell, professional cynic said (#198461):

    Steersman
    Hey, how about you put up some evidence that the fact that there are 10 times more men in prison than women IS a result of biology? And why do you hate men so much?

    Hey Giliell, how about if you try to convince Stephanie to play with a full or non-stacked deck? Since I’m in moderation my earlier response providing that evidence is waiting on her pleasure or the attenuation of her peevishness.

    But, assuming this will get through here is part of the evidence again:

    1) 10 times as many men in prison as there are women: here;
    2) 4 times as many women as men who are diagnosed with histrionic personality disorder: here;
    3) men have a much stronger taste for no-strings sex with multiple or anonymous partners: here;

    And, out of curiousity, how in the hell do you manage to infer that I hate men because I suggest that that disparity – “it’s more of a guy thing” – “is a result of biology”? Seems to me that you – and a great many others – are unclear on the concept that any given individual behaviour pattern is a result of the influences of both biology and culture to a greater or lesser extent, and depending on both our own unique individual inheritances of the former, and on our perceptions and integrations of the latter.

  18. 18
    Stephanie Zvan

    Steersman, you’re acting as though simply stating that something happens means that it’s genetically determined. You’ve done that before around here and had it pointed out. Now you’re repeating the behavior.

    Are you telling me there is no social component to any of those behaviors that would vary by sex or gender? If so, go do some basic reading. If not, what evidence do you have that there is also a genetic component? (Hint: Telling me that there is a genetic component to sex differences because there are sex differences in behavior is almost a circular argument. It fails only where it can’t quite make the circle match up again.)

  19. 19
    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk-

    Steersman

    But, assuming this will get through here is part of the evidence again:

    That’s evidence of the fact. It’s not evidence of the underlying reasons. Can you read? Do you have a basic verbal competency? Hell, I though you even wrote books…
    Or do you want to claim that US Americans in general (regardless of their origin) and African Americans in specific are biologically prone to criminal behaviour than, say, Spaniards because they don’t lock up that many people? Because, duh, that’s a fact, too.

    And, out of curiousity, how in the hell do you manage to infer that I hate men because I suggest that that disparity – “it’s more of a guy thing” – “is a result of biology”

    That’s called sarcasm. It was a stab at people who constantly claim that feminists “just hate men” when I’d think that somebody who goes around telling that “criminal behaviour is more of a guy thing is biological” has a far worse concept of men than any feminist ever came up with.

    Seems to me that you – and a great many others – are unclear on the concept that any given individual behaviour pattern is a result of the influences of both biology and culture to a greater or lesser extent, and depending on both our own unique individual inheritances of the former, and on our perceptions and integrations of the latter.

    Hey, I guess almost everybody would agree with this statement. Apart from the “you don’t understand” part, of course. Now, please get from that working hypothesis to “it’s more of a guy thing”, carefully eliminating culture from your variables. And please do so keeping the history of biological explenations of human behaviour in mind, especially the history of biological explenations of male and female behaviour.

  20. 20
    anne mariehovgaard

    That there are 4 times as many women as men who are diagnosed with histrionic personality disorder is entirely due to “The Patriarchy”?

    Quite possibly, yes. Culture shapes symptoms. The main symptoms of HPD are an exaggerated version of a feminine stereotype, which makes this a more culturally acceptable disorder for a woman than, say, anti-social personality disorder. And psychiatric diagnoses are subjective; there’s no blood test, just the psychologist’s/psychiatrist’s interpretation of the patient’s behavior (including test results – that’s just a different kind of behavior). The exact same behavior is often interpreted differently depending on the person’s gender, and psychologists and psychiatrists are not immune to this tendency.

    That “men have a much stronger taste for no-strings sex with multiple or anonymous partners, as we see in the almost all-male consumer base for prostitution and visual pornography” is only a figment of Steven Pinker’s imagination and totally not a case of genetic differences influencing gender specific behaviours?

    The consumer base for visual pornograpy is not “almost all-male” – at least not now that we can find it on the net, anonymously, and don’t have to worry so much about being called sluts for liking it. And why specify “visual”? Don’t pornographic stories about no-strings sex with multiple or anonymous partners count?

    And anyone who thinks that “only a figment of NN’s imagination” and “totally true, and caused by X” are the only two alternatives needs to take Remedial Logic.

  21. 21
    Ben Zvan

    I’m still trying to figure out how “the almost all-male consumer base for prostitution and visual pornography” means that “men have a much stronger taste for no-strings sex with multiple or anonymous partners.” Even if you assume A is true, I don’t think it proves B.

  22. 22
    octopod

    All-male base for visual pornography. HAHAHAHAH

    ::goes to look at some more fan art::

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