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When in doubt, just question the motives of evolutionary psychology critics

I have disturbed and distressed Jerry Coyne, because I have dissed the entire field of evolutionary psychology. I find this very peculiar, because in my field, Jerry Coyne has a reputation for dissing all of evo devo, so it can’t possibly be that we’re supposed to automatically respect every broad scientific endeavor. There has to be something more to it than just an academic defense of a discipline. And there is, unfortunately. Here’s his prelude.

I’ve been known for a while as a critic of evolutionary psychology, particularly when it first began as “sociobiology” in the Seventies. At that time there was a lot of unsupported speculation being bruited about as “science” (i.e., human males evolved to have “rape modules”, a view that I criticized strongly). But over the decades, evolutionary psychology has matured, and I now see it as a valuable way of studying the origins of human behavior. Not that it’s all perfect—the “pop” versions, such as those produced by Satoshi Kanazawa, seem pretty dire to me, debasing a field that’s striving for scientific rigor. But even Kanazawa has been rejected by serious evolutionary psychologists.

Sadly, some self-professed skeptics have decided to debunk the entire field of evo-psych, and for reasons that I see not as scientific, but as ideological and political. That is, like the opponents of sociobiology thirty years ago, these skeptics object to the discipline because they see it as both motivated by and justifying conservative political views like the marginalization of women. Well, that may be the motivation of some people, but not, I think, of most well-known workers in evo psych, who are merely trying to study the evolutionary roots of human behavior. It pains me that skeptics are so dogmatic, so ideological, in viewing (and rejecting wholesale) a legitimate scientific field.

That second paragraph? Pure ad hominem, unsupported by evidence. I detest evolutionary psychology, not because I dislike the answers it gives, but on purely methodological and empirical grounds: it is a grandiose exercise in leaping to conclusions on inadequate evidence, it is built on premises that simply don’t work, and it’s a field that seems to do a very poor job of training and policing its practitioners, so that it primarily serves as a dump for bad research that then supplies tabloids with a feast of garbage science that discredits the rest of us. I’d like to see the evolutionary psychologists who propose that there is a high quality core to their discipline spending more effort ripping into their less savory colleagues than on the indignant sniffing at critics of evolutionary psychology. I’d have more respect for the field if there was more principled internal striving.

There is also a tactic I really dislike; I call it the Dignified Retreat. When criticized, evolutionary psychologists love to run away from their discipline and hide in the safer confines of more solidly founded ideas. Here’s a perfect example:

…the notion that “the fundamental premises of evo psych are false” seems deeply misguided. After all, those premises boil down to this statement: some behaviors of modern humans reflect their evolutionary history. That is palpably uncontroversial, since many of our behaviors are clearly a product of evolution, including eating, avoiding dangers, and the pursuit of sex. And since our bodies reflect their evolutionary history, often in nonadaptive ways (e.g., wisdom teeth, bad backs, the coat of hair we produce as a transitory feature in fetuses), why not our brains, which are, after all, just bits of morphology whose structure affects our behaviors?

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

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

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

I had a second objection that Coyne briefly addresses: developmental and neuroplasticity obscure the genetic basis of behaviors.

… “developmental plasticity” does not stand as a dichotomous alternative to “evolved features.” Our developmental plasticity is to a large extent the product of evolution: our ability to learn language, our tendency to defer to authorities when we’re children, our learned socialization—those are all features almost certainly instilled into our brains by natural selection as a way to promote behavioral flexibility in that most flexible of mammals.

That’s a cop-out. Yes, developmental plasticity is an evolved property, but to study it, you study development. Not psychology. It’s a different level of the problem.

The reason plasticity is a serious (and far too ignored) issue for evolutionary psychology is that if you’re trying to identify a genetic basis for a specific behavior, it represents a huge amount of confounding noise. It’s HARD WORK to isolate the genetic core of a behavior (assuming there is one) from the learned properties of the organism.

For instance, I’m really interested in the behaviors of zebrafish, and one of the things I’ve done is tried to identify different behaviors in different lines of fish — they exist, and it would be really cool to identify alleles involved in the differences. Feeding behaviors, for instance, vary in different lines. One line may carry out what we think are wild-type patterns: they feed by darting to the surface, carrying the food down to the bottom, and gulping it down there. Another may indulge in stupid lab-bred behaviors: wallowing at the surface, chowing down on floating flakes — something that would get them eaten quickly by birds in the wild.

It turns out to be really hard to maintain that behavior in the lab. Raising fry to adults is actually a wonderful exercise in selection (wallowing babies get lots of food, cautious babies get less) and training. We really had to struggle to develop feeding regimens that were neutral to the behavior we wanted to study. That’s why plasticity is such an important factor in these kinds of studies — it’s really, really, really hard to separate learned behavior from genetically predisposed behavior. It demands a huge amount of rigor and all kinds of controls — the kinds of things you simply cannot do with humans.

Again, this is not to say that one can’t do good psychology. What I’m saying is that taking that next huge step of linking behavior to genes to evolution demands data and methods that are not present in our toolbox right now, making most of the claims of evo psych fallacious.

In our presentation at Convergence, Greg Laden mentioned being present at early seminars by Cosmides and Tooby in which they laid out their goals. They drew a big box and in one top corner, they wrote “behavior”; in a lower corner, they put “genes”. The idea was that this field would strive to connect the two words together — which I consider a wonderful goal and something I’d like to see, too. Unfortunately, the space between the two words is filled with handwaving right now. I’m much more respectful of science that tries to incrementally bring the two together, but evolutionary psychology prematurely tries to stitch them together with transparent guesswork. That’s not science.

Coyne closes with a couple more ad hominems.

One gets two impressions when listening to the skeptics’ criticism of evolutionary psychology. First, they haven’t read widely in the discipline, and are criticizing either pop-culture versions of the field or a caricature (born of ignorance, possibly willful) of EP. Even I know that EP advocates don’t often publish studies that rely solely on undergraduates.

As I mentioned, I’m very interested in the connection between genes and behavior — I’ve actually read quite a bit in this field. I’ve also read a fair amount of the evolutionary psychology literature, and the source of my animus is that in comparison to good science on the biological basis of behavior, it suffers abominably. It doesn’t even come close to evolutionary biology (my own work is more genetics and brain development, and I’ll be the first to tell you that work on lab-bred zebrafish is a piss-poor way to do evolution…so I find it particularly appalling to see human psychology touted as evolutionary).

As for the claim that EP doesn’t often publish studies solely on undergraduates — it’s worse. Stephanie Zvan looked at recent publications in the journal Evolutionary Psychology.

How many of these studies were done only using college students? More than half. In 33 studies, the population whose preferences were used as a proxy for human universals was a population of college students. Another six studies used a combination of college students and other populations. One of these additional study populations was young, educated Israeli adults. Two were populations from around the university attended by the student populations.

Other university town populations were used on their own, without student populations, but many of the studies that did not use college students could not. Studies of blind dates, cyclists, criminals, pregnant women, sleep deprivation, parents of premature babies, younger children, soccer referees, musicians, and severely disabled people all drew from specialized populations.

More striking than the use of college students, however, was the geographic restriction on the populations used. Out of 60 studies, 51 drew their samples entirely from the U.S., Canada, and Europe. The exceptions were (mostly students) from Japan, Singapore, China, Israel, World Cup countries, St. Kitts, Mexico, historical records from around the world, and an international sample drawn from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. While not all the samples were “Western” (in the odd, non-directional meaning that word has accrued), only those last four–7% of the total–were distinctly non-WEIRD.

Ooops. Really, look over the papers — they’re already restricted to one species, and it’s an exceptional work that even tries to reach out to different subpopulations. The study of the genetic basis of behavior is an extraordinarily complex problem, and I don’t see any adequate efforts being made to constrain the variables; and once you’ve got a genetic basis, identifying an evolutionary history for that is yet another non-trivial problem.

And then we get the ideology-bashing again.

Second, it’s pretty clear that the opposition to evolutionary psychology from these quarters is ideologically rather than scientifically motivated. One gets the feeling that research on gender differences shouldn’t be done at all because it’s either designed to repress women, motivated by the desire to do that, or has the likely outcome of promoting discrimination. Well, sexist scientists may try to do that, but I haven’t seen much of that since the Seventies. And gender differences are fascinating. There’s a reason, for instance, why human males are larger and hairier than females, and have more testosterone. Are we supposed to say “You can’t work on that—could have bad repercussions!” Sure, scientific results can always be misused, but I don’t see that as a reason to put up roadblocks against scientific research. After all, what field is more misused and misquoted than evolutionary biology? I am a frequent recipient of emails from Jews trying to convince me to reject evolution because Darwin ultimately caused the Holocaust.

Please. Have I ever said that we shouldn’t study gender or racial differences? No. We know there are going to be differences. The catch is that they have to be studied very, very well, with rigor and careful analysis, because they are socially loaded and because science has a deeply deplorable history of using poor methods to reach bad conclusions that are used as ideological props for the status quo. I’m not putting up roadblocks against scientific research; I would like to put up roadblocks to sloppy, lazy ideological nonsense touted as scientific research. I should think every scientist would want that.

To return to Coyne’s prior criticism of evo devo: that’s exactly what I appreciated about it. He took a strong stance, demanding hard evidence to support evo devo’s claims of the importance of regulatory mutations in evolution. And he was right to do so! If you’re going to make claims about genes and evolution, you had better be prepared to show the supporting evidence at all levels of the problem. I’m not sure why he’s gotten more soft on the demand for rigor from evolutionary psychology when he was far more demanding on evo devo.

Maybe it was ideology.

And this is just silly.

…the fundamental premise of evolutionary psychology is absolutely sound: our brains, like the rest of our bodies, are the product of evolution and natural selection over the past six million years, and some of our current behaviors reflect that evolution. To deny that is ideologically motivated nonsense. To parse out the evolutionary component of such behaviors is the goal of evolutionary psychology.

That’s another Dignified Retreat. Evolutionary Psychology is not synonymous with Evolutionary Biology. I can reject bad science in the form of evolutionary and genetical claims about behavior; it does not imply that I think evolution played no role in our brains.

Coyne has a long section where he solicited responses from Steven Pinker, as well. This is long enough so I’ll defer that for a different day, but I did note that there’s a lot of this ideological ad hominem in there, too, and some of it is even contradictory!

Comments

  1. Anthony K says

    Sadly, some self-professed skeptics have decided to debunk the entire field of evo-psych, and for reasons that I see not as scientific, but as ideological and political.

    But we evolved to be ideological and political on the African Savannah, probably. What’s the problem?

  2. says

    Well, sexist scientists may try to do that, but I haven’t seen much of that since the Seventies.

    Oh, it must be nice to have the privilege to be so oblivious.

  3. raven says

    Sadly, some self-professed skeptics have decided to debunk the entire field of evo-psych, and for reasons that I see not as scientific, but as ideological and political.

    Naw.

    It gets debunked because most of it is bad science.

    To parse out the evolutionary component of such behaviors is the goal of evolutionary psychology.

    Which is has so far failed to do.

    Evo psych is like philosophy. Some of it is OK, but a lot more of it is trash.

  4. Nick Gotts says

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

    What you call the “Dignified Retreat”, I’d call the “EvoPsych shuffle”. Neoclassical economists use a parallel “Neoclassical shuffle” with regard to the premise that effectively all human behaviour is self-interested. The “internal” version of this claim is that everyone is completely selfish; the “external”, that everyone pursues their own goals (which may include the welfare of others).

  5. maudell says

    I’m glad to learn sexist scientists practically don’t exist anymore. I did not know that.

  6. Happiestsadist, opener of the Crack of Doom says

    I’m as surprised as you are, maudell.

    Whenever evo-psych is defended, the defence always is that we’ve simply not seen the “good” evo-psych, that is neither clearly a wish-fulfillment of the “scientist” is questions’ prejudices, or just terribly designed. I’d love to see this supposed good shit, but there’s never any offered. I has a sad that they’re apparently sitting on all the good shit, leaving us only with phrenology’s modern descendant. :(

  7. David Marjanović says

    …I know an emeritus who is dean of a faculty of life sciences and reported to have said very sexist things in the last 10 years.

  8. psweet says

    That last quote by Coyne illustrates another (smaller) problem with (pop-version) evo-psych. Our brains are the result of 3.5 billion years of evolution, 600 million years or so of evolution specifically on brains. Saying that all of our behavioral patterns emerged only since we split with the chimp lineage doesn’t make sense.

  9. Max says

    I am so embarrassed for PZ when he goes on these anti-evolutionary psych jags… The section starting with “Yes, developmental plasticity is an evolved property, but to study it, you study development” is especially embarrassing. It’s not surprising, though. I’ve encountered this attitude among many scientists in PZ’s field. I would suggest he brush up on Tinbergen’s Four Questions and realize that the development and the function of a behavior are not mutually exclusive. Scientists should be studying both, even if the behavior is expected to be plastic. You can study the function of that plasticity just as you can study the development.

    I’m also afraid that PZ’s ego may be getting out of control (this is hyperbole for comedic purposes and not an actual ad hominem attack)! He says, “Please. Have I ever said that we shouldn’t study gender or racial differences? No.” Was Jerry talking about PZ specifically? Because the kind of criticisms Jerry mentions there are absolutely thrown at evolutionary psychology, but usually not from scientists like PZ. Instead they come from sociologists and others in the soft sciences just as they did in the seventies.

  10. ChasCPeterson says

    It’s very difficult to know what to do with these serial vague and general assertions tossed back and forth forever without a single example or specific verifiable claim that could be discussed meaningfully. I have not shied away from arguing with and expressing vagaries and generalizations myself in the past, but it’s all been wasted time afaict and I think in the future I’m going to be willing to talk about specifics only.

    Since I have a reputation to uphold, though, I’ll just make just a couple of points. (And then I’ll get over myself.)
    First, it’s all been vaguely asserted many many times before; it’s almost as if you used this as a template. It’s all there, as always, except fo the stuff that’s not there, as always.

    2.

    you simply can’t draw an evolutionary conclusion from the simple existence of a trait in a population. Yet evolutionary psychologists do, all the time.

    Are you sure? Can you offer an example? Are you sure they don’t instead propose an evolutionary hypothesis then report their results as consistent with it (or not)? Don’t you think you’re maybe confounding a priori hypotheses, conclusions, and a posteriori heuristic hypotheses here? I do–it happens a lot. But without an example it’s impossible to judge.

    3,

    The study of the genetic basis of behavior is an extraordinarily complex problem, and I don’t see any adequate efforts being made to constrain the variables; and once you’ve got a genetic basis, identifying an evolutionary history for that is yet another non-trivial problem.

    As I know you know, since you’ve read Falconer and perhaps Endler, it is not only possible but routine to study the heritablilty and evolution of behavior or any other phenotypic trait without the foggiest notion of its specific genetic basis. It’s just incorrect to claim that any study of trait evolution has to start with identified alleles. (Please get this message to Nerd of Redhead; thanks.)(btw, are you going to try to defend your previous claim that EP depends on a one-gene-one-behavior model?)
    I can’t help but noticing the conspicuous absence from your list (of evolutionary-biology-related sciences that you totally respect) of behavioral ecology or any of its near-synonyms. Is that intentional?

    4.

    I’m very interested in the connection between genes and behavior — I’ve actually read quite a bit in this field. I’ve also read a fair amount of the evolutionary psychology literature

    Aside from the vaguest possible expressions of quantity, I believe you, speaking for yourself. But of course it’s not true for most of the people who are going to try to argue with me here (sorry; bad timing AFK). It really strikes me as disingenuous to imply or pretend that the vast majority of people who criticize EP on the interweb are motivated primarily by their skepticism and dedication to Science Done Right and not motivated ideologically or politically. (I frankly doubt it even in your case, but you do have plausible deniability.)

  11. peptron says

    Everybody knows that someone with PhD level education cannot be sexist. Just ask Pierre Mailloux, he’ll mansplain that to you.
    (Note to anybody checkin the source, I assure you it’s not satire.)

  12. R Johnston says

    You’re far too polite to Jerry Coyne.

    Humans have evolved to be spectacularly adaptable learners. The fundamental idea in evo psych that complex human behavior has some specific genetic basis and isn’t primarily learned amounts to the self-contradictory rejection of human evolution. Evo psych is no better or different that any other brand of creationism. Defending evo psych marks a person as being no more scientifically literate than is Ken Ham.

    Jerry Coyne, in defending evo psych, is an antiscientific crackpot bent on harming people and making them more stupid. He is Ken Ham. He is Jenny McCarthy. He is Kent Hovind. He is a cancer to be excised from the scientific community lest it come to great harm.

  13. otrame says

    Stephanie’s bit reminds me of when I learned to be sure to add an appropriate amount of salt to psychological studies (and to read them carefully). Our Psych 101 professor spent an entire lecture talking about “moral development” in human beings, including overhead slides of the stages of said development and discussion of many social problems based on the idea that some people never complete their development. It all sounded more or less reasonable.

    I then read the text book. The text book had a sidebar that described the study that the entire “moral development” structure was based on. Note I said “study”. Singular. The study consisted of asking a bunch of white, middle-class American males a bunch of questions with the formula of “What would you do if…..” Nothing in the lecture or textbook suggested that this might not be enough data to support such a structure.

    So, yeah, I learned a lot in college.

  14. Jacob Schmidt says

    Chas

    Are you sure they don’t instead propose an evolutionary hypothesis then report their results as consistent with it (or not)?

    EP scientists are consistently wasting their time? From your description, they just look at how populations behave and say, “Well, that might be from evolution.” They’d might as well be sociologists in such a case.

    It’s just incorrect to claim that any study of trait evolution has to start with identified alleles.

    It’s also incorrect to claim that such was PZ’s claim. You went from “demonstrable genetic basis” to “identified alleles”. No, you don’t need to identify the alleles to study the genetic effects on behaviour. But you do need to demonstrate that said behaviour is genetic before you claim that said behaviour is genetic.

  15. Anthony K says

    I have not shied away from arguing with and expressing vagaries and generalizations myself in the past, but it’s all been wasted time afaict and I think in the future I’m going to be willing to talk about specifics only.

    See, that’s one topic that’s right up evo psych’s alley: the evolutionary history of humour, whether intentional or not.

  16. Max says

    Those who are making fun of the suggestion that scientists aren’t sexist any more don’t actually know what you’re talking about. In the past, people have accused evolutionary psychologists (and lots of other types of scientists really) of being sexist because the conclusions they reached could potentially reinforce gender stereotypes that were used in the past (or were being used at the time) to oppress women. There was also the charge in the past that the scientists themselves were using these conclusions to support the oppression of women.

    What Coyne is suggesting (and reasonably I think) is that this is no longer the case. Certainly sexists still exist and many of them are working scientists. But we’ve hopefully matured enough to realize that we are free to create the morality we want and are not bound by our evolutionary history. Even if scientists can demonstrate that certain stereotypical behavior is quite real and shaped by evolution, that tells us nothing about whether that behavior is acceptable or whether it should be encouraged or discouraged. For example, demonstrating the adaptiveness of rape as a reproductive strategy tells us nothing about whether we should accept this behavior from anyone in our society. It also doesn’t absolve any rapists of guilt.

    I think people often still do conflate a scientific conclusion with some sort of moral imperative. But I do think we’ve progressed enough that we don’t actually have any scientists making these kinds of mistakes in the scientific literature itself.

  17. Max says

    Learned behaviors have a genetic basis, you guys… We’re not all blank slates.

  18. says

    Have you considered that Kurzban’s “template” is such a common list of objections to EP because EP proponents tend to sweep those objections under the rug so often? As he did himself?

    Every time some EP nut says “blank slate” I want to kick something. No one (at least, not me) is arguing for a “blank slate”. I’m saying that there most certainly exists a core foundation of genetically predisposed human behaviors, but they’re probably more general than the tripe we get from EP fans, and they’re also trickier to isolate and identify than they’re made out to be.

  19. says

    @ Max

    The problem of scientists being sexist, or holding other unfounded prejudices, extends beyond their taking scientific conclusions and using them to lend credibility to sexist assumptions. The problem is that these sexist assumptions will influence which questions they choose to ask, how they construct their studies, and how they interpret the data. Sexism and other bigotries operate on a subconscious level a lot of the time. Even scientists who know enough to reject the naturalistic fallacy can still fall prey to unexamined prejudices.

  20. bigdyterminator says

    Pardon my being dim, but doesn’t evo devo provide a framework with which to answer evo psy’s questions? Is the desire to apply the softer methods of psychology to evolution the only reason it exists?
    Evo-devo is my hobby (I work in a pharm lab so I just read papers and pop sci) and I’ve never heard of evo psych.

    Because it seems like the questions are interesting, it’s the methodology that’s flawed.

  21. Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought says

    Learned behaviors have a genetic basis, you guys

    Um. I have mostly been staying out of these threads, since I can only claim ignorance about the topic, but this sounds…. er, wrong. To put it mildly.

  22. says

    Max:

    Those who are making fun of the suggestion that scientists aren’t sexist any more don’t actually know what you’re talking about.

    Actually, we do. I have no doubt you’d be utterly astonished about what we know.

  23. R Johnston says

    @19

    He’s defending evo psych and thereby directly promoting scientific illiteracy. What more evidence do you need?

  24. says

    It’s just incorrect to claim that any study of trait evolution has to start with identified alleles.

    Nor have I claimed such a thing. What we’re doing in my lab is looking for consistent, heritable behaviors — controlling for environmental variables as much as possible. We don’t have any alleles identified at all. In my wildest dreams we get to the point where we can do crosses between individuals and begin to get an estimate of how many genes are involved in a particular line-specific behavior.

    You do have to show that the trait is heritable, though, you know — or at least that different populations in identical environments exhibit different behavioral properties.

  25. daniellavine says

    Are you sure? Can you offer an example?

    Yes.

    Here’s a criticism of the same hypothesis by one Professor Jerry Coyne. But it’s probably ideologically motivated.

  26. daniellavine says

    Max@17:

    Learned behaviors have a genetic basis, you guys… We’re not all blank slates.

    Tying shoelaces is a learned behavior. Please describe the genetic basis for tying one’s shoelaces.

    If you simply mean that we evolved prehensile digits and the neural capacity to manipulate them in complex ways then I would suggest that this “argument” is simply vacuous — there is no possible human behavior that cannot be described as “adaptive” using such a vague and indirect definition of “genetic basis”.

  27. Sili says

    . It’s not that the observations are invalid

    *cough*pinkisagirlycolour*cough*cough*

  28. daniellavine says

    Max@16:

    But we’ve hopefully matured enough to realize that we are free to create the morality we want and are not bound by our evolutionary history.

    This implies morals are learned behaviors — after all, you’re saying that with respect to morals we’re not bound by our evolutionary history. But then you say this:

    Learned behaviors have a genetic basis, you guys… We’re not all blank slates.

    If that’s the case then we’re not actually “free to create the morality we want”, are we?

  29. Jacob Schmidt says

    But we’ve hopefully matured enough to realize that we are free to create the morality we want and are not bound by our evolutionary history.

    If your case is so weak that all you can say is that you hope it’s true, why the fuck are you even here?

    Learned behaviors have a genetic basis, you guys… We’re not all blank slates.

    You’re funny.

    More seriously, the issue is that EP seems to infrequently differentiate between cultural behaviour and behaviour based in genetics, not that the latter doesn’t exist.

  30. kraut says

    I thought “psychology” is pure noise anyway, so what then is “evolutionary psychology”?

  31. R Johnston says

    @28:

    Well, in modern American culture pink is, in fact, a girl color. Of course that wasn’t the case a hundred years ago, nor is it the case in all other places.

    With evo psych it’s often if not usually more the case that the observations are willfully overgeneralized to populations beyond those observed and learned cultural bases for behavior are willfully ignored than that the observations themselves are false. The lies of evolutionary psychology come from ignoring context and outright denying the existence of the evolved ability to learn.

  32. Jackie, Ms. Paper if ya nasty says

    A friend of mine collects old textbooks. She showed me an old textbook that included simple sentences to read like, “Slap the Jap”. The book taught American kids that brown people were so lazy because they were originally from hot climates and moving slowly helped them to stay cool.

    I don’t see the difference between their ignorant motivated reasoning and “just so” stories and the stupid crap Evo Psych peddles.

  33. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Learned behaviors have a genetic basis, you guys… We’re not all blank slates.

    What is different about humans is long childhood and lots of learning and social adaptation required to fit into the tribe. The “genetic basis” isn’t necessarily the behaviors per se, but rather brain development that allows the ability to learn said behaviors. And this what needs good demarcation and definition in order for EP to separate social learning from the genetic background, in order to be something other than “just so” stories.

  34. peptron says

    I feel like evolutionary psychology is a subject that is fundamentally true, but it’s just that the techniques used are proto-scientific. Kinda like what alchemy is to chemistry.

    @Max #16:
    The guy I mentionned (Pierre Mailloux) is a doctor arguing, in 2013, that women shouldn’t be in position of power because they are prone to losing their cool and lack a general sense of direction. Note that he also believes a lot of odd things when it comes to genetics, like how Native American alive today are stupid because all the clever ones have been killed in purges. Same thing with black slaves.

  35. R Johnston says

    @32:

    Yup. Evo psych as actually practiced is a particularly virulent and harmful form of antiscientific quackery. It is a collection of just-so stories used by the privileged to rationalize a status quo bias that protects their privileges. It has no scientific basis whatsoever and while “evolutionary” is in the name it requires the active denial of evolved sentience, willfulness, and the ability to learn. It is homeopathy. It is religion. It is anti-vax. It is climate change denialism.

  36. says

    Hm, it all seems a bit harsh on evolutionary psychology. First of all it’s really hard to study human nature, because it’s hard to separate nature from culture. You don’t really have that problem with other animals. Second, not every evolutionary psychologist is a fool, incapable of seeing the weaknesses of currently applied methods. And of course you want to have close knowledge of especially our closest relatives. The biggest proponent of evolutionary psychology is Steven Pinker. Does this critique apply to him as well?

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

    To me this is a straw man. It’s true way too many of the studies are on college students, from far too few countries. I think this is the result of convenience. The field is also young, and such studies can be a useful first step in testing a hypothesis. It is evidence, but it tends to be pretty weak, and I think most evolutionary psychologists know that. They are not utterly stupid and naive. It’s very clear you ideally want to test your hypothesis on a much wider range of populations, and look to learn all you can from especially evolutionary biology, ethology, anthropology and comparative biology.

  37. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    To me this is a straw man. It’s true way too many of the studies are on college students, from far too few countries. I think this is the result of convenience.

    To me, it’s no strawman, and implies the laziness on the part of the researchers. They are arm chair theorists, not experimental field workers. The latter of which is sorely needed for the EP field, and would reduce criticism of it.

  38. daniellavine says

    Frode Grøtheim@37:

    it’s that you simply can’t draw an evolutionary conclusion from the simple existence of a trait in a population. Yet evolutionary psychologists do, all the time.

    To me this is a straw man.

    I’ve already adduced an example of this and I could easily provide more, so no not a straw man.

    Second, not every evolutionary psychologist is a fool, incapable of seeing the weaknesses of currently applied methods.

    One need not be a fool to be foolish. Isaac Newton obviously had a few strokes of brilliance but he spent more time on alchemy and theology than he ever did on mechanics or optics.

    It wouldn’t be the first time an offshoot of a scientific field turned out to be complete nonsense as a result of faulty methodologies.

  39. daniellavine says

    Has anyone else noticed how “straw man” has become a phrase simply meaning “I don’t have a good defense against this criticism?”

    A “straw man” argument is an inaccurate portrayal of the argument of one’s opponent. A charge that someone is engaged in a “straw man” argument, to be taken seriously, should include an accurate summary of the argument being distorted so that interested readers may draw the required contrasts and judge for themselves whether the charge of “straw man” is warranted.

    Bonus points to people who do this without invoking the phrase “straw man” at all.

  40. tulse says

    To me this is a straw man. It’s true way too many of the studies are on college students, from far too few countries. I think this is the result of convenience.

    Ah, yes, the “But golly, science is really hard!” defence.

    If you want to study a topic, you have to do the science right. You seem to be conceding that they’re not doing the science right.

    The field is also young, and such studies can be a useful first step in testing a hypothesis. It is evidence, but it tends to be pretty weak, and I think most evolutionary psychologists know that.

    Then they should stop making ridiculously sweeping claims about all of human behaviour.

  41. curtisnelson says

    When Michael Shermer speculated that a reason for there being more men than women involved in organized skepticism may be because it’s a guy thing, you cried sexism. When I commented on your blog about it, that the charges of sexism were based on a false premiss (that there are no differences between the female and male minds) your acolytes said, that’s right there are none, and you said nothing to correct them. And yet here you freely say that of course there would be differences. This is quite inconsistent.

  42. R Johnston says

    Then they should stop making ridiculously sweeping claims about all of human behaviour.

    The problem is that once you remove the ridiculously sweeping claims about all of human behavior from evo psych then you’re left with claims that are mostly trivial, lack specificity, and are not very interesting or controversial at all. Biology affects behavior at some level. Learning is an evolved behavior. Brain damage that limits or changes the ability to learn affects behavior. Intoxication affects behavior. Combinations of genes that are individually advantageous can affect behavior in a manner disadvantageous to reproductive success.

  43. davidwhitlock says

    First, there can’t be genetically mediated systems that manipulate things that are purely learned. There are no “genetic pathways” to understand quantum mechanics or relativity, or evolution.

    To a very large extent, all sensory pattern recognition is learned. That is the neural networks arrange themselves in patterns to do pattern recognition only following exposure to patterns. If there is no “hard-wired-genetic-pattern-recognition” neural network, there can be no “hard-wired-genetic-response” to that post-birth neural network pattern recognition output.

    In other words, if phenotype recognition is learned (as we know it is), then hatred of certain phenotypes (AKA racism) can only be learned after the ability to recognize a phenotype is learned. It is not possible to attach the feeling of “hatred” to something which cannot be identified.

    Therefore, racism and bigotry cannot be genetic. Racism and bigotry can only be learned.

    If recognition of individuals depends on the development of sensory pathways (as it does), can any interpersonal interaction be innate? I would argue no, all interpersonal interactions must be learned. The archetypal social behavior is maternal bonding. Maternal bonding cannot be innate because maternal bonding must be coupled to energy status so that mammalian mothers can abandon their newborn infants if they lack the metabolic resources to sustain lactation. Sure enough, abandoning/killing/eating newborn infants is a behavior that all mammalian mothers exhibit if they are put under enough stress in the postpartum period. A “feature” to preserve the reproductive capacity of the female so she might reproduce later if conditions improve.

    In other words, maternal bonding can’t be innate because it must be predicated on postpartum energy status and on the sustainability of lactation. Maternal bonding must be a learned behavior that is contingent on the environment during the pregnancy and postpartum period. Put new mothers under enough stress and they will become infanticidal. Not because they have “bad genes”, but because all mammals will do so because the ability to do so was a necessary trait of mammalian ancestors for at least a few hundred million years.

  44. mikeyb says

    There is bad evolutionary psychology as well as bad evo-devo. It’s also bad to categorically throw out an entire field of science because of bad examples, seems irrational. These things will be ironed out over time based upon empirical facts and better controls.

  45. R Johnston says

    @45:

    Evo-psych isn’t a field of science at all. and it is utterly irrational to claim it as one As a discipline evo-psych attempts to attribute an evolutionary basis beyond learning and sentience to complex interactive behaviors, and that is quite simply anti-scientific gobbledygook. Any good evo-psych is subsumed withing evolutionary biology, psychology, and other disciplines and is limited to claims about purely instinctive behavior and non-specific claims about the fact that evolved biology can affect complex behavior.

    Supporting evo-psych as a discipline is no different than supporting the Pope or Jenny McCarthy as medical professionals; it betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what science is and marks the proponent indelibly as “not a scientist.”

  46. mikeyb says

    @46

    Hmm that’s curious. We can study evolutionary biology, or psychology separately and it’s OK, but if we try to put them together suddenly we have gobbledygook. Or maybe the term itself offends. Very rational.

  47. Al Dente says

    One major problem with evo-psych is the signal to noise ratio is very low. For every Pinker there is at least one Kanazawa.

    Evolutionary psychology could have much to teach us about ourselves but only if it uses evo-devo and neuroscience. Evo-psych needs to look outside evolutionary adaptations, since it’s obvious that humans didn’t evolve in one specific time and area. A more rigorous, less sensational evo-psych has the potential to answer not only where did we come from, but where are we going.

  48. echidna says

    Max@9:

    Was Jerry talking about PZ specifically? Because the kind of criticisms Jerry mentions there are absolutely thrown at evolutionary psychology, but usually not from scientists like PZ.

    Yes, he was. Jerry:

    but I was distressed by the comments P.Z. made in the ensuing discussion, in which he expands his reasons for rejecting evolutionary psychology

  49. Donna Gratehouse says

    “What Coyne is suggesting (and reasonably I think) is that this is no longer the case. Certainly sexists still exist and many of them are working scientists. But we’ve hopefully matured enough to realize that we are free to create the morality we want and are not bound by our evolutionary history. Even if scientists can demonstrate that certain stereotypical behavior is quite real and shaped by evolution, that tells us nothing about whether that behavior is acceptable or whether it should be encouraged or discouraged. For example, demonstrating the adaptiveness of rape as a reproductive strategy tells us nothing about whether we should accept this behavior from anyone in our society. It also doesn’t absolve any rapists of guilt.”

    Except the problem is that practically every report in news or pop culture using evo-psych research on gender and sex does use it to push ham-handed Mars/Venus mansplaining claptrap that is aimed at getting women to tolerate discrimination, boorish behavior from men, and rape culture. That claptrap is 99% of the general population’s exposure to the research and it is impacting how they perceive gender roles and behavioral expectations. If I had a dollar for every guy I’ve heard spouting how he’s “hard-wired” to engage in some obnoxious stereotypically male behavior I could afford to put myself through a PhD program.

    As PZ noted, the legions of supposedly good and responsible researchers in the field who we are told endeavor to produce high-quality, thorough, and nuanced work seem to be doing f-k all to combat how it is being used to promote sexism and racism in the public square. Unless and until I see some serious effort on that I’m giving the evo-psych the sideeye.

  50. R Johnston says

    @49:

    A more rigorous, less sensational evo-psych has the potential to answer not only where did we come from, but where are we going.

    A more rigorous, less sensational evo-psych is, at best, a tiny part of answering such questions. If you want to learn where we’re going then studying up on things like climate change, cultural anthropology, and the evolution of technology is the way to go. Evo-psych really doesn’t add much if anything to the mix, even if it’s done rigorously. Even without the ethical constraints on human experimentation it would seem remarkably unlikely that evo-psych will ever offer useful answers about why people engage in the complex interactive behaviors they engage in. A rigorous evo-psych applied to anthropology might let us conclude that dairy will likely be more common in East Asian cuisine in a couple of hundred years if the gene for lactose tolerance becomes more common as it has in other societies after the introduction of dairy to the diet, but it’s hard to imagine rigorous evo-psych based claims that are any more interesting than that. Humans can learn, emulate, and enjoy just about any behavior they are physically competent to engage in, and evo-psych offers essentially no insight as to why people have the preferences they do among such behaviors.

  51. mikeyb says

    Humans are very noisy – it’s called culture. But seriously, the real problem with evo-devo as an alternative to something like evolutionary psychology is ultimately your gonna have to deal with all the messy stuff in human nature called culture. If you developed a full alternative to evolutionary psychology on some level you still are going to have to come up with some higher order model akin to something like the models come up with by Boyd and Richerson to explain the interaction of culture and genes over evolutionary time. Studying even a single gene and all its potential environmental interactions which modify the expression of that gene – how is a model of thousands of genes with thousands of environmental interactions even possible to study and model all taking place during development and even hope to come up with adaptive explanations. Saying its all gene environmental interactions and even spelling out many of the genes and environment may be fine and dandy and even ultimately true, but it has no explanatory value.

    To me evolutionary psychology reduces to the notion that we have evolved traits which are adaptations to past environments which affect our behavior today. To me this is non controversial. Perhaps an extreme form would say that our behavior is solely the product of these past environments and we are powerless to effect these behaviors- perhaps some hold this view, but I don’t think it is tenable, or held by many scientists. Either our behavior is a product of past environments at least partially encoded by our genes or it is not. If not we are a unique species.

    In any case attempting to explain human behavior and associated adaptations is going to be hard work, even if we refine the models by introducing more dynamics like gene-environmental interactions and development, we still at some point are going to have to deal with messy stuff like culture and develop models which attempt to explain things adaptively. Saying its all culture or all spandrels all the way down doesn’t seem to be tenable either.

    To me some of the critique of evolutionary psychology is unfair because by the nature of things we are dealing with higher levels of behavior, so any attempt at explaining it is going to have a flavor of being a tentative hypothesis. I think if an alternative framework were to be developed which could replace evolutionary psychology, it’s not gonna be any prettier, and it’s gonna be open to the same critiques because it’s gonna have to cover the same ground and explain the same things.

  52. Aerik says

    If you want a good look at how much bullshit evo psyche is, look at videos by [Hannibal](https://www.youtube.com/user/hannibalthevictor13) . Look at “ultimate guide to the MRA” parts 1 and 2, “what hereditability is all about,” and the trilogy “Evo psych Athiesm and the new religion of the rational”

    ===

    to even get it started, there are several major fallacies that _all evo psyche_ is based upon (and therefore the entire field is derived from ppl’s asses).

    Evo Psyche assumes

    * the brain behaves like a computer, with modularity

    * that said modules were all set in stone in the Plasticine with no evidence. For some reason nothing was ever set before, nor after.

    * animals have knowledge of heritability that they don’t.

    * animals ‘know’ that there can be exactly 1 father to any offspring.

    * humans have always known, even before language, that there can be exactly 1 father to any offspring.

    * Knowing that there’s exactly 1 mother 1 father per offspring, _or not knowing_, humans have always acted as if they thought this.

    * + All animals including humans have always behaved in a reproductive strategem paradigm in which if a father does not believe he comprises 100% of the fatherhood of offspring, then he would not care to rear that offspring.

    * humans have always known _and_ believed that after conception, no more heritable material can be passed or lost during gestation of the offspring unit.

    * humans have all always been territorial about offspring, especially males, in the most patriarchal, paranoid, and violent ways (think how MRAs think men think)

    * cavemen existed as they are stereotypically known. And apparently no matter the geography, until farming was invented, everybody was cavemen. Disturbingly flinstone-like.

    * + and to top it all off, all evo psyche theories tend to act as if every single thing an animal does has to do with the most petty, oversimplified, restricted version of planning on ‘survival’ and ‘reproduction,’ ignoring entirely the vast amount of phenotypes that result from sexual selection that has nothing to do with survival or reproduction in any effective sense, that is, traits that survive, die, or flourish simply because mating members of a species select for them… one could say, under the false belief that these traits matter when they don’t. That is to say, there are plenty of mating behaviors and selective patterns that persist despite the fact that they do not add or subtract from the reproductive success of members species. Baboon asses, peacock feathers, _all the shit cultured species do (dolphins, elephants, primates, prairie dogs, etc)_. They act as if every single trait and behavior is all about trying to fuck the right mate and raise one’s own offspring and nothing else. But that’s just not the case.

    You will almost NEVER hear an evo psyche fan or theory talk about an animal behavior, and mention at all the animal making a mistake. Every single thing is always at some kind of advantage somewhere. They talk as if they still believe evolution is a ladder.

    None of these assumptions is verified. In fact if you watch the videos I recommended, you’ll see they are all in fact false. Evidence points to the opposite. For example there is still a known primitive culture that believes multiple fathers can contribute heritable traits (genetic material) to fetuses post-conception. They believe that fathers can continue to contribute genetic material throughout pregnancy, and it’s quite common and expected that children have at least two fathers, if not multiple. The men are not paranoid about who’s children they are raising _at all_. Violence and rape are very, very low. Rape especially. practically unheard of.

    And there’s no reason whatsoever to believe that such cultures were nonexistent, the way evo psyche does. No reason to believe they weren’t quite common. And as such, pretty much all the things evo psyche believers (I refuse to call them scientists or even researchers) think about the way humans and other animals think and act concerning heredity and child rearing is 100% bullshit.

  53. Aerik says

    I had copypasted that comment that I had made elsewhere on a reddit thread about io9’s article “the rise of the evolutionary douchebag.”

    Further thoughts: At least in Richard Dawkins’s “the Selfish Gene” he does plenty of talking about possible animal behavior in which parents and siblings may experience some analog of proportional affection or alertness to indirect offspring and parentage, because siblings are around 1/2 identical to ones self, same with parents and children, and cousins are around 1/4, and their importance is thus proportional.

    But has anybody around here ever heard an evo psyche armchair scientist or even a cited article by evo psyche ‘scientists’ express an opinion on animal behavior different from the model in which a parent only cares about their direct first gen offspring and disregards all other animals in the universe as dangerous or null? hmm?

    It’s pretty clear that evo psyche fans just love using pseudo-evolution as an excuse for their favorite gender norms. That’s all 90% of it is.

  54. coreyhammer says

    PZ…this is probably a naive question. Have you set up tanks with different conditions that should either impede or promote different heritable behaviors and traits? Measuring the impact of inheritace then becomes an issue of measuring the delta (however it’s measured). I don’t know the field, but it seems similar to social psychology where you can measure effects statistically at least (and to my naive mind using a probability-based approach to trait inheritance seems appropriate).

    In any case, a lot of psychologists don’t like evo psych either. Okay, at least one doesn’t (me, even though I don’t qualify as academic anymore since I went into consumer research). It uses far too many just-so stories that (at least in what I’ve read) don’t seem to set up boundary conditions for failure.

  55. vaiyt says

    We can study evolutionary biology, or psychology separately and it’s OK, but if we try to put them together suddenly we have gobbledygook.

    “Putting them together” is not the same thing as “implying one from the other”.

  56. lindsay says

    Aerik @354:

    Can you remember the name or location of the tribe that expects children to have two or more fathers? I’ve been having an on-going argument with a dude that can’t believe that any man in any culture that existed anywhere or at any time could have ever tolerated anything less than 100% certainty of paternity of a child.

  57. Uncle Ebeneezer says

    I’d be interested in hearing PZ’s response to the Pinker points that Jerry included in the post. And I say that out of genuine curiosity not in an Aha!-so-whaddaya-say-to-that-one tone. It’s tough for some of us laypeople to really grasp what the debate over EP is all about. PZ and Step Zvan’s posts were the first I read that really started to clarify the problems with EP. So the more back and forth over specific points is probably for the best for the sake of us outsiders trying to follow along.

  58. kraut says

    “at any time could have ever tolerated anything less than 100% certainty of paternity of a child.”

    Nobody can be certain of paternity – but witnessing a birth the maternity can easily be established.
    I suspect in matrilineal societies the importance of who the father is plays a lesser role –
    http://www.mensxp.com/special-features/today/8337-top-matrilineal-societies-in-the-world.html

    “A unique feature of this tribe is that it does not have a word for ‘father’ and even for ‘husband’ as the concept of marriage does not exist in their tribe. Women have children through a concept called zou hun (walking marriages) in which the female raise the offspring they beget.”

    http://mentalfloss.com/article/31274/6-modern-societies-where-women-rule

  59. says

    Whenever evo-psych is defended, the defence always is that we’ve simply not seen the “good” evo-psych

    Sounds reminiscent of sophistimacated theology.

  60. What a Maroon, el papa ateo says

    Second, not every evolutionary psychologist is a fool, incapable of seeing the weaknesses of currently applied methods. And of course you want to have close knowledge of especially our closest relatives. The biggest proponent of evolutionary psychology is Steven Pinker. Does this critique apply to him as well?

    I haven’t read Pinker’s work on evo psych, but “The Language Instinct” is a piece of crap.

  61. mikeyb says

    I’d also like to know when and where Jerry Coyne has ever dissed evo-devo. To my knowledge based on a youtube video, he and a colleague wrote a paper challenging the notion that cis-regulatory elements are the primary factors in evolution and was mischaracterized as a critique of the whole field of evo-devo, or the notion that cis-regulatory elements are important which he didn’t assert. See below if you like.

  62. bad Jim says

    Any attempt to tease out the genetic determinants of human behavior is going to be confounded by the fact that the wiring of an infant’s brain takes a few years to complete, by which time the child has undergone substantial acculturation. Some perspective can be gained by studying other cultures, but that introduces additional complications.

    As far as I know there’s some controversy over the extent to which the differences between bonobos and chimpanzees may be cultural, perhaps the result of their different environments.

    It seems to be pretty clear that the cognitive differences between men and women are negligible, or nearly so. Perhaps evolutionary psychology would do well to adopt a policy of benign neglect towards gender issues and concentrate on intercultural or interspecific variations.

  63. says

    One gets the feeling that research on gender differences shouldn’t be done at all because it’s either designed to repress women, motivated by the desire to do that, or has the likely outcome of promoting discrimination. Well, sexist scientists may try to do that, but I haven’t seen much of that since the Seventies

    One gets the feeling that Coyne actually believes in the Strawpatriarchy where sexism is reproduced via evil men cackling in a dark room smoking expensive cigars.

  64. harryp says

    Right PZ!

    It’s HARD WORK to isolate the genetic core of a behavior (assuming there is one) from the learned properties of the organism.

    It’s HARD science as well, not only of zebrafish but also of mice, ants and flatworms…
    See f.e.http://www.nature.com/news/behaviour-genes-unearthed-1.12217

    In short, you can’t possibly do experiments like this on people- not even on WEIRD people.

  65. A Hermit says

    mikeyb@53

    … the real problem with evo-devo as an alternative to something like evolutionary psychology is ultimately your gonna have to deal with all the messy stuff in human nature called culture.

    Well yes, that’s the whole problem isn’t it? If Evo-Psych is failing to deal with all that cultural baggage then it’s hard to take it seriously. All that messy stuff exists and has a profound effect on behaviour so pretending that we can just ignore it instead of controlling for it and actually come up with useful data as a result seems a bit naive.

  66. John Horstman says

    since many of our behaviors are clearly a product of evolution, including eating, avoiding dangers, and the pursuit of sex.

    While this may be true, it’s impossible to conclusively establish, because there are no such things as non-social/pre-social human beings. All of our behaviors are at least mediated by – if not entirely products of – socialization. Take eating: people with extremely similar genetic profiles can find different foods delicious and (literally) vomit-inducing. Anorexics do not have a drive to eat. Obviously, eating behavior is inflected by socialization, and can be molded to the extreme that it basically doesn’t exist. Same goes for sex and risk-aversion. It’s impossible to draw any broadly general or universal claims about ANY human behavior, because all of them are at least socially-mediated, and there are no pre-social/non-social human beings (our cultures impact mate selection and prenatal environment – even a newly-fertilized egg is already subject to socialization processes). That is exactly the aim/claim of evo psych, and it can be dismissed out of hand. If the researchers in the field wishes to re-frame its claims as identifying genetic predispositions that are likely to play out in certain ways in a given cultural context, then they’ll actually be properly bounding their results. But as PZ points out, that not what evo psych researchers do – instead, they universalize from studies of individual historically-culturally specific populations to all of humanity, and that’s simply bad science.

  67. David Marjanović says

    He is a cancer to be excised from the scientific community lest it come to great harm.

    Whoa. Godwin’s Law fulfilled in comment 12? I’m… rather impressed.

    The problem of scientists being sexist, or holding other unfounded prejudices, extends beyond their taking scientific conclusions and using them to lend credibility to sexist assumptions. The problem is that these sexist assumptions will influence which questions they choose to ask, how they construct their studies, and how they interpret the data. Sexism and other bigotries operate on a subconscious level a lot of the time. Even scientists who know enough to reject the naturalistic fallacy can still fall prey to unexamined prejudices.

    This is a very, very general problem that extends far beyond where it could harm people. It goes beyond “the closer you get to humans, the worse the science gets”. If you think A and B are only very distantly related, you probably won’t even put B into the data matrix for your analysis of the relationships of A – and then you’ll be very surprised when someone announces they found A and B as sister-groups.

    Can you remember the name or location of the tribe that expects children to have two or more fathers? I’ve been having an on-going argument with a dude that can’t believe that any man in any culture that existed anywhere or at any time could have ever tolerated anything less than 100% certainty of paternity of a child.

    …Surely some would accept being 40 % certain of paternity of each one of 10 children?

    “A unique feature of this tribe is that it does not have a word for ‘father’ and even for ‘husband’ as the concept of marriage does not exist in their tribe. Women have children through a concept called zou hun (walking marriages) in which the female raise the offspring they beget.”

    http://mentalfloss.com/article/31274/6-modern-societies-where-women-rule

    The paragraph has disappeared. Perhaps somebody pointed out to them that zǒuhūn isn’t Mosuo at all (language-wise), it’s Mandarin Chinese.

  68. Forbidden Snowflake says

    Can you remember the name or location of the tribe that expects children to have two or more fathers?

    this article claims 53 tribes in the Amazon rainforest
    this one names the Bari Indians of Venezuela
    this textbook gives more tribe names
    Google “partible paternity” to learn more.

  69. ragdish says

    A concept I have trouble with in evo-psych. is the “module”. From what I gather, a module is an informationally encapsulated innate cognitive structure. I believe this concept has its origins with philosopher Jerry Fodor who is completely opposed to evo-psych.

    I’ve been in Neurology for close to 20 years and after studying the brain, a cognitive trait that has been considered a “module” is face recognition. Indeed, a lesion involving the bilateral fusiform gyrus can result in the inability to recognize faces (ie. prosopagnosia) and for all of you Oliver Sacks fans, this was the disorder that resulted in the “man who mistook his wife for a hat”. After reviewing this disorder with my colleagues in Cognitive Neuroscience, face recognition has genetic underpinnings (ie. there is a congenital prosopagnosia) that localizes to the fusiform gyrus but it is by no means a “module” in the Fodor sense. My understanding is that this region merely functions as a zone for binding information (ie. a “convergence zone”) that receives and sends information to other areas of the brain. Therefore it is not “informationally encapsulated”. Also this region can have alternate functions in recognition. If you lived in isolation and never saw faces but only different types of flowers, the “module” is no longer for faces but for flower recognition. Therefore, to a certain extent face recognition has to be learned ie. there has to be some plasticity going on in those neural regions. Therefore face recognition is not necessarily innate. Indeed, if you are a surgeon your fusiform gyri are important in the recognition of different surgical tools. If you are a wine connoisseur, your fusiform gyri are involved in the recognition of different wine tastes. There may be a genetic bedrock but what is built on that is dictated by environmentally induced plastic changes in circuitry ie. nature and nurture.

    Thus based on this cognitive feature alone, I am skeptical of the claims of evo-pych. such as “cheater detection” modules if there is no corroborating cognitive neuroscientific data. I don’t know if my reasoning necessarily puts the whole field into disrepute, but I have yet to hear from any evo-psychers provide me with any studies to abolish my skepticism.

    I’m interested in others opinions on this matter. Do you think the brain is filled with modules in the Fodorian sense?

  70. areyouashoggoth says

    The good evo psych research and the sophisticamated theology are both housed in the same section of the library, in a non-Euclidean dimension only accessible when the stars are right.

    When I was a kid, early 70s, the same racist and sexist claims made by the evo-psych crowd were being made by the (not very well-read) people that I grew up around. Same dance, slightly different beat.

  71. daniellavine says

    ragdish@74:

    I suspect the term “modules” could be sufficiently abstracted to cover a wide range of different structures — including purely abstract computational (as opposed to neurological) structures. Since it seems like a purely theoretical notion at the moment and generated by a philosopher (one who seems consistently drawn to absurd conclusions, no less) I suspect it is poorly-defined to the extent that anyone really driven to defend the theory could just keep saying “Well, what I meant by ‘module’ is…” however many times you rebut their arguments.

    In “On Intelligence”, Jeff Hawkins outlines a very rough-and-ready theory of neural architecture that is also incredibly general and relies heavily on neuroplasticity. While he’d be the first to admit it’s an almost entirely conjectural work and constitutes at best a stab in a promising direction I tend to think he’s onto something. His theory is, I think, pretty much the opposite of the “modular mind” theory. He argues that neural architecture should be essentially simple and work on just about any type of input/output.

    Since I largely agree with his theory I tend to think the “modules” are derived rather than prior. That is, we have discrete inputs (sense organs) and outputs (muscles) that are wired together not quite haphazardly but pretty close. In any given environment only some subset of the initial circuits are used and unused neurons are pruned (as part of a a relatively well-studied developmental process). The connections between, say, the ears, lips, tongue, larynx, and temporal lobes required to produce language may look like a “language module” after the fact but it’s really a result of a sort of neural Bayesian training process rather than a precursor to the learning process.

    As far as the different between animal brains and human brains that, for example, enables complex syntactic language only in humans, Hawkins points to the prefrontal cortex and conjectures that it is to the whole brain what the visual lobe is for the retinae and optic nerve and that the disproportionate size of this lobe in human beings enables a capacity for abstraction much stronger than in other animals. In turn, it’s this capacity for abstraction that allows us to recognize more complex patterns than other animals — including the patterns that constitute natural language.

    You’ll probably enjoy the response to “The Language Instinct” linked in comment #64. It occurs to me that the fact that ASL has complex syntax comparable to natural language should actually point away from modularity rather than towards it since if there really was an innate module for spoken language it would be “hard-wired” to the auditory cortex and have only weak connections to the visual cortex. To rebut this point I would think modularists would have to invoke…neuroplasticity of all things!

  72. alwayscurious says

    harryp,

    The nature paper was interesting. But it also speaks to how long folks have been working on the problem. Based on the paper’s references, it’s been ~35 years since the establishment that laboratory burrowing behavior is comparable to wild burrowing behavior. It’s been ~25 years since the establishment that the behavior might be genetic. Isolating this behavior didn’t happen casually, overnight or without thousands of mice countless generations.

  73. grahamjones says

    ragdish@74,

    Newborn babies pay more attention to cartoon faces than to visually similar cartoon non-faces. They also tend to smile back at someone who smiles at them – and recognising who is very entangled with recognising expression (is it a wide mouth or a smile?). I think these are evidence of some innate recognition abilities that are specific to faces, not flowers or wine.

    On the other hand, EP enthusiasts often point to research on our supposed innate fear of venomous creatures like spiders and snakes as an example of good EP. The research is flawed, to put it politely. I do not think we have an innate spider-recognition module.

  74. gillt says

    PZ:

    Again, this is not to say that one can’t do good psychology. What I’m saying is that taking that next huge step of linking behavior to genes to evolution demands data and methods that are not present in our toolbox right now, making most of the claims of evo psych fallacious.

    And

    PZ:

    You do have to show that the trait is heritable, though, you know — or at least that different populations in identical environments exhibit different behavioral properties.

    This is the first time I’ve heard you state your position this way. Apparently all your criticism boils down to the opinion that we at this time do not have the necessary methods or instruments to do EP rigorously and make evidence-based connections between trait-gene-evolution in humans behavior…or really any polygenetic, spectrum disorder such as obesity.

    All that other stuff about say (correctly) trashing Kanazawa was not a general indictment of the trenchant sexism at the rotten heart of EP (because that’s the impression I got from those posts and many of the comments) but more of an “Exhibit A” of bad science that happens to be EP.

    I’m skeptical that this has always been the main criticism but if true then it gives Pinker-Coyne something really difficult to avoid addressing.

    In general, PZ taking swipes at EP, Coyne taking swipes at epigenetics and evo-devo and Moran doing the same to both…it’s fun to watch how the others respond when one of them wanders a bit afield of conservative evolutionary thinking in support of one of these younger fields, as PZ does with evo-devo and vice-verse with Coyne and EP and Moran with mutationism or whatever. You’re just a bunch of curmudgeonly old farts except when you’re not!

  75. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Apparently all your criticism boils down to the opinion that we at this time do not have the necessary methods or instruments to do EP rigorously and make evidence-based connections between trait-gene-evolution in humans behavior…or really any polygenetic, spectrum disorder such as obesity.

    Once EP gets even with obesity (five genes), it might have something cogent to say…

  76. says

    What I object to in evolutionary psychology is that their stock in trade is to make observations of behavior in a single species, often in a single population, and then to infer an evolutionary history from that data point.

    I was rather less kind that this, when I posted this morning. I basically accused them of making more logical, perhaps plausible, but “gigo” style stories about genetic traits, based on the time old religious tradition of, “We assume this behavior is normative, and therefor inherently part of human nature, and here is a wonderful story about how we imagine it came about.” Though, I was a tad more long winded about it. I suspect.. they won’t be all that amused. lol

  77. gillt says

    That obesity paper is 15 years old. Let me quote from a more recent paper:

    For the last 15 years, candidate gene and genome-wide linkage studies have been the two main genetic epidemiological approaches to identify genetic loci for common traits, yet progress has been slow and success limited.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20002076

    It goes on about the advances that’ve been made with the sequencing revolution but

    Although a number of significant findings have been made, it appears that very little of the apparent heritability of body mass index has actually been explained to date.

    Here’s a good review paper on the issue of “missing heritability” for complex traits that evolutionary psychologists should read to get a better grasp of the complexity at the genetic level.
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20479774

    A lot of the problem with obesity is one of metrics. All genetic association studies flow from that. That’s why I used it as an example of a complex non-behavioral trait with a significant genetic component.

    Also, see here for some (in my opinion off the mark) criticisms of GWAS obesity studies.
    http://ecodevoevo.blogspot.com/2013/01/weighing-in-on-weighty-subject-bmi.html

  78. says

    Neoclassical economists use a parallel “Neoclassical shuffle” with regard to the premise that effectively all human behaviour is self-interested. The “internal” version of this claim is that everyone is completely selfish; the “external”, that everyone pursues their own goals (which may include the welfare of others).

    Actually, I don’t think this is “wrong”, save for the blatantly stupid assumption made by the people using it to defend bad ideas, and policies, or the lack of controls on the system in question, that all such decisions are made A) consciously, and B) with adequate understanding of the actual consequences, never mind C) some people just don’t give a damn about (B), as long as they think it won’t be someone they know that suffers the actual consequences.

  79. says

    First of all it’s really hard to study human nature, because it’s hard to separate nature from culture. You don’t really have that problem with other animals.

    Except… you do. The smarter and more adaptable the animal, the more likely that changing their environment will *drastically* alter their behaviors. This is even observable, but not even the great ape scientist, Jane Goodall, seemed to be able to grasp this idea, when she introduced incentives to stay close the camp, so she could observe chimpanzees, and completely failed to consider how those incentives *might* fundamentally alter the behavior. This, BTW, includes the “war like” tendencies among chimps, which.. don’t seem to happen in any other places, or at least anything like as serious, or often, no matter how much you match an artificial environment to the “wild” one they came from. Odd how adding something limited, wanted enough to attract them, but hard also hard to get at, might “alter behavior”… And, its exactly this sort of BS running through even a lot of the behavioral studies, before you even get to evo-psych.

  80. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    GeeGillt, you complain about 15 years, but cite thirteen years…Science never stops.
    I don’t have to be right about obesity, just that EP needs to up their evidence to show, unlike what Chas Claims (which I claim is the Golden Evidence), to show real connections to the genome/heredity before announcing to the world they have made a concrete connection. My null hypothesis is that everything is cultural until proven otherwise. And Chas has never, ever, proven otherwise, always made snide complaints. So, who is pretending what is real and what isn’t Chas?

  81. says

    But seriously, the real problem with evo-devo as an alternative to something like evolutionary psychology is ultimately your gonna have to deal with all the messy stuff in human nature called culture.

    Which Evo-psych, ironically, ignores, by insisting its all “adaptive”, and then throws back into the evo-devo camp, by claiming their are genes for it, someplace, somehow. This helps explain things **how** exactly?

    And, since that is what they are basically doing, what is the point of evo-psych in the first place, since, I somehow suspect PZ is more likely to find a gene for a behavior via his methods, than by making up a lot of guesses, then going, “I am sure someone else will prove this eventually!”. I know a few Biblical Archeologists that might be out of work at the moment, maybe they can give them a basic primer on genetics, and set them to work looking for the genes. lol

  82. gillt says

    GeeGillt, you complain about 15 years, but cite thirteen years

    This is what I linked to

    Br J Clin Pharmacol. 2009 Dec;68(6):811-29. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2125.2009.03523.x.

    a 4 year old paper, which I admit is still old for disease genetics.

    I agree, whether you are right or wrong about obesity doesn’t effect your main criticism. Rather, as the example with obesity highlights, I believe your null hypothesis applies to a lot of biology, even human genetics, such as missing heritability.

  83. says

    Newborn babies pay more attention to cartoon faces than to visually similar cartoon non-faces. They also tend to smile back at someone who smiles at them – and recognising who is very entangled with recognising expression (is it a wide mouth or a smile?).

    Fun Fact: newborns can’t smile. It takes them several weeks to master the muscles involved.
    But you’re right, smiling seems to be universal. The evidence we have for that is that children who were born blind and deaf do so, too. Deaf babies also start babbling like hearing babies. Then they stopbecause there’s no feedback for them.
    Which brings me to two points:
    A) The controls you would need to show that a behaviour is “nature” are not possible with humans. There were some cruel experiments in the 19th century, the results were horrible.
    You’d probably need a Truman show controlled environment. Then we’d be talking about centuries and it would still be unethical since we require consent for such experiments.

    B) There seems to be a good case for some very basic behaviours like smiling and language. There’s interesting research in babies choosing a friendly toy over an angry one. How much of body language and non-verbal communication is nature? And I have a feeling that this is the research the usually evo-psych douchebags would really, really dislike because it might show that actually yes, they do understand that this lady would like to be left alone*….

    *Ok, we know that already. Stil…

  84. harryp says

    alwayscurious

    Right, genetics is hard science. Too hard for psychologists, I am afraid.

    Evolution is about ´differential reproduction´ of ´favoured´ genes. ‘Any variation which is not inherited is unimportant for us’ (C. Darwin, Origin)

    The point is, we can´t do anything at all without genes. For example, how many genes do you think we use to read and post comments here? Or to ‘detect cheaters’, or to adopt one of the twenty or something ‘mating strategies’ of D. Buss.. etc etc? In short, Evo Psych it’s not even wrong.

    May be we first should study how real evolution science is done. I think, in addition to the ones referred to above, Aditya Barve, Andreas Wagner. A latent capacity for evolutionary innovation through exaptation in metabolic systems. Nature, 2013; DOI: 10.1038/nature12, may stand as a good model.

  85. ragdish says

    grahamjones@78

    I completely concur. There is no doubt that there are genetic underpinnings to recognition but is that neural region dedicated soley to face recognition. It is impossible to create an actual ethical experiment depriving an infant from seeing faces including his/her own. It would be downright cruel. However, a more realistic finding is among those who are blind from birth. Without the visual input, the fusiform gyrus does not simply shut down. Indeed, it still participates in recognition via other sensory modalities (eg. sound, touch, etc..).

    My whole point is that from a neurological standpoint, I cannot fathom anything in the brain that is anything like a “module” in the sense of an informationally encapsulated structure dedicated to a single program as put forth by evo-psychers. If they are instead implying some ill-defined computational structure and then attribute some genetic underpinning, then that is some major hand-waving. If some congitive trait is universal, then it is the job of evo-psychers to elucidate from the level of the genome to proteins to neuron to neural networks all the way up the ladder to make the claim that a gene is responsible for module X. At this stage, that is next to impossible. Secondly, to make a claim of why that trait evolved is a “just so story”. It may be very well true that our ability to recognize faces is the result of natural selection that confers a survival advantage (ie. you’ll likely survive and reproduce via recognizing friend from foe) but without proof, it is mere speculation.

  86. David Marjanović says

    On the other hand, EP enthusiasts often point to research on our supposed innate fear of venomous creatures like spiders and snakes as an example of good EP. The research is flawed, to put it politely. I do not think we have an innate spider-recognition module.

    Neither do I. After all, I myself have no fear of snakes in general, and no fear of spiders* beyond that of insects that might tickle me or suddenly end up in my face.

    * …That’s spiders of sizes I’m used to. And it doesn’t include solifugids. Don’t look them up.