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Jul 29 2013

A classic example of an evolutionary psychologist unable to read

My experience has been that the only way evolutionary psychologists know how to deal with criticism is by flagrant denial.

Recently, I discussed some remarks by PZ Myers, who might be called – though I’m sure he would object – a creationist of the mind. (This term isn’t original with me. Anyone know who coined it?) By this I refer to the view that the theory of evolution by natural selection ought to be used to inform the study of the traits and behaviors of every living thing on the planet except the bits of the human mind that cause behavior, especially social behavior. Again, I’m not saying he’s literally a creationist; I’m saying that there are some who are very comfortable insisting that evolutionary ideas inform biology in all other domains except the human mind.

Ho-hum. I am quite confident that the mind evolved, that it is the product of natural processes, and that it would be profitable to our understanding to explore it scientifically. And I do believe I’ve said it quite a few times.

Does Robert Kurzban understand that there’s more to the theory of evolution than natural selection?

23 comments

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  1. 1
    Improbable Joe, bearer of the Official SpokesGuitar

    Oh, the irony of that guy’s book title.

  2. 2
    David Gerard

    Your obvious failure here, PZ, is in not writing a paper heralding the discovery of the mental module responsible for otherwise-smart people thinking in Comic Sans.

    *sigh* The problem is that EP advocates are right that there could, philosophically, be a hypothetical good discipline about how the mind evolved. The trouble is that present-day EP, and its even worse predecessor sociobiology, isn’t that discipline, and its advocates are in denial about it not being that discipline. You don’t get to claim credit for what you could be when you glaringly aren’t it yet.

  3. 3
    eigenperson

    I really don’t understand evolutionary psychologists.

    It seems like they believe it should be possible to answer every question of the form “Why do humans exhibit behavior X?” with an answer of the form “Humans exhibit behavior X because in the context of such-and-such an environment, behavior X was adaptive and was selected for.” And anyone who argues for any other kind of answer, including “Humans exhibit behavior X as a byproduct of the fact that we have large brains and live in a complex society,” must be a “creationist of the mind.”

  4. 4
    PZ Myers

    Over and over again, I explain that my disagreement is with the premises and methods of evo psych…and over and over again, they take the lazy way out and claim I’m saying that I disagree with the conclusion that the brain evolved.

  5. 5
    Improbable Joe, bearer of the Official SpokesGuitar

    If their position is so strong why do they have to ALWAYS A) strawman the fuck out of their critics and B)spend all their time whining about how dumb their critics are, and no time at all demonstrating how they are correct in their assertions?

  6. 6
    Anthony K

    Over and over again, I explain that my disagreement is with the premises and methods of evo psych…and over and over again, they take the lazy way out and claim I’m saying that I disagree with the conclusion that the brain evolved.

    On the African savannah, assuming your interlocutor was disagreeing with the premises and methods of evo psych could get you killed more often than taking the lazy way out and claiming your interlocutor disagrees with the conclusion that the brain evolved caused you to waste energy running from a non-existent threat.

    Why can’t you people see this?*

    *Did you evolve on a different, non-African savannah or something?

  7. 7
    eigenperson

    #4 PZ:

    The idea that the brain evolved isn’t even a conclusion of evo psych. That’s a conclusion of regular old evolutionary biology. Evo psych starts with that as a premise.

    Apparently, to Robert Kurzban, if you disagree with his argument, you must reject every single one of his premises as well.

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

    Denial must be adaptive!

  9. 9
    Denverly

    How does “human behavior is not solely determined by evolution = evolution has no effect on human behavior”? I don’t get it.

  10. 10
    davidwhitlock

    The problem of evolutionary psychology is due to evolution.

    Evolution configured all organisms to have hyperactive agency detection. When your continued life depends on detecting the agency of predators, your sensory systems are skewed to detecting agency even when it is not there.

    Hyperactive agency detection is a bug, not a feature. Of course finding agency everywhere seems intuitive. That is what evolution configured our intuition to be like. Logic and reason are a lot more difficult than the intuitively obvious hyperactive agency default.

  11. 11
    Bronze Dog

    My forehead is bruised from the facepalms and headdesks.

    Yes, some behaviors are adaptations through genetic natural selection. Some are the product of genetic drift and have no significant adaptive benefit. Some are “side effects” of an adaptation and may be disadvantageous, though not enough to overpower the beneficial effects. Many, many behaviors are learned and/or cultural (memetic) and have no direct genetic component, only indirectly made possible through genes that increase plasticity.

    The objection we have is that the perceived majority of so-called evolutionary psychologists display a powerful aversion to doing the hard work of sorting out which behaviors are which and jump to adaptation by natural selection by default. To me, this unwillingness to consider and control for non-adaptive or non-genetic explanations is a sign of ignorance of evolutionary theory, human nature, and scientific methodology.

    I’m a layman, and I know enough to think twice about speculating adaptive explanations for an organism’s features. Once, I wondered why flamingos are pink, pondering what possible survival benefit pink coloration would produce. Then I found out it’s not genetic, it’s a side effect of their diet. It’s environmental.

  12. 12
    sheaf

    The problem of evolutionary psychology is due to evolution.

    Evolution configured all organisms to have hyperactive agency detection. When your continued life depends on detecting the agency of predators, your sensory systems are skewed to detecting agency even when it is not there.

    Hyperactive agency detection is a bug, not a feature. Of course finding agency everywhere seems intuitive. That is what evolution configured our intuition to be like. Logic and reason are a lot more difficult than the intuitively obvious hyperactive agency default.

    EP vs EP. Who will win?

  13. 13
    eigenperson

    #11 Bronze Dog:

    Be careful — just because the pink pigment isn’t produced by the flamingos’ own cells doesn’t mean it isn’t adaptive, or subject to natural selection.

  14. 14
    coleslaw

    It seems to me that what has been selected for in human brains is what you, PZ, described in another post:

    Brains develop; they go through a process of change and refinement that is dependent on interactions with the environment. As ought to be obvious, then, brains are going to be exquisitely sensitive to their inputs.

    Environments change, and sometimes change faster than genomes can. Neurons that are “exquisitely sensitive to their inputs” can certainly be selected for, but what that means is that it is the ability to devise and learn new behaviors that is selected for, not the behaviors themselves. So I don’t see how attributing complex behaviors to environmental inputs makes one a “creationist of the mind”. It seems just as possible to me that one could posit a Creator who implants brains with specific social behaviors as that natural selection shaped the specific behaviors. So I don’t see how EP is automatically exempt from a “creationism of the mind” charge, but I could be missing something.

  15. 15
    Bronze Dog

    #11 Bronze Dog:

    Be careful — just because the pink pigment isn’t produced by the flamingos’ own cells doesn’t mean it isn’t adaptive, or subject to natural selection.

    Yeah, there’s potential for it to get a bit “meta,” but I at least know that adaptation shouldn’t be assumed like in my initial question. In the “meta” scenario, it’s less direct: the selection would be working on the genes that lead the flamingo to eat a pinkness-inducing diet, rather than selecting for non-existent genes that directly produce pink pigments. You can get a color change without changing pigment genes.

    And, for an analogy, in humans, environmental changes can change which memes are selected for passing onto later generations, changing human behavior without the need for genes that directly produce equivalent behaviors.

  16. 16
    John Horstman

    @9: Willful ignorance in the service of a presupposed ideology. See: Cognitive Dissonance, Methods of Maintaining.

  17. 17
    Flewellyn

    I’m not sure if it’s “unable to read” so much as “used to assuming what they want to believe is true, is true, and then proceeding to argue as though they had already proven it”.

    In other words, standard evopsych MO.

  18. 18
    Thomathy, Such A 'Mo

    And, for an analogy, in humans, environmental changes can change which memes are selected for passing onto later generations, changing human behavior without the need for genes that directly produce equivalent behaviors.

    Umm …no. Memes as an analogy to genes are very bad. Especially when anyone starts talking about them in terms of selection and passing on or even in the context of human behaviour.

    I would have thought that in the 30 years since Dawkins proposed the meme (as a metaphor, quite explicitly, and limited at that) that some people might have payed attention to the rather thorough trouncing of memetics in every field into which memetics intrudes like a loud, drunk, oblivious and uninvited guest …with the notable exception of evolutionary psychology.

    In fact, it must be that memetics is for linguistics (generally), semiotics, cultural evolution, anthropology and any other science studying and describing human behaviour, the development and change of culture and language as evolutionary psychology is to the evolutionary developmental biologist who writes this blog.

    It should come as no surprise that many of the proponents of memetics are evolutionary psychologists. I’d suggest that the next bit of garbage science (how hard it is not to use quotes) that should be held to the fire is memetics.

    [...] evolutionary psychologist unable to read

    I can’t put my finger on exactly why this has the air of irony about it, but my mouth is upturned nonetheless.

  19. 19
    gillt

    I was wondering if you were going to address Kurzban’s multiple posts about your cluelessness with the field. Agreed, ho-hum is Kurzban’s attempts to say anything interesting here, and his other posts are only slightly more informative. To think I had high expectations that a prominent Evolutionary Psychologist would rise to the challenge in defense of his field. Instead all Kurzban does is assure us that PZ is way off the mark in recycling old criticism of sociobiology while waving around the troll card. Lame!

  20. 20
    Bronze Dog

    I don’t know what sort of memetics you’re talking about or what you think I meant by “meme” beyond a broad term for learned ideas, explanations, skills, or cultural conventions. They’re close enough for the comparison I was making, being a semi-heritable, indirect cause for a change in an organism’s features.

    The analogy I was referring to was that, as I see it, evolutionary psychologists are analogous to someone who observes pink flamingos, works from the assumption that they possess a gene for producing pink feathers, and assert an adaptive purpose for this undemonstrated gene.

  21. 21
    cunninglingus

    No idea if this has been mentioned, or even considered, but to accept this evo psyche bullshit, shouldn’t we all feel, act, and believe, the same way?

  22. 22
    cunninglingus

    I figured it was idiocy after I hit ‘submit’ …. damn me.

  23. 23
    coelsblog

    3: eigenperson:

    It seems like they [EPs] believe it should be possible to answer every question of the form “Why do humans exhibit behavior X?” with an answer of the form “Humans exhibit behavior X because in the context of such-and-such an environment, behavior X was adaptive and was selected for.” And anyone who argues for any other kind of answer, including “Humans exhibit behavior X as a byproduct of the fact that we have large brains and live in a complex society,” must be a “creationist of the mind.”

    5. Improbable Joe:

    If their position is so strong why do they have to ALWAYS A) strawman the fuck out of their critics …?

    Good question.

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