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Aug 31 2013

Finally! An evolutionary explanation for evolutionary psychology

It’s simple, really. Evolutionary psychology evolved to provide a niche for the evolutionary psychology douchebag.

And that article further provides a niche for all the evolutionary psychology douchebags who are nesting in the comments, oblivious to how tired their songs are.

29 comments

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  1. 1
    R Johnston

    So you’re saying that evolutionary psychologists are an evolutionary dead end who can’t evolve into their own niche and need instead a niche to evolve to support their existence, correct?

    Sounds about right to me.

  2. 2
    René

    I’ll scratch your sprandel, if you scratch mine. YOU can explain that, right?

  3. 3
    anuran

    I’m afraid the demise of this land-race is over-hyped. While they may have trouble attracting mates and reproducing the potential for the traits exists in a Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium. Without an effective test and mandatory sterilization for carriers it will be with us for a long time to come

  4. 4
    Michael Fine

    How very like creationist apologetics.

  5. 5
    pacal

    The article linked too linked to a piece which linked to a piece in which Steven Pinker lauded The book A Natural History of Rape has brave, courageous and fact filled. The book is in many ways a regurgitation of old myths about rape and yes rape culture. But then Steven Pinker has been waging a war against a mythical political correctness for quite sometime now.

  6. 6
    Josh, Official SpokesGay

    In before Chas.

  7. 7
    AlexanderZ

    A question for biologists/psychologists/any science folk familiar with evo-psych people and publications:
    How predominant this view-point is among evo-psych people? Is it something that merely happens to characterize the more famous people in evo-psych, but doesn’t reflect on your average researcher? Or is it something that is common among many researchers, like racism was among phrenologists?

  8. 8
    AlexanderZ

    Another thing:
    How many women are in evo-psych? How many minorities? Is it almost entirely a white boy’s club?

  9. 9
    chigau (違う)

    I think Chas is giving himself a time-out.
    He may not show up.

  10. 10
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    Oh. My. God. The mission creep is teh destroyyy io9!

  11. 11
    laurentweppe

    Eventually, scientology will produce its own branching tree, and some of its member will evolve, their worldview mutating until their hubbardesque hatred of psychologists becomes scorn toward evopsych. At which point it will be possible to find scientologists holding the intellectual and moral high gound compared to people with science degrees… This boggles the mind

  12. 12
    Rutee Katreya

    Eventually, scientology will produce its own branching tree, and some of its member will evolve, their worldview mutating until their hubbardesque hatred of psychologists becomes scorn toward evopsych. At which point it will be possible to find scientologists holding the intellectual and moral high gound compared to people with science degrees… This boggles the mind

    Um, no. Assuming Scientology hates evopsych, they will still be kidnappers and bigots. They just won’t be scientific establishment bigots.

  13. 13
    Matthew White

    Whyyyy do I read the comments ? People make statements on that site which make me feel the need to thoroughly go through what they have said and provide a detailed and well written argument, something for which I just don’t have the time. Hopefully, this brief post here will go some way to satiating that urge.

  14. 14
    R Johnston

    Matthew White @13:

    You should never feel the need to provide a detailed and well written argument in response to evo psych defenders. Evopsychics have evolved to have no understanding of arguments or written language, just like their hunter/gatherer ancestors of 100,000 years ago.

  15. 15
    abewoelk

    I don’t know enough about evolutionary psychology to have an opinion, but I found this from the comments section enlightening:

    “Here’s the interesting thing about evolutionary psychology: both ends of the political spectrum hate it.

    “The right hates it because it strongly implies that there’s no magical ‘soul’ to guide behavior, ergo in their minds we’re all simply corrupted meat. Merely a collection of DNA that has survived down through the ages.

    “The left (usually feminists, although not exclusively) hates it because it strongly implies that facets of biology shaped through evolution might influence behavior. Especially behavior that is rooted in gender. I’ve lost track of the presumptive pejorative of “BIOLOGICAL DETERMINIST!” being thrown my way in forums.

    “So a Faustian bargain is struck between two groups that normally hate one another to condemn any findings of evolutionary psychology. Neither of the partners can stand evaluating any evidence of said research since it attacks fundamental principles they rely on, so flame they must.”

  16. 16
    piegasm

    shorter abewoelk:

    I don’t know enough about evopsych to have an opinion but here’s my opinion anyway!

  17. 17
    cervantes

    I think many people miss the point of this whole discussion. Obviously, human behavior is generated by our brains which are a product of evolution. And there are many commonalities among cultures, e.g. we all have language, kinship systems, greeting and parting rituals, and a whole lot more. But, our behavior is much more flexible and complex than that of even our biggest brained relatives, and it is very much shaped by our family upbringing in the context of our broader culture. In fact, it is none other than Steven Pinker who has lately been making strong claims that typical human behavior has changed dramatically over just a few hundred years.

    The point is not that adaptive explanations for human psychology are inherently implausible or inappropriate in principle. It’s just that they are very hard to demonstrate. Human psychology is in fact highly variable and strongly shaped by environment and individual experience. This flexibility is precisely a big part of what has evolved. Yes, there are generalizations we can make about how people learn and how the brain turns knowledge, experience and basic drives into behavior, but that’s a complicated endeavor. Many practitioners of the art are much too glib and don’t have actual evidence to back up their speculations. I hope this accords with PZ’s view.

  18. 18
    abewoelk

    Piegasm, if you want to respond to the substance of the comment I reposted, that would be lovely. Otherwise, you’ve simply proven the commenter’s point.

    I don’t know enough about evolutionary psychology to have an opinion. Intuitively, it seems to me that since some behaviors are more likely than others to result in organisms living long enough to pass along their genes, those behaviors pose an evolutionary advantage and might become hard wired at some point. It also doesn’t seem to me to be much of a stretch to suggest that some such behaviors outlive their usefulness, as in a desire for sugar being advantageous when sugar mostly meant eating fresh fruit, but is now a disadvantage since obesity is a major health problem. So the mere fact that a certain behavior may have a biological basis doesn’t mean that it should be encouraged.

    So let us assume that there is a biological basis for rape, or for that matter racism. That would mean nothing more than that it was an evolutionary advantage once upon a time; it does not mean that it still is, or that there aren’t other reasons to suppress it. It’s not contradictory to say that our ancestors lived at a time when such behavior was advantageous but times have changed.

  19. 19
    Esteleth, [an error occurred while processing this directive]

    An evolutionary-gained biological “benefit” to rape? Racism? Sure. Fine. I’ll admit that may be true.

    But, dammit, there’s also an evolutionary-gained biological benefit to infanticide and killing disabled people.

    And we, as a society, have decided that we’re not going to do that.

  20. 20
    abewoelk

    Esteleth, I think there are a number of reasons to suppress rape, racism, infatacide and killing the disabled, even though all of those things may have been evolutionarily advantageous. You are absolutely right that as a society, we have decided, and for good reason, that those behaviors are not acceptable. So you and I are probably not that far off.

    That, however, is a separate question from whether a predisposition toward those behaviors may have evolved because they were advantageous at one time to at least some males. And I can think of one huge, fairly obvious reason why rape may have been advantageous: The rapist has the same biological imperative to pass along his genes as does every other male. If he happens to be the kind of man whom most women are not interested in, for any number of reasons, the only way for him to pass along his genes may be through rape. That is certainly true of other species in which rape routinely happens: Mallards, dolphins, chimpanzees and butterflies.

    But one of the good things about being human is that we have the ability to rationally look at our behavior and make choices about whether that behavior should be perpetuated. Whether there is a biological basis for rape or not, it ought to be illegal and rapists ought to be prosecuted, because there are other interests at stake as well. So, given that, does it really matter whether ev psych is true or not, and if it is true, does it really matter if rape has a biological basis or not?

  21. 21
    Esteleth, [an error occurred while processing this directive]

    It is only evolutionarily advantageous for a male to father offspring if said offspring are going to be cared for.

    Human newborns are extraordinarily fragile things (especially in comparison to newborns of other species) and are fragile for an extraordinarily long time (especially in comparison to newborns of other species).

    If a male wanted to have lots of descendants, rather than blowing in and raping a woman, he’d be better served by being an active nurturing parent.

    Even if I grant that a rapist might father more children than a non-rapist, I do not agree that this would necessarily translate into having more descendants.

  22. 22
    Esteleth, [an error occurred while processing this directive]

    But in any case, one of the biggest flaws of the evpsych argument is that they assume that our evolution ended back on the primordial savannah when we were all hunter-gatherers and that our brains haven’t adapted – evolved even! – to circumstances that arose after that time period.

    Yes, evolution is slow, but it isn’t that slow.

  23. 23
    abewoelk

    Esteleth, I agree with you that evolution is ongoing. Which means that even if evolutionary psychology is true, it doesn’t mean that behavior that got hardwired in the past won’t be replaced by different behavior becoming hardwired as evolution continues.

    We are not the same people as lived on the savannah thousands of years ago. A lot of things that worked on the savannah no longer do. For example, pure capitalism works just fine when anyone who wants a resource can simply go out and take it because there’s plenty to go around; it doesn’t work as well when resources are limited. Which is why I’m not a pure libertarian, even though I will admit to tendencies in that direction.

    I’d like to think that since racism is no longer evolutionarily advantageous — in fact, if anything it’s now counterproductive — that eventually it will disappear from our hardwiring. On the other hand, our love of foods that make us fat and unhealthy shows no sign of abating.

  24. 24
    Esteleth, [an error occurred while processing this directive]

    Libertarianism?

    Pfft.

    Libertarianism would work (in theory) if everyone actually started at the same level and if the playing field was actually level.

    Since neither of those things is true, libertarianism is an argument for keeping the haves having and the haves not having not.

  25. 25
    Dalillama, Schmott Guy

    abewolk

    For example, pure capitalism works just fine when anyone who wants a resource can simply go out and take it because there’s plenty to go around;

    Except that that’s never actually been the case in all of human history. There was never a time where capitalism coexisted with resources being there for the taking by whoever shows up, because everyplace with accessible resources was already occupied, and going out and taking it was done at the point of a gun (or pike, lance, sword, etc, but mostly gun by the time modern capitalism rolls around).

    Esteleth

    Libertarianism would work (in theory) if everyone actually started at the same level and if the playing field was actually level.

    Not even then; libertarian ideology basically doesn’t allow for infrastructure and has godawful methods for resolving negative externalities. A society based on libertarianism would collapse into chaos, warlordism, or both within no more than a half century, by my estimate.

  26. 26
    eigenperson

    #15 abewoelk:

    I don’t know enough about evolutionary psychology to have an opinion, but I found this from the comments section enlightening:

    “Here’s the interesting thing about evolutionary psychology: both ends of the political spectrum hate it.

    *snip*

    “So a Faustian bargain is struck between two groups that normally hate one another to condemn any findings of evolutionary psychology. Neither of the partners can stand evaluating any evidence of said research since it attacks fundamental principles they rely on, so flame they must.”

    Here’s the thing. There may be many people who talk about EP without reading the papers or discussing the research, but if so, PZ is not one of them. Nor are lots of people here.

    In previous (recent) threads we’ve had EP defenders appear to inform us that we were not reading the papers. So I read some of the papers provided by these people. What I found in them was pretty pathetic.

    The standard design of the EP paper is:

    * Write an introduction about how a certain behavior should be selectively favored on The Savannah. This section contains no data.
    * Show something about this behavior. Ideally you would show that it exists in all cultures. More frequently, you simply show that it is heritable. Sometimes you just show that it exists in one culture.
    * Write a conclusion in which you explain how the fact that this behavior exists in all cultures (or is heritable, or exists) proves that it evolved by natural selection on The Savannah (see Introduction). This section also contains no data.

    The problem is not with the data, for the most part. Sometimes evolutionary psychologists botch this step (e.g. a population consisting entirely of University of Michigan undergrad psych majors), but usually that part is okay.

    The problem is that the arguments about the evolution of the behavior are totally divorced from any data. They are inevitably pure speculation. So you have some bogus “evo” wrapped around a perfectly good piece of “psych”.

    For example, evolutionary psychologists frequently bring up the idea that it is adaptive for people to be attractive to symmetrical faces, because symmetry is a marker for health. But the thing is, even if facial symmetry is preferred, and even if it is correlated with health, that doesn’t mean the correlation is significant enough for any selection through this mechanism to be significant. A preference for symmetrical faces could be selected for in a number of ways that have nothing to do with the correlation between facial symmetry and health, such as a general preference for symmetrical shapes arising from an innate attraction to visual data with large-scale symmetrical structure, which is correlated with superior pattern-recognition ability and fluid intelligence.

    I’m just making that up, and not seriously proposing it; it’s one of many possible hypotheses, none of which is addressed by the data. But that does not stop evolutionary psychologists from propounding their chosen hypothesis.

    Furthermore, in cases where there is a good argument that a behavior would be adaptive, but it isn’t seen cross-culturally in modern humans, the evolutionary psychologists rarely comment on it. For example, one of the papers linked in a previous thread (I’m sorry, I’m having trouble finding it, but it was about a month ago) showed a cross-cultural preference among women for older men, and among men for younger women. The authors proposed that the preference among men was caused by selection through the maternal age effect. But they totally ignored that there is also a paternal age effect, which suggests that women should prefer younger men. Their data showed the opposite.

    I find it difficult to conclude that they decided to ignore the paternal age effect through a rigorous application of scientific logic. I think they ignored it because it didn’t fit with their model. That’s no good.

    I’m sure there is good evo psych out there, but if so, it’s buried in a load of garbage. Maybe that’s true of any scientific field, but I find it surprising that garbage is so prevalent among the papers that EP defenders put forward as examples of the best work done in that field. It makes me think there isn’t a lot of good work.

  27. 27
    Esteleth, [an error occurred while processing this directive]

    True enough, Dalillama. Hence why the only country on Earth currently practicing libertarianism is that great idyllic utopia of Somalia.

  28. 28
    David Marjanović

    In before Chas.

    Treat his appearance as a testable hypothesis, instead of trying to make a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  29. 29
    Mark Pawelek

    My objection to evolutionary psychology is that it pretends to be science. It’s not. One EP speculation or supposition is worth about as much as any other. None of it has evidence behind it. It can neither be refuted nor verified. This kind of pretend science gives actual science a bad name and opens the floodgates to all sorts of pseudo-science. There are lots of ideas that seem plausible to many people which they wrongly believe to be science.

    By lowering the standards for what we call science, EP allows all sorts of other drivel to be naively accepted. Even were they to call EP ‘speculation by scientists’ I’d still be unhappy because I see no reason why speculation by scientists should be privileged in any way.

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