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Sep 01 2013

Jerry Coyne gets everything wrong, again

I wish I knew what it was about the appeal of evolutionary psychology that makes otherwise intelligent people promote outright silliness in its defense, but here comes Jerry Coyne again in a poorly thought-out piece. He disagrees with the anti-EP piece I linked to yesterday, which is fine, but I expect better arguments than this. He completely mangles the story.

An example: he cites a section of Annalee Newitz’s story like this, as the one substantive argument she presents against EP:

Humans evolve too fast to bear behavioral traces of ancient evolution.

I agree. That statement is total nonsense, simply not true, an absurdity on the face of it. Unfortunately for Coyne, Newitz said nothing of the kind! And most strangely of all, Coyne goes on to quote the relevant section of Newitz’s piece, and it’s obvious that she said nothing like that.

This is all part of [Miller's] and many other evopsych researchers’ project to prove that humans haven’t changed much since we were roaming east Africa 100,000 years ago. Evolutionary biology researchers like Marlene Zuk have explored some the scientific problems with this idea. Most notably, humans have continued to evolve quite a lot over the past ten thousand years, and certainly over 100 thousand. Sure, our biology affects our behavior. But it’s unlikely that humans’ early evolution is deeply relevant to contemporary psychological questions about dating, or the willpower to complete a dissertation. Even Steven Pinker, one of evopsych’s biggest proponents, has said that humans continue to evolve and that our behavior is changing over time.

There’s no denial of ancient attributes in there. There isn’t even anything about the rate of evolution. It’s more specific than that: the kinds of questions we see most evolutionary psychologists exploring (dating or writing dissertations) represent novel challenges that aren’t easily explained by simply citing ancient tribal organization or food gathering practices, especially since all those ancient properties are unknown to us, and are often simply invented by evolutionary psychologists to put an imaginary evolutionary gloss on modern behaviors.

And then, to back up his assertion that we retain relics of our evolutionary history (which no one seems to be arguing against), Coyne lists a collection of morphological traits — wisdom teeth, bad backs, goosebumps, etc. — which, again, no one is saying don’t exist. I’ve read Shubin’s Your Inner Fish, too, and agree completely that what we are now is a product of a long evolutionary history.

But please, none of these are subjects of evolutionary psychology. It’s simply irrelevant, except possibly to shoot down a passing zeppelin carrying a cargo of straw.

Coyne does do something promising: he lists some psychological attributes that he considers worthy of an evolutionary psychology approach.

Higher variance in male than in female reproductive success due to differential behavior of the sexes
Weaning conflict between mothers and their infants
Preference for relatives over nonrelatives (kin selection), and xenophobia (useful for when we lived in small groups)
Fear of spiders and snakes

I agree! Those do look like phenomena that would have a deep evolutionary history and would affect modern humans in interesting ways. If that were the kind of thing evolutionary psychologists study — and I’ve said this multiple times now — the deep generalities of human behavior, rather than the parade of nonsense about foraging for berries and its effect on women’s shopping preferences, I’d have no complaint at all about EP. But those are hard questions. You generally can’t answer them with a quickie survey of your intro psych college students (let’s not even pretend that that isn’t what evolutionary psychologists do, ‘k?).

I’ve read some on his second subject, conflict between mothers and infants. I really recommend Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s Mother Nature as a great study of the issue — but it’s also a very anthropological topic. If you want to say something about common elements of human nature, you really do need to survey something broader than American college students.

I thought the last topic is a good one, too, and when I was trying to find worthwhile EP papers, that was one I focused on. It seems reasonable and complicated, and definitely psychological. I’ve also got a personal interest, because I have no obvious fear of spiders or snakes (other than an intellectual wariness…but otherwise, I find myself feeling attraction rather than aversion), but I do have a fear of guns — point one at me, and my heart rate goes up and I feel a lot of anxiety. So how do we sort out cultural vs. genetic predispositions? I’m assuming I don’t carry a “fear of guns” gene.

One review I found by Öhman and Mineka, “Fears, Phobias, and Preparedness: Toward an Evolved Module of Fear and Fear Learning” seemed to be an exercise in ambiguity and vague explanations. They actually compared fear of spiders and snakes vs. fear of guns and electrical outlets. The answers were confusing: some studies find a greater resistance to extinction in spider phobias, others can’t replicate it. It seems to be a subtle phenomenon. It left me wondering more about how EP can say anything about more detailed behaviors when they can’t even nail down this rather fundamental one. I was also deeply put off by one of their interpretations.

Finally, even if true selective associations could be demon- strated with pointed guns, we would not consider this very damaging to our account, because ontogenetic and phylogenetic accounts of fear relevance are not inherently incompatible or mutually exclusive.

I can agree completely that fear responses can have multiple causes, and finding that one response is conditioned by experience does not rule out the possibility that another has a significant genetic component. But isn’t that the question? If you’re trying to claim that there is a heritable psychological pattern, shouldn’t you be designing your experiments specifically to distinguish conditioning from instinct?

So yeah, Jerry, you’re right, there are a lot of good questions that evolutionary psychologists could be studying. Which only highlights the strangeness of all the crap we do see published.

Wait…another blimp full of straw floats by. How do they stay up in the air?

It’s simply nonsense to dismiss the field on the grounds that there’s no way that human behavior could show traces of its deep evolutionary past.

Which no one has claimed. Done.

So now we get down to the really offensive part. The one where the proponents of EP deny that there are any structural problems in their field, and instead all of their opponents are ideologically motivated. Let’s go imagine some intent!

The real reason why people like Newitz and others (that includes P. Z., I think) dismiss evolutionary psychology in toto is because they find it ideologically unpalatable: they don’t like its supposed implications. They presume that evo-psych somehow validates misogyny or the marginalization of women and minorities. They will deny this to their dying breath, of course, and pretend that it’s purely a scientific issue, citing a few anecdotal studies that are indeed laughable. But I think we know where these people are coming from. Evolutionary biology itself has been used to justify racism or the sterilization of supposedly “defective” humans, but we don’t dismiss evolutionary biology because of that. Likewise, we shouldn’t dismiss evolutionary psychology just because some cranks draw “oughts” from “is”s.

When you read a statement like this:

“Developmental plasticity is all. The fundamental premises of evo psych are false”,

then you know you are dealing with ideology rather than science. The fundamental premise of evolutionary psychology is simply that some modern human behaviors reflect an ancient evolutionary history. It would be odd if that were completely false. And developmental plasticity is not all. If that were the case, then why do we still have wisdom teeth and bad backs?

It doesn’t seem to matter how often we point out bad science or lousy protocols or unjustifiable interpretations — the criticisms will be dismissed with this “Oh, they’re just leftist ideologues!” baloney. Yet somehow the converse never seems to be brought up by the EP defenders: that somehow, these EP papers almost universally seem to find rationalizations for the status quo, that they take existing behaviors in our culture and slap on a just-so story to claim women’s roles or the place of minorities is biological or natural or genetic or determined by 100,000 years of selection. If I were to turn this argument around, and say that supporters of EP are all ideologically driven fellow travelers of Kanazawa and Murray and Herrnstein (which I am NOT doing here, by the way), we’d immediately recognize this as a beautiful example of poisoning the well.

But somehow, it’s acceptable for Coyne to claim on no evidence at all that our objections are tainted by ideology? To dismiss criticisms of the premises and procedures of evolutionary psychology as unfounded because we’re not right-wing nutcases?

I will concede that my quoted sentence was poorly worded and prone to misinterpretation, and that that is entirely my fault. (It was a quick comment on an article made while I was at a con, so don’t get too worked up about it.) The context is that I’m talking about human behavior, not wisdom teeth or bad backs (although, actually, developmental plasticity does play a huge role in both of those). Every aspect of human psychology carries a huge load of cultural and psychological conditioning; even the genetically determined elements of our behavior (note: I do not deny that those exist) are going to be heavily layered with non-genetic baggage, and every biological predisposition is going to be swimming in an ocean of plastic responses and environmental reactivity. I expect that evolutionary psychologists should be especially sensitive to and appreciative of the problems that confers on analysis, and that they seem to be more often dismissive of the most important element of their field is grounds to reject the discipline.

And now I expect that the fact that I actually do oppose misogyny or the marginalization of women and minorities will somehow be used as an excuse to claim I’m ideologically driven. Of course, I suspect that Jerry Coyne also opposes misogyny or the marginalization of women and minorities; maybe he ought to say so more often so we can use that as a reason to reject his opinions.


Oh, joy. The defenders of Evo Psych are crawling out of the woodwork to nibble on me.

Heeeere’s Preston:

@pzmyers So our brains are evolved in form, but not in function. Riiiighhhht.

With Robert Bentley following right along.

@pzmyers Do you believe that, unlike all other animals, our behavior isn’t influenced at all by our evolutionary past?

And then W. Benson makes this lovely comment:

PZ is also hates recapitulation (along with my favorite German evolutionist (flawed in other ways) Ernst Haeckel), and maintains that both are discredited and dead. Haeckel’s recapitulation (not the Freddy variety portrayed by SJ Gould, PZ and fundies) and modern EvoPsy have indeed become tinged with voodoo-ish ‘species memory’ cultism, and when subject to strawman distortions can be made out as evil fabrications that oppose the Pharyngula-certified ‘feel-good’ street view that man arose, POOF, shiny, good, and untainted by monkey business. I think that this denialism, infused with a heady yet unmapped dose of Naturalistic Fallacy, may be the drug driving PZ’s ideological warp.

Recapitulation, even (or especially) Haeckel’s old sans-genetics view, is dead. Sorry to break the news to you, W.

But what is it with all these illiterates who read this post and think I’m denying that human behavior evolved from a primate substrate?

Oh, wait. One more. My favorite, from someone named JT:

PZ Myers is my bête noire; I can’t help myself.

Who the hell are you, Johnny Snow?

57 comments

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  1. 1
    skeptifem

    I think about ancient people a lot. I wonder what they did or how they dealt with certain problems in my day to day life. I have a feeling that a lot of EP fans are like me but delude themselves into thinking its science somehow, instead of fantasy.

  2. 2
    Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :)

    I will concede that my quoted sentence was poorly worded and prone to misinterpretation, and that that is entirely my fault. (It was a quick comment on an article made while I was at a con, so don’t get too worked up about it.)

    Every sentence shouldn’t HAVE to be carefully structured to protect against being dishonestly misrepresented.

  3. 3
    Rich Woods

    One review I found by Öhman and Mineka, “Fears, Phobias, and Preparedness: Toward an Evolved Module of Fear and Fear Learning” seemed to be an exercise in ambiguity and vague explanations.

    The word ‘Toward’ in the title would be the first red flag.

  4. 4
    sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d

    I do have a fear of guns — point one at me, and my heart rate goes up and I feel a lot of anxiety.

    …except that that isn’t a fear of guns- it’s a fear of being shot and entirely rational. I have no fear of guns, but I would be very afraid of a damned fool who pointed a gun at other people- even- or especially- if they proclaimed it wasn’t loaded.

  5. 5
    alwayscurious

    And let this be a lesson to all scientific fields, established or emerging: maintain high professional standards within your field. It will take years of hard work for serious researchers inside EP to turn it into anything worthwhile because of its bad history. In that amount of time, bleeding researchers to nearby disciplines could ruin the whole attempt at improvement.

  6. 6
    unclefrogy

    seems to me that subjects of evolutionary psychology would better be asked or answered by anthropology.
    Might it be an artifact of the development in the history of psychology starting with Freud who took his middle class patients as stand-ins for all people.
    uncle frogy

  7. 7
    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk-

    Oh, there are questions about our evolutionary past I’d really like to know the answer to but which I’ll never get. What strikes me the most is the kind of complete lack of hard data on the societies in which those characteristics are said to have evolved…

  8. 8
    mithrandir

    @4: Whether it’s a fear of guns or of being shot, the point is that it’s an unambiguously learned fear, whereas it’s possible in principle that a fear of spiders or snakes could have an instinctual component. Which is why the question of how fear works, and how humans develop a fear response to stimuli indicative of potential danger, is a genuinely interesting question in evolutionary psychology,

  9. 9
    Arawhon, a Strawberry Margarita

    Mithrandir most fears are learned. I for instance lack a fear of snakes. I have always lacked a fear of snakes, and have given my poor old mum a great fright many times because of it*. However I deal with a severe fear of social situations. The fear response is a base built from genetics where culture/experiences adds things to fear. I honestly can’t think of a single fear that is based on instincts. And this is the problem with EP, it would say that many of these culture/experience based elements are actually hard-wired into human brains when it is evident they aren’t.

    *Like the time I chased a coral snake in the front lawn. Or the time she found me “playing” with a rattler. Seriously, I’m lucky to be alive, what with all the various venomous creatures that I encountered as a child in rural Texas.

  10. 10
    notsont

    One of my children used to constantly pick up spiders and other creepy crawlies (when he was real young he would eat them). Now at 10 he is afraid of spiders and bugs, he learned this from his mother who is terrified of spiders. In his case it was definitely a learned fear.

  11. 11
    Inaji

    Arawhon:

    I for instance lack a fear of snakes. I have always lacked a fear of snakes

    I never had a fear of snakes, played with them when I was little. I learned a deep fear of bees and wasps, because after the first time I was stung, I discovered almost dying. That will drive a fear.

  12. 12
    doublereed

    Why would we fear snakes? Don’t humans eat snakes? I would think that would get in the way of our eating.

  13. 13
    Ulgaa

    @doublereed – The fear comes from the fact that some snakes can cause death and death like symptoms.

  14. 14
    Naked Bunny with a Whip

    They will deny this to their dying breath, of course, and pretend that it’s purely a scientific issue

    Here is the discussion-terminating attitude that led me to stop reading Coyne’s blog. I see it’s crept out of the comment moderation and into the articles themselves now.

    Thanks to both PZ and Jerry for educating me about evolutionary psychology these past few months. It’s been quite revealing.

  15. 15
    Kimpatsu

    …rather than the parade of nonsense about foraging for berries and it’s effect on women’s shopping preferences…
    “…IT IS effect…”, PZ? For shame!

  16. 16
    doublereed

    @13 ulgaa

    Yea but most animals have some way to kill us. Like I don’t think we have a genetic fear of hippos.

    I don’t think we have a genetic fear of the most dangerous animal of all…. MAN :O!!!!

  17. 17
    robertschenck

    For more on the ‘fear of snakes’ topic, you might like Trout’s “Deadly Powers: Animal Predators and the Mythic Imagination”.
    http://www.amazon.com/Deadly-Powers-Animal-Predators-Imagination/dp/1616145013/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top

    It’s more of a anthropological/cultural/comparative mythology account of how fear of predation turns up in human myths rather than a ‘hard biology’ investigation, but it’s interesting, enjoyable, and informative.

    One of the things I don’t ‘get’ about Evolutionary Psychology is that it’s rarely comparative. The most we see is some pre-near-cultural behaviour in close primate relatives, and then people look for similar behaviours in modern man.
    But, given that other animals have a psychological mind (even if it’s very different from mankind’s), why don’t EP researchers investigate that? So if our primate ancestors fear of predation by snakes and birds-of-prey has resulted in human myths about serpent-dragons or clawed-creatures flying out of the sky to get us, then wouldn’t we be able to detect aspects of, say, dog “psychological” behaviour that are equally explainable? Wouldn’t, if anything, using animal “psychology” be a somewhat easier test case, because it’s removed from all the baggage about humanity and culture and the like?

  18. 18
    Alethea Kuiper-Belt

    One psychological thing I’ve often found puzzling is our attraction to the kittehz and other soft furry critters. People talk about animals tapping into our nurturing feelings for infants – but infants are not hairy, yet most of us find the fur attractive in pets and find hairless pets weird or ugly. Shouldn’t we be evolutionarily more inclined to eat and/or skin them rather than to make “aww cute widdle fluffybutts” noises and give them food?

  19. 19
    gruebleen

    @14

    Spot on, mate, spot on. Same reason that I no longer bother with Coyne’s blog.

    But of course this behaviour of Coyne’s is obviously inherited from his ancestors and will be passed on unabated to his descendants, and that’s clear evidence for Evo Psy isn’t it ?

    You see, PZ, Coyne was demonstrating his construction before your very eyes and yet you couldn’t see it.

  20. 20
    Suzanne Scoggins

    EP is cargo cult science. It has always amazed me that people who are trained in a scientific field can read even one EP paper and fail to notice that there’s no actual science going on.

    It just goes to show that the lure to believe is very, very strong. And also that some people should probably never stray outside their area of expertise. Bog knows the world would be a better place if Steve Pinker stuck to the acquisition of the past tense. Sounds like maybe Jerry Coyne needs to stick to speciation in fruit flies.

  21. 21
    Suzanne Scoggins

    But what is it with all these illiterates who read this post and think I’m denying that human behavior evolved from a primate substrate?

    I doubt if they’ve even read the post. It’s a standard thing with the EP crowd: they pretend that all objections are based on morals or politics or just a refusal to acknowledge that we’re animals. It’s right there in Pinker’s Blank Slate. According to him, either you accept all the nonsense from Cosmides and Tooby’s Church of Santa Barbara, or you deny that we’re animals. These are the only options.

    I wrote a post once about the colossal wrongness of David Buss’s work, with pointed references to hominid reproductive strategies and how the Buss stuff doesn’t even make sense, and the very first EP guy to show up in the comments said, “so, you’re denying that we’re animals?”

  22. 22
    coelsblog

    9 Arawhon:

    I for instance lack a fear of snakes. [...] Seriously, I’m lucky to be alive, …

    The fact that some humans aren’t afraid of snakes doesn’t invalidate a claim about instinctual fear of snakes. Afterall, if that fear had evolved, there must have been some genetic diversity, with some genes resulting in greater or lesser fear. Since you are different genetically from others, your lack of fear is not a refutation. Your story itself provides evidence for why it might be adaptive.

    I honestly can’t think of a single fear that is based on instincts.

    How do you know this? How have you separated learning and instincts? That is not easy, especially since the two are not clearly distinct. Indeed, the learning process itself (childhood curiosity and desire to learn) is one of the things that genes program for, and the end result involves both genes and learning.

    By the way, what about fear of heights? Are you suggesting that there is no genetic component in that?

    10 notsont:

    One of my children used to constantly pick up spiders and other creepy crawlies … Now at 10 he is afraid of spiders and bugs … In his case it was definitely a learned fear.

    Lots of things are underdeveloped in young children. The fact that a trait isn’t exhibited at a very young age does not demonstrate that there is no genetic/instinctual component and that it is all learned. Lots of genetic programming plays out through a long development pattern (childhood) that is intertwined with learning. For example, if he finds himself attracted to girls at age 16 in a way that he wasn’t at age 6, you do not conclude that the attraction is entirely learned.

  23. 23
    notsont

    Lots of things are underdeveloped in young children. The fact that a trait isn’t exhibited at a very young age does not demonstrate that there is no genetic/instinctual component and that it is all learned. Lots of genetic programming plays out through a long development pattern (childhood) that is intertwined with learning. For example, if he finds himself attracted to girls at age 16 in a way that he wasn’t at age 6, you do not conclude that the attraction is entirely learned.

    Sure, but you are the one making the claim so you need to provide some evidence. I never claimed it could not be genetic it just seems unlikely as he was not always afraid of them and only became afraid after repeatedly seeing his mother freak out over tiny spiders. I’m not afraid of spiders, I am afraid of heights though, but I was not always, it took a near death experience for me to gain a fear of heights.

  24. 24
    notsont

    Lots of genetic programming plays out through a long development pattern (childhood) that is intertwined with learning

    Like what? Got Links?

  25. 25
    David Marjanović

    I have no particular fear of spiders or snakes either. OK, the largest solifuges could make me uncomfortable, but snakes? I’ve never understood why it’s so often taken for granted that there’s such a thing as innate fear of snakes. ~:-|

    “…IT IS effect…”, PZ? For shame!

    Give it up. PZ has been told this for years, and he persists.

    One psychological thing I’ve often found puzzling is our attraction to the kittehz and other soft furry critters. People talk about animals tapping into our nurturing feelings for infants – but infants are not hairy, yet most of us find the fur attractive in pets and find hairless pets weird or ugly. Shouldn’t we be evolutionarily more inclined to eat and/or skin them rather than to make “aww cute widdle fluffybutts” noises and give them food?

    Very good point. I’ve never noticed. :-o

  26. 26
    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk-

    Lots of things are underdeveloped in young children. The fact that a trait isn’t exhibited at a very young age does not demonstrate that there is no genetic/instinctual component and that it is all learned.

    That is a very handy argument, isn’t it?
    So, how do you get your data that fear of snakes and spiders is instinct and not learned?
    Looking at something saying “well, could be genetic” doesn’t seem very sciency to me.

  27. 27
    Ichthyic

    And this is the problem with EP, it would say that many of these culture/experience based elements are actually hard-wired into human brains when it is evident they aren’t.

    actually, you’re wrong.

    it’s based on two observations that are very well documented:

    -many animals have instinctual fears of various predator species (egads, there are literally hundreds of classic papers on this; it was part and parcel of the very formation of the original field of ethology!)

    -there is heritable variation in the expression of those behaviors.

    with these two things as observed, and many times, it was hardly a stretch to think it applies to humans as well.

    again, I find 99% of the people commenting on this field of endeavor haven’t the slightest bit of historical background in animal behavior research.

    Coyne is wrong about PZ’s motivations, but most of the articles I read, and the comments, really do need to focus more heavily on WHY things like sociobiology were even formulated to begin with.

    people didn’t just pull this stuff out of their ass.

    really really.

  28. 28
    Ing

    Yeah like BEllcurve isnt ideological *eye roll*

  29. 29
    Ing

    But crawlers and snakes wouldn’t be predators. they would be hazzards. they dont hunt humans any deaths would be by snake/spider defending against a human. why instinctive fear of that and not say feline or canine or other large mammalian predators?

  30. 30
    Ing

    And if its a hold over from ancestors that were hunted by snakes and spiders…why not also birds? surely raptors would also have preyed upon them like some do modern apes

  31. 31
    Ing

    *I am excluding large pythons, which while they do on occasion eat humans, are rare and not common place in human habitat and their preying upon humans is also a rare event

  32. 32
    Ichthyic

    Yeah like BEllcurve isnt ideological *eye roll*

    that’s exactly the kind of response that is entirely irrelevant, and makes this entire internet “debate” about science meaningless.

    thanks for proving my point.

  33. 33
    Ichthyic

    So, how do you get your data that fear of snakes and spiders is instinct and not learned?

    do you even have the slightest clue how ethologists like Konrad Lorenz tried to answer those very questions?

    hell, do you even know who Lorenz is?

    how can people think that have something valuable to contribute to a critique of a single paper, let alone an entire field of endeavor, without even knowing the very basics involved in it?

    It’s like watching a bunch of people trained in art history debate the value of particle physics research.

    HOW?

  34. 34
    PZ Myers

    I’ve read Lorenz!

    And I agree, there’s really sound evidence that certain fears are instinctual: I’ve actually done work myself on presenting looming stimuli to frogs, watching both behavior and recording directly from the tectum, and it’s clearly a hardwired strong response. Nestling birds and small mammals also show strong and even specific responses to shadows passing overhead.

    The question is, are these same phenomena present in all mammals, to what degree, and with what kind of specificity? Maybe there is no specific spider/snake response, but there is a ‘fear module’ (all the EP people love me for that mention) that responds negatively to body plans that are unfamiliar, so there’s both an instinctive response and a cultural entrainment. I can think of lots of questions to try and get to the root of the real phenomenon, and would love to see papers that actually address the fundamentals.

    Lorenz’s work did that. Isn’t it telling that EP doesn’t?

  35. 35
    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk-

    Ichthyic
    Well, Given that Lorenz was in my 9th grade science book, yes.
    And yes,also quite some things about his methods. With geese. So, where do you get data like that for humans? Or is it just sufficient to look at geese?
    Also not to mention that he did have his ideological hangups,too

  36. 36
    poxyhowzes

    Alethea @#18

    Why domestication (of critters) at all? The number of animals that have *ever* been domesticated by humans over time is a vanishingly small percentage of the number of species (or even “kinds”) of animals there are, even if one distinguishes “tamed” or “trained” or “can be tamed or tamed” from “domesticated.”

    No insects (honeybees being a partial, perhaps, exception, though I’d call them tamed at best.)
    Only the barnyard fowls and pigeons (which may be a subset of barnyard fowls) among the birds.
    One hominid, if you count slavery, over the millennia as “domestication.”
    Essentially no rodents, no reptiles, and no fish or water mammals until 20th century “fish-farming.”

    Why? — pH

    (Admittedly, I’m too incurious and/or too lazy to look into what is probably an extensive literature on this.)

  37. 37
    poxyhowzes

    One of the deepest questions I think EP could answer (if only it asked it in the first place) is why tribe after tribe, society after society, cult after cult has evolved(?) respect for old folks.

    I think (I’m hardly an expert here) that evolutionary theory suggests that once a species has evolved to the point of reproductive sustainability (the current generation lives long enough to create the generation after that, sustainably), then the folks in the current generation who have already reproduced once, twice, or thrice, are “surplus to needs.”

    So why should/does the tribe, society, or cult keep them around?

    Should be a very rich source of EP research, I’d think.

    – pH

  38. 38
    Suzanne Scoggins

    One of the deepest questions I think EP could answer (if only it asked it in the first place) is why tribe after tribe, society after society, cult after cult has evolved(?) respect for old folks.

    EP as it currently exists is useless, and hardly the place to look for such research. Anthropologists, on the other hand, have done very good work on longevity and menopause and why these might be adaptive. Look up the Grandmother Hypothesis.

  39. 39
    robertschenck

    Ingdigo Jump:
    “But crawlers and snakes wouldn’t be predators[...]why instinctive fear of that and not say feline or canine or other large mammalian predators?[...]why not also birds?”

    http://www.salon.com/2011/12/03/the_evolution_of_monsters/
    ” Perhaps the most intriguing of these examinations is “An Instinct for Dragons” by anthropologist David E. Jones. Jones argues that the image of the dragon is composed of the salient body parts of three predator species that hunted and killed our tree-dwelling African primate ancestors for about sixty million years. The three predators are the leopard, the python, and the eagle.”

    And then the dragon is basically an amalgamation of these three, and serves as a way to warn about ‘incredibly dangerous but unfamiliar predators’.

    Snakes actually make more sense than you might think at first, given that our ancestors in the trees were very small and only got smaller the further back you go. Primates in general evolved from shrewlike ancestors, so snakes /should/ be an especially compelling threat.

    Personally I think comparative mythology/anthropology makes a better case than EP, while not pretending to be as ‘hardcore scientific’ as EP.

  40. 40
    robertschenck

    http://i.livescience.com/images/i/000/056/207/original/boa-constrictor-eating-howler-monkey.jpg?1377545166
    via http://www.livescience.com/39172-boa-constrictor-eats-howler-monkey.html

    FWIW, this image shows, as the url indicates, a boa constrictor eating a howler monkey, and is basically the ‘live action’ version of what we’re talking about.

  41. 41
    RedSonja

    When I asked for examples of *good* EP research, I got a list of papers who had, surprise surprise, tiny subject pools, most of which were US college undergrads. When I pointed out that you need cross-cultural experiments, I got snipped at to “do your homework” and read Donald Brown’s book Human Universals. (I only found 1 peer reviewed paper by him on this, and he didn’t cite where he got the “universals”, just that they exist. Now I’m in moderation. 9.9

  42. 42
    poxyhowzes

    Suzanne @38

    I’m not willing (nor able) to debate anthropology VERSUS environmental psychology, and if EP wants hypotheses, (not their problem, as I understand it) I’ll have 30 or so of them before breakfast, as the Red Queen might have said.

    My question was a bit more nuanced (not that one would notice ;>). It was perhaps more in the nature of “what in our hominid evolution caused “us” to (want to) sacrifice fertile young ‘uns of our own species instead of withered old ones?”

    Just askin’ — pH

  43. 43
    Suzanne Scoggins

    poxyhowzes, I’d still suggest you look up the Grandmother Hypothesis. It’s some of the best work that’s been done in human origins research. The presence of post-menopausal women enhances survival because they contribute to the care of their grandchildren. In other words, tribes with old people do better than tribes without old people.

  44. 44
    Suzanne Scoggins

    Seriously, just google it. It’s a major topic in human origins. And it’s the kind of evolutionary research that EP most definitely does not do.

  45. 45
    coreyhammer

    As a social psychologist, I consider evo psych to be extremely lazy. It seems like they never to bother to identify the mechanism of action that underlies the behavior and demonstrate potential intermediate forms (or homologous forms in other species). It is always a just-so story and that drives me nuts. I want an explanation for a mechanism of action, not a post hoc story.

  46. 46
    Stacy

    Preference for relatives over nonrelatives (kin selection), and xenophobia (useful for when we lived in small groups)

    Frans de Waal has some interesting thoughts on this. And I find his research has a lot to say about status-seeking and related behaviors in our closest relatives, which may well have relevance to modern human psychology.

    Of course, de Waal isn’t an evolutionary psychologist. He’s a primatologist and ethologist.

    Perhaps “evolutionary psychology” would be improved if it became a field dedicated to collating findings from other, more rigorous fields.

  47. 47
    gillt

    PZ:

    The answers were confusing: some studies find a greater resistance to extinction in spider phobias, others can’t replicate it. It seems to be a subtle phenomenon. It left me wondering more about how EP can say anything about more detailed behaviors when they can’t even nail down this rather fundamental one.

    So you’ve finally found a EP paper that doesn’t overblow their interpretation of the data, as you’ve long maintained is a hallmark of the field, and now their results aren’t conclusive enough for you.

    FWIW, I found “The Synaptic Self” by LeDoux a very good introduction how brains process fear. I think you’re underestimating what a complex behavior fear is. Maybe our incomplete grasp of the neuro-biology and genetics better reflects the messy data rather than some poorly designed EP experiments.

    As to fear processing heritability.

    A twin study of the genetics of fear conditioning
    All components of the fear conditioning process in humans demonstrated moderate heritability, in the range of 35% to 45%.

  48. 48
    PZ Myers

    No, I found an EP paper that didn’t overstate their results, and then they announced that it didn’t matter how the results turned out.

    And I certainly am not underestimating the complexity of fear! That’s my point: it’s messy and complicated, and then you find some EP study with an n less than 50 and a narrow and superficial subject range trying to claim something broad about the phenomenon.

    I’ve always found claims of heritability in humans to be ambiguous. Your likelihood of voting Republican also demonstrates moderate heritability.

  49. 49
    SC (Salty Current), OM

    I wish I knew what it was about the appeal of evolutionary psychology that makes otherwise intelligent people promote outright silliness in its defense,…

    I think it’s political in almost every case – it sure as hell isn’t scientific. In this one, I believe it’s due to certain personal loyalties that have led to Coyne take a side. If this had been limited to bad behavior in private life, that would have been a problem, but a private one. Unfortunately, it’s led him to stake out some regrettable public positions – bad for a scientist’s reputation and bad for knowledge.

    I do think he’s long had some degree of susceptibility to this nonsense, but for a while it was countered by a healthy scientific skepticism. I suspect some of his mentors would be disappointed by this turn. I know I am.

  50. 50
    SC (Salty Current), OM

    It’s simply nonsense to dismiss the field on the grounds that there’s no way that human behavior could show traces of its deep evolutionary past.

    This is dumb on the grounds noted, and also just bogus in general. The whole notion rests on the idea that evolution-animality equals inflexible, invariant thoughts or behaviors, so it’s either instinctive acts or a blank slate, either nature or nurture. But that’s false. It’s silly. Beings that have brains ready to be socialized, to learn, to change, to communicate, to cooperate, to reason, to have friendships – we evolved. These are the fucking traces of our deep evolutionary fucking past. And we’re not just human. It’s so tiresome and noxious how EP plays on our culture’s speciesism.

  51. 51
    Ing

    @ichthyic

    Im sorry are we supposed to ignore high probability of bias from sources? how skeptical

  52. 52
    gillt

    and then you find some EP study with an n less than 50 and a narrow and superficial subject range trying to claim something broad about the phenomenon.

    Not sure what you’re talking about. This is the study I linked to.

    Classic fear conditioning data were experimentally obtained from 173 same-sex twin pairs (90 monozygotic and 83 dizygotic)

    And I certainly am not underestimating the complexity of fear! That’s my point:

    This was your other point.

    It left me wondering more about how EP can say anything about more detailed behaviors when they can’t even nail down this rather fundamental one.

    Where you say fear is a relatively straightforward behavior on which EP remains clueless as a general indictment of the field.

    I’ve always found claims of heritability in humans to be ambiguous.

    That’s interesting. You find the claims of heritability of any human behavior ambiguous or just some?

  53. 53
    wbenson

    Re: Comment on Recapitulation by W.Benson

    PZ says:
    “Recapitulation, even (or especially) Haeckel’s old sans-genetics view, is dead. Sorry to break the news to you, W.”

    Woody replies:
    At first I was at a loss why a ‘sans-genetics’ viewpoint would proclaim evolutionary recapitulation’s death. If the lack of Mendelism were a problem, wouldn’t Darwin, von Baer, Wallace and the rest also be ready for boxes. However, going back to a remembered video (Glasgow Skeptics Talk, video posted 11 June 2011 at Pharyngula-Science Blogs), all became clear.

    In the video PZ gives only one reason why genetics might make Haeckel wrong, so I assume that this is it. The Haeckel segment in the video begins at 23:50.

    Haeckel, says PZ, subscribed to a defective Lamarckian view of evolution (Lamarck starts around 24:50). He inferred that, through use-disuse in juveniles and adults, new traits induced by adult activity arose preferentially at the end of development. These traits are tacked onto ontogeny by ‘terminal addition’ (TA – 26:00 in the video). PZ argues that since genetics has disproved Lamarckian Evolution, Haeckel’s evolution of TA cannot work, and, therefore recapitulation is impossible. At least that is my understanding of PZ’s position. At 30:50 PZ also argues that, according to von Baer, different vertebrates start diverging with the pharyngula stage, and implies that this also makes recapitulation impossible. But this has nothing to do with genetics.

    To drive the genetics argument home, and perhaps make Haeckel look a little silly, PZ illustrates the Lamarkian view (beginning 25:30) with the cartoon portrayal of a blacksmith’s powerful biceps, acquired from hammering, being inherited by his progeny. No possibility is ceded to Haeckel or to anyone else as having explained or being able to explain TA by some accepted means such as natural selection.

    With regard to the validity of TA and to Haeckel’s presumed Lamarckism, I will make two points I think overturn PZ’s (seeming) argument that recapitulation is impossible. At minimum they show that he has a deep misunderstanding of terminal addition as developed by Stephen Jay Gould, who in my mind is the real culprit, and of Haeckel’s biology.

    First off, Charles Darwin (in his 1842 sketch of the natural selection theory, F. Darwin, 1909) had already recognized terminal addition and presented it as an expected result of natural selection (at 26:30 PZ pins TA on Haeckel). For Darwin, TA was an important process in embryo evolution (pp. 47-48):
    “The structure of each organism is chiefly adapted to the sustension [sic] of its life, when full-grown, when it has to feed itself and propagate. The structure of a kitten is quite in secondary degree adapted to its habits, whilst fed by its mother’s milk and prey. Hence variation in the structure of the full-grown species will chiefly determine the preservation of a species now become ill-suited to its habitat, or rather with a better place opened to it in the economy of Nature. It would not matter to the full-grown cat whether in its young state it was more or less eminently feline, so that it become[s] so when full-grown.” Darwin’s “a better place opened to it in the economy of nature” would perhaps today be phrased “a better ecological niche.”

    The short and thick of Darwin’s view (and of Haeckel’s I might add) is that grown animals are more likely to be adaptively active and thus be selected to evolve, necessarily by TA, new traits useful to adults. Darwin actually tested and confirmed this hypothesis by comparing the hatchlings and adults of pigeon varieties. He found that the special, variety specific traits that evolved most recently by artificial selection are generally added very, very late development, so late that they only develop after chicks hatch.

    PZ’s video argument has at this point evaporated, poof. Mendelian genetics, natural selection and ecology (aided by the population genetics concepts of Reproductive Value, which shows that selection pressures tend to be strongest around the time when adults first reproduce) converge to suggest that embryo evolution might favor recapitulation. The facts presented in Haeckel’s two major popular works suggest that in some sense recapitulation happens.

    My comment continues in the next box.

  54. 54
    wbenson

    Continued from the previous box.

    Second, there is the canard that Haeckel was “Lamarckian” in the pejorative sense; that he rejected the basic tenets of conventional Darwinian evolution by natural selection. Haeckel did in fact respect Lamarck very much, because, in Haeckel’s view, Lamarck was the father of the concept common descent. This admiration did not extend to Lamarck’s evolutionary mechanism (see my leadoff quote). Here is a sample of ten of Haeckel’s declarations that appear in “The History of Creation” (1876, Vol 1) showing his partisanship for the universal importance of natural selection:
    Page 121: “We must sharply distinguish the two points—though this is usually not done—first, Lamarck’s Theory of Descent, which only asserts that all animal and vegetable species are descended from common, most simple, and spontaneously generated prototypes; and secondly, Darwin’s Theory of Selection, which shows us why this progressive transformation of organic forms took place, and what causes, acting mechanically, effected the uninterrupted production of new forms.”
    Page 166: “This agency will perhaps appear at first sight small and insignificant . . . I must therefore find space in a subsequent chapter to put forward further examples of the immense and far-reaching power of transformation exhibited in natural selection.”
    Page 170: “natural selection is the great active cause that has produced the whole wonderful variety of organic life on this earth.”
    Page 254: “the selection principle . . . consists in natural selection of the unconscious struggle for existence acting without definite plan. . . . It is the recognition of this exceedingly important identity which constitutes one of the greatest of Darwin’s merits.”
    Page 262: “The struggle for life in natural selection acts with as much selective power as does the will of man in artificial selection.”
    Page 282: “The course of development (=evolution) in man, just as in that of animals . . . is determined solely by purely mechanical causes, and is solely the necessary consequence of natural selection in the struggle for life.”
    Page 288: “This partial or complete degeneration of the wings of insects has evidently arisen from natural selection in the struggle for life. For we find insects without wings living under circumstances where flying would be useless, or even decidedly injurious to them.”
    Page 291: “There is scarcely any highly developed animal or vegetable form which has not some rudimentary organs, and in most cases it can be shown that they are the products of natural selection, and that they have become suppressed by disuse.” N.B.: the origin of rudimentary structures by ‘disuse’ is the only place Haeckel appeals directly to Lamarckian Evolution.
    Page 316: “natural selection in the struggle for existence . . . is completely sufficient for producing mechanically the endless variety of animals and plants.”
    Page 373: “the origin of new species by natural selection is a mathematical and logical necessity” of heredity, adaptive variation and the struggle for life.
    At no place does Haeckel praise use-disuse as an evolutionary mechanism, although he does accept environmental induction as a source of variation, if you see the difference.

    In summary, terminal addition is Darwin’s concept. Darwin and Haeckel explained the fixing of TAs by natural selection. Haeckel followed Darwin’s selectionist reasoning when elaborating his ideas on evolutionary recapitulation.

    Whether or not the parallelisms among ontogeny, paleontology, and comparative morphology described by Haeckel are recapitulations of terminal additions is a question apart. I am not ready to be dogmatic. If someone believes the pudding doesn´t make the grade, he/she has every right to say so. But please don’t mock the cook.

  55. 55
    gruebleen

    @49 Salty Current

    Well that’s a most interesting analysis, SC – it’s almost like you have access to Jerry Coyne’s mind to know what he’s thinking and feeling.

    So when you say “I believe it’s due to certain personal loyalties that have led to Coyne take a side. [sic]” you’d be able to tell us who the “personal loyalties” are owed to, and what the “side” that Coyne has taken is.

    And when you say that “I do think he’s long had some degree of susceptibility to this nonsense” you are basically confirming the viewpoint already taken by Naked Bunny (@14) and me (@19).

    Indeed I think it is sadly obvious that Coyne is now, and always has been, an exponent of the “It’s true because I believe it” school, rather than the skeptically correct “I believe it because it’s true” school. Don’t you ?

    But of course, that belief (as the basis for decision and behaviour), must obviously be inherited as Evo Psy says, from Coyne’s ancestors, and he will obviously pass it on to his descendants – or at least I think Coyne would have to believe so, he being such a strong advocate of ‘naive EP’, don’t you agree ?

  56. 56
    anat

    Re: fear of snakes: There was experimental work with captive monkeys, quoted, IIRC in ‘Nature via Nurture’, where naive lab-reared monkeys (rhesus?) watched ‘doctored’ movies showing adult monkeys apparently showing fear or indifference to snakes or other stimuli. Monkeys who saw adults indifferent to snakes did not exhibit fear of snakes upon exposure whereas those that saw adults responding with fear to snakes showed fear. But this type of learned fear based on observing an adult’s response was less consistent in response to the control stimulus. So at least in this particular species of monkeys fear of snakes is learned, the learning does not require personal experience with snakes, but it is possible that there is an inborn readiness to learn to fear snakes.

  57. 57
    anat

    Re: grandmothers: There is an online book named Between Zeus and the Salmon: The Biodemography of Longevity. There the authors show that in several recent hunter gatherer societies older women are more efficient gatherers than younger women.

    And let’s not forget the role of the elderly in storing tribal knowledge reaching further back in time than the living memories of younger people.

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