Ladybrains evolved in the Pleistocene

Dr Gijsbert Stoet thinks we should stop trying to correct gender disparities.

Speaking at the British Education Studies Association conference in Glasgow on Friday, he argued: "We need to have a national debate on why we find it so important to have equal numbers. Do we really care that only five per cent of the programmers are women?

"Well, actually, I don’t care who programmes my computers. A wealthy, democratic society can afford to let people do what they want.

"What is better? To have 50 per cent of female engineers who do not really like their work but say, ‘Yeah, well, I did it for the feminist cause.’ Or do you want three per cent or female engineers who say, ‘I really like my job’?"

I would say that if only 5% of programmers are women, we should ask why — that kind of difference represents an interesting problem. And if, while exploring the problem, we learn that many more women are interested in the profession, but find themselves actively discouraged by various elements of the field, then that means there are institutional roadblocks in the way, and we should remove them.

There is, after all, no actual known biological reason why having ovaries should interfere with the ability to program. If we can afford to let people do what they want, and it is in the interest of a democratic society to have its citizens occupied with rewarding, fulfilling work, then we should be trying to make it possible for people to do whatever they are good at, and finding evidence of extreme disparities suggests that there may be a problem that is interfering with that goal.

Dr Stoet seems to think it’s all about him — he’s happy when men program his computers, so he can ignore any injustices in the profession. But then, he’s not exactly consistent in this attitude.

The lack of women in science and technology was diverting attention from the real issue, he said, because it was boys who generally did worse at school.

He said: "Nobody seems to be that interested that boys have problems. We have, as human beings, a natural tendency to see woman as vulnerable and needing help. But if it’s a boy who needs help, he’s responsible for himself."

Oh, well then, do we really care? If women are succeeding at academics, then obviously they have a natural aptitude for it, and we shouldn’t be concerned if women naturally gravitate towards intellectual occupations. After all, what is better: to have 50% of the professoriate be men who do not really like their work but say ‘Yeah, well, I did it for Men’s Rights.’ Or do you want 3% male academics who say, ‘I really like my job’?

Clearly, men, with their testosterone-stimulated larger muscle mass, are better suited to manual labor. I actually don’t care who digs my ditches and totes my bales, so if they’re all men, I’m happy. And I’m sure they’d be happier doing the work Nature has best suited them to do.

Of course, Dr Stoet has an evolutionary argument for the difference…an evolutionary psychology argument. Prepare to cringe.

"In the face of limited resources, we should be cautious in spending money on interventions that will have no effect. Instead of focusing on equal numbers of male and female students in all subjects, I think we should strive to get boys and girls to at least perform equally good [Sic. See? Women would naturally understand grammar well; men should just shut up] in all subjects (which will be very hard in itself)," he added.

"People are often guided by their unconscious desires. In the stone age, it was useful for men to be hunters and women to look after babies, and nature has helped by encoding some of these skills in the hardware of our brain. That still influences how we think today.

Aaargh. The stupid…!

All right, let’s embrace this ‘reasoning’. In the stone age, women stayed in the cave or sought out tasty roots, and mashed things together to create flavorful food, while men went hunting and flung spears at things. Therefore, skill at chemistry is encoded in women’s brains, while ballistics is a natural male talent. Stone age men went on long walks to hunt game, so they’re better suited now to do field work in ecology, while women sat and did intricate weaving, therefore their brains are adapted to do data analysis.

I could do this all day, inventing pseudo-scientific evo-psych rationalizations for why particular stone age tasks shaped brains in a sex-specific manner, but at least I wouldn’t be doing it to somehow magically always fit 21st century Western cultural expectations. But I can’t, because it’s stupid.

Why do these people forget that stone age men had mothers and stone age women had fathers, both members of the same population and sharing the same genetics, and that novel adaptations aren’t likely to somehow be restricted to one sex or the other? I swear, these loons are always treating men and women as separate species evolving in parallel.


Double-aaargh! Now another article: If a girl isn’t interested in science, don’t force her to be.

Look, science is always going to be a minority occupation — only a small fraction of the population will have the aptitude or the interest for it. It will be intrinsically unequal, in that in the panoply of jobs required to maintain modern society, only a tiny fraction of the available positions will be for scientists. No one is suggesting that we need to frog-march girls into math and science. This is a non-problem. It is not an issue. It’s a debate no one is having. We are not planning to staff the apparatus of science with unwilling feminine slave labor. You are not a lesser human being if you’d rather study literature or history or philosophy, or if you’d rather skip college altogether and become a travel agent or a cook. There will be no compulsory science work camps.

But if you’re a woman who is interested in science (and many are!), the argument that girls like dolls and nurturing occupations is irrelevant; we are talking about individuals who ought to be given a fair opportunity to pursue a career they love, and not discouraged by some moronic writer for the Telegraph who uses stereotypes to make generalizations about half the population of the planet.

I also think he’s probably right in suggesting that females, as a whole, are not hugely engaged by science. The problem with science is that, for all its wonders, it lacks narrative and story-line. Science (and maths) is about facts, and the laboratory testing of elements. It is not primarily about people. Women – broadly speaking – are drawn to the human factor: to story, biography, psychology and language.

Jebus. Fuck you, Mary Kenny: that nonsense is not just offensive to women, it’s an affront to men and a hideously mangled distortion of the enterprise of science. She doesn’t understand women, men, or science, yet her ignorance doesn’t seem to inhibit her in the slightest in parading her stupidity for an international audience.

Women are not machines controlled by the contents of their hips? Shocking news!

Years and years of studies by scientists trying to explain women’s behavior by their hormonal fluctuations are gradually falling apart. We’ve heard so many inconsistent, contradictory tales of how fertility/menstruation turns women into unconscious breeders or nurturing mothers, how women are driven to ‘hypogamy’ by their evolutionary instincts (that’s a big one with the MRAs), and how mate choices wobble from alpha to beta over the course of a month, and it’s all incoherent bunkum.

What do women want? Over the past two decades, scientists have endeavored to answer this question by bringing women into their labs, asking about their sexual preferences, and then monitoring their menstrual cycles to try to extract clues from the ebb and flow of hormones in their mysterious female bodies. In recent years, these researchers have told us that the status of our monthly cycle on Election Day can influence our decision to favor Mitt Romney’s chiseled individualism or Barack Obama’s maternal healthcare policies; that our periods determine whether we feel like nesting with our partners tonight or heading out to proposition a stranger; and that our cycle urges us to swing with Tarzan at our most fertile and cuddle up with Clay Aiken when that month’s egg is out of the picture. Last month, psychologists at the University of Southern California published a meta-analysis of 58 research experiments that tested whether a woman’s preferences for masculinity, dominance, symmetry, health, kindness, and testosterone levels in her male romantic partners actually fluctuate across her menstrual cycle. The answer: They do not.

The study, Meta-Analysis of Menstrual Cycle Effects on Women’s Mate Preferences, pretty thoroughly dismisses a lot of the obsessions of evolutionary psychology.

In evolutionary psychology predictions, women’s mate preferences shift between fertile and nonfertile times of the month to reflect ancestral fitness benefits. Our meta-analytic test involving 58 independent reports (13 unpublished, 45 published) was largely nonsupportive. Specifically, fertile women did not especially desire sex in short-term relationships with men purported to be of high genetic quality (i.e., high testosterone, masculinity, dominance, symmetry). The few significant preference shifts appeared to be research artifacts. The effects declined over time in published work, were limited to studies that used broader, less precise definitions of the fertile phase, and were found only in published research.

Typically, good science homes in on a stronger, clearer answer as it progresses, identifying confounding variables and fine-tuning the methodology. It’s a good sign that you’re chasing a non-effect when nothing you do improves your understanding of the phenomenon, and when other researchers struggle to find a measurement that agrees with yours; results that vary with who is producing them are something that fairly screams, “experimenter bias!”

Also telling: they looked at published and unpublished work, and any effect vanished in the unpublished papers. One could wave that away by claiming that those papers clearly did not meet the standard of quality required for publication, but let’s not ignore the file-drawer effect: one measure of “quality” is whether a paper is novel or fits a preconception well or is simply newsworthy (unsurprisingly, stories that proclaim a way to describe women’s sexual behavior are very popular). Look at the table of contents for Science or Nature any week and ask yourself whether those were selected for publication entirely because of their rigor and scientific merit. Anyone who reads the scientific literature to any degree will become aware quite quickly of the fads…and also the troubling preference for papers that use expensive instruments and reagents hawked in the advertising. (I do not think it a callously exploitive conscious bias, but more of a case of being more impressed by the shininess of the toys than the logic of the experiment.)

Purely anecdotal, but I’ve lived with a woman with hormones for going on 35 years, and I’m sorry, but except for the periodic physical consequences of menstruation, she’s basically the same human being every day, and there have been no magic psychological variations that make her prone to manipulation in different ways at different times of the month — and there were never any outward cues that would allow me to estimate where she was in her cycle. It seems to me that since women have minds and relationships can have strong consequences, it’s rather demeaning to suggest that their decision-making capabilities reside in their ovaries.

While I’m at it, I was totally shocked by a story in the Huffington post. The article had a stupid click-baity title, Wide-Hipped Women Have More Sex Partners, Controversial Study Shows, no doubt selected by the editor, but the story itself completely contradicts it. The paper does actually claim that hip width is correlated with how many men the women have sex with (the pick-up artists eyes lit up at that, I’m sure — now, to the bar to scan the clientele for broad hips!), but the content is substantial and actually takes strong exception to the claim. The paper tries to argue that sexual choosiness is correlated with an expectation of difficulty giving birth — that narrow-hipped women see sex as a greater risk.

"I honestly think there are some, I’m just going to say it, pretty shameful omissions in this paper," said Holly Dunsworth, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Rhode Island.

The primary problem, Dunsworth told Live Science, is that the distance between iliac crests does not indicate the size of the birth canal, or the internal opening in the pelvis. Nor does the iliac measurement relate to efficiency at walking, Dunsworth added — for that, you’d want to know the distance between hip joints.

"I have an obstetrics textbook here on my desk and nowhere does it say or diagram how big the birth canal is by using bi-iliac breadth," she said. In fact, she said, bi-iliac breadth is the one measurement that is consistently larger in men, because it correlates to body mass.

"They don’t give you the body mass of the women or the height of the women," Dunsworth said.

A lack of gullibility in a HuffPo article? Unbelievable. If only they could get rid of the idiot management there, there actually are some intelligent writers working within that haven of woo.

Why is it always the berries?

I presume this essay about how women make better programmers was intended as satire…but it fell flat for me. I am so tired of this cartoon version of human evolutionary history that emphasizes the dichotomized roles of men and women, built entirely on grossly oversimplified views about our ancestor’s lives and contrived to reinforce stereotypes. It doesn’t matter whether it’s done to bestow Science’s favor on male or female — it’s bad.

The roots of this division are sadly rooted in humanity’s pre-history. On the plains of our ancestors, male hunters roamed the savannah, chasing down prey, while women remained home to nurture families and gather berries. The males adapted for big movements and fast action, while the women adapted for slow, methodical searching. The traits that made women expert bug-huntresses in the dust have carried forward and given them an advantage at hunting bugs in code. Men simply aren’t adapted to that kind of patient searching. They live for the thrill of the chase.

We’re wandering in Ray Comfort territory here, with this conception of the two sexes evolving and adapting independently. I don’t know about you, but I had both a mother and a father, and they contributed equally to my genetics, and I have fathered both boy and girl children myself. There are differences between the sexes, of course, but to assume that the differential responses to a couple of steroid hormones is so finely tuned that it completely segregates social roles, no crossover capabilities possible, is absurd.

No one has evolved to program. Maybe that’s the point of the joke, but it never ceases to annoy to see biology mangled.

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?

Never trust a science article with lists

They’re everywhere. I hate them. There are entire networks dedicated to creating goddamned lists, trusting in the human compulsion to go through each entry in the list…which are usually on separate pages, with separate ads, all calculated to increase advertising clicks. And at the end, they’ll present you with a list of more lists, with provocative titles, and they try to get you on the obsessive mindless click trail. They’re evil, manipulative, and almost always vapid. They’re the slot machines of the web. I’m looking at you, AlterNet, Salon, Huffpo, Gawker, whatever — you’re all padding miniscule content and increasing the noise level on the internet.

Even sites that are fun play the devious SEO game. The Oatmeal is one of the worst. I’m not talking about the content, I’m condemning the psychological trickery of the presentation.

The latest example that got me was on Salon: it’s an article titled “9 scientific facts about breasts”; it was originally on AlterNet as “The 9 weirdest facts about boobs”. Notice the linkbait title? (Linkbait that worked, by the way.) And as usual, when you actually read the article, it’s nonsense through and through.

Here are the 9 “facts”.

  1. Poor men like big breasts while financially secure men prefer smaller breasts.

    Simplistic reductionist drivel which regards people by a single parameter and draws decisive conclusions from it. Source: Psychology Today. Anytime you see “science” presented in Psychology Today, just ignore it and throw the magazine in the trash. It’s a garbage source, a kind of pseudoscientific Daily Mail.

  2. Hungry men desire big breasts while satiated men prefer a smaller chest.

    More of the same. Source: Psychology Today.

    Fuck you, Psychology Today.

  3. Men not interested in fatherhood find large breasts less attractive.

    An evolutionary psychology study based on asking 67 college men about their preferences. In Psychology Today. Goddamn, Psychology Today, but you suck.

  4. Squeezing breasts may prevent cancer.

    Not from Psychology Today! An actual scientific source! COMPLETELY MISINTERPRETED AND MISREPRESENTED. There’s this thing called contact inhibition, and cells also respond to distortion with changes in their cytoskeleton that can cause changes in activity. This study was done on cultured cells, confining them tightly with an artificial matrix. It has no relationship at all to the mechanical factors in squeezing breasts.

  5. Women who get breast implants are three times more likely to commit suicide.

    OK, this is one I can believe. It’s based on a statistical analysis of women who’ve undergone plastic surgery and committed suicide.

    What it means, though, is the question. Women with self-esteem problems that try to solve them with surgery are more prone to suicidal thoughts? Women compelled by financial burdens to acquire more appeal by breast augmentation are more prone to suicide than economically secure women? Who knows. You’re not going to find out on a blitz through a link farm!

  6. Sexist men preferlarge breasts.

    British white men showed cartoons of breasts have a preference. Whoa, I never saw that one coming.

    Reported in the Huffington Post. Fuck you too.

  7. Bras accelerate sagging.

    Based on one 15-year old study that has not, as far as I can discover, been replicated, women who stopped wearing bras saw “their nipples lifted on average seven millimetres in one year in relation to the shoulders”. Strangely, while I was easily able to find 23 papers in the databases which had Jean-Denis Rouillon as an author, none of them say anything about bras or breasts. Exercise physiology, yes; massive studies applying calipers to hundreds of women’s breasts, no.

  8. Men who like small breasts prefer a submissive partner.

    “You may get the psychological hint that she’s not trying to compete with other women who have larger breasts, and therefore she’ll be loyal to you. Or maybe the very first girl you had a crush on had small breasts, and if she constructed your earliest example of what’s sexy, her memory may still lead you to find small-breasted women exciting.” Barf.

    Published in Men’s Health. There’s another one to toss on the fire.

  9. Staring at boobs extends a man’s life by five years.

    A discredited urban legend, and the article admits it. They knew the story was garbage, but hell, no one will care…throw it in the list.

    “Clearly, not all online “scientific studies” are authentic or even convincing, for that matter,” they say.

    Well, duh. And this article is an example.

Join me in vowing to never again follow a listy link trail. Just say “no”. Recognize that they’re very, very bad and represent the worst of manipulative SEO tricks.

Also, unsubscribe from Psychology Today, Men’s Health or any of these ghastly pop psych and trendy “health” magazines. They’re lying to you.

The anthropological perspective

Evolutionary psychologists are quite able to point to a few papers that are credible, interesting, and do the kind of comparative work that puts them in realm of doing real evolutionary science…but they always seem to be not evolutionary psychology, but more firmly grounded in ecological genetics or anthropology. I know! We should listen to some anthropologists! And behold, they’ve already been making anthropological critiques of evo psych.

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?

Tackling Pinker’s defense of evolutionary psychology

I previously addressed the criticisms of my criticisms of evolutionary psychology by Jerry Coyne; Now I turn to the criticisms of my criticisms he solicited from Steven Pinker. This is getting a bit convoluted, so let me first state the basics.

I dislike evolutionary psychology. Pinker is an advocate for evolutionary psychology. What brought on this back-and-forth was that I was a member of a panel at a science fiction convention that discussed evo psych; I made a few brief comments on my blog that were capsule summaries of my discussion there. In the section below, the paragraphs preceded by an “M:” and in italics are my words excerpted from those comments; the parts preceded by a “P:” are Pinker’s commentary. All clear?

M: Fundamental assumptions of evo psych: That you can infer an adaptive history from the distribution of current traits — that they are adaptations at all is an assumption usually not founded in evidence (this is not to deny that that there are features that are clearly the product of selection, but that you can’t pick an arbitrary attribute and draw elaborate scenarios for its origins). . .

P: Of course “arbitrary” and “elaborate” are the straw-man giveaways here. What about carefully selected attributes, and minimal assumptions about phylogeny with a focus on function, as we do for other organs? You can ask what the spleen is for – and it would be perverse to do physiology without asking such a question – without “drawing elaborate scenarios for its origins.”

Whoa, whoa, whoa — that skips right over the really important word: “adaptive”. Start there. That’s my primary objection, the habit of evolutionary psychologists of taking every property of human behavior, assuming that it is the result of selection, building scenarios for their evolution, and then testing them poorly.

We already know that that is impossible. The repertoire of human behavior is so complex and rich, and relatively recently evolved, that to argue that every behavior is the product of specific selection imposes an untenable genetic load. The bulk of the genetic foundation of our psychology (and I agree that there must be one!) must be byproducts and accidents. The null hypothesis of evolutionary psychology should be that a behavior is non-adaptive, yet for some reason all I ever see is adaptive hypotheses.

The spleen is an interesting example. There are components of the spleen that are definitely functional and almost certainly adaptive: its functions as a blood reservoir, as an element of the immune system, as part of the erythrocyte cycling mechanism. You can examine the evolution of those functions phylogenetically; for instance, some teleosts lack the erythropeotic functions of the spleen, while the majority use it as a blood reservoir. You can begin to dissect its history comparatively, by looking at what has a clear functional role and looking at the pattern of emergence of those properties.

What you can’t do is pick any particular property of the spleen and invent functions for it, which is what I mean by arbitrary and elaborate. For instance, the spleen is located in most people in the upper left quadrant of the abdomen; are you going to make an adaptive case for why it’s on the left rather than the right? The actual reason almost certainly has nothing to do with adaptation or selection, and everything to do with historical and developmental mechanisms that are neutral with respect to selection.

M:. . . That behavioral features that have been selected for in our history are represented by modular components in the brain – again with rare exceptions, you can’t simply assign a behavioral role to a specific spot in the brain, just as you can’t assign a behavior to a gene.

P: No one in Ev Psych points to specific spots in the brain – that’s cognitive neuroscience, not evolutionary psychology. The only assumption is that there are functional circuits, in the same way that a program can be fragmented across your hard drive.

Now this is one of my peeves with evolutionary psychology. The evo psych literature is thick with papers emphasizing “modularity”; that evolutionary psychology FAQ I referenced before makes it clear that it’s an important concept in the field (and also ties it to concepts in computer science). Yet it is meaningless. Sometimes there’s the implication that the “module” is a discrete element in the brain, but it’s never clear whether they’re talking about a genetic module (an epistatic network of genes) or a neural module (an interconnected network of neurons), and when pressed, they retreat, as Pinker does here, to an admission that it could be just about anything scattered anywhere in the brain.

So my question is…why talk about “modules” at all, other than to reify an abstraction into something misleadingly concrete? Evolutionary psychologists don’t do neurobiology, and they don’t do genetic dissections, and they don’t do molecular genetics, so why do they insist on modularity? It’s premature and a violation of Occam’s razor to throw the term around, and also completely unnecessary — a behavior could be a product of diffuse general phenomena in the brain without diminishing its importance at all.

M: . . . That the human brain is adapted to a particular environment, specifically the African savannah, and that we can ignore as negligible any evolutionary events in the last 10,000 years, that we can ignore the complexity of an environment most of the evo psych people have never seriously studied, and that that environment can dictate one narrow range of outcomes rather than permit millions of different possibilities.

P: The savannah is a red herring – that’s just a convenient dichotomization of the relevant continuum, which is evolutionary history. A minimal commitment to “pre-modern” gives you the same conclusions. By saying that the brain could not have been biologically adapted to stable government, police, literacy, medicine, science, reliable statistics, prevalence of high-calorie food, etc., you don’t need to go back to the savannah; you just need to say that these were all relevantly recent in most people’s evolutionary history. The savannah is just a synechdoche.

Ah, a synechdoche. This is the evolutionary psychology version of the religious argument that it’s “just a metaphor.”

Again, this is a peeve I have with the field. I agree with the general principle that of course the brain is a product of our evolutionary history, and that there is almost certainly a foundation of genetically defined, general psychological properties of the mind…and that a great many specific psychological properties are not biologically adapted. Pinker is writing good common sense here.

But over and over, you see evolutionary psychologists falling into this trap of examining a behavior and then fitting it to some prior specific environment. They talk of a Savannah Mind or they generalize it to the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness. It’s another reification of the unknown. You don’t like “savannah”? Change it to “Pleistocene”. It’s just as broad and meaningless. It’s an attempt to reduce the complex and diverse to a too simple unit.

M: I’d also add that most evo psych studies assume a one-to-one mapping of hypothetical genes to behaviors. . .

P: Completely untrue – this was Gould’s claim in the 1970s, which confused a “gene for x” (indispensable in any evolutionary thinking, given segregation) in the sense of “increases the probability of X, averaging over environments and other genes” with “a gene for X” in the sense of “necessary and sufficient for X.” Every honest biologist invokes “gene for X” in the former sense; evolution would be impossible if there were no additive effects of genes. No one believes the latter – it’s pure straw.

By one-to-one, I mean the assumption that a behavior trait can be mapped to a contribution from a gene that was subject to selection for that trait; that it might be an additive property of a pleiotropic gene will be nominally noted, as Pinker does here, but operationally ignored. Remember, the issue is not whether genes contribute to our psychology, a point I totally agree with, but whether we can assign a selective origin to a behavior. That is a much, much harder problem.

M [continuation of previous sentence]:. . . and never actually look at genes and for that matter, ignore most human diversity to focus on a naive typological simplicity that allows them to use undergraduate psych majors at Western universities as proxies for all of humanity”

P: It’s psychologists, not evolutionary psychologists, who focus on Western undergrads –field research and citations of anthropology are vastly more common in ev psych than in non-ev-psych. PZ is engaging in prosecution here, not analysis – he’s clearly ignorant of the sociology of the fields.

As for diversity – is he arguing for genetic differences among human groups, a la Herrnstein & Murray?

First, this has already been addressed by Stephanie Zvan: when you look in the evolutionary psychology journals at papers identified as evolutionary psychology, you find…a focus on Western undergrads. I throw up my hands in exasperation. Look at the actual work done in your field, not the abstract ideal you hold in your head. I get my vision of evolutionary psychology by reading the papers.

Secondly, what a weirdly off-target attempt at ad hominem. Once again, my criticisms are being addressed by imagining motives; in Jerry Coyne’s critique, I’m an uber-liberal offended at the consequences a genetic component to behavior might have on my egalitarian biases; now Pinker takes a swipe by tarring me with the likes of Herrnstein & Murray. Make up your minds!

For the record, of course there are genetic differences in human populations! It’s an open question whether any of them make significant contributions to human psychology, however. I’m open to evidence either way.

But my remark was about cultural diversity (which also, by the way, exists). Setting aside the notion of a genetic component for now, we know that culture creates different minds. How can you analyze the causes of a behavior if your work focuses on a relatively uniform sample?

M: Developmental plasticity vitiates most of the claims of evo psych. Without denying that some behaviors certainly have a strong biological basis, the differences in human behaviors are more likely to be a product of plasticity than of genetic differences. . .

P: Plasticity is just learning at the neural level, and learning is not an alternative to innate motives and learning mechanisms. Plasticity became an all-purpose fudge factor in the 1990s (just like “epigenetics” is today). But the idea that the brain is a piece of plastic molded by the environment is bad neuroscience. I reviewed neural plasticity in the chapter “The Slate’s Last Stand” in The Blank Slate, with the help of many colleagues in neuroscience, and noted that the plasticity that allows feedback during development and learning during ontogeny is superimposed on an innate matrix of neural organization. For example if you silence *all* synaptic activity in the brain of a developing mouse with knock-outs, the brain is pretty much normal.

Speaking of straw men…I found The Blank Slate entirely unreadable, unlike most of Pinker’s books, because of the gigantic straw man erected in the title. This flailing against me is a product of this weird idea that I reject the contribution of our genes to our minds, but just as there are no evolutionary psychologists who believe everything in our brains is genetically predetermined, there is no such thing in serious science as a “blank slater”.

There is a continuum, and we’re arguing about degrees. For example, take a child of French parents and raise them in the United States, they’ll grow up speaking fluent English (or Spanish, depending on the household), and vice versa — an American child raised in France will speak French like a native. There is no genetic component to the details of language. Yet when you compare diverse languages you can start to pick out commonalities, and when you look at the neural substrates of language you do see shared anatomy and physiology — I do not hesitate to accept that there is an evolved component of human language. The differences between speakers are learned, the universals may well be biological.

Which means that when evolutionary psychologists try to parse out variations between different groups, racial or sexual, I suspect it’s most likely that they are seeing cultural variations, so trying to peg them to an adaptive explanation is an exercise in futility. When evolutionary psychologists try to drill down and identify the shared components, I’m much more willing to see their efforts as interesting.

That last sentence by Pinker is a lovely example of nonsensical denial of the importance of plasticity. “Pretty much normal” means that on broad, superficial inspection the various components of the brain are present — hindbrain, midbrain, forebrain, various nuclei and pathways, they’re all there. I’ve seen the same thing in zebrafish: the peripheral motor nerves I studied as a graduate student form perfectly normally even if you knock out all the acetylcholine receptors, so that the muscles are totally unresponsive to physiological inputs.

This does not surprise me. Most of the patterning of the brain is set up in the embryo before neuronal connectivity is established; the clock-like activity of mitotic rate genes defines the size of various bits of the brain; adhesive and repulsive cell surface interactions lay out the major pathways. Does Pinker think someone trained in developmental neurobiology would expect that the brain would collapse into a formless blob in the absence of action potentials and synaptic transmission?

But it is still absurd to call the deprived brain “pretty much normal”. When you look deeper, you find subtle and important differences. The clearest examples are found in experiments with visually deprived cats: sew one eyelid shut, or both, or alternate, in a young kitten, and you can find all kinds of changes in visual processing, detectable at both the physiological and anatomical levels. The visual cortex forms, projections from the lateral geniculate terminate in roughly the right place, but they absolutely depend on visual input to fine tune their connections. Human children born with visual deficits in one eye will also have lifelong deficits in visual processing, even if the original problem is corrected.

Try raising a child without contact with other humans. I guarantee you that their brains, when physically examined, would look “pretty much normal”…but does anyone really believe that psychologically, on the level evolutionary psychologists study brains, that they’d be “pretty much normal”?

This is “pretty much normal” behavior from evolutionary psychologists, though. Point out that that their inferences about neuronal circuitry are bogus, they tell you that they don’t study neurons anyway; tell them that the behaviors they study are awfully plastic and flexible, and presto, hey, look, brains and neurons are patterned by genetic elements. The sleight of hand is impressive, except when you realize that science shouldn’t be about magic tricks.

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!