Here we go again: another cock-eyed defense of evolutionary psychology

This Myles Power guy fished up an evolutionary psychologist to write a defense of of EP, which is not at all impressive. I’m sure he could also find an acupuncturist to write many words about the wonders of sticking needles in people, but I wouldn’t be impressed with that, either.

I will just point out that this fellow also has decided that everyone who criticizes EP is ideologically motivated to hate it; it can’t possibly be that we detest it because it is bad science. And of course he pisses me off with his dishonest opening.

Now, before I begin, ask yourself this, if you are against EP, why? Which of the following do you disagree with:

  • Evolution shapes both the morphology and behaviour of organisms
  • Humans are as much a product of evolution as any other organism
  • Humans behaviour should show evidence of being shaped by evolution

Because if the answer is, “well, none of them”, then there is really no need to go anything further. Because that’s all EP is in the end, looking at humans from the point of view of evolution. It’s taking 150 years of evolutionary theory and applying it to human behaviour. That’s it. We can discuss the impact any evolved pre-dispositions have on behaviour in the context of social, cognitive and biological perspectives without name-calling. So we’re good yes?

No. We’re not good. This is classic EP evasion tactics: immediately hiding behind general principles of evolutionary biology, as if disagreeing with EP is exactly equivalent to denying evolution. It’s annoying as hell to every time have a chorus of idiots accusing me of being a creationist because I find evolutionary psychology to be simple-minded to the point of utter uselessness in actually explaining anything about human evolution, and it’s people like this EP proponent who always try to feed that nonsense right from the get-go.

Evolution shapes both the morphology and behaviour of organisms. Humans are as much a product of evolution as any other organism. Humans behaviour should show evidence of being shaped by evolution. Yes to all of those. Accepting basic biological facts does not, however, in any way imply that I must therefore accept the specific claims of a fallacious hypothesis about human evolution. Evolutionary psychologists are not simply applying 150 years of evolutionary theory to human behavior, and it’s dishonest to claim that they are.

I skipped the rest. If the author can’t even be trusted to explain what makes EP a specific and useful approach, but just wants to pretend it’s plain old evolutionary biology, using the same methods and rigor, then I’ve got no use for more games of hide and seek.

Myles Power’s dishonest defense of evolutionary psychology

Back around the 11th of July, I saw a few comments by a guy named Myles Power, a science youtuber, who was quite irate that Rebecca Watson criticized evolutionary psychology five years ago. There were the usual vaguely horrified reactions implying how annoying it was that some mere communications major would criticize an established, credible, true science like EP, and how she was prioritizing entertainment over scientific validity (not all from this Power guy; Watson is a magnet for the same tiresome bozos making the same tiresome complaints). So I told him that no, her criticisms were not off-base at all, and then a lot of scientists consider EP to be poor science. I also gave him a few links to consider.

He saw them, and acknowledged it.

@pzmyers This may take me some time to get back to you :)

He did not get back to me. Instead, he came out with a video titled Rebecca Watson’s Dishonest Representation of Evolutionary Psychology. It did not use a single scrap of the information I sent him. Not one bit. Furthermore, he just made this excuse.

I am also doing the ground work in organising a google+ debate with PZ and a Prof in EP from a reputable university.

Say what? He wrote that on the 14th. Not once has he contacted me about “organizing” a debate. One would kind of think that contacting both of the principals in this planned debate would be the very first step in organizing it. Do I get to say “no”, are is he just assuming that all he has to do is contact the esteemed EP professor and then I’ll self-evidently fall into line? I’m not at all impressed with Myles Power’s honesty so far.

So then I watched the video.

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Hackathon in Boulder

My daughter’s research group (she’s a grad student at the University of Colorado Boulder) is sponsoring an event in January called the Clear Earth Semantic Software Hackathon. This is beyond my understanding or experience, but I’ll do a little signal-boosting anyway — if you know what this stuff is, the application is due by 15 August.

The goal of the hackathon is to tackle cross-domain – earth sciences / computational linguistics – problems with the help of local experts, linguists, and earth scientists. Those problems could involve natural text, datasets, software tools, visulizations. Applicants must propose a week-long project as part of their application. Suggestions are: NLP/ML tools, information extraction, ontology-building, or any topic of interest that relates linguistics and earth science in a ML framework. In the earth sciences we include all earth-ice-life (geo-cryo-eco) studies. At the end of the hackathon, participants will present their tools and post them on GitHub. Applicants may apply as individuals or in groups of up to three – building a team within or across universities is strongly encouraged! Applicants may also choose to form a small group at the outset of the hackathon, or may choose to work alone. The only requirement is the development of a prototype linguistics-related software or data tool. The hackathon is NSF funded, and applicants need only bring a laptop and other essentials. Accommodation, travel and transport, and meals+ are covered.

Live! From an alien world!

Yeah, yeah, NASA has probes going off to space, but the University of Washington has installed a probe in a much more interesting location: around an active hydrothermal vent off the coast of Oregon. I just learned that they also have a live camera feed 4 times a day, accessible from your local internet.

The next 14 minute stream will be in about half an hour from when I post this. The vent is covered in tube worms, palm worms, scale worms and limpets, so it’s much more interesting than anything the Mars Curiosity Rover has found, and it’s been ongoing every day, for years.

I hope that doesn’t hurt the Rover’s feelings. It’s been doing a good job, it’s just such a dead planet that it’s been banished to.

How eugenics fails

Selecting for one trait, or a small number of them, and failing to recognize that individual organisms must be integrated with their environment, leads to catastrophe, as this interview with Bill Muir explains.

Almost everyone who thought about eugenics at that time unquestionably assumed that creating a better society was a matter of selecting the most able individuals, or “hereditary genius”, as Galton put it. Against this background, consider an experiment conducted in the 1990’s by William M. Muir, Professor of Animal Sciences at Purdue University. The purpose of the experiment was to increase the egg-laying productivity of hens. The hens were housed in cages with nine hens per cage. Very simply, the most productive hen from each cage was selected to breed the next generation of hens.


If egg-laying productivity is a heritable trait, then the experiment should produce a strain of better egg layers, but that’s not what happened. Instead, the experiment produced a strain of hyper-aggressive hens, as shown in the first photograph. There are only three hens because the other six were murdered and the survivors have plucked each other in their incessant attacks. Egg productivity plummeted, even though the best egg-layers had been selected each and every generation.

The reason for this perverse outcome is easy to understand, at least in retrospect. The most productive hen in each cage was the biggest bully, who achieved her productivity by suppressing the productivity of the other hens. Bullying behavior is a heritable trait, and several generations were sufficient to produce a strain of psychopaths.

In a parallel experiment, Muir monitored the productivity of the cages and selected all of the hens from the best cages to breed the next generation of hens. The result of that experiment is shown in the second photograph. All nine hens are alive and fully feathered. Egg productivity increased 160% in only a few generations, an almost unheard of response to artificial selection in animal breeding experiments.

Weirdly, though, Muir goes on to claim that this experiment shows that capitalism is the best possible system, which just goes to show that American indoctrination is very effective. It seems to me, rather, that it shows that you can’t decide ahead of time what traits are desirable, but that they have to emerge organically in concert with other properties of the organism, and deciding ahead of time that humans must be guided by one ideology or the other is a huge mistake.

Carl Zimmer is defective

But it’s all right, we all are. Zimmer has begun a series called Game of Genomes in which he has had his whole genome sequenced, and is being led by a group of scientists through the analysis. So far he’s made a good summary of the procedure, and a general overview of the state of his genome.

In my own genome, Gerstein and his colleagues discovered 13 genes in which both copies appear to be broken. I have another 42 genes in which only one copy looks like it’s defunct.

It may sound strange that my genome has dozens of broken genes that cause me no apparent harm. If it’s any consolation, I’m no freak. The 1000 Genomes Project revealed that everyone has a few dozen broken genes.

Our genomes are not finely engineered machines that can’t tolerate a single broken flywheel or gear shaft. They’re sloppy products of evolution that usually manage to work pretty well despite being riddled with mutations.

I’ve probably passed down some of my uniquely broken genes to my children. Perhaps, long in the future, one of those broken genes will become more common in humans, and end up in every member of our species. That’s certainly happened in the past. My genome catalog includes about 14,000 genes that have been broken for thousands or millions of years, known as pseudogenes. Once they lost the ability to make proteins, they simply became extra baggage carried down from one generation to the next. Thanks to a genetic roll of the dice, they ended up becoming common. Now these 14,000 pseudogenes are found in all humans today.

As you can tell, it’s a nicely written summary that doesn’t require a huge amount of scientific background to understand. Good stuff!



Conodonts are strange and extinct animals that left behind lots of fossils: their teeth. Practically nothing else but teeny-tiny, jagged, pointy teeth. I remember when the animals themselves were total mysteries, and no one even knew what phylum they belonged to — it was only in the 1980s that a few eel-like soft tissue fossils were found, and they were recognized as chordates (very small chordates, on the order of millimeters to centimeters long) with big eyes and membranous fins.


And now today I find two artistic reconstructions of the conodont animal that please me.

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