History will judge evolutionary psychology as the phrenology of our era


I’ve criticized evolutionary psychology more than a few times, and usually my arguments rest on their appallingly bad understanding of the “evolutionary” part of their monicker — proponents all seem to be rank adaptationists with a cartoon understanding of evolution. But what about the “psychology” part? I’ve mentioned at least one dissection of EP by a psychologist in the past, but here’s another one, a paper by the same author, Brad Peters, that explains that evolutionary psychology is poor neurobiology and bad psychology.

The paper points out that EP uses evidence inappropriately, ignores the range of alternative explanations to set up false dichotomies (“if you don’t accept evolutionary psychology, you must also deny evolution!”), plays rhetorical games to dodge questions about its assumptions, and basically is pulling an ideologically distorted version of neuroscience out of its institutional ass.

Evolutionary psychology defines the human mind as comprising innate and domainspecific information-processing mechanisms that were designed to solve specific evolutionary problems of our Pleistocene past. This model of the mind is the underlying blueprint used to engage in the kind of research that characterizes the field: speculating about how these innate mechanisms worked and what kinds of evolutionary problems they solved. But while evolutionary psychologists do engage in research to confirm or disconfirm their hypotheses, the results of even the most rigorous studies have been open to alternative, scientifically valid means of interpretation. What constitutes “evidence” would seem to vary in accordance with the theoretical assumptions of those viewing it. Arguments about, or appeals to, “the evidence” may thus involve little more than theoretical bible-thumping or pleading for others to view the “facts” from their preferred theoretical perspective. When theoretical paradigms are unable to agree on what it is that they are looking at, it reminds us that the data are anything but objective, and gives good reason to question the theoretical blueprints being used. This paper argues that evolutionary psychology’s assumptive definitions regarding the mind are often inconsistent with neurobiological evidence and may neglect very real biological constraints that could place limits on the kinds of hypotheses that can be safely posited. If there are problematic assumptions within evolutionary psychology’s definition of the mind, then we also have reason to question their special treatment of culture and learning, since both are thought to be influenced by modular assumptions unique to the paradigm. It is finally suggested that the mind can be adequately understood and its activities properly explained without hypothetical appeal to countless genetically pre-specified psychological programs, and in a way that remains consistent with both our neurobiology and neo-Darwinian evolution. While some of these critiques have been previously stated by others, the present paper adds to the discussion by providing a succinct summary of the most devastating arguments while offering new insights and examples that further highlight the key problems that face this field. Importantly, the critiques presented here are argued to be capable of standing their ground, regardless of whether evolutionary psychology claims the mind to be massively or moderately modular in composition. This paper thus serves as a continuation of the debate between evolutionary psychology and its critics. It will be shown how recent attempts to characterize critiques as “misunderstandings” seem to evade or ignore the main problems, while apparent “clarifications” continue to rely on some of the same theoretical assumptions that are being attacked by critics.

Another valid criticism is how evolutionary psychologists seem to be unaware of how the brain actually develops and works. Anybody who has actually studied neurodevelopment will know that plasticity is a hallmark. While genes pattern the overall structure, it’s experience that fine-tunes all the connections.

The current consensus within the neurobiological sciences seems to support a view where much of the brain is thought to be highly plastic and in which an abundance of neural growth, pruning, and differentiation of networks is directly influenced by environmental experience. This is especially the case for secondary, tertiary, and associational areas, which make up the majority of the brain’s neocortex and are primarily involved in the kinds of complex, higher-order, psychological processes that appear to be of greatest interest to experimental psychologists. These particular areas seemingly lack characteristics indicative of innate modularity, though, with experience and use, they may build upon the functional complexity of adjacent primary cortices that perhaps have such characteristics.

I also like that he addresses a common metaphor in EP — floating free of good evidence, much of the field relies on glib metaphors — that we can just treat the brain like it is a computer. It may compute, but it’s not very analogous to what’s going on in your desktop machine or phone. We aren’t made of circuits hard-printed by machines in Seoul; there is a general substrate of capabilities built upon by the experiences of the user. Further, we’re not entirely autonomous but rely in the most fundamental ways on by growth and development, sculpted by culture.

We can see the problem from a different perspective using evolutionary psychology’s favored computer analogy. While it is true that humans have some engrained and preprogrammed biological circuits, all evidence would suggest that, unlike modern computers, our environmental experiences can cause these mental circuits to become edited, hi-jacked, intensified or lessened, inhibited, and so on. How else might we explain a person acquiring a phobia of hats, a fetish for shoes, or having an apparent indifference to what might be an evolutionarily relevant danger (e.g., cliff jumping)? If we accept this is true, we must also accept that it becomes difficult to say what might have been there at birth, or instead shaped by common environmental experiences that we all share. Modern computers cannot be re-programmed without a human; they do not function like the human mind. We are the ones who effectively tell computers what the binary ones and zeros of their programming language will represent. We give symbolic meaning to the code, which allows us to even say that computers processes information. Now let us turn to the human mind. Evolutionary psychologists want to say that meaning and information are objectively pre-programmed by our inherited biology. However, it would appear that we extract much of our information, and the meaning it contains, from a sociocultural cloud of symbolic representations that belong to a shared human subjectivity, or something Raymond Tallis refers to as the community of minds. Our subjective mental states are thus socioculturally structured and shaped through our reliance on an agreed-upon language and agreed-upon sets of subjective human meanings. The brain is only one part of the picture: it facilitates the mechanistic activities of the mind, but it does not solely cause them. Human meanings, which belong to the collective community of minds, will thus often transcend the underlying mechanisms that represent them.

Wait. If the “evolution” part is crap, and the “psychology” part is bullshit, what’s left in evolutionary psychology to respect?


Peters, BM (2013) Evolutionary psychology: Neglecting neurobiology in defining the mind. Theory & Psychology 23(3) 305–322.

Comments

  1. says

    “Our subjective mental states are thus socioculturally structured and shaped through our reliance on an agreed-upon language and agreed-upon sets of subjective human meanings. The brain is only one part of the picture: it facilitates the mechanistic activities of the mind, but it does not solely cause them. Human meanings, which belong to the collective community of minds, will thus often transcend the underlying mechanisms that represent them.”

    This is true but . . . I can go to a place with a culture separated from my own by long history, with an equally unrelated language; learn the language, and come to understand the people and interact with them successfully. They will have ways that are unfamiliar to me and perhaps some norms that I have been socialized to find offensive. Sure, we vary in our capacity to accept differences, and the particular differences we are willing to accept. Still, we have a lot in common. It’s just that it gets very complicated figuring out specifically what that is. We have capacities that constitute the building blocks of culture and society; we share these sufficiently that we can adapt to cultural change and even transport to exotic cultures if need be. I would say that the idea that human psychology is shaped by evolution is unassailable. It’s just that a lot of people seem to be going about it wrong.

  2. thirdmill says

    Not my area of expertise so this is a serious question: A lot of specific applications of evolutionary psychology that I’ve read strike me as pretty silly, but some of it does not, like the idea that infants whose parents love and nourish them will do better than infants whose parents do not, or that you’re more likely to reproduce if you prefer partners who are young and healthy over those who are not. So is it possible that the theory itself is legitimate but has been plagued with mis-applications?

    Darwinism is a perfectly sound theory, but the eugenics/social darwinism that some people tried to pin on darwinism are not. But the problem in those cases was mis-application and not the theory itself. The eugenics/social darwinism crowd tried taking a legitimate theory someplace it didn’t belong. Maybe when an MRA tries using ev psych to enforce his sexist ideas about women, the real problem is with the MRA’s abuse of the theory and not the theory itself.

  3. says

    Yes thirdmill, parental love and solicitude for their children is absolutely a universal of human cultures, although obviously it goes awry in individual cases, which is to say that we have certain innate tendencies, but they can be shaped and even aborted by circumstances. For example, regarding the young partners preference, consider the case of Emmanuel Macron, the likely next president of France, who married a woman 24 years older than himself, too late to procreate. Presumably he wanted something else out of he partnership.

  4. says

    @2, thirdmill

    It’s a lot of things. It’s a bunch of scientists doing poor science. And a bunch of non-scientists failing to see that, failing to correctly understand the science, and having other misguided political/moral notions about what is true, good, and right.

    (Not sure exactly what you mean by “misapplying” science or “taking a legitimate theory someplace it didn’t belong”, but I’m guessing you mean fallacious use of true premises, non-sequiturs. Just keep in mind that their premises aren’t all correct all the time either)

  5. The Mellow Monkey says

    thirdmill @ 2

    A lot of specific applications of evolutionary psychology that I’ve read strike me as pretty silly, but some of it does not, like the idea that infants whose parents love and nourish them will do better than infants whose parents do not, or that you’re more likely to reproduce if you prefer partners who are young and healthy over those who are not. So is it possible that the theory itself is legitimate but has been plagued with mis-applications?

    Part of the trouble here is that when you’re determining what sounds reasonable to you and what doesn’t you’re bringing your own cultural baggage to it. You cannot screen out your culturally derived “common sense” and evolutionary psychology rarely makes an attempt to correct for this, or even acknowledge its impact. Then, even if you do make efforts to correct for it, how can you be certain you’ve done so? There’s no control here. There’s no such thing as a human absent culture. So much of evolutionary psychology rests on a basic misunderstanding of how brains work.

    The paper from Brad Peters really does go into all of this in a lot deeper detail than I can and I’d rather not try to paraphrase everything up above. Some behaviors may be advantageous and others may not, but that’s not what evolutionary psychology is actually looking at or describing. It’s assuming something is advantageous based on cultural biases (“being attracted to young sex partners leads to more surviving offspring”) and then trying to force that into some sort of biotruth. ignoring all the other ways that a behavior might come about, whether or not the behavior is truly advantageous, and everywhere that behavior is lacking.

  6. says

    If the “evolution” part is crap, and the “psychology” part is bullshit, what’s left in evolutionary psychology to respect?

    The space in the middle?

  7. Azkyroth, B*Cos[F(u)]==Y says

    I would say that the idea that human psychology is shaped by evolution is unassailable. It’s just that a lot of people seem to be going about it wrong.

    “The idea that human psychology is shaped by evolution” is not, and has not within living memory been, the point of contention in criticism of evo-phrenology by the intellectually competent. That fact that evo-phrenologists will not stop lying about this no matter how many times it is pointed out does not, strictly speaking, invalidate their field of pseudo-study, but certainly gives reason to dismiss its dishonest evangelists.

  8. Hj Hornbeck says

    I also like that he addresses a common metaphor in EP — floating free of good evidence, much of the field relies on glib metaphors — that we can just treat the brain like it is a computer. It may compute, but it’s not very analogous to what’s going on in your desktop machine or phone.

    I should revive my “A Computer Scientist Reads EvoPsych” series, it’s pretty obvious EvoPsych researchers have a layperson’s understanding of computation. They love drawing on the metaphor of “modules” of computation, for instance, but don’t realize computer scientists invented modules to make writing and debugging programs easier. The vast majority of computers have no idea what a module is; instead, compilers or interpreters usually translate modular code into a semi-linear stream of executable instructions, optionally embedding meta-data in case a human being wants to link that back to the code they’d written. Modules are entirely for our benefit, as anyone who’s played with a Turing Tarpit can verify.

  9. The Mellow Monkey says

    Addendum to my #5, as I forgot something pretty important: Evolutionary psychology blurs any sort of distinction between “a behavior is present,” “a behavior is beneficial,” and “a behavior is adaptive.” Those aren’t all the same thing, but evolutionary psychology ignores that fact. A behavior may exist without any special benefit to it. Something may give a benefit without having been adaptive.

  10. says

    ” The vast majority of computers have no idea what a module is;:

    Actually 100% of computers have no idea what anything is.

  11. Ed Seedhouse says

    I think that machine learning is a big thing these days, using “neural networks” computers can “program” themselves with good feedback. Kind of like the human brain needs good feedback to learn and like the human brain these networks change based on “experience”.

    But “the brain is a computer” is mostly, I think, a fashion not a coherent way of thinking. Back in the industrial revolution the brain was thought to be a machine, because machines were the big new technology. Today computers are the big thing so we think of the brain as a computer. As P.Z. points out it isn’t a computer, though it can computer, but “computing” is only a very small part of what it does.

    Similarly when Newton decided (reasonably at the time) that matter must be made up of tiny infinitely hard atoms, I think this had something do do with new ideas of economics arising from the idea that individuals were much like Newtons atoms, hardly effecting each other. When Newton’s atoms interacted they remained the same, and economists of the time decided that when human being interact they remain unchanged.

    Those schools of economic thought persist to this day, long after physics, guided by evidence, moved on from the idea of atoms being hard round tiny objects into atoms having parts and the parts acting both as particles and waves.

    Yet the dominant schools of economics today assume that human beings are atomic and self contained, and only interact with each other with perfect rationality. And it is doing untold harm.

    Does this make any sense? Or am I just raving?

  12. unclefrogy says

    I have a mind that enjoys puzzling out things and I can’t really do much about it. I even try to find “answers” where there are none.
    It seems to me that the EP are getting the tree mixed up with the forest.
    As we have been reminded here many times evolution is about species and populations not individuals or small groups of individuals it tries to get way too specific in details that may be true for some individuals to some degree or other and may be described that way you can not say it is true for all based on that appearance.
    those ideas may even be helpful in treating individuals or understanding some individuals but entirely useless in understanding the evolution of humans in any kind of detail.
    as writing I find it just above sunday news paper supplement and maybe OK for a doctors waiting room or a plane flight. food for philosophic wondering, an interesting distraction some times
    uncle frogy

  13. hjhornbeck says

    cervantes @10:

    Actually 100% of computers have no idea what anything is.

    In the lay sense of the term, you could say their instruction pointer and various busses count as “known” things. If you wanna get all philosophical and state computers lack consciousness and therefore understanding, I’ll let you wade into that morass on your own.

    Incidentally, my fudging in the original comment was due to Java-aware processors. Since objects are a core part of the language, these must have some accommodation for modules.

  14. Ed Seedhouse says

    Well, if you say that computers have “no idea” of how they function I would put it to you that we ourselves know much less than 1% of what there is to know about how *we* function, particularly when it comes to our neural systems.

    Also, one may ask how do you know that computers (or even rocks) aren’t conscious? First I think you will have to come up with a coherent definition of “consciousness” is. I certainly can’t do that and don’t know that anyone has. How do you know that other people are conscious for that matter?

  15. says

    Ed Seehouse@#14:
    How do you know that other people are conscious for that matter?

    Given the elections in the US, France, and Brexit, I’m comfortable doubting that consciousness is really a thing at all.

  16. Bill Buckner says

    #13,

    Since objects are a core part of the language, these must have some accommodation for modules.

    Um, do you actually know what you are talking about? It doesn’t seem so.

  17. hjhornbeck says

    Bill Buckner @16:

    How so? I could see myself being guilty of conflating classes, references and objects, but otherwise I’ll defer to Section 2.7 of Oracle’s Java Virtual Machine specification.

    2.7. Representation of Objects

    The Java Virtual Machine does not mandate any particular internal structure for objects.

    In some of Oracle’s implementations of the Java Virtual Machine, a reference to a class instance is a pointer to a handle that is itself a pair of pointers: one to a table containing the methods of the object and a pointer to the Class object that represents the type of the object, and the other to the memory allocated from the heap for the object data.

  18. Bill Buckner says

    #17,
    First of all you use “module” as if it were well defined. It isn’t. It means different things in different languages. In Java, which you were discussing, there is no construct called a module. So your sentence:

    “Since objects are a core part of the language, these [java processors] must have some accommodation for modules”

    means, at face value, that java processors must have some accommodation (whatever that means in this context) for constructs not defined by java.

    You might as well say that java processors must have some accommodation for C unions or Fortran name lists.

    Now, since a module colloquially means an isolated set of code that is only loosely coupled to the rest of the base, probably the Java class is a sort of module. But that would render your sentence:

    “Since objects are a core part of the language, these [java processors] must have some accommodation for [java classes]”

    which is hardly worth stating.

    I don’t know what point you were trying to make by quoting the VM spec.

  19. hjhornbeck says

    Bill Buckner @18:

    First of all you use “module” as if it were well defined. It isn’t. It means different things in different languages. In Java, which you were discussing, there is no construct called a module.

    Ooooohh, now I get what you’re saying. Yep, I was being sloppy with my terminology. Python’s a good example of this, as

    Python has a way to put definitions in a file and use them in a script or in an interactive instance of the interpreter. Such a file is called a module; definitions from a module can be imported into other modules or into the main module (the collection of variables that you have access to in a script executed at the top level and in calculator mode).

    You could argue this is different from an object, as there’s no strict boundaries lumping together attributes and methods. You could also argue this is close enough to count as an object, as “objects” are also poorly defined.

    Now, since a module colloquially means an isolated set of code that is only loosely coupled to the rest of the base, probably the Java class is a sort of module. But that would render your sentence:

    “Since objects are a core part of the language, these [java processors] must have some accommodation for [java classes]”

    which is hardly worth stating.

    I’d argue otherwise. C++ is object-oriented, yet if you look at how GCC converts it to x86 machine code the result is nothing like an object. Methods have their symbol names mangled and an extra parameter added which points to a memory location, then are smashed together in the code section. Static class properties are stored elsewhere, in a special area set aside just for static values, and instanced properties could either be floating in the heap or stack as a blob of bytes. It’s chaos, with no real boundary enforcement.

    Likewise, neither x86 nor ARM processors have anything like an “object” in their instruction sets, yet they run object-oriented Java code just fine. The JVM just gets them to do some extra tap-dancing to emulate the missing functionality, such as table lookups to verify class IDs, before actually executing any code or reading any variables.

    You don’t need extra transistors to handle class verification or object creation, so when those exist it’s worth explicitly pointing out. And since they do exist in some cases, it’s disingenuous to say no CPU works with objects.

  20. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Completely OT: Is everything OK with Lynna? Does anyone know why comments have been closed on the Political Madness thread since last evening?

    My guess is that the 3-month limit had been hit, and PZ needs to start a new “Political Madness” thread.

  21. consciousness razor says

    Ed Seedhouse, #11:

    Does this make any sense? Or am I just raving?

    Possibly. Economics is certainly not my forte, but this is also a little hard to understand:

    Similarly when Newton decided (reasonably at the time) that matter must be made up of tiny infinitely hard atoms, I think this had something do do with new ideas of economics arising from the idea that individuals were much like Newtons atoms, hardly effecting each other. When Newton’s atoms interacted they remained the same, and economists of the time decided that when human being interact they remain unchanged.

    I’m not aware of Newton himself ever claiming particles are infinitely hard (or spherical for that matter)…. He was not really one to speculate about such things. They are certainly tiny.

    As a theory of motion, the equations of motion describe the type of “change” Newtonian mechanics was meant to account for: the positions of objects. So, if you imagine billiard balls directly colliding with one another (and like I said, it’s not stipulated that they need to be perfectly or “infinitely” anything), they do obviously affect one another when there is an interaction like that. The position does change when they collide or are in similar situations like that, and that is the only fundamental property the mechanical theory is even addressing. So it seems a little odd to put it the way you did — the one thing it is actually telling you is how things change, in the only respect (motion) it was designed to tell you about. Maybe you wanted or expected other kinds of changes, but that’s all you get here.

    If you bring in Maxwell’s theory, etc., then of course the picture starts to look a little more complicated, because more and more phenomena involving properties like electric charge are accounted for, although in a deeper sense it is still a very simple theory characterized by a few very simple physical laws.

    And an electron, for instance, still doesn’t change as a person does over the course of their lives. It’s an extremely simple thing, which doesn’t have a whole lot of options available to it, which behaves in extremely predictable ways. It still just moves around, in somewhat more complicated ways (or your measuring devices move around in complicated ways, when interacting with a system like that), depending on what the physical conditions are like, which we can specify with a lot more detail. It’s not like electrons start behaving differently as they’re socialized with other electrons or become accustomed to them or learn how they’re supposed to act after a rich variety of personal experiences. No matter what happens or however much you mess around with them, they still just do the same stupidly simple, utterly predictable things they always did.

    If economists ever seriously thought people worked that way because particles do, even though it’s fairly obvious that basically none of the things I just said above are true of complicated objects like people, then that would have been an incredibly stupid economic theory. We should probably give most of them a little more credit than that, but I think it’s fair to say they’ve often oversimplified things way too much, presumably with the hope that they could come up with something that was just as general and as rigorous and as useful as physical theories. That hasn’t worked out (yet), but I can at least respect what they were trying to do. Evolutionary psychology, on the other hand…. I don’t think I really get the point of that at all.

  22. Mark Sloan says

    Google says: “Evolutionary psychology is a theoretical approach to psychology that attempts to explain useful mental and psychological traits—such as memory, perception, or language—as adaptations, i.e., as the functional products of natural selection.”

    Can anyone point me to a coherent argument that the biology underlying useful mental and psychological traits such as memory, perception, and language (and I would add emotions) are NOT the products of evolutionary processes? Or is the argument that there is no biology underlying memory, perception, language, emotions, and other psychological traits?

    My own area of interest includes the psychology of moral judgments. This includes what circumstances trigger moral judgements and the emotions those judgments in turn trigger.

    The sum of the psychology of moral judgments makes no sense except as the products of evolutionary processes that solve the universal cooperation/exploitation dilemma – how to sustainably obtain the benefits of cooperation without exploitation destroying those benefits. That is, the biology underlying the psychology of moral judgments was selected for by the reproductive fitness benefits of the cooperation these judgements motivated. I don’t see how I could ever understand, for instance, shame, guilt, and the emotional bindingness of seemingly arbitrary cultural moral norms without evolutionary psychology’s invaluable perspective.

  23. consciousness razor says

    Mark Sloan:

    Can anyone point me to a coherent argument that the biology underlying useful mental and psychological traits such as memory, perception, and language (and I would add emotions) are NOT the products of evolutionary processes?

    First, notice that you substituted “adaptations” for an even more vague “products of evolutionary processes.”

    Why should anybody think every aspect of all of that is due to adaptation? There are plenty of other forces at work in the world besides that. What about those?

    Notice that, based on your googling results, evo-psych is an “approach to psychology” which attempts to explain things in a very specific way. The thinking goes like this: we’ve got X, so let’s try to explain X by saying it is or was adaptive. Well, that is something you could do. But you can explain things numerous other ways.

    Why go hunting around for explanations of that form? Does that seem like a scientific motivation or not? Why not look for the best explanations you can find, whatever form they may take? That is, look for ones with the most amount of evidence supporting them, ones which are the simplest, ones that are predictive, ones with potentially useful applications in technology/medicine/etc., ones which really tie the room together, ones which clean up an actual mess created by a worse theory, ones which fill in an important gap in our understanding, and so forth.

    That seems like it might actually be a productive “approach” to take to a subject, rather than fishing for anything you can get which looks like the answer you think you already know.

    Or is the argument that there is no biology underlying memory, perception, language, emotions, and other psychological traits?

    That would be pretty wacky. It’s all or nothing for you, isn’t it?

    Even wackier: there’s no physics underlying all of those things.

    But hold on…. If not everything in the world happens because of biology, while it is all physical, then we’re not very safe at all in assuming biological causes (and specifically, adaptation) for anything and everything that you can dream up.

  24. says

    Wait: Mark Sloan understands shame, guilt, and the emotional bindingness of seemingly arbitrary cultural moral norms? I’m impressed. And does it using an exclusively adaptationist ideology? Even more impressive.

    I guess all the arguments about the evolution of altruism have been completely settled, and what’s most surprising, settled by a hypothesis.

    Psychologist, psychologize yourself. Have you ever considered the possibility that humans are susceptible to the illusion that they have an adequate explanation?

  25. says

    @11, Ed Seedhouse

    But “the brain is a computer” is mostly, I think, a fashion not a coherent way of thinking. Back in the industrial revolution the brain was thought to be a machine, because machines were the big new technology.

    Depending on what you mean by the terms, the brain is both a computer and a machine.

  26. Rob Grigjanis says

    cr @23:

    I’m not aware of Newton himself ever claiming particles are infinitely hard (or spherical for that matter)…. He was not really one to speculate about such things.

    See page 400 of Opticks.

  27. Hj Hornbeck says

    Mark Sloan @25:

    Can anyone point me to a coherent argument that the biology underlying useful mental and psychological traits such as memory, perception, and language (and I would add emotions) are NOT the products of evolutionary processes?

    Sure I can. But first let’s tackle another question: are human brains computers?

    There isn’t a satisfying formal definition for what constitutes a computer, but the informal one is solid: can it execute an algorithm? If I handed you the instructions for determining whether or not a number is even, or how to bake oatmeal raisin cookies, could you do it? All this really establishes is that a subset of yourself is a computer, it’s still possible that other parts of your brain are to primitive to carry out an algorithm. I don’t think that’s likely, and if you do a bit of studying on how the brain is structured then read up on Turing machines you’ll probably agree with me.

    Evolutionary Psychology looks at that argument, and extends on it.

    1. Human brains are computers.
    2. From 1, it follows that human brains are structured like computers.
    3. The algorithms that computers execute are structured into distinct modules.
    4. From 2 and 3, human brains execute algorithms partitioned into distinct modules.

    None of that logic makes sense. Computer programs do not need to be split into distinct modules. Computer AI only made progress in the last forty years by abandoning the top-down approach of carving up computation into distinct modules, and instead embraced an emergent bottom-up approach inspired by biology. Neural nets are only modular to the degree we force them to be, distinct modules don’t emerge by accident. As I mentioned earlier, human beings structure programs into distinct modules because it is easier for programmers to understand and work with. In other words, distinct modules are the work of an intelligent designer.

    This means that Evolutionary Psychology’s assertion that memory, language and the like are due to distinct modules implies that they did not arise via evolutionary processes, but instead were seeded by an intelligent designer. No EvoPsych researcher would ever admit this implication, probably because they know jack shit about computation in general and AI in particular and thus don’t realize what they’re implying.

  28. Mark Sloan says

    Hi Razor,

    It is obviously bad science to not consider alternate hypotheses for phenomena. Even for human behavior that appears cross culturally universal, we have to be careful it is not just an emergent property of culture.

    I am also cheerful to criticize the biological “module” hypothesis for the human brain (often associated with evolutionary psychology), intellectually lazy “just so story” hypotheses that can explain just one thing, or the bizarre idea that human psychology is best understood as solely the product of a Paleolithic period in our evolutionary history – as if we share zero psychology with other animals.

    It is equally bad science to reject biology based hypotheses that explain large swaths of human psychology better than any other hypotheses, do not contradict any known facts, and so forth. That is, to reject (perhaps based on ideology?) generally accepted scientific methods for the subject of human psychology.

  29. Mark Sloan says

    Hi PZ,

    Whether you call it the “free rider problem”, “coordination problem”, or as I prefer “the cooperation/exploitation dilemma” that all species must solve in order to obtain the benefits of highly cooperative societies (as humans have), I would say “yes” that science has been essentially solved over the last 40 years or so.

    Shame, guilt, the emotional bindingness of seemingly arbitrary cultural norms, empathy (that motivates altruism), and loyalty to an in-group all motivate elements of known cooperation strategies that overcome the universal cooperation/exploitation dilemma. All these cooperation strategies share two motivational elements: motivation to risk initiating cooperation, and motivation to punish people who exploit others or otherwise act to reduce the benefits of cooperation. Shame and guilt are more efficient internal punishments for violating moral norms that avoid the risk to cooperation of external punishments of exploiters. Empathy and loyalty motivate initiating cooperation.

    Other cooperation strategies depend on markers of in-group membership (who should be more reliable cooperators) and out-groups (who may be less reliable cooperators or even targets for exploitation). Our ancestors who did not display these markers of membership (such as styles of clothing or speech), or were disloyal to the in-group tended to die out. Thus people can experience the emotional bindingness of seemingly arbitrary norms about food, dress, and hairstyle because our ancestors who did not tended to not reproduce as well.

    All examples of supposed “altruism problems” I am aware of arise due to lack of understanding that altruism is only one element of cooperation strategies. These problems vanish, so far as I know, when other necessary elements of those cooperation strategies, such as punishment of exploitation and favoritism for in-groups, are included (as they must be for altruism to be evolutionarily stable).

    If a single simple hypothesis explains all known elements of human moral psychology, no matter how superficially diverse and even bizarre, then I don’t see an “it’s an illusion” hypothesis as credible based on explanatory power, no contradiction of known facts, and other normal criteria for scientific truth. .

  30. Mark Sloan says

    Hi J,

    I also see the “module” hypothesis as problematic. So far as I know, our brains are better described as neural networks of neural networks and our ability to “execute an externally input procedure” is a mysterious emergent product connected to consciousness. I don’t see the module hypothesis as very useful.

    So what? How does the failure (in my opinion) of the modular brain concept inform us that human psychology cannot be understood as the product of evolutionary processes – the central claim of evolutionary psychology?

    There are a lot of straw man arguments against evolutionary psychology.

  31. says

    consciousness razor@#26:
    The thinking goes like this: we’ve got X, so let’s try to explain X by saying it is or was adaptive. Well, that is something you could do. But you can explain things numerous other ways.

    I agree.
    Another spin on it is that if we accept evolution as true (we must) then there’s a notion of “adaptation” as a result of various forms of selection. So that’s all true. Evolutionary psychology’s “answers” have to not contradict evolution and adaptation but it doesn’t go the other way around. The problem is that as long as they avoid contradicting evolution they are not necessarily therefore making a good argument that any particular thing is adaptive. Evolutionary psychology seems to be saying “well, look, this doesn’t contradict evolution, therefore it could be true!” except they kind of put “could” in a 2 point font.

  32. says

    Hi Mark,
    Can you cite any articles that have empirical evidence showing our early ancestors were at a reproductive disadvantage by wearing the wrong hairstyles?
    Btw, the science has not been “solved” for cooperation. I suggest you read “The Weirdest People in the World” by Joseph Heinrich. Turns out, widely accepted economic theories on cooperation and punishment don’t hold up when tested on participants who are NOT from western, european, industrialized, rich countries. Shocking, right?

  33. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    There are a lot of straw man arguments against evolutionary psychology.

    Not as many as those strawman arguments for EP. Which are nearly all of them.
    The human brain is plastic in that it reshapes itself after birth and its connections during education and culturization. For example, a certain cortex loop forms when one is trained in music at an early age.

    Although some of these multiregional differences could be attributable to innate predisposition, we believe they may represent structural adaptations in response to long-term skill acquisition and the repetitive rehearsal of those skills. This hypothesis is supported by the strong association we found between structural differences, musician status, and practice intensity, as well as the wealth of supporting animal data showing structural changes in response to long-term motor training.

    Nobody is saying genetics can’t have an influence. The problem is figuring out how to differentiate the genetic components from the plastic overlay of education and culturization. How would you go about that?

  34. Mark Sloan says

    All,

    In another forum, a relevant paper (actual a review of three recent books) was pointed out to me that makes what I see as a clarifying distinction between “orthodox” evolutionary psychology (an unfortunately premature attempt at formalizing the field of evolutionary psychology) and evolutionary psychology of the last 10 years or so. The arguments I have seen against “evolutionary psychology” are focused on that unfortunate initial attempt at a formalization of the field.

    I sincerely regret referring here to such criticisms as against “straw man” versions of EP. I think of them as straw man versions just because in my perception they are generally accepted to be obsolete. In no way did I mean to imply there is anyone here who would intentionally use a straw man argument.

    https://www.academia.edu/2702689/Human_Life_History_and_Gene-Culture_Co-Evolution_An_Emerging_Paradigm

  35. Mark Sloan says

    Hi Tera,

    I am aware of the WEIRD effect. The data set I use to test hypotheses regarding moral psychology is includes world wide investigations (including contemporary hunter gatherer groups) of the circumstances when moral judgements are triggered and what emotions are in turn triggered by these judgments. Jonathan Haidt has been connected with much of this work.
    ,

  36. Mark Sloan says

    Hi Nerd,

    You asked “The problem is figuring out how to differentiate the genetic components from the plastic overlay of education and culturization. How would you go about that?”

    I am not aware that people can learn emotions such as empathy, loyalty, shame, guilt, and anger. We can learn when and to what degree they are triggered (culturally dependent) but so far as I know our ability to experience emotions is genetic. For example rational psychopaths appear not to be able to learn empathy or loyalty. So I feel we are on solid ground asking the question “What is the evolutionary function (the primary reason they exist) of these emotions triggered by moral judgments?” There are also cross culturally universal commonalities in the specific circumstances that trigger moral judgements. These universal commonalities are certainly good candidates for being biologically determined, but they could also be some emergent property of all cultures independent of biology.

  37. Mark Sloan says

    Hi Tara,

    What appears to be part of the biology underlying our moral psychology is classifying people in favored in-groups and disfavored out-groups. Our ancestors who were uninterested in appearing to be part of the favored in-group tended to not reproduce as successfully as others. Markers of membership used to indicate membership in a favored in-group have varied widely. Hair style is a modern one. I don’t know how long it has been used.

  38. Hj Hornbeck says

    Mark Sloan @33:

    How does the failure (in my opinion) of the modular brain concept inform us that human psychology cannot be understood as the product of evolutionary processes – the central claim of evolutionary psychology?

    Er, I just used evolutionary processes to predict how the brain is organized. I did precisely what you think I disagree with. And “mind modules” is also a central claim of Evolutionary Psychology.

    The unique spin that EP applies to the computational theory of mind is that our cognitive architecture is organized into a large number of functionally specialized mechanisms, or “modules,” that each performs a specific task (e.g., Tooby and Cosmides, 1992; Cosmides and Tooby, 1997; Barrett and Kurzban, 2006). As these modules are the products of natural selection, they can be considered as “adaptations”, or organs of special design, much like the heart or liver. The function of each module is to solve a recurrent problem encountered by our ancestors in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA), that is, the period over which humans were subject to evolutionary processes, including those of natural selection (Tooby and Cosmides, 1990; Symons, 1992).

    Barrett, Louise, Thomas V. Pollet, and Gert Stulp. “From computers to cultivation: reconceptualizing evolutionary psychology.” Frontiers in psychology 5 (2014): 867.

    Evolutionary psychology is the second wave of the cognitive revolution. The first wave focused on computational processes that generate knowledge about the world: perception, attention, categorization, reasoning, learning, and memory. The second wave views the brain as composed of evolved computational systems, engineered by natural selection to use information to adaptively regulate physiology and behavior. This shift in focus—from knowledge acquisition to the adaptive regulation of behavior—provides new ways of thinking about every topic in psychology. It suggests a mind populated by a large number of adaptive specializations, each equipped with content-rich representations, concepts, inference systems, and regulatory variables, which are functionally organized to solve the complex problems of survival and reproduction encountered by the ancestral hunter-gatherers from whom we are descended.

    Cosmides, Leda, and John Tooby. “Evolutionary psychology: New perspectives on cognition and motivation.” Annual review of psychology 64 (2013): 201-229.

    If you think the concept of mind modules is a failure, then you must also think the field of Evolutionary Psychology is a failure. The two cannot be separated.

  39. says

    Mark Sloan@#39:
    I am not aware that people can learn emotions such as empathy, loyalty, shame, guilt, and anger. We can learn when and to what degree they are triggered (culturally dependent) but so far as I know our ability to experience emotions is genetic.

    So, the inputs that trigger shame are to some degree cultural/learned, and the outputs from the experience of shame are to some degree learned/cultural. What’s left in the middle and how do you know it’s a thing?

    If we say that whether the lights in a room are on or off is culturally significant, and we then say that the determination when/how to turn them on or off is a learned culturally significant behavior, you’re saying “light switches exist” Yeah, but they’re a boolean value at that point. What if “shame” is a linguistic label that we post-facto slap on an interpretation of an experience? If we always slap the same label on the same experiences, we have a neat circular definition for “shame” but if its inputs and outputs are heavily culturally influenced then the application of that label is a great big “so what?” If you’re saying that shame and guilt are some kind of evolved-in routines in our brains, doesn’t that fly in the face of many people’s experience of merged experiences like “shame and guilt”? Can you use a TMS device to temporarily stun someone’s “shame” center and they still observe the experience of “guilt” without “shame”? If it’s not a learned behavior, we’d expect there to be a “shame center” as we do a Broca’s region. Are you aware of such a thing?

  40. says

    Mark Sloan@#40:
    What appears to be part of the biology underlying our moral psychology is classifying people in favored in-groups and disfavored out-groups. Our ancestors who were uninterested in appearing to be part of the favored in-group tended to not reproduce as successfully as others.

    I’ll observe that history shows otherwise. Unless you want to posit an in-group of size 1, it doesn’t explain the reproductive success of Genghis Khan, Niall of the Nine Hostages, or Mick Jagger (OK, Mick didn’t have a zillion kids, but not for lack of opportunity) I think you could make a better argument that we’re evolved toward monarchism than in-group/out-group behaviors. Since having a single “dear leader” promotes the dear leaders’s success, wouldn’t we expect “morality” to collapse to authoritarianism? “Do what the dear leader says” worked fine for the great Khan.

    Oh, oops, did I just commit some Evolutionary Psychology there?

  41. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    I am not aware that people can learn emotions such as empathy, loyalty, shame, guilt, and anger.

    As with is usual, with presuppositional fuckwits, the magic incantation of CITATION NEEDED is hereby invoked. As I told the Redhead many a time, show me the evidence from legitimate sources OUTSIDE of yourself. YOU may be your problem. A scientist like myself and PZ understand that. Do you?

  42. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Mark Sloan, the best evidence you could present, and you won’t, as it doesn’t exist as far as I know, is the linkage of actual genes to the emotions you describe, with a full non-refuted experimental of how the cultural/education platicity of the brain is separated from genetic contribution.
    I’m not holding my breath….

  43. says

    Nerd of Readhead@#45:
    the linkage of actual genes to the emotions you describe, with a full non-refuted experimental of how the cultural/education platicity of the brain is separated from genetic contribution.

    Yeah, I was trying to picture an experiment that might show that. I’d be willing to accept if there was a demonstration that there were non-plastic (i.e.: evolved-in) brain regions that were responsible for some of the ‘modules’ or emotions. Maybe I’d buy it if someone could stun part of my brain with chemicals, electricity, or drugs, and suddenly I would be completely free of loyalty, or shame. Or perhaps if there was some measurement of cortical activity that was localized to a single area (“think of the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to you”) and activity related to retrieving cultural memories could somehow be separated from activity related to historical memories. We already know that’s not how things work, but I’m throwing that in for the sake of argument. In fact anything that we think about in the form of language is going to pull in all kinds of cultural stuff because our vocabularies are cultural and learned, even if our capability for speech is evolved.

    The claim that shame is something in our brain, as more than a learned label (vocabulary!) we slap on top of a response to a learned cultural trigger… whoooo that’s gonna be a tough one. If I’m ashamed to walk around with my penis out am I a different kind of human from a gent from New Guinea that has no problem with it? I guess the evolutionary psychologist would say that my feeling of shame is evolved in, but the cultural trigger (and, since I’m in an office building in LA right now – fear of someone calling the police) and the cultural behavior it triggers are both learned. So maybe instead of “shame” in our brains, there’s just a “capability for feeling I made a mistake” and we culturalized the front end and the back end. Poof.

  44. consciousness razor says

    Rob Grigjanis, #29:

    See page 400 of Opticks.

    Hmm, yep. I do remember coming across that bit before, though I’ve never read Opticks in full.

    All these things being consider’d, it seems probable to me, that God in the Beginning form’d Matter in solid, massy, hard, impenetrable, moveable Particles, of such Sizes and Figures, and with such other Properties, and in such Proportion to Space, as most conduced to the End for which he form’d them; and that these primitive Particles being Solids, are incomparably harder than any porous Bodies compounded of them; even so very hard, as never to wear or break in pieces; no ordinary Power being able to divide what God himself made one in the first Creation. While the Particles continue entire, they may compose Bodies of one and the same Nature and Texture in all Ages: But should they wear away, or break in pieces, the Nature of Things depending on them, would be changed.

    Not quite the same thing as claiming they’re “infinitely hard,” but you may have a point. I like Newton, and I’m probably a little biased…. He obviously didn’t have clear evidence of nuclear fission/fusion or subatomic particles, and I don’t think we can really blame him for that. If you leave that aside (and ignore all of the goddism), his reasoning is pretty solid that matter is apparently very stable over long periods of time, so the motions and configurations of the particles account for physical phenomena (i.e., the relevant stuff which he knew about), as opposed to being accounted for by some kind of decays/transformations of the particles themselves.

    I wouldn’t call that pure speculation. It’s reasoning from the available empirical evidence, and given that, the gist of what he said makes sense. (Granted, there’s plenty of crap slathered on top, which makes it hard to read it all charitably.) Of course, this may not be original to him. I don’t know, but it could easily be borrowed from ancient atomists (Epicureans or others). I mean, you could dig up a passage from De rerum natura which says basically the same things, except without all of the god-bothering.

  45. consciousness razor says

    As a follow-up to #48…

    Newton even says “no ordinary Power” can do it, that “While the Particles continue entire” they satisfy this condition, that should it happen it would change their “nature”…. So he wasn’t even proposing that he could somehow rule that out physically or from first principles. Maybe he wanted to leave open the possibility that God could one day start fucking around with us that way. But it’s pretty much just that a theory like that probably wouldn’t be a good fit, to account for the phenomena he had in mind.

  46. says

    I have question for evolutionary psychology supporters. What does a module feel like?

    I’ve been working on objectifying the nature of Tourette’s Syndrome related sensations and that seems like a very useful question. Relatedly I’m considering what ethics in “troll construction” might look like.

  47. says

    I’m a little dissapointed. This is an excellent example where the idea can have it’s worth tested. Isn’t the the idea to take parts of the brain, mind and consciousness and tie it to something our evolutionary history?

    I’m learning to focus on something with remarkable specificity. Urge-based social behavior. Think consciously experiencing altered intensity of response to basic social information throughout life. Always being 7-10 on a 1-10 intensity range. Experience and repetition can lead to tics in actions, but not just physical actions. Tics of body, tics of thought, tics of perception. Am example of the latter males me fascinated by symmetry on social behavior.
    Corprolalia (obscene speech), corpropraxia (obscene gestures),
    Echolalia (mimic/mirror speech), echopraxia (mimic/mirror gestures)
    Repetitive behavior and the self and other with aggressive, social-boundary breaking features.

    At 40 certain kinds of intense social stimuli just don’t get responses out of my control. I only get amused by insults directed to me, but I’m sensitive to how people insult one another. I’ve got other social pattern sensitivities that I am used to dealing with that are now very useful later in life.

    Either way I am going to think about creating a dispositional profile of trolls that can be broken down into useful subcategories. I’m wondering if it’s possible to create specific social interaction profiles for things like 4chan, Reddit, even the comment sections of white supremacist blogs and forums. I’m sensitive to what people fear, what they hate, and what the are discussed by. Deliberate or not a troll is mostly just a person that triggers a strong emotional response out of a group. That is a thing that can be modeled for usefulness.

    Surely someone cam line the above up with current Evo-psych ideas about “modules”. The problem with Evo-psych is not that I think it is not a real science, I think it’s currently a shitty science on both ends if the hyphen. So break it up, keep the useful stuff and file the rest under “failed attempt #1”.

  48. DanDare says

    That’s interesting Brony @51. How do you verify your sensitivities about other people’s point of view and feelings are correct? I have tested my own thoughts about other people and discovered I’m not that good at it yet.

  49. says

    @DanDare
    I’m going to need to organize some information if you want me to get more specific but I would be happy to do so if you want some cites/explanations. I’ve subscribed to this post so I get replies. Feel free to get more specific about what you said above.

    Short answer, Tourette’s Syndrome (TS)has:
    *Some pretty specific features with respect to both anatomical alterations, behavioral and psychological profiles relative to controls. Aggression and dominance/boundary violation features.
    *A collection of papers describing “cognitive enhancements” on specific measures.
    *A collection of media articles discussing people who use thier TS in professions like writing, music and sports.
    *A historical role model whosent accomplishments I can hypothetically tie to TS characteristics (Dr. Samuel Johnson and his dictionary)
    *The above I tie to my own life experience life experience and habits/routines such as a hobby of arguing online and being hyper-analytical about it (it’s a rule-based perception/memory/behavior issue certainly, aggression/dominance may be emphasized due to how life plays out, or it may be a defining feature).

    I see this as where hard-wired instinct meets personality and aptitudes. Medicine deals ith the painful cases and that biases social views. Things like Autism and ADHD have thier own benefits/drawbacks. We just have not accepted that a lot of what we diagnose is features of humanity and not bugs.

  50. says

    @DanDare
    Sorry for the length but it’s not simple and yet I’m trying to make it broadly coherent.

    I realized later that I gave you the answer in a form more consistent with the original topic. Let me try to speak more plainly. It’s often difficult to use few words because I try to act consistently with what I read in brain science literature. That’s not a simple task when your conscious mind is shaped by the 7-10 range of the emotional intensity scale relative to the population at large. I have to take social bias seriously as a survival tactic. In history TS becomes demon possession and many examples included blasphemous acts. We individually have to shape ourselves to our social worlds.

    I can believe that it’s been hard for you, It was hard for me too. I’ve tried to keep other people in mind at every step because I assume personal bias in every bit of it when I think about universals.

    A concept that I read about that is useful here is “speed to accuracy trade-off” in how my “lens” is shaped. There is nothing in it that I don’t share with other people, it’s about being shifted relative in a common category of feeling of emotion. Being casual about that has required a lot of thought. As person I’ve basically had to absorb everything I can when it comes to being socially sensitive as a matter of instinct. Morbid curiosity is a very strong personal characteristic here. My society and culture has been able to offer a lot of help in learning to control myself and shape myself, a nice bonus is implicit awareness of urge-based processes from intensity increases that make rumination more effective, allow for more control in things that activate and change on the order of milliseconds, and creates a sensitivity to the rule-based parts of human communication.
    “Speeded processing of grammar and tool knowledge in Tourette’s syndrome.”
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17493643

    My current creative efforts are in creating a symbolic system for representing social conflict in blog comments. The problem is in compacting it down to the minimum amount of information to aid people in visualizing emotion in a way is more inline with what emotion and feeling of emotion really is. Most casual social uses of emotion in arguments are bullshit. More on the right than on the left but still (“spreading hate” hides more useful and accurate ways of looking at hate).

    The way that I try to account for personal bias is by paying very close attention to both sides of individual conflicts at every level that I can, it’s what people with rule-based social inhibition problems do. In my head when I independently do something like read about the anatomy of the hypothalamus I have a rule where I “find the place where we share everything, subtract out the part that is me when speaking casually”. I have lots of little mental heuristics that I’ve collected over the years and tried to practice without realizing it. I’m not claiming that I’m perfect, just that I have a system for trying and that I’m always working on improving it.

    Examples of how that plays out in practice is a strong hesitation to speaking casually on specific subjects with rationales. For example people on the autism spectrum and people with TS share characteristics when you read the literature. Sensory hypersensitivity would be one. But this is a matter of two kinds of sensory hypersensitivity. When I read about people who benefit from their autistic characteristics I note differences between what they describe and what I feel and exercise a general caution about that subject. It’s not that I don’t have ideas, it’s that I know that they are in a box labeled “tentative hypotheses: extreme caution”.

    So I mention that in the “gorilla experiment” people with autism were less likely to miss the gorilla that came out on the stage while everyone was counting basketball passes. I mention that people with autism seem sensitive to social manipulation (at least three personal anecdotes as I search my memory now), one online friend, one patient I was responsible for, the son of a nurse that I work with). I mention that the Israeli army likes to encourage people on the spectrum to work a radar (they can track more object than average). I suspect there is an “exteroceptive bias” (exteroception, sensory to brain) bias to these examples relative to my own TS which has an “enteroceptive bias” (enteroception, feeling of body to brain, self-as-object).

    It’s about knowing my emotional alterations relative to other people. It’s about being fluent in the general characteristic that the control and experiment groups* are connected to. There are right ways and wrong ways to think about brain science. I’m less sensitive about TS, ADHD, OCD because I’ve made an effort to separate out those three in terms of how they contribute to people broadly and individually, and I make a habit of talking to people experienced with the science and the neurodevelopmental conditions (I think of it as people with different instinctual sensitivities). I also talk to professionals at the medical facility that I work at. That’s three social debiasing habits right there.

    In psychology I’ve started making assumptions about myself in daily life in order to perform better. “Problems inhibiting self-reference” is one example that lets me be a better person.

    *Control groups are averages too. It’s important to read about what gets controlled for and why so you improve at finding the parts that really have to do with what I am feeling.

  51. says

    One quick critical addition. I did not explicitly say it above, but I have diagnoses for Tourette’s Syndrome and ADHD. While I have not been formerly diagnosed with OCD, I have read enough about the “shape” of the OCD that tends to come along with TS to be able to recognize these places where I tend to be more sensitive to things in perception and and habit of thought as well as habit of action. They are all controlled by the same general anatomical system so I think of the OCD parts as “mental tics”.

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