Now that David Brooks has endorsed it, can we declare evolutionary psychology brain-dead and pull the plug?


This is a doozy of a canard that just won’t die. It’s how idiots who don’t understand evolution, but know that the theory is highly esteemed by scientists, attempt to coopt Darwin to be the figurehead for racism and sexism.

The Cultural Marxist War against Darwinism

Creationists: evolution is a social construct, not biologically real.

Liberal Creationists: race is a social construct, not biologically real.

Charles Darwin: I’m not a creationist: I’ll use the word ‘race’ in title of my Origin of Species

It’s the dumbass dichotomy: you will either believe in their crude, ill-informed, cartoon version of biology that says that black people are different and inferior, or you’re a creationist. It’s false. The argument is rotten all the way through. Not only do I reject the premise as ill-informed and wrong, but I also reject it because it’s a blatant attempt to commandeer science to be their banner.

It’s bad enough that racists play this game, but guess who else does it? Evolutionary psychologists. Evolutionary psychologists are just the worst.

So I got called out by Lilian Carvalho, a professor of marketing at a business school who studies consumer behavior and — what else? — evolutionary psychology. I have to revise my previous statement: evolutionary psychologists who think their crude misunderstandings of how evolution works gives them a handle on consumer behavior and marketing are the worst of the worst.

Anyway, Carvalho twitted this:

Another false dichotomy, common to evolutionary psychologists! You see, if you don’t accept their adaptationist model of how the human brain evolved, with every quirk and kink selected to be optimal for life on the savannah 10-100 thousand years ago, then you think biology only works from the neck down. They like to set themselves up as the sole arbiter of how brains evolved, when they always seem to have such a poor grasp of evolution in general, and usually are just coming at it in defense of the biases of the status quo.

I took a look at her twitter history before blocking her, and oh, yeah — it’s full of familiar names, “scientific” racists and anti-feminists and marketing professors, basically a collection of third rate ignoramuses puffing themselves up by waving Darwin around as their virtue signal. Ugh. I don’t need that crap in my life.

But then I read…David Brooks. Fuck me sideways, but we’ve found the worst of the worst of the worst.

Like all the EP wackaloons, he’s irate over the James Damore affair — he argues that Damore shouldn’t have been fired, because he was correct about the biology (which raises the question…how would a conservative pundit with no qualifications for anything know?), but that the CEO of Google, Sundar Pichai, ought to be fired for joining the mob. Of course, he cites evolutionary psychologists as saying Damore’s manifesto was scientifically accurate when the truth is that an evolutionary psychologist wouldn’t recognize scientific accuracy if it bit him in his bright pink berries.

I hit this paragraph and was stunned at the magnitude of the dishonesty and inanity.

Damore was tapping into the long and contentious debate about genes and behavior. On one side are those who believe that humans come out as blank slates and are formed by social structures. On the other are the evolutionary psychologists who argue that genes interact with environment and play a large role in shaping who we are. In general the evolutionary psychologists have been winning this debate.

Whoa. Brooks sets up two strawmen, labels them incorrectly, stages a battle in his head, and declares the victor.

Look, guy, the nature/nurture debate is dead. Any time I see someone setting up an argument with this hoary ancient dichotomy, I know I’m dealing with an uninformed nitwit. But to characterize it as Brooks has done is carrying idiocy to an absurd degree.

And then…the blank slate. Good god, I blame Pinker for reviving this bullshit and using it to slander his scientific opponents. No one believes the human mind is a blank slate. No one. I’m probably as liberal as most scientists come, you can call me a SJW and I don’t blink an eye, and you won’t find me claiming that. I believe we carry all kinds of predispositions (like a tendency towards tribalism…) that are consequences of our biological nature. I know there are biological differences between men and women, but I also know that people like to falsely rationalize behavioral differences as somehow innate and genetic. That first straw man is basically a nonexistent cartoon.

His second straw man made my jaw drop. evolutionary psychologists … argue that genes interact with environment…unbelievable. The standard understanding among all knowledgeable biologists is that organisms are products of genes and environment interacting; you can’t tease the two apart. That’s why the nature/nurture debate is archaic nonsense. What Brooks has written there is not the key property of evolutionary psychology. It’s what actual evolutionary biologists think.

Evolutionary psychologists believe that the human brain evolved in a specific environment over 10,000 years ago, and that all of the features of how our minds work can be described as adaptations to that environment. It is profoundly dishonest to appropriate the mainstream understanding of the role of genes and environment and credit it to a pseudoscience, while leaving out the actual premises of that pseudoscience. Evolutionary psychologists emphasize the primacy of genetic explanations; they argue that human behavioral traits — how well we do at math, who is most suitable for working in computer science — are affected by a legacy of genes we inherited from our paleozoic ancestors, and that they have the tools to determine exactly which traits are adaptive products of our past. They don’t. They’re masters of the panadaptationist just-so story, nothing more.

And then Brooks declares that the evolutionary psychologists are winning. But he’s just used a bogus definition of evolutionary psychology, one that is more appropriate to real biologists, and pretended that their opponent is a caricature, the blank slater.

Man, those two straw puppets just whaled the hell out of each other.

Yet people are citing David Brooks as the voice of reason all over the place — even Steven Pinker retweeted it. Wait. Of course Pinker would retweet that pile of crap.

James Damore was speaking bullshit calmly, so I can sort of understand David Brooks approving of it, as a kind of professional courtesy among bullshitters. But if you know anything about the science, you shouldn’t accept these lies.

Science doesn’t say that biology holds women back in the workplace. What Damore and Brooks have written is the same old exhaustingly familiar apologetics for discrimination. It’s not science, it’s prejudice pretending to be science.

And right now, evolutionary psychology is the field of choice for bigots who want to pretend to be scientists.

Comments

  1. says

    Here’s a funny story! It used to be that almost all physicians were men. Now half of all medical school graduates are women. So obviously, the job description of a physician must have changed radically, since nowadays women can do it whereas they couldn’t 40 years ago.

    What do evolutionary psychologists make of that?

  2. numerobis says

    Horizontal jeans transfer. If you don’t believe in it, you’re denying that bacteria exist.

  3. jrkrideau says

    My background is in psychology though I never really even heard about evolutionary psych except for a couple of throw-away comments but the few times I heard an EP explanation it seemed to me that it was a case of “well here’s the behaviour, let’s invent some explanation for why it it evolved”.

    It was sort of a Dr Pangloss approach, if that makes any sense.

  4. zibble says

    Anyone else want to point out the irony of *David Brooks* questioning whether people are competent in their chosen field?

    Can someone bludgeon this pathetically stupid man with a scary elitist sandwich?

  5. Andrew David says

    No one believes the human mind is a blank slate. No one.

    Maybe no one with an education in biology believes it, but the myth persists. Tabula rasa is one of the tenets of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, and Randians still abound.

  6. blf says

    Yeah, I read that idiotic evidence-free Brooks rant in the dead tree edition of the International New York Times over an otherwise very fine lunch. It fortunately didn’t put me off the food and vin, but I was certainly wanting to shout “no No for feck’s sake you stooooopid wanker NO!” and similar rather often.

  7. unclefrogy says

    the conservative or reactionary mind seems to be able to adopt anything or idea to support the status quo. They can’t seem to help but grasp at straws in their attempt to not face the reality that the world, existence is not like it seemed it was when were a child.
    uncle frogy

  8. John Harshman says

    Creationists: evolution is a social construct, not biologically real.

    Liberal Creationists: race is a social construct, not biologically real.

    Charles Darwin: I’m not a creationist: I’ll use the word ‘race’ in title of my Origin of Species

    PZ, I’m curious. Where did you find that?

  9. emergence says

    For fuck’s sake, learning, socialization, and environmental influences on neuroanatomy are biological. Evo-psych advocates try to minimize these environmental influences into irrelevancy and insist that every single solitary behavioral difference associated with race or gender has to be an evolutionary adaptation, and then when you point out how much of biology they’re ignoring, they try to accuse you of denying biology yourself.

    It also doesn’t help that evo-psych boosters usually have this cartoonishly oversimplified idea of how evolution works. They act like selection is all that matters in evolution and ignore or minimize all of the other forces at work in population genetics.

  10. says

    I despise the tabula rasa approach, and it’s front-and-center in the defenses of Damore. “Well, the environment is better for women, therefore the only thing that could be holding them back in tech jobs is biology.”

    It’s because nature/nurture aren’t isolated states that no one can ever say that biology does/doesn’t have a less-than-zero impact on whatever you care to mention. But there’s no point quibbling over the p-value of this or that study, because in the past hundred years we’ve changed the environment, and women have made tremendous unprecedented strides in entering previously male-dominated areas (with men like Damore at every stage offering “biological” reasons as to why women were unsuited to those areas). After a few decades of effort we have female cardiothoracic surgeons. Environment is clearly the overwhelming factor.

    But of course the thing that most costs me my patience with Damore-defenders is they think that this is a new discussion. The reason Damore was so roundly and quickly pilloried isn’t that he has a new and cogent argument, it’s that he’s got a piss-poor old argument that is just an excuse to justify his own biases. It’s because he’s the same old essentialist twerp who wants to be able to dismiss any inequity as “because biology”, and when challenged claims he just wanted to start a discussion. But it’s a scam discussion, because “we should have a discussion as to why the Negro should never be trusted with the vote” isn’t a discussion: even just perpetually asking the question serves Damore’s goal of obviating his responsibility for his own biases. It’s like a prosecutor continuously putting someone on trial for a hundred years. Even if there are no convictions, it is the defendant’s innocence that is constantly in doubt.

    So long as the discussion is “women must show that their biology does not make them inferior to men in x… hey, I just want to have a discussion!“, then the day belongs to misogyny. It’s an old, tired dodge, offered in bad faith, one I’ve seen a hundred times before, and I’m no longer interested in indulging entitled men on the subject.

  11. gijoel says

    Maybe there’s a gene for Evolutionary psychology? Maybe men are better at it? Maybe it’s a bunch of ‘just so’ stories that people like cause it gives a veneer of respectability to their biases.

  12. emergence says

    Also, what makes more sense from an evolutionary perspective;

    A) Humans evolved a flexible, versatile neurological system that can change in response to varied, constantly changing environments and social groups.

    B) Humans have rigid, inflexible brains and every single behavior humans exhibit is genetically determined and had to evolve in response to a specific environment.

    Humans evolved to learn from – and modify our behaviors in response to – the social environment that we’re exposed to. If you deny that, you’re denying just as huge a part of biology as a hypothetical individual who denies that humans have any intrinsic behavioral patterns.

  13. says

    #10: People were emailing it to me. Lots of people.

    Do an image search on “cultural marxism” and you’ll find that’s the simplest, sanest meme out there now.

  14. cartomancer says

    Cervantes, #1

    Sixty odd years ago the vast majority of computer programmers were women. Then people realised how important it was, it started to pay better and the men moved in to edge them out.

    https://timeline.com/women-pioneered-computer-programming-then-men-took-their-industry-over-c2959b822523

    Well, either that or somebody discovered a radically new and even pinker kind of berry that they just couldn’t help their feeble little ladybrains from going after.

  15. John Harshman says

    PZ: Whoa. That leads to some ugly shit. But I couldn’t find the initial source of that meme. There also seems to be some variation in the bit attributed to Darwin, though he always comes out as a supporter of “race science”.

  16. KG says

    Evolutionary psychologists emphasize the primacy of genetic explanations; they argue that human behavioral traits — how well we do at math, who is most suitable for working in computer science — are affected by a legacy of genes we inherited from our paleozoic ancestors, and that they have the tools to determine exactly which traits are adaptive products of our past.

    Well of course, PZ. Out on the savannah in the EEA*, the men sat on their bums all day, programming rocks, while the women made them pizza and coffee.

    *”Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation”. Because the environment in which our ancestors evolved remained unchanged over several million years, dontcha know.

  17. John Harshman says

    In the only one I’ve been able to find, the Darwin bit reads “I’m not a creationist. I actually wrote ‘There is, however, no doubt that various races, when carefully compared and measured, differ much from each other….’”

    It appears in The Descent of Man and is by no means a quote mine, as what follows supports the claim. And there is some racist stuff in there too; Darwin, you will be shocked to learn, was not perfect. But his main subject wasn’t the existence of races at all, but the question of whether humans were more than one species. He also noted that human “races” grade into each other quite smoothly, which these days would be good reason not to consider them subspecies. So even a quote that attempts to enlist Darwin as race-science advocate turns out not be appropriate.

  18. chrislawson says

    cervantes@1: I can tell you how a pro-evo-pysch person responds because this week I have had that exact same conversation online. Some fool defended Dalmore’s manifesto by referring to biological differences between men and women. On being challenged by me, he actually brought up the rise in women in healthcare as evidence that women are biologically predisposed to be better carers. When I brought up the fact that nursing has seen an increase in male graduates, he argued that once upon a time men were the majority of nurses (this is pre-19th century). So the argument is that men used to be the majority of nurses, then women became the dominant proportion (98% in the US in the 1930s), and then the male proportion has been growing ever since the 1940s. And yet this was still held as evidence that women are biologically predisposed to caring professions.

    In other words, they have the intellectual integrity of creationists.

  19. emergence says

    John Harshman @20

    So even Charles Darwin noticed that there aren’t clear dividing lines between different races? Racists are apparently still clinging to an idea that was debunked over 150 years ago.

    Also, evolutionary biologists have to constantly explain to creationists that they don’t worship Darwin and that evolutionary biology has developed beyond what he originally conceived. Just because Darwin was somewhat racist doesn’t mean that modern evolutionary biology has to be too.

  20. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    cartomancer,

    Well, either that or somebody discovered a radically new and even pinker kind of berry that they just couldn’t help their feeble little ladybrains from going after.

    Specifically, a Steve Pinkerberry. It’s native to Canada but highly invasive. Flourishes in soil with a high level of bovine manure.

  21. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    When I first saw this line:

    the panadaptationist just-so story

    I read it as

    the pandaptationist just-so story

  22. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    I was wondering just how cute such an ailuropod’s story could be.

  23. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    @Cervantes:

    The job description didn’t change: the environment did. So men have been evolving separately from women – not sharing any important genes of course – to be better and better at programming computers and worse and worse at performing competent surgeries.

    Science!

  24. Jado says

    Hey, PZ!

    Do men have a gene for discriminating and colluding against women in the workplace? I mean, it’s biology, right? That’s what i heard…

  25. Jado says

    …from David Brooks. I mean, that’s effectively what he said, right? These behaviours are genetic? And he should know, right?

    Ha. I knew it. David Brooks is a genius.

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