I almost felt pity for evolutionary psychology

I detest evolutionary psychology. I consider it to be bad evolutionary biology, bad psychology, and just plain bad science. But there is something I detest even more, and that’s when evolutionary psychologists try to confidently explain why I dislike evolutionary psychology, and get everything wrong. Today I stumbled across a masterpiece of the genre, which on top of every other problem, is incredibly badly written to the point of incoherence.

It’s titled “Four Reasons why Evolutionary Psychology is Controversial”, by Bernard Crespi. Spoiler alert: he doesn’t even consider the idea that maybe it’s just wrong. He charges off with a bunch of assertions about why some people dislike it, and misses the mark most of the time.

Evolutionary psychology, like sociobiology or Marxism, has become associated with controversy. Why should it, and why has it? Yes, debates about evolution totter endlessly along, and psychology remains a discipline that sometimes seems orphaned by both humanities and the hard sciences.

So evolution is “controversial”?; but it isn’t, not among scientists. Likewise, psychology isn’t controversial. It’s a real science tackling some of the most complex phenomena we know of, human behavior. There are healthy debates about specifics and methodology and even some general principles, but this doesn’t mean they’re “controversial” as a whole.

Why should combining psychology and evolution ignite a confabulation of loathing, fear, and scientific vitriol?

This is what I mean by incoherence. He’s just said evolution is controversial, and psychology is controversial, and now asks, why should combining two controversial things be controversial? His thesis is a mess. I would say instead that the question is about why forcing two different & valid disciplines together would produce an unpopular mish-mash, but that’s not where he’s going. Among other things, he’s going to express contempt for psychology, and argue that the virtue of evolution is its extreme reductionism. Ick.

Four reasons, by my reckoning.

Yes, he’s got four bad reasons. Let’s go through them.

First, not only do we (here, a royal ‘we’ of evolutionary biologists like myself) expect very many people to not understand evolution, because it is too simple and mechanistic for our meaning-laden world;

Wait. That’s just wrong. People who do understand evolution will tell you that it’s complex, subtle, and mathematical; there are a few core ideas that Darwin came up with that you can pick up by reading a 160 year old book, but it has become rather more sophisticated since the Origin. But now he’s going to begin by giving us a cartoon version of evolution that is simple, and wrong.

we also predict that people should reject evolution because one of its core provisos is that people, you and me, should generally behave so as to maximize their relative fitness.

But…but…that’s not true. Much of human behavior is irrational. We have drives that often lead us to do stupid things that compromise our fitness. Isn’t that one of the important ideas of modern economics?

Maybe one of the reasons that people reject Crespi’s version of evolution is that it is trivially falsified.

Competition, survival, reproduction, of the fittest? Not me, you? For shame.

Someone explain to me what he’s trying to say here.

Evolutionary theory indeed predicts that we should each believe, or at least rationalize, ourselves to be mutualistic, altruistic, and moral nearly to a fault, because that is one of the best ways to get the edge on, or into, our competitors, be they individuals or other groups1.

As a counterexample…Donald Trump. While he may certainly believe that he is a saint, his behavior is not mutualistic, altruistic, or moral. I really don’t understand how Crespi expects to make an assertion without evidence, of a claim that we can trivially counter, and expect us to be persuaded.

So are you a believer now?


Evolution is controversial because its very existence seems to attack our core beliefs about our own goodness, and the biggest questions regarding human purpose.

Now we’re getting somewhere. Yes, I can accept this one sentence, because materialistic, secular ideas about human origins do undermine social and religious conventions, and strip humanity of an external source of purpose. But the statement about core beliefs about our own goodness is just weird, living in a culture where the dominant religious traditions all claim that we are inherently hellbound sinners, that our nature is evil, requiring divine intervention to save us. Also, he’s just going to abandon this point and plummet forward.

Second, psychology purports to study the brain, but can it do so scientifically, like other disciplines?

Psychology studies behavior, not the brain, although there are interdisciplinary scientists who study the physiological mechanisms underlying behavior. So ok, why is it questionable whether psychology is a science?

Will generating questionnaires, and treating humans in modern, novel environments like lab rats, illuminate the inner-workings of the most complicated known structure in our universe?

“Generating questionnaires”, which is not the only technique psychologists have at their disposal, is simply one mechanism for observing human behavior. Putting humans in novel environments is an experimental method. So psychology uses both observation and experiment, key parts of the scientific method, so what’s the complaint here?

The hard sciences are hard because they are reductionistic – they infer mechanisms, processes, parts that, combined together, explain the workings of whole systems.

Reductionism, especially the kind of naive reductionism Crespi seems to be advocating, is not the be-all and end-all of a science — not evolutionary biology and not psychology. There is a place for synthesis and emergent behavior in both disciplines.

They conduct controlled, predictive experiments.

Like psychology does?

They have conceptual frameworks built from math and data, not fashion.

Like psychology does?

Look, “hard” and “soft” sciences are colloquial buzzwords that do not reflect the actual methodology of the labeled disciplines. I know too many psychologists, so-called soft scientists, who apply more mathematical and statistical rigor to their work than I, a “hard scientist”, do. I get away with it because I work with simpler phenomena that have a higher degree of reproducibility, and fewer confounding variables. So far the only thing Crespi is saying is that he has an irrational bias against psychology.

So armed, they ratchet forward, fact by incontrovertible fact. ‘Soft’ disciplines are soft because they reject reduction, and indeed often claim post-modern relativity for all.

That’s pure nonsense. Most psychology studies are strong examples of reduction, attempts to simplify and quantify complex phenomena by reducing variables. His statement that they “claim post-modern relativity” is garbage, another common buzzword thrown about by lazy incompetents. Citation fucking needed.

Psychology is a soft science because it cannot reduce – there is no place to go except neuroscience, which would swallow it up with nary a belch, given the chance.

I come from a background in neuroscience — in biology, we do a lot of work on single cells, or small manageable networks of cells. Psychologists are looking at a whole different level of behavior. This assertion is assuming that complex, higher-level behavior is derivable from the biophysics of individual cells. It is not.

Evolutionary biology is historical but also reductionist, in that it specifies the precise set of processes whereby all phenotypes have come to be, and change, and it tells us how to discover what functions they serve.

Say what? With few exceptions, we don’t have the “precise set of processes” — we have general models with predictive power. We certainly don’t know how all phenotypes have come to be, or what functions every phenotype serves. This is kind of a charitable panglossian optimism that he refuses to apply to any other discipline, and that also plays right into the hands of creationists. But now we get into the revealing stuff.

As such, it illuminates all domains of science, from genetic sequence through to human behavior – or at least would, if allowed to by academic practitioners. Psychology is controversial because it is a soft science trying to answer the hardest of question, how the brain works. It can’t.

“If allowed to by academic practitioners” — there’s a reason that the majority of academics do not accept this smug reductionist view that you can explain behavior with genes — it’s false. We can’t.

Psychology is the study of mind and behavior. It tries to answer questions appropriate to its purview. To bring up a question not within its purview and criticize it for failing to answer it is dishonest and deceptive.

Third, evolutionary psychology was forged in a crucible of polemic, as specific schools of thought, such as the school of highly-modular fitness-increasing brain functions developed by Leda Cosmides and John Tooby. These researchers staked out strong claims, trained talented students, and attacked intellectually-neighboring tribes.

Yes, they invited controversy by modeling the evolution of the brain in ways that they could not support with evidence, and postulating structures (“modules”) that were poorly defined and lacking in actual support. That’s the primary problem, not that their students were evangelical about it all.

Adopting one side of polarized viewpoints, and sticking to it, remains a highly-effective route to scientific notoriety, even though in almost all such fierce academic battles both sides are partially correct, and both partially wrong.

“They were just doing it for the clicks.” I’ve seen that argument before. Also this weird claim that both sides are equally wrong and the truth lies in the middle. Bleh.

We are a deeply tribal species, and we love observing, or joining in, a good scrap. In this case, though, an entire emerging, integrative field has become conflated with extreme views of how the mind thinks, which has made for inviting targets but distracted from the much more general usefulness of evolutionary thinking.

Yeah, why can’t everyone just use the methods of evolutionary biology to answer their questions? No matter what they are. Also, precisely what is this emerging field integrating? I would think it’s evolutionary biology plus psychology, but we already know Crespi despises psychology. Why would you praise a field for fusing with a discipline you detest?

Will psychology eventually be torn asunder, like anthropology has been into post-modern, anti-evolutionary ‘culturalists’ versus mainstream but human-centric and evolution-minded biologists? Will economics? One can only hope.

So. Much. Bad. Writing.

And so much right-wing buzzwording. “Post-modern” is always a good insult for people who don’t understand it, and no, I don’t see cultural anthropology as abandoning evolution. What about economics?

“One can only hope” … what? Is he saying that tearing disciplines asunder is a desirable outcome?

Fourth, ‘psyche’ indeed means ‘soul’, and for psychologists, the hostile tribes of evolutionary biology threaten to steal it away, and subsume their discipline in its mechanistic, reductionist embrace.


He’s making an argument from etymology? Because “psychology” is called “psychology” does not imply that all psychologists therefore believe in souls.

The irony here is that if there is any discipline that has no soul – that is, no unifying conceptual framework – it is psychology, which has flitted from one arbitrary, more or less imaginary construct to the next since Wilhelm Wundt began treating introspection as data.

Now we redefine “soul”. Jeez, but Crespi is annoyingly tendentious.

Of course psychology has produced deeply fascinating insights over its many years. Of course we need a top-down approach to understanding how the brain works, to meet neuroscience inexorably burrowing up from the bottom. But don’t we need a mind-set that recognizes that the brain and mind have evolved, like finches and opposable thumbs?

Yes, psychology has a niche and works well within it. However, there is nothing in psychology that implies that the brain has not evolved.

Any discipline would fight like hell to defend its very existence, or at least resist radical transformation at the hands of competitors. Controversy indeed often leads to scientific revolution, with casualties on both sides.

Where is this nonsense coming from? The existence of psychology is not imperiled by evolution, or by knowledge about the material structure of the brain, so this is a purely imaginary conflict. All the psychologists I know have been fairly materialistic and see biology of the brain as complementary to their work.

So let’s wrap all this tangled trash with Crespi’s grand conclusion.

Evolutionary psychology is like evolutionary anything: it is founded on a way of thinking about how the world works, how it has come to be, and how to understand it. It works by telling us what hypotheses to test, what data to collect, and how to interpret our results. The fires of controversy over this emerging field have generated both heat and light, but better understanding of their sources will, I think, help us to control the flames and put them to better use.

I’m trying to wade through his metaphor. He seems to be equating evolutionary psychology with evolutionary biology (they aren’t the same at all), and that the controversies over evolutionary psychology are interfering with its assimilation of psychology (boo, hiss). To summarize his four incoherent arguments for why EP is controversial:

  1. Evolution is simple, reductionist, and predicts humans are altruistic, therefore it is good.
  2. Psychology isn’t synonymous with neurobiology, therefore it is soft and bad. Psychology just plain sucks.
  3. Evolutionary psychology is controversial, which makes it popular.
  4. Psychology sucks, part 2, because it has no soul, and evolutionary biology steals souls, and besides, psychology doesn’t recognize that the brain evolved.

This is simply bad logic.

I don’t think psychology should just accept the dominion of evolutionary psychology, because EP is wrong — it’s a purely adaptationist paradigm built on flawed preconceptions and lazy methodology. EP can’t possibly test assumptions about the evolution of the human mind over the last 100,000 years by facile observations of Western middle-class college students. Especially not when it’s defenders don’t understand evolution at all, and reduce everything to blind adaptationism.

But then, this article by Crespi is so awful that I can imagine all the evolutionary psychologists begging for him not to help them anymore.


  1. microraptor says

    I don’t think that even Mr. Crespi knows what point he was trying to make there.

  2. DonDueed says

    What, PZ? You never watched Unifying Conceptual Framework Train? That show always had the best dancers.

  3. mikehuben says

    Isn’t the short, simple answer that evolutionary psychology so far is just a bunch of just-so stories?

  4. Artor says

    Where did you stumble across this gem, PZ? Did some supposedly reputable journal publish it, or have you been reading the back pages of The Enquirer again?

  5. Allison says

    With regard to your passing reference to neurobiology vs. psychology:

    The study of (psychological) trauma these days has become a mix of neuroscience and more traditional psychology. I’ve been particularly interested in it because I suffer from PTSD and am thus interested in anything that can help me understand what is going on with me and how to — well, not cure it, because it doesn’t look like it’s possible, but at least reduce the severity of the symptoms. My current “go-to” book is Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score

    The good people in any field will use stuff from any field if it’s helpful.

    The bad people write articles like this one.

  6. mnb0 says

    “They conduct controlled, predictive experiments.”
    Since when and by whom is astronomy considered a soft science?

  7. consciousness razor says

    Are evo-pscyhics reductionists though?
    If they derived their everything-is-an-adaptation crap from physics, I certainly haven’t heard of it. But I doubt it involves any equations at all, so maybe we should start there. Definitely lots of assumptions and throat-clearing and chest-thumping, but not so much a serious scientific attempt at reduction.

  8. Colin J says

    not only do we (here, a royal ‘we’ of evolutionary biologists like myself)

    Wait… what?

    If he uses the royal “we” to refer to a group of people to which he belongs, when does he use the regular “we”?

  9. vucodlak says

    I wrote a few papers like that in school. Not papers about evolutionary psychology, mind, but papers full of high-minded gobbledygook and flashy bullshit that made it sound like I knew what I was talking about to someone with only a passing familiarity with the subject at hand. The papers got good grades (my bullshit game was a little smoother than Crespi’s is) and won me praise for my “excellent writing.”

    I always felt dirty afterwards. The guilt and shame of what I was doing drove me to ever greater heights of crapulence, daring someone to call me out, to see what I was doing and denounce my writing for the utter drek that it was. I started throwing in stuff gleaned from the lowest dregs of the writing world- marketing terminology, self-help guru glurge, middle-management euphemisms- oh children, I tried every filthy buzzword, every degrading trend, in private and in public, and it was never enough.

    I wrote “circumambulation” in an article for the school newspaper when I really just meant that people walked around with their thumbs up their butts, and it won accolades. I submitted a sappy article with the title “Terror and Tears,” certain that this time I’d gone too far, and THEY PRINTED IT. I think I even used… ugh… “synergistically” in a research paper, only to find ‘A; excellent work’ written across the top when I got it back.

    Eventually it got so bad that my entire sense of reality eroded. My brain was filled with gibbering chaos. I didn’t proofread anymore because I couldn’t stand to read the shit that sprung from my fingers, and STILL I was getting straight A’s in the writing department. Nothing made sense (especially if I had written it), nothing mattered. I began to wish the earth would open up and swallow me whole, except that I was clearly already in Hell.

    I’m better now, but it was a long strange trip back from the heart of the desert of meaning. I stopped writing altogether, cut the enablers and dealers out of my life, turned my back on my GPA. I cored out my soul with a melon baller and talked to some cats. I gave a wasp to the fire, slew the frog with the hose-water. I saved a fence on a leash and swore out a vendetta on carrot seeds. And, bit by bit, I clawed my way out of the abyss. Er, desert. Or, possibly, a large parking lot, the fresh asphalt sizzling in the summer sun.

    Where was I? Oh yes: if by some chance you’re reading this, Bernard Crespi, then I implore you to turn away from the path of bullshit. Step back from the cogitation engine, break all your pencils, trash your pens! Sniff the markers no more, eat the chalk! For pity’s sake, and save yourself before it’s too late! Find a camel (or parking lot attendant) and hump yourself out of the desert! Wait, how many humps do parking lot attendants have?

  10. says

    This seems like it should be a reeeally short conversation. EPers are just blinkered as all hell, and as with people in so many avenues of right wing thought, they project that fault straight onto us. It just makes me tired.

  11. raven says

    we also predict that people should reject evolution because one of its core provisos is that people, you and me, should generally behave so as to maximize their relative fitness.

    But…but…that’s not true. Much of human behavior is irrational. We have drives that often lead us to do stupid things that compromise our fitness. Isn’t that one of the important ideas of modern economics?

    Very little, if any, of our normal day to day behavior is intended to maximize our fitness, defined as maximizing our reproductive output.

    How does watching TV, reading the Pharyngula blog, drinking a glass of wine, or feeding the cat maximize anyone’s fitness?

  12. alkisvonidas says

    we also predict that people should reject evolution because one of its core provisos is that people, you and me, should generally behave so as to maximize their relative fitness.

    Should behave? SHOULD?! Oh my, oh, dear…

    Evolutionary theory indeed predicts that we should each believe, or at least rationalize, ourselves to be mutualistic, altruistic, and moral nearly to a fault, because that is one of the best ways to get the edge on, or into, our competitors, be they individuals or other groups

    Ugh! Even the High Priest of the gene-centric view of evolution, Richard Dawkins, has always stressed the distinction between selfish gene and potentially altruistic vehicle (i.e. organism). This bozo evidently believes that altruism is an act we put on in order to get the better of our unsuspecting competitors. He’s thoroughly confused levels to a degree only a total ignoramus could achieve.

  13. leerudolph says

    Colin J@9: “If he uses the royal ‘we’ to refer to a group of people to which he belongs, when does he use the regular ‘we’?”

    When he’s referring to himself and the knockout mouse in his pocket.

  14. Zmidponk says

    Evolutionary theory indeed predicts that we should each believe, or at least rationalize, ourselves to be mutualistic, altruistic, and moral nearly to a fault, because that is one of the best ways to get the edge on, or into, our competitors, be they individuals or other groups

    My understanding of evolution is that what makes someone ‘fitter’ (which really means ‘more likely to reproduce’) is highly variable. In my own society and situation right now, yes, it could be being altruistic and moral might give me an edge because that may make it more likely any potential woman will consider me more favourably, which can then lead to a relationship with her, and thus, potentially, fathering children with her. However, let’s suppose I was one of the people finding themselves in the middle of the war in Syria, for example. It’s entirely possible that, in that situation, being a self-centred, amoral shitheel would increase my chances of surviving, and thus my chances of reproducing.

    Of course, in my own case, the biggest increase to my ‘fitness’ would be to actually want kids. Currently, I have no interest in being a father.

  15. Kagehi says

    lol Even, as described by you, his list of “conclusions” is incoherent. As near as I can tell Evolutionary Psychology is almost always used to excuse humans being malevolent, hateful, assholes, to each other, because its “natural”, which kind of contradicts, entirely, the idea that “evolution” is claiming people are altruistic. Mind, half the time the clowns that use it redefine being an asshole “as” being benevolent, somehow, so…

  16. rietpluim says

    Why should combining psychology and evolution ignite a confabulation of loathing, fear, and scientific vitriol?

    Why indeed? I’d be interested in condensed matter anthropology or algorithmic information heraldry too.

  17. speedofsound says

    EP like calcium scores in cardiac health suffers a black eye from some overzealous marketing. But I cannot let it go. I love the idea of it. Looking at raccoons and bees to figure out ethics pleases me.

    Isn’t there some middle ground here? Can’t we just all get along?

  18. slatham says

    Aw, I still feel that applying an (appropriate) evolutionary biology perspective to psychology would in many cases be a useful thing to do. I feel the same way regarding the utility of an evolutionary research program toward medicine. But it seems folks aligning themselves with EP can’t do the former (not sure if EM? contributes usefully to the latter?).

    In terms of solving harder problems, I often suspect that the ability to measure things well (I have a quantitative bias) is key to making progress. In some fields it’s unclear how to measure variables of interest, or even the definition of interesting variables (e.g. IQ), or even even which axes are important. I have colleagues who are leaning toward more inclusion of qualitative information in their modeling of systems, but I worry they are just obfuscating the underlying processes. Unfortunately I have collected no quantitative data on the relative successes of quantitative measurement approaches vs qualitative approaches.

  19. jackmann says

    It’s amazing how Evolutionary Psychology has such power to predict that the ideal society is one based on the 1950’s American ideal and on not any other model of culture in history. Truly astounding.

  20. jackmann says

    Actually, thinking on it, EvoPsych is a lot like Austrian School economics. Both basically reject the idea that you can learn through experiments or research in favor of Pure Logic models that favor the individual’s biases. If the data doesn’t fit the logic, then the data must be bad. In the case of Austrian School economics, because “you can’t predict individual behavior from the behavior of groups,” and in the case of EvoPsych, because “psychology is a soft science that doesn’t provide good data.”

  21. bryanfeir says

    @rietplum, Crip Dyke:

    condensed matter anthropology

    Would that be the study of the Cheela from Robert Forward’s novel Dragon’s Egg? (A novel about ‘life’ arising on a neutron star, and the brief interactions between them and humanity. At least, brief from our viewpoint.)

  22. daved says

    We have drives that often lead us to do stupid things that compromise our fitness. Isn’t that one of the important ideas of modern economics?

    I was under the impression that it was just the opposite — that most of economics assumes we’re all out there, attempting to optimize our economic functions with single-minded determination. Which is, of course, not what anyone does, and this may have something to do with economics not being particularly accurate.

  23. speedofsound says

    My primary interest in all of biology is how brain creates mind or rather maps to mind. I am not a fan of psychology methods like statistics and subjective reports. I understand these guys know what they are doing but I am not so interested in that level of inquiry. So EP that falls under those methods is not my concern.

    I am highly interested in comparative biology yielding insights into human function. I want to know what is the same and what is different plainly said. My understanding of actual EP is that it is about this alone. Only the comparison is with all of the life on the tree.

    I have no idea why this inspires such vitriol. What am I missing? If I were studying the weathering of rocks and in doing so drew information from the history of those rocks and all rocks in general, would that make people as mad as they get when they hear the words evolutionary psychology? I don’t see the difference. What have I missed?

  24. Kagehi says

    Yep. There may, kind of like purple space unicorns, be an evo-psych paper that actually does what you suggest speedofsound, but pretty much every one I have ever seen can be summed up in three steps:

    Pick some thing that you notice in human society, and like.
    Hypothesize that it evolved (bonus if you can include lobsters, or something, so its “comparing other species”. Added bonus if you ignore primates, or anything we know about them while doing so.)
    Make up a fancy story explaining how this “evolved trait” might have come about.

    I am quite sure that if something like skate boarding was done by like 90% of humanity, as a means of travel, there would be some evo-psych quack writing a paper which implied that having genes in common with dung beetles means that propelling oneself around one a sort “advanced ball” was a common trait, which evolved to eventually produce roller skates, then skate boards, then.. who knows!!!

    But, it would be something completely bloody absurd, created purely as a means to explain why the 10% that just walked around instead where some sort of genetic freaks, who “diverge” from the evolve trait of pushing around rolling things.

    When you can’t show the genes, or when you do, they also do 50 other known things, some of which contradict your assertions, or there is not even archeological evidence to support your assertion, never mind anything other than a shallow look at your own culture, and you insist on trying to cherry pick examples from nature to “prove” that its an evolved behavior, instead of a purely cultural, learned behavior… yeah, your “field” might need a bit of a rethink.

    The problem is, since it claims to be tied to both biology, and genetic, and also psychology, it can also just cherry pick bits of both fields, and claim that those legitimate conclusions somehow support their entirely made up ones. I imagine they would have been really at home during the so called “age of enlightenment”, where every silly idea was examined as potentially credible, no matter how absurd, and actual factual information was sometimes rejected purely due to it not “fitting the narrative” that the real scholars “knew” was true. Science was supposed to outgrow that nonsense, not reinvent it.

  25. Kagehi says

    :blinks: Umm. Just as a side comment, why the F did the forum delete the numbers I put as a list? WTF?

  26. raven says

    :blinks: Umm. Just as a side comment, why the F did the forum delete the numbers I put as a list? WTF?

    It’s a formatting bug.
    put a dot in front of the numbers.

  27. speedofsound says

    Does anyone have a paper with full text available to go over as an example?

  28. keinsignal says

    I don’t know where this falls on the bold insight/trite observation spectrum but I am constantly struck by the overlap between “fitness-maximizing individuals” in evolution and “rational actors” in economics.

    In particular the way that if you hear either phrase in those contexts you know you’re about to get hit with a thundering avalanche of bullshit 101istry.

  29. speedofsound says

    @Crip Dyke

    Ok. I I think I take your point. It seems like the hypothetical musings have somehow found there way into the papers?

    I still like the hypothetical musings, given that they do not end up in the paper, and I do like the attempt to investigate them. It seems like a lot of these musings have stepped into some politics? Is that an issue?

  30. says

    @speed of sound:

    The fundamental objection, of course, is that musing might be one part of the scientific process – you have to come up with your hypotheses somehow – but it’s entirely insufficient. Just musing a lot isn’t enough to make musing suddenly scientific.

    In that paper they muse about serial killers maybe “hunting” vs “gathering”. But instead of making a list of things that really distinguish “hunting” from “gathering” and then testing their list, their entire methodology consisted of selecting men serial killers (the study calls them “male serial killers” but they are selected from media accounts with no effort to verify male sexual function so the “male” is a guess with a high likelihood of accuracy rather than something that they know) who were the same age at first kill as their women serial kills, included because they had been part of a previous data set for another paper. Once they had their list of serial killers pairing MSKs with WSKs…

    We collected information via article content with respect to their sex, birthplace, age when crimes began, crime locations in the U.S., motive to kill, perpetrator relationship to victims (stranger or familiar; blood relationship or spouse/long-term partner), number of victims, sex of victims, age of vic- tims, income/income category of perpetrator, judicial dispositions, relationship status at time of killings, method of killing, and ascribed killer nicknames.

    And then they announced that this data shows women to be gatherers, men hunters. There’s no actual test here. You don’t find anything in the “Methods” section of the paper that their hypothesis is X and if the data shows Y it will be falsified. There’s simply no effort to prove the hypothesis true or false at all.

    While that’s bad enough, there’s more:

    The over- whelming majority of MSKs targeted persons previously unknown to them. Men’s patterns of killing were more disbursed across states, and men, more frequently than women, killed out- side their birthplace, reminiscent of the geographic dispersion needed for hunting and foraging tactics.

    Note the “or foraging”. That’s right, both hunting and gathering require travel, but the authors use a behavior that’s related to both to show that men are “hunters” while they use a behavior that they acknowledge is linked to neither to prove that women are “gatherers”. Yet their data cannot show men to be more hunty on this basis, since the same behavior is equally required for someone to be gathery. How do they determine that this travel is hunty? Moreover, they never in the paper score women killing intrastate and closer to their birthplaces as a fact counting against their gathering hypothesis.

    It seems that their data don’t actually support any hunter/gatherer division, but what’s weirder is that they didn’t even try to set up a test of that hypothesis. Ultimately, the data don’t serve any scientific function at all. They aren’t used to prove or disprove a hypothesis, and they aren’t even used in the “musings” you referenced (good word choice by the way) in a consistent fashion that might contribute to the types of idiographic understandings that generate novel hypothesis. As you look at how they view the data, they don’t show an understanding of their own categories – the idea that gathering requires travel but women are engaged in “gathering” when they stay home is just one example of that.

    So, the big first point is that they simply do really, really bad science. You should also note that even though they’re musing on potentially evolved gender roles, they don’t actually provide any mechanisms for men and women (or males and females) to inherit different brain structures or something else that would permit descent with modification of a behavior or behavioral pattern.

    So as much as you (and I!) would be interested in seeing a meeting of bottom up study of neurology with a top-down study of behavior that ultimately shows how behaviors come about, this paper doesn’t do any of that.

    Rather, it notes a difference in behavior between two or more groups (in this case distance traveled to kill -and not much else- among two groups of serial killers), then hypothesizes a reason, then gathers data that says, “Yep, there’s a difference,” while still not testing the underlying hypothesis that the reason for the difference is an inherited behavior suite that differs between groups specifically because it was selectively advantageous for humans to have groups with different inherited behavioral suites.

    It’s just … weird. It’s no way to do science.

    Now, of course once the terrible methodology has been performed and the unscientific conclusions are trumpeted as scientific a criticism of the effect of the study is that it tends to reinforce gender stereotypes – in your words it “stepped in some politics”. But other scientific work shows differences between women and men all the time without coming in for the same criticism. The existence of behavioral differences isn’t controversial. Whether those behavioral differences are inherited or not is, because if women or men or both are genetically fated to stay within our stereotypes that has to have an impact on public policy.

    If they had good science behind their conclusions, they would say,

    “Well, look, we found some genes on the X chromosome that aren’t silenced through the normal process of silencing duplicate genes. As a result, we show that in cell type A twice as much protein B is produced in XX cells than XY cells. Further, there is evidence from previous studies that levels of protein B affect cell type A’s growth, facilitating both telomere stability and frequency of mitosis such that brain regions C, D, & E are all enlarged in persons with more production of protein B relative to those with less. Previous MRI studies showed enlargement of brain region E in those persons who show more of behavior F. So in our study, we expanded on past research, both predicting from MRIs of brain region E that persons with larger Es would show more behavior F and also recruiting a separate cohort showing scored behaviorally first and then predicting that those with more behavior F would show larger Es. Our data demonstrate that both expected correlations exist and that these correlations are strong. From this, we conclude that a heritable trait has a plausible pathway for causing a specific behavior in humans and likely does so.

    But as much as that would be really, really, Freuding cool. That’s not what they do. They start with musings, they end with musings and they ignore what the data says in between. There’s no gathering of the “evolutionary” data. All their data is “psychology” data. The “evolutionary” bit, rather than serving as an additional avenue of investigation, largely appears (at least to me, though I’m obviously an outsider to their academic enterprise) to be an excuse for absent data. Outside of specific papers, when EPs defend their discipline they seem to fall back on the time spans required (at the very least 2 generations) as an excuse for why they can’t show actual evolution of behaviors, but then you don’t see them actually trying to overcome this limitation in any way that would allow them to show or even attempting to show evolution

    For instance, they could gather up gene samples from a large number of persons in a geographic area with little immigration or emigration and then do a large survey of behaviors. While this wouldn’t show evolution right now, future EP researchers could use this as a baseline and look later at changes in gene frequency and changes in behavioral patterns and try to find correlations and use these to generate hypotheses and then test these hypotheses in experiments that permit possible falsification. But as near as I can tell, no one in EP is actually doing anything like this.

    It’s all about hypothesizing that we know what the selective pressures were on ancestor populations, hypothesizing that this might have led to behavioral differences between groups of humans that we see today, then going out and showing that behavioral differences do, in fact, exist, and then finally declaring that evolution explains that difference. But it doesn’t. They haven’t even shown that the selective pressures that they imagine to exist actually did, much less that those pressures had specific effects on human evolution.

    it’s just … weird. And at that point the fact that EP consistently supports stereotypes becomes an issue. If they aren’t doing evolutionary science, even obvious initial steps like my proposed genetic and behavioral baseline study, then people start to wonder, what purpose does it serve to call this evolutionary psychology? Based on the frequency with which they find that evolution justifies stereotypes, the rest of us muse that a reasonable hypothesis is that they want to use the naturalistic fallacy (if it’s natural it must be good, or at least dangerous and wrong to try and change) to justify stereotypes. Under this hypothesis it’s not accidental that the field justifies stereotypes, rather that’s what the common methodologies and investigative principles of the field are designed to do.

    Of course, we could try to research this, recruiting EPs as study subjects and work to find out whether or not they’re more likely than others to buy into the naturalistic fallacy and/or hold stereotypes. But since most of us aren’t professional psychologists and this is the internet, we are much more likely to point and laugh at their papers when they say they’re doing science and yet don’t even notice that their assertion that traveling is required for both hunting and gathering is at odds with their simultaneous assertion that traveling indicates hunting and not gathering.

    Some others might point out that EPs are doing harm by making it appear as if stereotypes neutrally reflect evolved tendencies that would be difficult or impossible to change – and I think they are doing that, and have made that criticism at times – but neither critique would matter (or even be frequently made) if they would just do some decent science.

  31. speedofsound says

    I agree on the paper. Tooby and Cosmides always rubbed me the wrong way too. What I am interested in is how genes generate structures in the brain and how those structures influence how we behave and what we think. From there it’s possible to do comparative work which leads to some good guesses on evolved traits. I guess that is what I hear when someone says EP.

    I like thinking about the evolved lines and comparison with non verbal mammals because it helps to factor out the silly things we humans think our minds do. If I notice my raccoons behaving morally in the backyard then that tells me something important about human ethics. Older and more structurally engrained than we like to think.

    I got into neuroscience because of pop writers in EP. So I have abit of a soft spot. I would lay awake at night and try and figure out how a generative set of genes could make a brain that most times preferred a 0.7 waist to hip ratio. Sixteen years of study and still no progress on that one. Though it haunts me that the damned thing might be there.

  32. says

    What I am interested in is how genes generate structures in the brain and how those structures influence how we behave and what we think.

    I’m interested in that too!

    From there it’s possible to do comparative work which leads to some good guesses on evolved traits.

    Yep. And that would be really cool.

    I guess that is what I hear when someone says EP.

    If that’s what it was, i definitely would be excited to read their papers.

    I like thinking about the evolved lines and comparison with non verbal mammals because it helps to factor out the silly things we humans think our minds do. If I notice my raccoons behaving morally in the backyard then that tells me something important about human ethics. Older and more structurally engrained than we like to think.

    You might be interested in a field called “primate ethics” then. Jane Goodall has written some interesting things about her observations on apparent ethics in chimpanzees.

    Sorry that EP hasn’t lived up to its promise for you. I think the most interesting work is actually most likely to take place after we begin to have large numbers of human genome sequences, and the technology necessary to sequence genomes on a large scale is almost but not quite there yet. Depending on how old you are, you might live to see a true EP science emerge.

  33. speedofsound says

    I’m too damned old. There should develop amongst us a great pressure to straighten EP out and give it a solid place in biology. Doing so is going to involve an odd diversion into neurophilosophy. Now I spent most of my life disparaging philosophy as either nonsense or Evel Knievel intellectual insanity. So I get that part. Philosophy itself, and religion, and superstition created a problem in how we think about mind and psychology. Unfortunately the only remedy seems to be more damned philosophy. We need a vaccine. I call the problem point-source-spirit-mind thinking (PSSMT) and it plays into these unrealistic ventures in pop-EP. Basically it’s this idea that there is a hard problem to solve in consciousness and that mind is some kind of ethereal singular point source. The actual neurons are considered too weak and reductionistic to solve the problems of psychology. I disagree.

    Putting that aside, because it is a Big discussion.

    I was privy to an argument between Matt Dillahunty and Clare Wuellner. The disagreement was over the evolution of ethics mattering. Matt defends a position that it does not matter how we got this way, it only matters what that way is. He does it very well and I can see his side clearly. But I agree with Clare that it does matter. Seeing the tree tells us about the structure of the thing and gives us clues to where the thing may actually be in the brain.

    If we already knew everything about the structure of morality in the brain then I guess Matt would win this one. It would not matter how we came to be this way. I would still argue with him that the history is a beautiful story but for practical concerns we don’t care.

    So EP operates in this space where we don’t know all the details and where we may see the beauty in the history of a thing. It’s a hypothetical game. We imagine up our just-so stories and then see where we can go with them. Calling them science at this stage is just nonsense. But disregarding them and shouting them down is criminal ignor-ance. We must be free to play with our minds. Over coffee. Not in the journals. :)

    The acid test is always going to be in how this stuff works at a genetic and neuronal level. How is a a set of genes in an earthly environment, over the course of a lifetime, going to enact some psychological trait. What does a preference for a 0.7 hip to waist ratio look like in diagram of visual processing in the occipital and temporal lobes. How does a gene make it highly likely to wire like that. When we get down to this level it seems pretty damned unlikely that such a wiring diagram exists. But it could.