Evolutionary Psychology gets another whack


Matt Lubchansky

Oh, boy, this will set some asses on fire. Dr Subrena Smith argues that Evolutionary Psychology is built on failed premises (I’ve been saying the same thing for years), but she goes deeply into the contradictions in the field. None of their prior claims are valid, and they don’t fit with what we do know about evolution and the brain!

In this article I argue that evolutionary psychological strategies for making inferences about present-day human psychology are methodologically unsound. Evolutionary psychology is committed to the view that the mind has an architecture that has been conserved since the Pleistocene, and that our psychology can be fruitfully understood in terms of the original, fitness-enhancing functions of these conserved psychological mechanisms. But for evolutionary psychological explanations to succeed, practitioners must be able to show that contemporary cognitive mechanisms correspond to those that were selected for in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness, that these present-day cognitive mechanisms are descended from the corresponding ancestral mechanisms, and that they have retained the functions of the ancestral mechanisms from which they are descended. I refer to the problem of demonstrating that these conditions obtain as “the matching problem,” argue that evolutionary psychology does not have the resources to address it, and conclude that evolutionary psychology, as it is currently understood, is therefore impossible.

I also appreciate this bit. One of the common insults that Evolutionary Psychologists deploy is that their critics believe that humans only evolved below the neck, which is nonsense. One can accept that the brain is an evolved organ without believing in the narrow, specific, and oddly improbable premises demanded by Evolutionary Psychologists.

These methodological problems prompt the question, “Is evolutionary psychology possible?” It is important to distinguish evolutionary psychological explanations of human behavior from evolutionary explanations of human behavior simpliciter. This is particularly important given that evolutionary psychologists often claim that those who reject evolutionary psychology but accept evolutionary theory are committed to a contradiction. However, evolutionary theory does not entail nativism or massive modularity. One might reject the theoretical apparatus proposed by evolutionary psychologists while still embracing an evolutionary account of the human mind.

Not that any of this will have any effect on EP at all — that’s a field that relies more on an emotional belief that they can study the past entirely by imposing their desired conclusions on weak data. Smith, on the other hand, has a strong understanding of logic and recognizes where these Evolutionary Psychologists have made a huge leap beyond what the data entails.

Comments

  1. kome says

    I find it weird how evolutionary psychologists’ understanding of what evolution is appears to be a lot closer to creationists’ understanding of evolution than to biologists’ understanding. Makes me want to take surveys of those three groups, ask them to explain what evolution is, and compare the responses.

  2. wcaryk says

    The obvious explanation for evolutionary psychology is that our ancestors killed anyone who did not believe in evolutionary psychology.

    (and ate them)

  3. DanDare says

    I think many people get confused by the fact that we have evolved what are loosely termed instincts. Certainly around sexual behaviour our brains tend to make us want to bump bits in various ways and to be attracted to bits of phenotype. If they didn’t it would be harder for there to be species. But all those behaviour tendencies can be thwarted by experience as a child grows and adult behavioir is a complex working out of those things.
    I like the term ‘human behaviour simpliciter’. Haven’t come across that before.

  4. seachange says

    See seems as informationallly dense, well constructed and thoroghy logical as the late Dr. Susan Sonntag.

    I’m in love!

  5. says

    @DanDare:

    Certainly around sexual behaviour our brains tend to make us want to bump bits in various ways and to be attracted to bits of phenotype.

    To some extent. Quite a lot of this (including what makes a particular body part into an attractive version of that body part) is significantly affected by socialization. I’m also not entirely sure that anyone has an “instinct” for penis-vaginal intercourse in the sense that they would “naturally” perform that act if stranded on a desert isle from very early childhood.

    Imagine 2 people, heterosexual, cis, and with one sexed male and one sexed female. They have been alone on the desert island since as early as possible for purposes of survival to adulthood. Stipulate that there are no mammals on the island other than these two humans (and thus no easy role models to observe copulating.) Now imagine that at least at some point in their lives they feel mutual attraction.

    Would they, in fact, “naturally” engage in PiV sex? Would they have to experiment a bunch? Then, if and when they discovered it, should they happen to subsequently engage in PiV quite a lot, would that be “instinct” or would that be a preference discovered through experimentation?

    I can certainly say that I had interests at a fairly young age, and a couple of those have stayed with me. Others, however, turned out to be based on misunderstandings about sex and/or anatomy and were left behind. The ones that stayed with weren’t founded on good information. It’s just that my guesses happened to be more accurate on those. Of course, I’m trans* and queer, and so who knows how representative my experience is. But it is the only experience that I can go by (and I also remember questions and ideas about sex that came from peers and that were, in retrospect, wildly off the mark), and it makes me feel suspicious of any assertion that human sex is based on instinct.

    Sure, there’s some stuff in there that isn’t very plastic. I’m not debating that. But I think there’s more plasticity than we are likely to credit, and in particular I’m skeptical of the idea that we have a set of hard-wired behaviors that we can simply follow by instinct that would constitute “sex”.

  6. Bruce says

    Things I think we know:
    (1) Humans started eating a lot more grains about 15,000 years ago or less, with the development of agriculture, and human digestion changed to accommodate this better.
    (2) Humans in certain places such as Europe started living closer with their farm animals, and the surviving humans’ adult descendants can tolerate lactose in milk a lot more than can descendants from cultures that didn’t live with their cows. So this physical aspect of anatomy also seems to have changed evolutionarily recently.
    (3) Human thought is an emergent process based on human brains that are natural parts of the whole human organism, and so should be equally subject to the patterns of evolution seen in 1 and 2. Broadly speaking, this seems enough to deflate any likely significance of “evolutionary psychology” hypotheses.

  7. lochaber says

    DanDare@3>
    I think I mostly agree with Crip Dyke, and that this sorta thing isn’t as “hardwired” as a lot of people take it to be. I do think there is a bit of that to some extent, but I also feel that outside forces play a huge role in such things. I’m reminded of things like how culturally accepted standards of beauty have changed over the years, and even within my brief existence. Also, in some groups (I’m specifically thinking of one’s I’ve encountered that are soaking in toxic masculinity, but I don’t imagine it’s limited to those…) there is a lot of policing of others as to what is “acceptable” as far as attraction goes. :/

    Not accusing you of this, but I’m tangentially reminded of that “argument” that keeps popping up that women have boobs, because the cleavage reminds guys of butts, and lets them fuck face-to-face. I get really cranky whenever I hear that, because how many women can display butt-mimicking cleavage without a bra, or at least squishing with their arms? And don’t bonobos also have face-to-face sex, despite the lack of chest-butts?

    And then there is that other evo-psych “argument” about women liking pink because of gathering berries…
    everytime I encounter that, I want to shake the person and demand they spend two weeks in the wilderness eating pink plants and then come back to me. Because they won’t come back, because eating unknown pink plants is a good way to get poisoned. Most edible berries are blue or black, colors currently associated with masculinity.

    arglebargle

  8. says

    @Lochaber:

    I think I mostly agree with Crip Dyke, and that this sorta thing isn’t as “hardwired” as a lot of people take it to be. I do think there is a bit of that to some extent, but I also feel that outside forces play a huge role in such things.

    I really think we’re in near-exact agreement. I don’t assert that “hardwiring” plays no role, but that it plays less of a role than people commonly think.

    I also think we’re not necessarily in disagreement with DanDare. Although the particular emphasis in DanDare’s writing did give me a reason to write my own comment, it’s important to know that nowhere in DanDare’s description is some precise quantification of nature vs. nurture either. For instance:

    tend to make us want to bump bits

    and

    those behaviour tendencies can be thwarted by experience

    While I think that the general tone of DanDare’s expressed opinion undersells culture and experience, there aren’t any direct contradictions there between what DD is writing and what we are.

    It’s very hard to pin this stuff down, and I think we are all doing a fair enough job at expressing our ultimate uncertainty even if I found more reason (b/c of the history of argument that you mention, nice addition there) to emphasize the power of culture and experience.

  9. lochaber says

    Crip Dyke @ 8, and DanDare @ 3>

    Thanks, I didn’t intend to come across like I was piling on DanDare, and apologies for that. I think I got the general gist of what DanDare was talking about, I just kinda got distracted on a tangent.

    So, thanks to Crip Dyke, and apologies to DanDare.

  10. says

    lochaber @#7

    I’m reminded of things like how culturally accepted standards of beauty have changed over the years, and even within my brief existence.

    Whatever look is obtainable for the wealthy but out of reach for the poor people gets proclaimed as “beautiful” in the given culture. I have written about this phenomenon here: https://andreasavester.com/history-of-the-always-changing-female-beauty-standards/

    And then there is that other evo-psych “argument” about women liking pink because of gathering berries…

    Back when I was 6 years old I already knew that dark blue was my favorite color. I have never in my life liked pink. Yet I figured out that I want to live as a man only when I was already 23 years old. If only I had been familiar with the notion that all women like pink while all men like dark blue, I wouldn’t have spent so many years doubting myself and trying to figure out who I was. /sarcasm tag

    Seriously though, “pink for girls and blue for boys” is a very recent phenomenon. In past all children wore white dresses regardless of their gender. Firstly, parents wanted younger children to wear the same clothes as their older siblings (that was cheaper). Secondly, white cotton was simple to bleach and get clean, while colorful clothing required expensive dyes and careful handling.

    Gendered children’s clothes didn’t exist up until 20th century, and even then it took a while for people to sort it out.

    For example, a June 1918 article from the trade publication Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department said, “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” Other sources said blue was flattering for blonds, pink for brunettes; or blue was for blue-eyed babies, pink for brown-eyed babies.

    More on that here: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/when-did-girls-start-wearing-pink-1370097/

  11. Allison says

    [EP is] … a field that relies more on an emotional belief that they can study the past entirely by imposing their desired conclusions on weak data.

    Actually, IMHO it relies on an emotional belief that they are deriving conclusions based on evidence, when they are actually seeing whatever “evidence” would support their pre-existing “conclusions”, which are in turn derived from the prejudices they have been socialized with. IOW, they see what they have been socialized and trained to see, not what is out there.

    This isn’t just true of EP. Everyone, scientists included, is socialized to believe all sorts of things; in particular, to believe that the “way things are” in society is inevitable and determined by “nature” (it used to read “determined by God,” that sounds so unscientific!) And people see what they expect to see, i.e., what they have been trained to see, and unconsiously glide over things they don’t expect to see.

  12. says

    Andreas Avester @ 10:

    Whatever look is obtainable for the wealthy but out of reach for the poor people gets proclaimed as “beautiful” in the given culture. I have written about this phenomenon here

    I have thought this too for a long time– why so many of the things that we think of as signifying “femininity” are more signifiers of affluence– and have wondered why it’s not mentioned more often. Like, prior to the 20th Century, the ideal for beauty was pure white skin, because it showed that you didn’t have to work outdoors like a peasant, but when the aeroplane was invented and sun holidays became a thing for the wealthy, the tanned look came to be seen as an the ideal. Or when food was scarce, plump women were seen to be the most desirable; now, thanks to the Green Revolution and the overabundance of food in the West, the toned body of someone who can afford a gym membership or a personal trainer, and the time to avail of them, is the aspiration. Or the custom for women to have long, painted nails seems to me more of a signal that you don’t have to do manual work with your hands than anything intrinsically “feminine”.

    I don’t want to police women for how they choose to present themselves (because, Cthulhu knows, they get enough of that as it is), nor shame someone because one of the few treats they allow themselves is a visit to a salon to get a nice manicure every now and again, but wow, I find it creepy the more I think about it. It seems to go beyond merely objectifying someone based on their physical attributes and instead turning them into some kind of… display case for signifiers of wealth.

  13. says

    @allison:

    people see what they expect to see, i.e., what they have been trained to see, and unconsiously glide over things they don’t expect to see.

    Sure, but that’s not an excuse for criticism when we actually do it. And it’s also a bit oversimplified. We more easily see what we’re expecting to see. That doesn’t mean we never notice anything else. We find ways to justify the other things, and to classify them as anomalies in such a way that any rules we have internalized about what to expect can remain intact. And this can cause some harm when we’re raising children and, for instance, see play of one kind as legitimate and play of another kind as illegitimate. We may end up forcing kids away from what they prefer and into areas where they have merely mild interest. This is not good. If we do it, the fact that we more easily see what we’re trained to see is causing harm and can and should be criticized.

    But that’s all the background to say this. People, even scientists, do have that tendency. But scientific fields have the responsibility to train their researchers to overcome this tendency when performing experiments or otherwise searching for knowledge within their own field. I don’t expect a battery chemist to be great a setting aside her preconceptions when she’s reading a book about social psychology or cnidarian paleontology. But she should be great at doing that when designing and testing new battery chemistries.

    Evolutional psychologists don’t have to be great at setting aside their biases when reading about the lumping and splitting tendencies of paleontological carcharodontid specialists. They just have to be great at doing it when designing and testing experiments to determine the heritability of behavioral tendencies in Homo Sapiens over evolutionarily relevant numbers of generations.

    Yes, EP researchers get more blame for committing this sin of embracing expectation over data than other people even though this is a universal tendency. But they get that blame for good reason: it’s undesirable but not noteworthy when I fail to notice the gorilla strolling through a basketball game. It’s undesirable and noteworthy when a researcher in their own field fails to notice facts that disconfirm a favored hypothesis. EP as a field seems to have a larger percentage of its researchers doing this a larger percentage of the time than other academic fields.

    I’ve got no problem with the disproportionate criticism.

  14. kome says

    @12

    It seems to go beyond merely objectifying someone based on their physical attributes and instead turning them into some kind of… display case for signifiers of wealth.

    Probably related to the origin of the term “trophy wife”

  15. says

    Cat Mara @#12

    why so many of the things that we think of as signifying “femininity” are more signifiers of affluence– and have wondered why it’s not mentioned more often. Like, prior to the 20th Century, the ideal for beauty was pure white skin, because it showed that you didn’t have to work outdoors like a peasant, but when the aeroplane was invented and sun holidays became a thing for the wealthy, the tanned look came to be seen as an the ideal. Or when food was scarce, plump women were seen to be the most desirable; now, thanks to the Green Revolution and the overabundance of food in the West, the toned body of someone who can afford a gym membership or a personal trainer, and the time to avail of them, is the aspiration. Or the custom for women to have long, painted nails seems to me more of a signal that you don’t have to do manual work with your hands than anything intrinsically “feminine”.

    Skinny versus not skinny and pale versus suntanned aren’t characteristics that are perceived as “feminine,” those are gender neutral. For example, nowadays male models are also expected to be suntanned and thin, because that’s what’s considered handsome for men.

    Long, painted nails are the only trait in your list that is characterized as “feminine” by our society.

    Signifiers of affluence are perceived as desirable and beautiful for both men and women. When some trait is predominantly exhibited by wealthy men, it will be labelled as “masculine” (like wearing a Rolex wristwatch or being muscular). When some trait is predominantly exhibited by wealthy women, then that’s “feminine” (for example, bound feet in ancient China, high heels nowadays, long and painted fingernails).

    Of course, there’s nothing intrinsically feminine about long nails. Just like there’s nothing feminine about being a nurse or having knitting as your hobby. It’s the culture that assigns feminine or masculine stereotypes to random characteristics. And afterwards people are coerced to comply with said stereotypes or else somebody will start speculating about whether they could be gay, never mind the general attitude that masculine women and feminine men are unattractive.

    I find it creepy the more I think about it. It seems to go beyond merely objectifying someone based on their physical attributes and instead turning them into some kind of… display case for signifiers of wealth.

    Yep.

    Speaking of creepy, if people chose this freely, it wouldn’t be so bad. But there’s lots of coercion. For example, growing up I routinely heard that hairy female legs are ugly. Many women remove body hair not because they want to, but because they feel that they must or else somebody will consider them ugly.

    Also, have you paid attention to how people are coerced to buy gendered consumer products? Like pink razors for her and black razors for him? That’s another topic I have written about — https://andreasavester.com/the-pink-tax-or-why-we-need-more-gender-neutral-consumer-products/

  16. chrislawson says

    Crip Dyke@13–

    Excellent points in your comment. I used to have a very similar position, but I’ve become even more soured on EP over time. I used to think that there must be some good EP papers even if the stuff that got media attention was tripe. But as yet I have not found or been pointed to a single EP paper that was any good.

    I still hold out hope that somewhere there is a well-designed, well-constructed EP study. As it’s not my field, it’s possible that these cryptid studies exist. But I would have thought that someone would have raised an important EP study by now. Like we can point to, say, Jenner’s experiment for vaccination, or the Michelson-Morley experiments for special relativity, or the ultraviolet catastrophe and the photoelectric effect for quantum theory. Not that these experiments were perfect or that they told the whole story of their field in a single study, but at least they were reproducible findings that forced new ways of thinking about the world. What have we got from EP? Nothing but the bland thesis that human psychology is influenced by human evolution, a theory so anodyne that only creationists reject it.

    If anyone knows of a decent EP paper, please let me know. I would love to read it. (The last time I asked this on another forum, I had several enthusiasts recommend the Kanazawa paper on colour preference, a study so egregiously terrible that instead of reassuring me of the potential for EP, it rather convinced me that the field is a wasteland and that EP enthusiasts couldn’t critically appraise a cereal box.)

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