When will the criticisms of evolutionary psychology sink in?

I’ve been complaining for years, as have others. The defenders of evolutionary psychology just carry on, doing more and more garbage science built on ignorance of evolutionary biology, publishing the same ol’ crap to pollute the scientific literature. It’s embarrassing.

Now Subrena Smith tries valiantly to penetrate their crania. It’s a familiar explanation. She sees it as a matching problem between their claims about the structure of the brain and behavioral history.

The architecture of the modern mind might resemble that of early humans without this architecture having being selected for and genetically transmitted through the generations. Evolutionary psychological claims, therefore, fail unless practitioners can show that mental structures underpinning present-day behaviors are structures that evolved in prehistory for the performance of adaptive tasks that it is still their function to perform. This is the matching problem.

In a little more detail…

Ancestral and present-day psychological structures have to match in the way that is needed for evolutionary psychological inferences to succeed. For this, three conditions must be met. First, determine that the function of some contemporary mechanism is the one that an ancestral mechanism was selected for performing. Next, determine that the contemporary mechanism has the same function as the ancestral one because of its being descended from the ancestral mechanism. Finally, determine which ancestral mechanisms are related to which contemporary ones in this way.

It’s not sufficient to assume that the required identities are obvious. They need to be demonstrated. Solving the matching problem requires knowing about the psychological architecture of our prehistoric ancestors. But it is difficult to see how this knowledge can possibly be acquired. We do not, and very probably cannot, know much about the prehistoric human mind. Some evolutionary psychologists dispute this. They argue that although we do not have access to these individuals’ minds, we can “read off” ancestral mechanisms from the adaptive challenges that they faced. For example, because predator-evasion was an adaptive challenge, natural selection must have installed a predator-evasion mechanism. This inferential strategy works only if all mental structures are adaptations, if adaptationist explanations are difficult to come by, and if adaptations are easily characterized. There is no reason to assume that all mental structures are adaptations, just as there is no reason to assume that all traits are adaptations. We also know that adaptationist hypotheses are easy to come by. And finally, there is the problem of how to characterize traits. Any adaptive problem characterized in a coarse-grained way (for example, “predator evasion”) can equally be characterized as an aggregate of finer-grained problems. And these can, in turn, be characterized as an aggregate for even finer-grained problems. This introduces indeterminacy and arbitrariness into how adaptive challenges are to be characterized, and therefore, what mental structures are hypothesized to be responses to those challenges. This difficulty raises an additional obstacle for resolving the matching problem. If there is no fact of the matter about how psychological mechanisms are to be individuated, then there is no fact of the matter about how they are to be matched.

One problem is that evolutionary psychologists all seem to think that their assumptions are obvious — and if you don’t agree, why, you must truly hate Charles Darwin and be little better than a creationist. Man, it’s weird when the intelligent design creationists are all calling you a dogmatic Darwinist, and the evolutionary psychologists are accusing you of being an intelligent design creationist. They’re both wrong.


  1. christoph says

    I’ve come across this problem before. Stupid people just don’t realize they’re stupid, and you can’t convince them.

  2. ikanreed says

    This isn’t a new, nor is it the most common objection. But it’s the biggest fixation of mine:

    From a purely scientific perspective, I feel like evopsychs biggest failing is that they want to skip several steps. They want to skip past finding a neurological basis for a psychological behavior, then finding a genetic basis for the neurophysiology, then a evolutionary history of the genes, then discern the selective pressures for those changes.

    That would follow a reasonably reductionist pattern like their physics envy would entail. But no, they want to skip straight from their imagination of pressures straight to behavior.

    But focusing on rigor misses the forest of these people being racists looking for excuses for the trees of them doing bad science.

  3. kome says

    As long as my colleagues in the social and cognitive sciences can increase the probability of getting subpar worked published if they tie an ad hoc adaptationist explanation to their results, criticisms of evolutionary psychology by biologists will never be taken seriously by evolutionary psychologists.

  4. says

    Well yes the vast differences in inputs between modern and ancient times, and the vast differences among cultures make this sort of matching and inference pretty much speculative for the most part. But there are some pretty universal human behaviors that seem obviously to be wired in by evolution. We have sex, we care for our babies, we share among our kin, stuff on that level. Obviously these sometimes go awry — people have sex with farm animals, kill their babies, hoard and deprive their kin — but we recognize these as exceptions, in all known human cultures, in all eras of which we know anything.

    If we didn’t have sex and care for babies, we wouldn’t be here, albeit the arrangements for doing so vary somewhat among cultures. And PZ’s besottedness with his grandchildren also seems pretty universal and universally adaptive as well. But such obvious observations aren’t going to get you published or make you feel super smart. The challenge of going beyond the obvious is what makes evolutionary psychology as a discipline pretty much vacuous so far.

    (There are a few more observations that seem pretty suggestive, e.g. fear of snakes, fear of the dark, fear of heights. We can overcome these but they seem inherent tendencies. Maybe I should mention spiders.)

  5. jrkrideau says

    One problem is that evolutionary psychologists all seem to think that their assumptions are obvious

    Reminds me of a lot of economists.

  6. unclefrogy says

    that seems to be the definition of stupid.
    @6 and political scientist as well
    uncle frogy

  7. meeker says

    I’m not quite clear on this.

    Is it a matter of people misusing evolutionary psychology, or the very notion of evolutionary psychology?

  8. says

    Now Subrena Smith tries valiantly to penetrate their crania.

    Well, that’s where she’s going wrong! You’re not supposed to penetrate/em> crania, you’re supposed to measure them, with calipers! It’s Science™!

  9. profpedant says

    Once one knows that evolution occurs and that our psychology has a neurological basis (and that culture influences psychology as well, with culture having its own evolutionary selection) it becomes entirely reasonable to assume that our psychology has been, and is, influenced by evolution. But the words ‘evolution’, ‘psychology’, ‘neurological’, and ‘cultural’ all appear in the previous sentence, each of them a rough synonym for ‘complicated’. Which brings us to chaos theory. There may be evolved patterns in human psychology, but the complication is such that ‘knowing that’ tells you next-to-nothing about how those patterns occur or how inevitable they were. If human society holds together for thousands and thousands of years we may gain enough understanding of our psychology and neurology and probability and probably several other relevant fields that we can begin to get a blurry understanding of how our minds evolved….but even with super-science insights and tools all I can imagine knowing-for-sure is limited to the opening sentence of this paragraph. (Another implausible scenario that would result in better – but still vague – knowledge about how our consciousness evolved would be the opportunity to study many different intelligent aliens. We would probably be able to ‘ask better questions’, which would be something to feel good about even though ‘we don’t know’ would still be the answer to most of those questions.) So evolutionary psychology is an example of a situation where superficial sensibility is almost completely – and probably innately – unconnected to actual usefulness.

  10. metaform3d says

    It’s also easy to refute. I’m a very good programmer. I know a lot of people who are very, very good at coding. How do you explain that? Does it mean that human minds are adapted to software design? Could we find some kind of computer analog in the prehistoric environment?

    Of course not. The enormous flexibility of the human mind allows it to be trained to do an activity that was entirely unimaginable before the time of Lady Ada. This is the null hypothesis that the evo psych people have to overcome.

  11. Lerpracrer Lerpracrer says

    “One problem is that evolutionary psychologists all seem to think that their assumptions are obvious.”

    Hmm. “Assumptions” remind me ardent evolutionists (in general) (no offense).
    Btw, here’s my comment on a comment from Dr. Subrena Smith:

    “Dr. Smith, I don’t think “natural selection has shaped the human mind” is a scientifically justifiable claim (since the claim is not supported by solid and sound evidence). In fact, the problems you address in your paper (methodological dificulties and methodological defects, unreliability, assuming what needs to be shown, arbitrariness, circular reasoning, unwarranted inferences etc.) all apply equally to the “bold/bald” claims about human evolution and evolution in general “history”. I’d love to read another paper of yours (or anyone’s) showing, under the same standard set, why making or accepting the claim in quotation is (really) scientifically justifiable and why, in the light of the same epistemological issues you’ve pointed out, this “conclusion” would be anything different from “based on assumptions”, “assuming that”, “this assumption is precisely what the procedures are supposed to demonstrate” kinds of thecniques and other “conclusions” examined in your article. Iow, respectfully, it seems to me the claim “natural selection has shaped the human mind” has the same vices you’ve treated in your paper. I thank you, anyway, for honestly and courageously doing this very good job concerning evolutionary psychology specifically. One thing at a time.”