Tell me again how evolutionary psychology is not a con game

This is how evo psych works: state your hypothesis about past human societies with absolute confidence in the absence of any evidence, and then follow up with how The Lord of the Rings supports your model of a transition from a brutish form to a more gracile, effeminate form. Geoffrey Miller demonstrates:

So, the kill count competition between Legolas and Gimli is easily understood evidence of the evolution of warfare. Does that make Aragorn a transitional form?

I puked on Evolutionary Psychology before it was cool to puke on Evolutionary Psychology

I rejected it because it’s panadaptationist nonsense, among other things. But I’m always happy to see more arguments for why it is garbage, such as this criticism from a philosopher.

Evolutionary psychologists’ thought is that, for at least some of our behaviors, they believe that we have—dare I use this term—hard-wired cognitive structures that are operating in all of us contemporary human beings the same way they did for our ancestors on the savannas. The idea is that, in the modern world, we have sort of modern skulls, but the wiring—the cognitive structure of the brain itself—is not being modified, because enough evolutionary time hasn’t passed. This goes for evolutionary functions like mate selection, parental care, predator avoidance—that our brains were pretty much in the same state as our ancestors’ brains. The sameness in how our brains work is on account of genetic selection for particular modules that are still functional in our environment today. [Editor’s note: These “modules” refer to the idea that the brain can be divided up into discrete structures with specific functions.]

The matching problem is really the core issue that evolutionary psychologists have to show that they can meet: that there is really a match between our modules and the modules of the prehistoric ancestors; that they’re working the same way then as now; and that these modules are working the same way because they are descended from the same functional lineage or causal lineage. But I don’t see any way that these charges can be answered.

True, that. But just watch — evolutionary psychologists will rapidly retreat from those core ideas of “environment of evolutionary adaptation” and “modules” to find safety in the uncontroversial idea that the brain evolved.

We still get buckets of baloney about evolution from people who should know better. Have you heard of the pugilism hypothesis? This is the idea that men’s beards evolved to absorb a punch to the jaw. You only have to think about it for a moment to realize that getting socked in the face was a small factor in human evolution — 10,000 years ago, I would have been more concerned about starvation, getting a disease, breaking an arm while hunting, or getting thwocked in the back of the head with a rock by a bad guy. That facial hair might have provided a slight cushion to facial injuries doesn’t seem like the kind of thing for which there was much selection pressure, and I could also sit here and imagine all kinds of drawbacks to furry faces.

But it’s been tested! Except no, it hasn’t.

Because facial hair is one of the most sexually dimorphic features of humans (Homo sapiens) and is often perceived as an indicator of masculinity and social dominance, human facial hair has been suggested to play a role in male contest competition. Some authors have proposed that the beard may function similar to the long hair of a lion’s mane, serving to protect vital areas like the throat and jaw from lethal attacks. This is consistent with the observation that the mandible, which is superficially covered by the beard, is one of the most commonly fractured facial bones in interpersonal violence. We hypothesized that beards protect the skin and bones of the face when human males fight by absorbing and dispersing the energy of a blunt impact. We tested this hypothesis by measuring impact force and energy absorbed by a fiber epoxy composite, which served as a bone analog, when it was covered with skin that had thick hair (referred to here as “furred”) versus skin with no hair (referred to here as “sheared” and “plucked”). We covered the epoxy composite with segments of skin dissected from domestic sheep (Ovis aries), and used a drop weight impact tester affixed with a load cell to collect force versus time data. Tissue samples were prepared in three conditions: furred (n = 20), plucked (n = 20), and sheared (n = 20). We found that fully furred samples were capable of absorbing more energy than plucked and sheared samples. For example, peak force was 16% greater and total energy absorbed was 37% greater in the furred compared to the plucked samples. These differences were due in part to a longer time frame of force delivery in the furred samples. These data support the hypothesis that human beards protect vulnerable regions of the facial skeleton from damaging strikes.

I would concede even before testing it that a layer of hair over the face would reduce the force of impacts to some degree. But that’s not testing an evolutionary hypothesis! You need to show that this ‘padding’ had a measurable effect on survival and reproductive success. They merely looked at one superficial phenomenon and decided that dissipating the force of a punch to the jaw allowed beardy guys to thrive, in a world without the Marquis of Queensbury rules. It seems his beard didn’t save Otzi from the arrow that killed him.

There are a few people — thankfully few — that go wacko over their single comprehensive explanation. Apparently, humans evolved to be boxers.

More broadly, the results of this study add to a growing body of evidence suggesting that specialization for male fighting has played a significant role in the evolution of the musculoskeletal system of humans. For example, the short limbs (Carrier 2007), plantigrade foot posture (Carrier and Cunningham 2017), and bipedal posture of our earliest hominins ancestors (Carrier 2011), and the force–velocity tuning (Carrier et al. 2011) and size (Carrier et al. 2015) of the muscles of the human leg may also be associated with improved fighting performance.

Ugh. Umbrella Hypothesis alert.

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.

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.

Evolutionary Psychology, the favorite discipline of old white men everywhere

Matt Lubchansky

Well, some old white men, anyway. Jeffrey Epstein loved evolutionary psychology because it was used to justify rapey behavior and abuse of women — it’s good for the species, don’t you know, rich abusers wouldn’t exist if they didn’t have an adaptive advantage. So Epstein threw money at helpful apologists like Robert Trivers and Martin Nowak (boy, did he throw a lot of money at him), and they obliged by rationalizing the worst activities of men. Meanwhile, other hangers-on who did not even like, let alone get paid by him, were still well-pleased by the chauvinism of EP, and heaped praise upon it without even requiring any quid pro quo. I don’t know which is worse.

Pinker is a talented popularizer of science and authored several books on language which were generally well received. He has attracted controversy, however, for engaging with popular debates on evolutionary psychology’s more sweeping claims in the 1990s. His 2002 book The Blank Slate is a sustained attack on those academics, intellectuals, and feminists who weight nurture more heavily than nature in the development of human behavior. While defending the book A Natural History of Rape, whose authors Craig Palmer and Randy Thornhill (a Trivers coauthor on the Jamaican symmetry work) helpfully advise women to wear modest clothing to prevent assaults, Pinker describes typical rapists as “losers and nobodies,” “outcasts,” or perhaps “ethnic rioters.” The billionaire science enthusiast is not included in Pinker’s rapist typology.

Heh, yeah — The Blank Slate is the terrible piece of crap that totally soured me on Pinker. It’s a dishonest polemic contrived to advance a dead perspective by pretending it was obviously true while taking malicious swipes at everyone who had a more nuanced, sophisticated view of the interplay between genes and behavior. I am not surprised that he became a proponent of evolutionary psychology, which was just more of the same old ignorant adaptationist garbage. When I compare the careers of two Harvard professors, Gould and Pinker, one of whom wrote two great books, The Mismeasure of Man and Ontogeny and Phylogeny, and a multitude of essays revealing his fundamental humanism, and the other of whom is a darling of modern racists and rapists, I have to think that the wrong one died early.

There is one thing to do now.

Epstein is dead, and now beyond the reaches of human justice, but it is still possible to hold his enablers and scientific sycophants to account. It is necessary, but not enough, to demand that individuals like Trivers and Nowak and institutions like Harvard and MIT return the millions they received from Epstein. The ideas produced by these scientists also matter. Evolutionary psychologists have naturalized, and even at times excused, male sexual violence, but evolutionary biology is not the sole province of reactionary white men. Those of us working in this field must push back on both the corrupt funding system at elite institutions and flawed ideas these institutions have produced.

If your beliefs require propping up with large amounts of cash from self-serving rich people, then maybe they deserve to be starved for a while. It should cost you credibility to be a recipient of donations from evil men: give the money back, let’s see if your ideas can stand on their own without the support of corrupt processes.

Everyone knows you have to leaven your evolutionary psychology with Jung, though

Adam Rutherford thought this quiz on evolutionary psychology might cheer me up. The laugh is on him: nothing will cheer me up.*

It’s a good quiz, though, and I like the pre-emptive question at the end.

“Why does this quiz only attack strawmen? Why does it fail to address very serious claims, like (((human biodiversity))), or how young women are genetically programmed to prefer older men even though older men’s dicks don’t work? Where can I address my angry emails? Are you making fun of me? Evolutionary psychology is very serious business! I AM TALKING TO YOU. MEN ARE TALKING.”

In your angry response to the editors, choose the extinct animal you believe most encapsulates your prehistoric rage. Please provide a plausible explanation of how you would take down this animal with only a few pointy sticks and no knowledge of modern physics. Since your ancestors were naturally selected to hunt these animals, and you’ve inherited their genes, you should be fully capable of the task.

a. Woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius)

b. Irish elk (Megaloceros giganteus)

c. Sabretooth tiger (Smilodon)

d. Dire wolf (Canis dirus)

The only problem with the question is that EP proponents live a rich fantasy life in which they are the manliest of men, and their disconnection from reality means they will regard an answer like, “I will wrestle the mammoth and club it to death with my penis” as perfectly plausible.

*OK, maybe something — my daughter and granddaughter are coming to visit this weekend. But it should tell you something that it’s going to take such extreme happy stimulus to make me crack a smile.

I’m complaining about evolutionary psychology again

It’s kind of an irresistible target.

A few things that I mention:
The evolutionary psychology FAQ at UCSB
(Warning: it’s a sad, ugly, long document, but worth perusing if you want ammunition against evolutionary psychology.)

Chapter 7 of Darwin’s Descent of Man
(Warning: it’ll be a shock if you haven’t read 19th century literature in scientific racism before. Darwin held all the biases of his time.)

The critical points:

Evolution is more than just selection, and includes mutation, recombination, and drift.

Natural selection has a cost; it puts an upper bound on the number of elements subject to selection.

Populations have a substantial amount of genetic variation.

Most of that variation is neutral, or nearly neutral.

Mutations that have a small effect are invisible to selection.

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.

Please, evolutionary psychology, just fade away

Rebecca Watson takes on the evolutionary psychologists again. I’m glad someone is.

I looked into the papers she’s talking about several days ago. I was unimpressed with and disgusted with them, and just said to myself, “Do I really want to wade into this shit again?” and let it pass, because I tell you, evolutionary psychology fans are the worst. Every criticism is dealt with by suggesting that the critic doesn’t really accept science, because the whole field is cloaked in a layer of pseudoscientific pretense that the true believers don’t question.

I first read “Judaism as a Group Evolutionary Strategy: A Critical Analysis of Kevin MacDonald’s Theory” by Nathan Cofnas, published in Human Nature. As it says, it’s critical of the idea that Jews have some exceptional genetic trait that makes them more tribal and capable of ‘taking over’ the world, which is a positive sign…but at the same time it blithely accepts a whole lot of biological assumptions.

MacDonald argues that a suite of genetic and cultural adaptations among Jews constitutes a “group evolutionary strategy.” Their supposed genetic adaptations include, most notably, high intelligence, conscientiousness, and ethnocentrism. According to this thesis, several major intellectual and political movements, such as Boasian anthropology, Freudian psychoanalysis, and multiculturalism, were consciously or unconsciously designed by Jews to (a) promote collectivism and group continuity among themselves in Israel and the diaspora and (b) undermine the cohesion of gentile populations, thus increasing the competitive advantage of Jews and weakening organized gentile resistance (i.e., anti-Semitism). By developing and promoting these movements, Jews supposedly played a necessary role in the ascendancy of liberalism and multiculturalism in the West. While not achieving widespread acceptance among evolutionary scientists, this theory has been enormously influential in the burgeoning political movement known as the “alt-right.” Examination of MacDonald’s argument suggests that he relies on systematically misrepresented sources and cherry-picked facts. It is argued here that the evidence favors what is termed the “default hypothesis”: Because of their above-average intelligence and concentration in influential urban areas, Jews in recent history have been overrepresented in all major intellectual and political movements, including conservative movements, that were not overtly anti-Semitic.

The “default hypothesis” claims that two factors are sufficient to explain Jewish success in certain fields of endeavor: IQ (they’re smart) and geography (they live in urban areas). OK, but the reliance on IQ as a factor raises my hackles. The author even admits that this might not be due to genetic factors.

The default hypothesis is not tied to any particular explanation of the cause of above-average Jewish IQ. Some researchers favor a genetic explanation. In an influential paper, Cochran et al. (2005) argued that during the Middle Ages Ashkenazim were selected for the intellectual ability to succeed in white-collar occupations. However, it is theoretically possible that the Jewish–gentile IQ gap is due at least in part to some yet-to-be-identified cultural factor (Nisbett 2009). Whatever the cause, high Jewish IQ presumably plays a role in Jewish overrepresentation in cognitively demanding activities.

That’s a start, but I’d have to say that the “yet-to-be-identified cultural factor” has been identified. It’s a cultural value that promotes literacy and education as a social good. You may not have noticed, but a lot of cultural subgroups don’t — I know that the white protestant subculture I grew up in disparaged academic achievement and put a much higher priority on sports and money. Do we really need to bring this fuzzy, poorly defined thing called IQ into the discussion? Evolutionary psychologists certainly do, and simply take it for granted. This same paper also includes this garbage:

The mean Ashkenazi Jewish IQ appears to be around 110 (Lynn and Kanazawa 2008)—moderately lower than MacDonald’s estimate of 117. Jewish intellectual accomplishment is consistent with higher mean intelligence.

That’s your source? Really? Richard Lynn, white supremacist psychologist, and Satoshi Kanazawa, sloppy fraud.

That’s the problem with evolutionary psychology in a nutshell. It’s built on a foundation of bad evolutionary theory with a set of assumptions about genetic determinism that are never questioned; instead, they constantly churn over the same old discredited authors and same old unfounded theories, and treat the fact that they’ve been published in uncritical, lazy EP journals as sufficient to establish their truth. They can’t question their assumptions about the primacy of genetic causes in determining complex phenomena like culture because, if they do, the whole field collapses about them.

Cofnas’s article isn’t as terrible, though, as the original article by Kevin McDonald, the “neo-Nazi movement’s favorite academic”, nor is it as ghastly as the putative rebuttal to Cofnas published in Evolutionary Psychological Science. That one uses Herrnstein & Murray, Philippe Rushton, and the ubiquitous Richard Lynn as sources, and again fails to question the genetic causes and instead unquestioningly endorses “group selection”.

Kevin MacDonald (1998) has argued that a series of twentieth century ideologies which have challenged European traditions should be understood as part of a Jewish evolutionary strategy to promote Jewish interests in the West, as evidenced by Jewish leadership of and disproportionate involvement in these movements. Cofnas Human Nature 29, 134–156 (Cofnas 2018a) has critiqued this model and countered that the evidence can be more parsimoniously explained by the high average intelligence and urban location of Jews in Western countries. This, he avers, should be the ‘default hypothesis.’ In this response, I argue that it is MacDonald’s model that is the more plausible hypothesis due to evidence that people tend to act in their ethnic group interest and that group selectedness among Jews is particularly strong, meaning that they are particularly likely to do so.

This is the kind of thing the alt-right loves: Jews are just so tribal, they want to claim, as they march around with torches chanting “Blood and Soil!” and “Jews will not replace us!”. They are justified in wanting to oppress them, because gosh, those Jews are just so oppressive.

EP journals are just sitting there indulging them, too — my objection isn’t to the Cofnas article itself, but the whole field that seems to think this is a subject that is worth discussing, to the point where they’re feeling the need to publish rebuttals to bad theories that are widely endorsed in their own journals. I think it’s a good idea for science journals to be open in criticizing creationism, for instance, because those bad ideas are currently widespread in popular culture (as are racist ideas). It would be a disgrace if science journals were also publishing creationist trash, but that’s exactly analogous to what EP journals do: publish an onanistic mix of terrible, awful, ridiculous articles with a few articles that try to rebut them. It’s a roiling mess that keeps the publishers in business but does nothing to advance our knowledge.

If you’re in evolutionary psychology, get out while you still can. Distance yourself. Refuse to publish in the usual EP journals, because you’re just going to get tarred with the deplorable taint of the whole field. Maybe you’re a competent scientist with great logical skills, but you can’t build on a foundation of invalid rubbish.

It’s too late for the editorial board of Evolutionary Psychological Science. I hadn’t looked until Rebecca mentioned it, but all the usual suspects are there: Kurzban, Buss, Pinker, and Sam Harris (his affiliation is listed as “Independent Scholar”). They ought to be as embarrassed as the board of a molecular biology journal that started printing articles by creationists.

The cruelest cut against evolutionary psychology

Larry Moran summarizes some criticisms of evolutionary psychology. He even cites philosophers who recognize the deep flaws in the field! But then, as a coup de grâce, he carries out the most damaging criticism of all: he quotes an evolutionary psychologist. Dang. That’s low.

Even more cruelly, he quotes the ridiculous Gad Saad, a professor of marketing who has made a career out of peddling poor interpretations of evolution designed to pander to MRAs and other frauds. Saad was asked to provide a list of notable achievements by evolutionary psychology, and he obliged.

  1. Women alter their preferences for the facial features of men as a function of where they are in their menstrual cycles. When maximally fertile, they prefer men possessing markers of high testosterone.
  2. Babies display an immediate instinctual preference for symmetric faces (at an age that precedes the capacity for socialization).
  3. Children who suffer from congenital adrenal hyperplasia display a reversal in their toy preferences. Furthermore, using inter-species comparisons, vervet monkeys display the same sex-specific patterns of play/toy preferences as human infants. This suggests that contrary to the argument made by social constructivists, play has an evolved biological basis.
  4. Individuals who score high on an empathy scale are more likely to succumb to the contagion effects of yawning. This is indicative that this particular contagion might be linked to mimicry and/or Theory of Mind.
  5. How provocatively a woman dresses is highly correlated to her menstrual cycle (a form of sexual signaling found across countless Mammalian species).
  6. Culinary traditions are adaptations to local niches. For example, the extent to which a culture utilizes meat versus vegetables, spices, or salt is a cultural adaptation (this is what behavioral ecologists study).
  7. Maternal grandmothers and paternal grandfathers invest the most and the least respectively in their grandchildren. Whereas all four grandparents have a genetic relatedness coefficient of 0.25 with their grandchildren, they do not all carry the same level of “parental uncertainty.” In the case of maternal grandmothers, there is no uncertainty whereas in the case of the paternal grandfather, there are two sources of uncertainty. This last fact drives the differential pattern of investment in the grandchildren.
  8. Good male dancers are symmetric (paper published in Nature). One would expect that some behavioral traits might correlate with phenotypic quality as honest signals of an individual’s desirability on the mating market.
  9. Self-preference for perfumes is linked to one’s immunogenetic profile (Major Histocompatibility Complex).
  10. When a baby is born, most family members (especially those of the mother) are likely to state that the baby looks like the father. This phenomenon is found in countless cultures despite the fact that it is objectively impossible to make such a claim of resemblance. The reason for this universally found cultural tradition lies in the need to assuage the fears of paternity uncertainty.
  11. Environmental stressors (e.g., father absence) and the onset of menarche (first menses) have been shown to be highly linked. In numerous species, the likelihood of a female becoming reproductively viable is affected by environmental contingencies.
  12. Women are less receptive to mandatory hospital DNA paternity testing (for obvious reasons). In other words, their willingness to adopt a new product/service is fully driven by an evolutionary-based calculus.
  13. Women can smell the most symmetric men. In other words, women have the capacity to identify men who possess the best phenotypic quality simply via their nose. This is what I have referred to as sensorial convergence.
  14. Using fMRI, the exposure to ecologically-relevant stimuli (e.g., beautiful faces) yields distinct neural activation patterns in men and women.
  15. In choosing a mate, humans tend to prefer the smell of others that are maximally dissimilar to them along the MHC. This ensures that offspring possess a greater “defensive coverage” in terms of their immunological system.

That’s a curious mix of dubious pop psychology, random correlations, non-universal cultural biases, and unjustified assumptions that certain behaviors have a genetic, as opposed to psychological, basis. For example, you don’t need a gene for assuming that infidelity exists…you can know how conception works and figure out that women can get pregnant by men who are not their socially defined partner, which may be why there is a certain level of distrust of paternity claims.

There’s also a total inability to recognize that physiological properties are not always adaptive consequences. For instance, evolutionary psychologists seem to be obsessed with ascribing deep evolutionary causes to fluctuations in behavior associated with menstruation. I can certainly believe in hormonally-driven variation in personality and behavior — that’s unexceptional and ordinary — but to then argue that small day-to-day differences in behavior have all been driven by a necessarily intense selection pressure is absurd panadaptationism.

You might also expect a Professor of Marketing to realize that a culture saturated with commercial marketing of stereotypical sexual imagery might develop abnormal response patterns — we are bathed in messaging that is conditioning us to advertisers’ influence, and may not have anything at all to do with our evolutionary history. There’s a circularity to it all. Marketing is all about shaping our preferences in particular directions, and then you get EP marketing professors trying to persuade us that they have no influence at all, they’re just discerning the deep patterns evolution has burned into our brains, so that they can be better able to influence us to buy their cologne and the associated body images with which they advertise it.

Also, and this might just be my personal bias, but marketing is simply the blood-laced, putrefying pus oozing from the suppurating teats of that great Satan, Capitalism, upon which Evolutionary Psychology greedily feeds. It is a potent poison that is not to be trusted.