The Panspermia Mafia strikes again!

A reader informed me that I was mentioned in a British magazine, and sent me a scan of the relevant bit. It’s not so much my brief mention that interested me, as that it’s another example of the Panspermia Mafia in action. It’s an article about a recently elected Conservative MP, Jamie Wallis, who has a science degree…or does he?

Dominic Cummings has bemoaned the fact that many MPs “did degrees such as English, history, and PPE. They operate with…little maths or science.” Thankfully, Dr Jamie Wallis, the new Conservative MP for Bridgend, is that rarest of things: an MP with not just a science degree, but a PhD in “astrobiology” to boot.

Where it gets interesting is that he obtained a PhD from, I presume, Cardiff University, which was NC Wickramasinghe’s former affiliation, although he has since ensconced himself at the Buckingham Centre for Astrobiology. There is reason to doubt that Wallis actually did the caliber of work we expect in a PhD thesis.

Completing a PhD while co-directing several companies is quite an achievement. Wallis’s thesis, “Evidence of Panspermia: From Astronomy to Meteorites”, is devoted to the niche and widely rejected theories of his supervisor, one NC Wickramasinghe. Notoriously, Wickramasinghe maintains not only that life on earth arrived on comets, but that organisms continue to regularly arrive by this method. (Just last week, he wrote to the Lancet helpfully suggesting the novel coronavirus COVID-19 arrived in China from space.)

Why does the Lancet, or any respectable journal, continue to publish crank letters from Wickramasinghe? But OK, I think it’s established that Wallis’s degree was somehow earned under the supervision of a well-known fringe kook, and that it’s questionable how much work he actually invested in the project, which sounds like some kind of review involving no independent research.

But why do I call this the Panspermia Mafia? They use their connections to promote a small family of fellow travelers.

Appropriately, given that the theory of cosmic panspermia is about origins, involvement with Wickramasinghe seems to be a Wallis family affair. A typical thesis might produce several publications. Wallis Jnr’s thesis lists an astonishing 21 with him as an author — mostly not in peer-reviewed journals — 16 of which include his dad in the author list. And of the eight publications that supposedly have been peer-reviewed, six are in the highly dubious Journal of Cosmology. Wickramasinghe is the “executive editor” for astrobiology for the journal, described by US scientist PZ Myers as the “ginned-up website of a small group of crank academics”.

Yeah, that’s about it — it’s so inbred that it relies on the one guy who has a name and connections but very little credibility, Wickramasinghe, to promote the members of his cabal in a roster of fake journals. This article didn’t examine them in detail, but I suspect that all 21 of the articles are rehashed, recycled, barely rewritten examples of frantic self-plagiarism. To say you got a degree with Wickramasinghe is the British equivalent of saying you’re a colleague of Kent Hovind.

Isn’t it nice that he provides a pipeline for Conservatives to claim they have the authority of science? Just in case you’re wondering, no, they don’t.

IMPORTANT: do not learn anatomy from reddit or twitter

Or from men, apparently.

Men can’t possibly commit sexual assault, because there’s no way they’d be able to find their way about in a woman’s nethers. They’ll just fumble about and end up poking her in a dimple in her knee, or something.

Or they’re just grossed out by the arrangement of parts.

I think we all want that guy to continue to be repulsed by all women. It’s best for everyone.

It’s an anniversary!

Ten years ago today, the Lancet issued a formal retraction of Andrew Wakefield’s notorious bogus paper claiming a link between MMR vaccinations and autism. The paper was wrong, it was shoddily done, and the work hasn’t been replicated.

Ever since, Wakefield has been living in shame, no one treats him as an authority anymore, and of course no one would claim that vaccines cause autism anymore.

Bad science tries to drip its way into everything

You want to read a really good take-down of a bad science paper? Here you go. It’s a plea to Elsevier to retract a paper published in Personality and Individual Differences because…well, it’s racist garbage, frequently cited by racists who don’t understand the science but love the garbage interpretation. It really is a sign that we need better reviewers to catch this crap.

The paper is by Rushton, who polluted the scientific literature for decades, and Templer, published in 2012. It’s titled “Do pigmentation and the melanocortin system modulate aggression and sexuality in humans as they do in other animals?”, and you can tell what it’s trying to do: it’s trying to claim there is a genetic linkage between skin color and sexual behavior and violence, justifying it with an appeal to biology. It fails, because the authors don’t understand biology or genetics.

They’re advocating something called the pleiotropy hypothesis, which is the idea that every gene has multiple effects (this is true!), and that therefore every phenotype has effects that ripple across to every other phenotype (partially, probably mostly true), so that seeing one aspect of a phenotype means you can make valid predictions about other aspects of the phenotype (mostly not at all true). This allows them to abuse a study in other mammals to claim that human outcomes are identical. Here’s the key graf:

The basis of the pleiotropy hypothesis presented by Rushton and Templer hinges on a citation from Ducrest et al. (2008), which posits ‘pleiotropic effects of the melanocortins might account for the widespread covariance between melanin-based coloration and other phenotypic traits in vertebrates.’ However, Rushton and Templer misrepresent this work by extending it to humans, even though Ducrest et al. (2008) explicitly state, ‘these predictions hold only when variation in melanin-based coloration is mediated by variation in the level of the agonists at MC1R… [conversely] there should be no consistent association between melanin-based coloration and other phenotypic traits when variation in coloration is due to mutations at effectors of melanogenesis such as MC1R [as is the case in humans].’ Ducrest et al. continue, ‘variation in melanin-based coloration between human populations is primarily due to mutations at, for example, MC1R, TYR, MATP and SLC24A5 [29,30] and that human populations are therefore not expected to consistently exhibit the associations between melanin-based coloration and the physiological and behavioural traits reported in our study’ [emphasis mine]. Rushton and Templer ignore this critical passage, saying only ‘Ducrest et al. (2008) [caution that], because of genetic mutations, melanin-based coloration may not exhibit these traits consistently across human populations.’ This is misleading. The issue is not that genetic mutations will make melanin-based pleiotropy inconsistent across human populations, but that the genes responsible for skin pigmentation in humans are completely different to the genes Ducrest et al. describe.

To translate…developmental biologists and geneticists are familiar with the concept of an epistatic pathway, that is, of genes affecting the expression of other genes. So, for instance, Gene A might switch on Gene B which switches on Gene C, in an oversimplified pattern of regulation.

Nothing is ever that simple, we know. Gene A might also switch on Gene Delta and Gene Gamma — this is called pleiotropy, where one gene has multiple effects. And Gene Gamma might also activate Gene B, and Gene B might feed back on Gene A, and B might have pleiotropic effects on Gene Beta and Gene E and Gene C.

This stuff gets delightfully tangled, and is one of the reasons I love developmental biology. Everything is one big complex network of interactions.

What does this have to do with Rushton & Templer’s faulty interpretation? They looked at a study that identified mutations in a highly pleiotropic component of the pigmentation pathway — basically, they’re discussing Gene A in my cartoon — and equating that to a terminal gene in humans, equivalent to Gene C in my diagram. Human variations in skin color are mostly due to mutations in effector genes at the end of the pathway, like MC1R. It will have limited pleiotropic effects compared to genes higher up in the epistatic hierarchy, like the ones Ducrest et al. described. Worst of all, Ducrest et al. explicitly discussed how the kind of comparison Rushton & Templer would make is invalid! They had to willfully edit the conclusions to make their argument, which is more than a little dishonest.

It reminds me of another recent disclosure of a creationist paper that also misrepresented its results. This paper, published in the International Journal of Neuroscience, openly declared that it had evidence for creationism.

In the paper, Kuznetsov reportedly identified an mRNA from one vole species that blocked protein synthesis in a related vole species. That same mRNA, however, did not block translation in the original vole species or another species that was more distantly related. The finding, Kuznetsov wrote in his report, supported “the general creationist concept on the problems of the origin of boundless multitudes of different and harmonically functioning forms of life.”

I vaguely remember reading that paper and rolling my eyes at how weak and sloppy the data was — it was never taken seriously by anyone but creationists. I don’t recall the details, though, because it was published 30 years ago, and is only now being retracted, after decades of the author fabricating data and being so obvious about it that he was fired as editor of two journals in 2013. The guy had a reputation, shall we say. Yet he managed to maintain this academic facade for years.

Phillipe Rushton had similarly managed to keep up the pretense of being a serious academic for an awfully long time, right up until his death in 2012. He used his reputation to spray all kinds of fecal nonsense into the scientific literature, and that’s why you have to maintain a skeptical perspective even when reading prestigious journals.

Pounded in the Butt by Our Carnivore Diet

I read a curious book last night…well, more like skimmed an odd and repetitious assortment of short transcripts. Jordan & Mikhaila Peterson – Our Carnivore Diet: How to cure Depression and Disease with Meat only: Revised Transcripts and Blogposts. Featuring Dr. Shawn Baker was available for free on Kindle Unlimited, so I downloaded it.

It’s bad.

The cover is a hint. It’s a poor Photoshop with sloppy layout, the kind of thing you’d see on a self-published romance novel with the smiling heroine in front in her best bikini, and in the background the brooding, rich Heathcliff she’s going to win over…except, oh dear, that’s her father in the swim trunks. Seriously, Dr Peterson, you’re rich enough to hire a graphics pro to do the design. Chuck Tingle could have done a far better job, and would have at least thrown in a few dinosaurs and a sentient physical manifestation or two.

The contents are worse. The first chapter is a transcript of an interview with Steve Paikin (who?). The second and third are transcripts of interviews with Joe Rogan (yeesh). The fourth is a transcript of a podcast with Robb Wolf (?). The fifth is a transcript of…you get the idea. Then there are a couple of extracted blog posts, and a bonus(!) transcript of some carnivore diet proponent named Shawn Baker (who? again). And they’re all the same!

All can be summarized similarly. Jordan Peterson or Mikhaila Peterson talk with a sympathetic host about how miserable their lives were, and how Mikhaila was afflicted with these terrible idiopathic diseases and Jordan was so depressed. I believe that part. Mikhaila had rheumatoid arthritis to such a terrible degree that she had hip and ankle joints replaced with prosthetics, and Jordan always comes across as a sad sack. They were really sick! And then they say they got better when they started cutting stuff out of their diet, finally getting down to nothing but beef and salt and water. Yay! They found the cure! And the gullible hosts praise them.

Except, I would say two things. They were suffering from real but idiopathic diseases. All “idiopathic” means is that the doctors don’t know the causes. Have they considered the fact that their “cure” is also idiopathic? I accept that they say they feel better now, but we don’t know that their all-meat diet has anything at all to do with it, and announcing that they have the universal CURE in a book title is classic quackery.

The second issue is that every chapter in their book is a repetitive recital of the same damn things: the same two people describing their complaints and their history, in nearly the same words, in public broadcasts over and over. If you repeat the same anecdote 11 times, it doesn’t magically transform into empirical data.

After reading their best case summary of their diet, I am not at all tempted to try it. In fact, I’ve gone the opposite way in my life, cutting way back on meat and enjoying a vegetarian diet, and I feel pretty good.

If I repeat that sentence 11 times would you find that a compelling reason that you should conform to my dietary rules? I would hope not.

Maybe if I also put a photo of my wife in a bikini on the cover?

We should colonize Mars, because it is inimical to human life, and therefore we’ll evolve super-fast!

Now this is high-quality click-bait: Near-Sighted Kids of Martian Colonists Could Find Sex With Earth-Humans Deadly. If only HG Wells had thought of that, his story would have had a more dramatic end as squinty-eyed Martian invaders dropped dead while trying to rape humans. The source for this peculiar claim isn’t that bad, but it’s still bad science. It’s about a guy who makes predictions about the future of human space colonists.

Solomon’s 2016 book, Future Humans: Inside the Science of Our Continuing Evolution, argues that evolution is still a force at play in modern humans. In an awe-inspiring TEDx talk in January 2018 — which inexplicably still has fewer than 1,000 views — Solomon outlined how humans would change — literally — after spending a generation or two living on Mars.

There’s the problem. These ideas are coming out of a TED talk, which is a good source for misinformation. I listened to it, and it was not awe-inspiring at all, but bad: it starts with the Elon-Muskian notion that the human race is doomed if we stay on Earth and we need to colonize other worlds. He lists a few ways we might go extinct, like a meteor strike, or erupting super-volcanoes, or using up all the resources on Earth. But he has a solution! One way to avoid such a fate would be to spread out beyond Earth, venturing out into the galaxy the way our ancestors spread from our birthplace in Africa.

I felt like raising my hand and mentioning that one and a quarter billion people still live in Africa, and that there are a lot of people who might wonder who you’re talking to with that “our ancestors” comment.

I’d also want to mention that changes occurring within two generations are going to be physiological adaptations, not evolutionary changes.

And galaxy? Seriously? He’s talking about a pie-in-the-sky effort to colonize Mars, practically our neighbor yet still almost impossible to reach. If we’ve got our pick of the entire galaxy, surely there are better choices than a cold, arid rock that is uninhabitable by humans.

It gets worse from there.

It’s a weird talk. The first half is all about how awful life on Mars would be for our species: the greatly reduced gravity is going to lead to calcium depletion and brittle bones, and much greater complications in pregnancy. The radiation is going to be a severe, even lethal problem — he points out that a native of Mars would receive 5,000 times the radiation dose of an inhabitant of Earth. Babies born on Mars will bear thousands of times more mutations than Earth babies, so miscarriages will be far more common.

You may be thinking that this sounds like a hell-hole, that the tiny population of humans who make it to Mars will be rapidly eliminated by fierce attrition, and that any colony will be far more doomed than anyone remaining on Earth. Not to this guy! He makes some very positive predictions about what will happen to this remote colony.

Far from waiting thousands of years to witness minuscule changes, Solomon instead believes that humans going to Mars could be on the verge of an evolutionary rollercoaster. He expects, among other things, that their bones will be stronger, their sight shorter, and that they’ll, at some point, have to stop having sex with Earth-humans.

But how? Solomon has an almost religious faith in the power of natural selection. Sure, there’ll be lots more mutations, but that just means evolutionary changes that might require thousands of years on Earth will occur in a few generations on Mars. He sort of sails over the fact that his hypothesis bypasses any opportunity for natural selection to work. He’s relying entirely on wishful thinking, that because brittle bones are a problem, a spontaneous mutation that counters it will arise, and rapidly spread through the colony…in a couple of generations. He doesn’t seem to be aware of the cost of selection. You’ve already got a tiny population, and you’re proposing that rare mutations will displace the majority of the individuals in a few generations? What kind of genetic load is he predicting? What is the effective population size of your colony?

“Evolution is faster or slower depending on how much of an advantage there is to having a certain mutation,” Solomon says. “If a mutation pops up for people living on Mars, and it gives them a 50-percent survival advantage, that’s a huge advantage, right? And that means that those individuals are going to be passing those genes on at a much higher rate than they otherwise would have.”

So we’re expecting an extremely rare advantageous mutation with extremely high adaptive value to “pop up” in a colony, while ignoring the greater likelihood of lethal or sterilizing mutations. We’ve got predictable increases in short-term adapations, like rising near-sightedness rates from living in close spaces, but we’ll pretend the predictable increases in cancer rates are negligible. Further, this population undergoing constant, rapid die-off with a few very rare benign mutations will, among other things, lose immune responses due to living in a sterile environment, which is how they’ll lose the ability to have sex with, or even contact with filthy Earth-humans, preventing the possibility of replacement of losses with new immigrants.

But cool, they might evolve new skin tones to cope with the radiation, because turning orange with more carotenes in your skin will be sufficiently protective to compensate for all the other damages.

He’s at least vaguely aware that they’re going to need a large, rich source of human genetic diversity to get all this “evolution” going.

It also means Musk and others will need to consider genetic diversity, to ensure a good mix throughout the population. Solomon argues for around 100,000 people migrating to Mars over the course of a few years, with the majority from Africa, as that is where humans see the greatest genetic diversity.

“If I were designing a human colony on Mars, I would want a population that would be hundreds of thousands of people, with representatives of every human population here on Earth,” Solomon says.

OK, how? At least this is a good example of a biologist telling physicists to do the impossible, rather than vice versa, but I’m just thinking this is silly. The resources required to ship hundreds of thousands of people to a place where the majority are going to die and fail might be better spent improving the sustainability of life on Earth. At least he did early on acknowledge that resource depletion might be a factor that would limit survivability, it just wasn’t clear that he wanted to engineer a situation to make his prophecy come true.

Finally, the fact that his solution relies entirely on unpredictable, chance mutations occurring so rapidly that natural selection has no time to work means that his fundamental premise, that he can make predictions about the fate of human colonies on other worlds, is absolute rubbish.

I don’t mind a little optimism, but it’s the internal contradictions and neglect of basic facts that gets to me.

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 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.

Wildly exaggerating dinosaur technology as a recipe for attention

It’s happening again. I’m seeing the idea of dinosaurs being resurrected in the lab in the news again. It happens all the time. I saw it in 2009; in 2013, they were predicting it would happen within 5 years (what year is it now?). Ever since, there are these frequent outbursts of “scientists say they can recreate living dinosaurs!”,
over and over and over and over again. They always say “scientists”, plural, but if you plow through that deluge of articles, it always turns out to be one scientist, singular, and that scientist is Jack Horner. One man is constantly making this claim, usually with references to Jurassic Park so that credulous reporters will understand it.

Let’s stop, OK?

In theory, we may someday be able to genetically modify extant organisms to give them attributes associated with dinosaurs — sharp teeth, long claws, long tail, etc. — but they will not be recreating dinosaurs. They would be creating organisms of no practical utility and only the most tenuous connection to dinosaurs. They would be big ugly variations on modern birds, which could nominally be called “dinosaurs”, but we don’t need Frankenstein’s lab to do that…just go look up emus and ostriches.

Horner’s skills are in paleontology. Doing this would require expertise in genetics, molecular biology, and development. He doesn’t have that. He just keeps getting up in front of journalists and lay audiences and announcing that can do that. I think he has just enough smarts that he recognizes an eventual possibility, but not enough knowledge to appreciate how difficult what he wants is.

He’s a perfect example of the cocky ol’ white man confidently declaring that something will be done, while not knowing how to do it, and the press throws all skepticism and concern for evidence to the winds because, well, how can you doubt the credibility of a successful white man? If anyone else said this (and no one else is), they would be dismissed as a crackpot.

But hey, he’s got a reference: a 1990 science fiction novel by a Luddite whose primary point was that science was overrated and technology was evil. That’s pretty much it.

If you think Horner is prescient and wise, I’ll just remind you that, in his late 60s, he married a 19 year old undergraduate student (which did not produce so much as a reprimand from his university, surprisingly. Or not.)

I repeat: making a monster chicken might be possible with a lot of money, a lot of time, a lot of molecular/genetic expertise. There is no motivation to do so, no big initiative to make it happen, no cutting edge team of biotechnologists working away in a secret lab to “recreate” dinosaurs. There is one old guy making extravagant claims to gullible audiences.

Stop treating this as news, please.