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?

No.

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.

Whut?

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.

Evolutionary Psychology poisons everything

This study comes to a happy conclusion, and then wrecks it all with EP bullshit. What the researchers did was to email requests for either a pdf of a paper or copies of the raw data to researchers, and what they found was a high degree of cooperativity: 80% were willing to send a pdf, 60% were willing to send data. They seem to think this is surprisingly prosocial, but actually, I was a little surprised the numbers were so low. I was brought up to consider this to be expected — back in my old-timey days, when you published a paper, you also ordered a great big box of reprints, because people would send you postcards asking for a copy, and you’d mail it to them. Now you just push a button on a computer, and only 80% oblige? OK, I guess that’s an alright result.

They analyzed further, though, and also found a sex difference. If you were a man requesting a paper from a man, you were 15% more likely to get a positive response. That’s troubling. I’d say that that could be interpreted as indicating a continuing sexism in science. But that’s not enough for these authors.

There is no evolutionary analysis involved in this study, but of course, the reason for their result is…evolution.

Massen and his colleagues say that one possible explanation for their results “may be that among male academics there is a network at play, in which they favor each other much like ‘Old Boy’ networks”. They also suggest that this imbalance might have evolutionary roots and point to an idea called the male-warrior hypothesis, which states that men have evolved to form strong bonds with other males in their group because in the past this enabled them to defend territory from hostile attackers.

“Men are more ready to cooperate with genetic-stranger males to form these fighting coalitions,” says Mark van Vugt, an evolutionary psychologist at the Free University of Amsterdam who first suggested the theory in 2007. Some of the evidence for this idea comes from lab-based tasks such as public-goods games (in which volunteers choose how many tokens to keep or share), but there are some real-world hints too, he says. Boys tend to play in larger groups than girls, van Vugt says, and in sports such as tennis and boxing, men make more effort to bond with their opponent after a match or fight than women do. However cultural factors are also thought to be at work.

Jebus. Can I just say the words “US Women’s Soccer Team” and see this whole bogus line of reasoning vanish in a spray of flop sweat and tears from the men’s team?

Now that David Brooks has endorsed it, can we declare evolutionary psychology brain-dead and pull the plug?

This is a doozy of a canard that just won’t die. It’s how idiots who don’t understand evolution, but know that the theory is highly esteemed by scientists, attempt to coopt Darwin to be the figurehead for racism and sexism.

The Cultural Marxist War against Darwinism

Creationists: evolution is a social construct, not biologically real.

Liberal Creationists: race is a social construct, not biologically real.

Charles Darwin: I’m not a creationist: I’ll use the word ‘race’ in title of my Origin of Species

It’s the dumbass dichotomy: you will either believe in their crude, ill-informed, cartoon version of biology that says that black people are different and inferior, or you’re a creationist. It’s false. The argument is rotten all the way through. Not only do I reject the premise as ill-informed and wrong, but I also reject it because it’s a blatant attempt to commandeer science to be their banner.

It’s bad enough that racists play this game, but guess who else does it? Evolutionary psychologists. Evolutionary psychologists are just the worst.

So I got called out by Lilian Carvalho, a professor of marketing at a business school who studies consumer behavior and — what else? — evolutionary psychology. I have to revise my previous statement: evolutionary psychologists who think their crude misunderstandings of how evolution works gives them a handle on consumer behavior and marketing are the worst of the worst.

Anyway, Carvalho twitted this:

Another false dichotomy, common to evolutionary psychologists! You see, if you don’t accept their adaptationist model of how the human brain evolved, with every quirk and kink selected to be optimal for life on the savannah 10-100 thousand years ago, then you think biology only works from the neck down. They like to set themselves up as the sole arbiter of how brains evolved, when they always seem to have such a poor grasp of evolution in general, and usually are just coming at it in defense of the biases of the status quo.

I took a look at her twitter history before blocking her, and oh, yeah — it’s full of familiar names, “scientific” racists and anti-feminists and marketing professors, basically a collection of third rate ignoramuses puffing themselves up by waving Darwin around as their virtue signal. Ugh. I don’t need that crap in my life.

But then I read…David Brooks. Fuck me sideways, but we’ve found the worst of the worst of the worst.

Like all the EP wackaloons, he’s irate over the James Damore affair — he argues that Damore shouldn’t have been fired, because he was correct about the biology (which raises the question…how would a conservative pundit with no qualifications for anything know?), but that the CEO of Google, Sundar Pichai, ought to be fired for joining the mob. Of course, he cites evolutionary psychologists as saying Damore’s manifesto was scientifically accurate when the truth is that an evolutionary psychologist wouldn’t recognize scientific accuracy if it bit him in his bright pink berries.

I hit this paragraph and was stunned at the magnitude of the dishonesty and inanity.

Damore was tapping into the long and contentious debate about genes and behavior. On one side are those who believe that humans come out as blank slates and are formed by social structures. On the other are the evolutionary psychologists who argue that genes interact with environment and play a large role in shaping who we are. In general the evolutionary psychologists have been winning this debate.

Whoa. Brooks sets up two strawmen, labels them incorrectly, stages a battle in his head, and declares the victor.

Look, guy, the nature/nurture debate is dead. Any time I see someone setting up an argument with this hoary ancient dichotomy, I know I’m dealing with an uninformed nitwit. But to characterize it as Brooks has done is carrying idiocy to an absurd degree.

And then…the blank slate. Good god, I blame Pinker for reviving this bullshit and using it to slander his scientific opponents. No one believes the human mind is a blank slate. No one. I’m probably as liberal as most scientists come, you can call me a SJW and I don’t blink an eye, and you won’t find me claiming that. I believe we carry all kinds of predispositions (like a tendency towards tribalism…) that are consequences of our biological nature. I know there are biological differences between men and women, but I also know that people like to falsely rationalize behavioral differences as somehow innate and genetic. That first straw man is basically a nonexistent cartoon.

His second straw man made my jaw drop. evolutionary psychologists … argue that genes interact with environment…unbelievable. The standard understanding among all knowledgeable biologists is that organisms are products of genes and environment interacting; you can’t tease the two apart. That’s why the nature/nurture debate is archaic nonsense. What Brooks has written there is not the key property of evolutionary psychology. It’s what actual evolutionary biologists think.

Evolutionary psychologists believe that the human brain evolved in a specific environment over 10,000 years ago, and that all of the features of how our minds work can be described as adaptations to that environment. It is profoundly dishonest to appropriate the mainstream understanding of the role of genes and environment and credit it to a pseudoscience, while leaving out the actual premises of that pseudoscience. Evolutionary psychologists emphasize the primacy of genetic explanations; they argue that human behavioral traits — how well we do at math, who is most suitable for working in computer science — are affected by a legacy of genes we inherited from our paleozoic ancestors, and that they have the tools to determine exactly which traits are adaptive products of our past. They don’t. They’re masters of the panadaptationist just-so story, nothing more.

And then Brooks declares that the evolutionary psychologists are winning. But he’s just used a bogus definition of evolutionary psychology, one that is more appropriate to real biologists, and pretended that their opponent is a caricature, the blank slater.

Man, those two straw puppets just whaled the hell out of each other.

Yet people are citing David Brooks as the voice of reason all over the place — even Steven Pinker retweeted it. Wait. Of course Pinker would retweet that pile of crap.

James Damore was speaking bullshit calmly, so I can sort of understand David Brooks approving of it, as a kind of professional courtesy among bullshitters. But if you know anything about the science, you shouldn’t accept these lies.

Science doesn’t say that biology holds women back in the workplace. What Damore and Brooks have written is the same old exhaustingly familiar apologetics for discrimination. It’s not science, it’s prejudice pretending to be science.

And right now, evolutionary psychology is the field of choice for bigots who want to pretend to be scientists.

A new challenge for Evolutionary Psychology!

The berry-picking stuff has been done to death — and I haven’t even gotten to blueberries and tubers — but here’s an idea that ought to be pursued. What is the evolutionary and genetic basis of different ways of buttoning shirts? It’s a consistent pattern, has been that way for centuries, so by EP logic, there is surely a button-handedness module or gene.

Once they’ve figured that one out, they should get to work on pockets. That’s an infuriating sex difference.

History will judge evolutionary psychology as the phrenology of our era

I’ve criticized evolutionary psychology more than a few times, and usually my arguments rest on their appallingly bad understanding of the “evolutionary” part of their monicker — proponents all seem to be rank adaptationists with a cartoon understanding of evolution. But what about the “psychology” part? I’ve mentioned at least one dissection of EP by a psychologist in the past, but here’s another one, a paper by the same author, Brad Peters, that explains that evolutionary psychology is poor neurobiology and bad psychology.

The paper points out that EP uses evidence inappropriately, ignores the range of alternative explanations to set up false dichotomies (“if you don’t accept evolutionary psychology, you must also deny evolution!”), plays rhetorical games to dodge questions about its assumptions, and basically is pulling an ideologically distorted version of neuroscience out of its institutional ass.

Evolutionary psychology defines the human mind as comprising innate and domainspecific information-processing mechanisms that were designed to solve specific evolutionary problems of our Pleistocene past. This model of the mind is the underlying blueprint used to engage in the kind of research that characterizes the field: speculating about how these innate mechanisms worked and what kinds of evolutionary problems they solved. But while evolutionary psychologists do engage in research to confirm or disconfirm their hypotheses, the results of even the most rigorous studies have been open to alternative, scientifically valid means of interpretation. What constitutes “evidence” would seem to vary in accordance with the theoretical assumptions of those viewing it. Arguments about, or appeals to, “the evidence” may thus involve little more than theoretical bible-thumping or pleading for others to view the “facts” from their preferred theoretical perspective. When theoretical paradigms are unable to agree on what it is that they are looking at, it reminds us that the data are anything but objective, and gives good reason to question the theoretical blueprints being used. This paper argues that evolutionary psychology’s assumptive definitions regarding the mind are often inconsistent with neurobiological evidence and may neglect very real biological constraints that could place limits on the kinds of hypotheses that can be safely posited. If there are problematic assumptions within evolutionary psychology’s definition of the mind, then we also have reason to question their special treatment of culture and learning, since both are thought to be influenced by modular assumptions unique to the paradigm. It is finally suggested that the mind can be adequately understood and its activities properly explained without hypothetical appeal to countless genetically pre-specified psychological programs, and in a way that remains consistent with both our neurobiology and neo-Darwinian evolution. While some of these critiques have been previously stated by others, the present paper adds to the discussion by providing a succinct summary of the most devastating arguments while offering new insights and examples that further highlight the key problems that face this field. Importantly, the critiques presented here are argued to be capable of standing their ground, regardless of whether evolutionary psychology claims the mind to be massively or moderately modular in composition. This paper thus serves as a continuation of the debate between evolutionary psychology and its critics. It will be shown how recent attempts to characterize critiques as “misunderstandings” seem to evade or ignore the main problems, while apparent “clarifications” continue to rely on some of the same theoretical assumptions that are being attacked by critics.

Another valid criticism is how evolutionary psychologists seem to be unaware of how the brain actually develops and works. Anybody who has actually studied neurodevelopment will know that plasticity is a hallmark. While genes pattern the overall structure, it’s experience that fine-tunes all the connections.

The current consensus within the neurobiological sciences seems to support a view where much of the brain is thought to be highly plastic and in which an abundance of neural growth, pruning, and differentiation of networks is directly influenced by environmental experience. This is especially the case for secondary, tertiary, and associational areas, which make up the majority of the brain’s neocortex and are primarily involved in the kinds of complex, higher-order, psychological processes that appear to be of greatest interest to experimental psychologists. These particular areas seemingly lack characteristics indicative of innate modularity, though, with experience and use, they may build upon the functional complexity of adjacent primary cortices that perhaps have such characteristics.

I also like that he addresses a common metaphor in EP — floating free of good evidence, much of the field relies on glib metaphors — that we can just treat the brain like it is a computer. It may compute, but it’s not very analogous to what’s going on in your desktop machine or phone. We aren’t made of circuits hard-printed by machines in Seoul; there is a general substrate of capabilities built upon by the experiences of the user. Further, we’re not entirely autonomous but rely in the most fundamental ways on by growth and development, sculpted by culture.

We can see the problem from a different perspective using evolutionary psychology’s favored computer analogy. While it is true that humans have some engrained and preprogrammed biological circuits, all evidence would suggest that, unlike modern computers, our environmental experiences can cause these mental circuits to become edited, hi-jacked, intensified or lessened, inhibited, and so on. How else might we explain a person acquiring a phobia of hats, a fetish for shoes, or having an apparent indifference to what might be an evolutionarily relevant danger (e.g., cliff jumping)? If we accept this is true, we must also accept that it becomes difficult to say what might have been there at birth, or instead shaped by common environmental experiences that we all share. Modern computers cannot be re-programmed without a human; they do not function like the human mind. We are the ones who effectively tell computers what the binary ones and zeros of their programming language will represent. We give symbolic meaning to the code, which allows us to even say that computers processes information. Now let us turn to the human mind. Evolutionary psychologists want to say that meaning and information are objectively pre-programmed by our inherited biology. However, it would appear that we extract much of our information, and the meaning it contains, from a sociocultural cloud of symbolic representations that belong to a shared human subjectivity, or something Raymond Tallis refers to as the community of minds. Our subjective mental states are thus socioculturally structured and shaped through our reliance on an agreed-upon language and agreed-upon sets of subjective human meanings. The brain is only one part of the picture: it facilitates the mechanistic activities of the mind, but it does not solely cause them. Human meanings, which belong to the collective community of minds, will thus often transcend the underlying mechanisms that represent them.

Wait. If the “evolution” part is crap, and the “psychology” part is bullshit, what’s left in evolutionary psychology to respect?


Peters, BM (2013) Evolutionary psychology: Neglecting neurobiology in defining the mind. Theory & Psychology 23(3) 305–322.

Here we go again: another cock-eyed defense of evolutionary psychology

This Myles Power guy fished up an evolutionary psychologist to write a defense of of EP, which is not at all impressive. I’m sure he could also find an acupuncturist to write many words about the wonders of sticking needles in people, but I wouldn’t be impressed with that, either.

I will just point out that this fellow also has decided that everyone who criticizes EP is ideologically motivated to hate it; it can’t possibly be that we detest it because it is bad science. And of course he pisses me off with his dishonest opening.

Now, before I begin, ask yourself this, if you are against EP, why? Which of the following do you disagree with:

  • Evolution shapes both the morphology and behaviour of organisms
  • Humans are as much a product of evolution as any other organism
  • Humans behaviour should show evidence of being shaped by evolution

Because if the answer is, “well, none of them”, then there is really no need to go anything further. Because that’s all EP is in the end, looking at humans from the point of view of evolution. It’s taking 150 years of evolutionary theory and applying it to human behaviour. That’s it. We can discuss the impact any evolved pre-dispositions have on behaviour in the context of social, cognitive and biological perspectives without name-calling. So we’re good yes?

No. We’re not good. This is classic EP evasion tactics: immediately hiding behind general principles of evolutionary biology, as if disagreeing with EP is exactly equivalent to denying evolution. It’s annoying as hell to every time have a chorus of idiots accusing me of being a creationist because I find evolutionary psychology to be simple-minded to the point of utter uselessness in actually explaining anything about human evolution, and it’s people like this EP proponent who always try to feed that nonsense right from the get-go.

Evolution shapes both the morphology and behaviour of organisms. Humans are as much a product of evolution as any other organism. Humans behaviour should show evidence of being shaped by evolution. Yes to all of those. Accepting basic biological facts does not, however, in any way imply that I must therefore accept the specific claims of a fallacious hypothesis about human evolution. Evolutionary psychologists are not simply applying 150 years of evolutionary theory to human behavior, and it’s dishonest to claim that they are.

I skipped the rest. If the author can’t even be trusted to explain what makes EP a specific and useful approach, but just wants to pretend it’s plain old evolutionary biology, using the same methods and rigor, then I’ve got no use for more games of hide and seek.

Myles Power’s dishonest defense of evolutionary psychology

Back around the 11th of July, I saw a few comments by a guy named Myles Power, a science youtuber, who was quite irate that Rebecca Watson criticized evolutionary psychology five years ago. There were the usual vaguely horrified reactions implying how annoying it was that some mere communications major would criticize an established, credible, true science like EP, and how she was prioritizing entertainment over scientific validity (not all from this Power guy; Watson is a magnet for the same tiresome bozos making the same tiresome complaints). So I told him that no, her criticisms were not off-base at all, and then a lot of scientists consider EP to be poor science. I also gave him a few links to consider.

He saw them, and acknowledged it.


@pzmyers This may take me some time to get back to you :)

He did not get back to me. Instead, he came out with a video titled Rebecca Watson’s Dishonest Representation of Evolutionary Psychology. It did not use a single scrap of the information I sent him. Not one bit. Furthermore, he just made this excuse.


I am also doing the ground work in organising a google+ debate with PZ and a Prof in EP from a reputable university.

Say what? He wrote that on the 14th. Not once has he contacted me about “organizing” a debate. One would kind of think that contacting both of the principals in this planned debate would be the very first step in organizing it. Do I get to say “no”, are is he just assuming that all he has to do is contact the esteemed EP professor and then I’ll self-evidently fall into line? I’m not at all impressed with Myles Power’s honesty so far.

So then I watched the video.

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I think I missed a good critique of evolutionary psychology

I must have been taking a nap a couple of years ago. I just found this interesting discussion of EP by a psychologist, and I agree very much with it.

Evolutionary psychologists believe that the human mind works much like the body… that it is an information-processing system, with pre-specified psychological programs (or environmentally-triggered ones), adapted much like the rest of the body, to meet specific problems in our evolutionary past. Others, including myself, disagree with this definition of the human mind. While I would certainly agree that evolution had a profound role in shaping lower-level modular systems, including autonomic nervous system responses, reflex arcs, immune systems, complex motor control, systems related to sexual arousal, and so on, it does not make sense for us to assume that our more complex social behaviors were shaped in the same way, or that they would even depend on lower-level domain-specific systems that evolutionary psychologists so frequently assume to be the ‘ultimate’ causes of behavior. Neurobiologists Panksepp and Panksepp point out that while evolutionary psychologists may interpret psychological data in a way to fit with their preferred theory, the philosophical assumptions that are the foundation of that theory are not at all consistent with what we know about human neurophysiology.

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