Jerry Coyne is trying to defend evolutionary psychology again

Why, oh why, do EP’s defenders rely on throwing up armies of straw men to slaughter? It’s silly. Here’s how he starts:

There are some science-friendly folk (including atheists) who simply dismiss the entire field of evolutionary psychology in humans, saying that its theoretical foundations are weak or nonexistent. I’ve always replied that that claim is bunk, for its “theoretical foundations” are simply the claim that our brains and behaviors, like our bodies, show features reflecting evolution in our ancestors.

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Tackling Pinker’s defense of evolutionary psychology

I previously addressed the criticisms of my criticisms of evolutionary psychology by Jerry Coyne; Now I turn to the criticisms of my criticisms he solicited from Steven Pinker. This is getting a bit convoluted, so let me first state the basics.

I dislike evolutionary psychology. Pinker is an advocate for evolutionary psychology. What brought on this back-and-forth was that I was a member of a panel at a science fiction convention that discussed evo psych; I made a few brief comments on my blog that were capsule summaries of my discussion there. In the section below, the paragraphs preceded by an “M:” and in italics are my words excerpted from those comments; the parts preceded by a “P:” are Pinker’s commentary. All clear?

M: Fundamental assumptions of evo psych: That you can infer an adaptive history from the distribution of current traits — that they are adaptations at all is an assumption usually not founded in evidence (this is not to deny that that there are features that are clearly the product of selection, but that you can’t pick an arbitrary attribute and draw elaborate scenarios for its origins). . .

P: Of course “arbitrary” and “elaborate” are the straw-man giveaways here. What about carefully selected attributes, and minimal assumptions about phylogeny with a focus on function, as we do for other organs? You can ask what the spleen is for – and it would be perverse to do physiology without asking such a question – without “drawing elaborate scenarios for its origins.”

Whoa, whoa, whoa — that skips right over the really important word: “adaptive”. Start there. That’s my primary objection, the habit of evolutionary psychologists of taking every property of human behavior, assuming that it is the result of selection, building scenarios for their evolution, and then testing them poorly.

We already know that that is impossible. The repertoire of human behavior is so complex and rich, and relatively recently evolved, that to argue that every behavior is the product of specific selection imposes an untenable genetic load. The bulk of the genetic foundation of our psychology (and I agree that there must be one!) must be byproducts and accidents. The null hypothesis of evolutionary psychology should be that a behavior is non-adaptive, yet for some reason all I ever see is adaptive hypotheses.

The spleen is an interesting example. There are components of the spleen that are definitely functional and almost certainly adaptive: its functions as a blood reservoir, as an element of the immune system, as part of the erythrocyte cycling mechanism. You can examine the evolution of those functions phylogenetically; for instance, some teleosts lack the erythropeotic functions of the spleen, while the majority use it as a blood reservoir. You can begin to dissect its history comparatively, by looking at what has a clear functional role and looking at the pattern of emergence of those properties.

What you can’t do is pick any particular property of the spleen and invent functions for it, which is what I mean by arbitrary and elaborate. For instance, the spleen is located in most people in the upper left quadrant of the abdomen; are you going to make an adaptive case for why it’s on the left rather than the right? The actual reason almost certainly has nothing to do with adaptation or selection, and everything to do with historical and developmental mechanisms that are neutral with respect to selection.

M:. . . That behavioral features that have been selected for in our history are represented by modular components in the brain – again with rare exceptions, you can’t simply assign a behavioral role to a specific spot in the brain, just as you can’t assign a behavior to a gene.

P: No one in Ev Psych points to specific spots in the brain – that’s cognitive neuroscience, not evolutionary psychology. The only assumption is that there are functional circuits, in the same way that a program can be fragmented across your hard drive.

Now this is one of my peeves with evolutionary psychology. The evo psych literature is thick with papers emphasizing “modularity”; that evolutionary psychology FAQ I referenced before makes it clear that it’s an important concept in the field (and also ties it to concepts in computer science). Yet it is meaningless. Sometimes there’s the implication that the “module” is a discrete element in the brain, but it’s never clear whether they’re talking about a genetic module (an epistatic network of genes) or a neural module (an interconnected network of neurons), and when pressed, they retreat, as Pinker does here, to an admission that it could be just about anything scattered anywhere in the brain.

So my question is…why talk about “modules” at all, other than to reify an abstraction into something misleadingly concrete? Evolutionary psychologists don’t do neurobiology, and they don’t do genetic dissections, and they don’t do molecular genetics, so why do they insist on modularity? It’s premature and a violation of Occam’s razor to throw the term around, and also completely unnecessary — a behavior could be a product of diffuse general phenomena in the brain without diminishing its importance at all.

M: . . . That the human brain is adapted to a particular environment, specifically the African savannah, and that we can ignore as negligible any evolutionary events in the last 10,000 years, that we can ignore the complexity of an environment most of the evo psych people have never seriously studied, and that that environment can dictate one narrow range of outcomes rather than permit millions of different possibilities.

P: The savannah is a red herring – that’s just a convenient dichotomization of the relevant continuum, which is evolutionary history. A minimal commitment to “pre-modern” gives you the same conclusions. By saying that the brain could not have been biologically adapted to stable government, police, literacy, medicine, science, reliable statistics, prevalence of high-calorie food, etc., you don’t need to go back to the savannah; you just need to say that these were all relevantly recent in most people’s evolutionary history. The savannah is just a synechdoche.

Ah, a synechdoche. This is the evolutionary psychology version of the religious argument that it’s “just a metaphor.”

Again, this is a peeve I have with the field. I agree with the general principle that of course the brain is a product of our evolutionary history, and that there is almost certainly a foundation of genetically defined, general psychological properties of the mind…and that a great many specific psychological properties are not biologically adapted. Pinker is writing good common sense here.

But over and over, you see evolutionary psychologists falling into this trap of examining a behavior and then fitting it to some prior specific environment. They talk of a Savannah Mind or they generalize it to the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness. It’s another reification of the unknown. You don’t like “savannah”? Change it to “Pleistocene”. It’s just as broad and meaningless. It’s an attempt to reduce the complex and diverse to a too simple unit.

M: I’d also add that most evo psych studies assume a one-to-one mapping of hypothetical genes to behaviors. . .

P: Completely untrue – this was Gould’s claim in the 1970s, which confused a “gene for x” (indispensable in any evolutionary thinking, given segregation) in the sense of “increases the probability of X, averaging over environments and other genes” with “a gene for X” in the sense of “necessary and sufficient for X.” Every honest biologist invokes “gene for X” in the former sense; evolution would be impossible if there were no additive effects of genes. No one believes the latter – it’s pure straw.

By one-to-one, I mean the assumption that a behavior trait can be mapped to a contribution from a gene that was subject to selection for that trait; that it might be an additive property of a pleiotropic gene will be nominally noted, as Pinker does here, but operationally ignored. Remember, the issue is not whether genes contribute to our psychology, a point I totally agree with, but whether we can assign a selective origin to a behavior. That is a much, much harder problem.

M [continuation of previous sentence]:. . . and never actually look at genes and for that matter, ignore most human diversity to focus on a naive typological simplicity that allows them to use undergraduate psych majors at Western universities as proxies for all of humanity”

P: It’s psychologists, not evolutionary psychologists, who focus on Western undergrads –field research and citations of anthropology are vastly more common in ev psych than in non-ev-psych. PZ is engaging in prosecution here, not analysis – he’s clearly ignorant of the sociology of the fields.

As for diversity – is he arguing for genetic differences among human groups, a la Herrnstein & Murray?

First, this has already been addressed by Stephanie Zvan: when you look in the evolutionary psychology journals at papers identified as evolutionary psychology, you find…a focus on Western undergrads. I throw up my hands in exasperation. Look at the actual work done in your field, not the abstract ideal you hold in your head. I get my vision of evolutionary psychology by reading the papers.

Secondly, what a weirdly off-target attempt at ad hominem. Once again, my criticisms are being addressed by imagining motives; in Jerry Coyne’s critique, I’m an uber-liberal offended at the consequences a genetic component to behavior might have on my egalitarian biases; now Pinker takes a swipe by tarring me with the likes of Herrnstein & Murray. Make up your minds!

For the record, of course there are genetic differences in human populations! It’s an open question whether any of them make significant contributions to human psychology, however. I’m open to evidence either way.

But my remark was about cultural diversity (which also, by the way, exists). Setting aside the notion of a genetic component for now, we know that culture creates different minds. How can you analyze the causes of a behavior if your work focuses on a relatively uniform sample?

M: Developmental plasticity vitiates most of the claims of evo psych. Without denying that some behaviors certainly have a strong biological basis, the differences in human behaviors are more likely to be a product of plasticity than of genetic differences. . .

P: Plasticity is just learning at the neural level, and learning is not an alternative to innate motives and learning mechanisms. Plasticity became an all-purpose fudge factor in the 1990s (just like “epigenetics” is today). But the idea that the brain is a piece of plastic molded by the environment is bad neuroscience. I reviewed neural plasticity in the chapter “The Slate’s Last Stand” in The Blank Slate, with the help of many colleagues in neuroscience, and noted that the plasticity that allows feedback during development and learning during ontogeny is superimposed on an innate matrix of neural organization. For example if you silence *all* synaptic activity in the brain of a developing mouse with knock-outs, the brain is pretty much normal.

Speaking of straw men…I found The Blank Slate entirely unreadable, unlike most of Pinker’s books, because of the gigantic straw man erected in the title. This flailing against me is a product of this weird idea that I reject the contribution of our genes to our minds, but just as there are no evolutionary psychologists who believe everything in our brains is genetically predetermined, there is no such thing in serious science as a “blank slater”.

There is a continuum, and we’re arguing about degrees. For example, take a child of French parents and raise them in the United States, they’ll grow up speaking fluent English (or Spanish, depending on the household), and vice versa — an American child raised in France will speak French like a native. There is no genetic component to the details of language. Yet when you compare diverse languages you can start to pick out commonalities, and when you look at the neural substrates of language you do see shared anatomy and physiology — I do not hesitate to accept that there is an evolved component of human language. The differences between speakers are learned, the universals may well be biological.

Which means that when evolutionary psychologists try to parse out variations between different groups, racial or sexual, I suspect it’s most likely that they are seeing cultural variations, so trying to peg them to an adaptive explanation is an exercise in futility. When evolutionary psychologists try to drill down and identify the shared components, I’m much more willing to see their efforts as interesting.

That last sentence by Pinker is a lovely example of nonsensical denial of the importance of plasticity. “Pretty much normal” means that on broad, superficial inspection the various components of the brain are present — hindbrain, midbrain, forebrain, various nuclei and pathways, they’re all there. I’ve seen the same thing in zebrafish: the peripheral motor nerves I studied as a graduate student form perfectly normally even if you knock out all the acetylcholine receptors, so that the muscles are totally unresponsive to physiological inputs.

This does not surprise me. Most of the patterning of the brain is set up in the embryo before neuronal connectivity is established; the clock-like activity of mitotic rate genes defines the size of various bits of the brain; adhesive and repulsive cell surface interactions lay out the major pathways. Does Pinker think someone trained in developmental neurobiology would expect that the brain would collapse into a formless blob in the absence of action potentials and synaptic transmission?

But it is still absurd to call the deprived brain “pretty much normal”. When you look deeper, you find subtle and important differences. The clearest examples are found in experiments with visually deprived cats: sew one eyelid shut, or both, or alternate, in a young kitten, and you can find all kinds of changes in visual processing, detectable at both the physiological and anatomical levels. The visual cortex forms, projections from the lateral geniculate terminate in roughly the right place, but they absolutely depend on visual input to fine tune their connections. Human children born with visual deficits in one eye will also have lifelong deficits in visual processing, even if the original problem is corrected.

Try raising a child without contact with other humans. I guarantee you that their brains, when physically examined, would look “pretty much normal”…but does anyone really believe that psychologically, on the level evolutionary psychologists study brains, that they’d be “pretty much normal”?

This is “pretty much normal” behavior from evolutionary psychologists, though. Point out that that their inferences about neuronal circuitry are bogus, they tell you that they don’t study neurons anyway; tell them that the behaviors they study are awfully plastic and flexible, and presto, hey, look, brains and neurons are patterned by genetic elements. The sleight of hand is impressive, except when you realize that science shouldn’t be about magic tricks.

When in doubt, just question the motives of evolutionary psychology critics

I have disturbed and distressed Jerry Coyne, because I have dissed the entire field of evolutionary psychology. I find this very peculiar, because in my field, Jerry Coyne has a reputation for dissing all of evo devo, so it can’t possibly be that we’re supposed to automatically respect every broad scientific endeavor. There has to be something more to it than just an academic defense of a discipline. And there is, unfortunately. Here’s his prelude.

I’ve been known for a while as a critic of evolutionary psychology, particularly when it first began as “sociobiology” in the Seventies. At that time there was a lot of unsupported speculation being bruited about as “science” (i.e., human males evolved to have “rape modules”, a view that I criticized strongly). But over the decades, evolutionary psychology has matured, and I now see it as a valuable way of studying the origins of human behavior. Not that it’s all perfect—the “pop” versions, such as those produced by Satoshi Kanazawa, seem pretty dire to me, debasing a field that’s striving for scientific rigor. But even Kanazawa has been rejected by serious evolutionary psychologists.

Sadly, some self-professed skeptics have decided to debunk the entire field of evo-psych, and for reasons that I see not as scientific, but as ideological and political. That is, like the opponents of sociobiology thirty years ago, these skeptics object to the discipline because they see it as both motivated by and justifying conservative political views like the marginalization of women. Well, that may be the motivation of some people, but not, I think, of most well-known workers in evo psych, who are merely trying to study the evolutionary roots of human behavior. It pains me that skeptics are so dogmatic, so ideological, in viewing (and rejecting wholesale) a legitimate scientific field.

That second paragraph? Pure ad hominem, unsupported by evidence. I detest evolutionary psychology, not because I dislike the answers it gives, but on purely methodological and empirical grounds: it is a grandiose exercise in leaping to conclusions on inadequate evidence, it is built on premises that simply don’t work, and it’s a field that seems to do a very poor job of training and policing its practitioners, so that it primarily serves as a dump for bad research that then supplies tabloids with a feast of garbage science that discredits the rest of us. I’d like to see the evolutionary psychologists who propose that there is a high quality core to their discipline spending more effort ripping into their less savory colleagues than on the indignant sniffing at critics of evolutionary psychology. I’d have more respect for the field if there was more principled internal striving.

There is also a tactic I really dislike; I call it the Dignified Retreat. When criticized, evolutionary psychologists love to run away from their discipline and hide in the safer confines of more solidly founded ideas. Here’s a perfect example:

…the notion that “the fundamental premises of evo psych are false” seems deeply misguided. After all, those premises boil down to this statement: some behaviors of modern humans reflect their evolutionary history. That is palpably uncontroversial, since many of our behaviors are clearly a product of evolution, including eating, avoiding dangers, and the pursuit of sex. And since our bodies reflect their evolutionary history, often in nonadaptive ways (e.g., wisdom teeth, bad backs, the coat of hair we produce as a transitory feature in fetuses), why not our brains, which are, after all, just bits of morphology whose structure affects our behaviors?

You know what? I agree entirely with that. The brain is a material product of evolution, and behavior is a product of the brain. There are natural causes for everything all the way down. And further, I have great respect for psychology, evolutionary biology, ethology, physiology, anthropology, anatomy, comparative biology — and I consider all of those disciplines to have strong integrative ties to evolutionary biology. Does Coyne really believe that I am critiquing the evolved nature of the human brain? Because otherwise, this is a completely irrelevant statement.

Evolutionary psychology has its own special methodology and logic, and that’s what I criticize — not anthropology or evolutionary biology or whatever. Somehow these unique properties get conveniently jettisoned whenever a critic wanders by, only to be re-adopted without reservation within the exercise of the discipline. And that’s really annoying.

What I object to in evolutionary psychology is that their stock in trade is to make observations of behavior in a single species, often in a single population, and then to infer an evolutionary history from that data point. You don’t get to do that. It’s not that the observations are invalid (they’re often interesting in their own right), or that it’s not possible that human behaviors carry a strong genetic component — it’s that you simply can’t draw an evolutionary conclusion from the simple existence of a trait in a population. Yet evolutionary psychologists do, all the time.

I had a second objection that Coyne briefly addresses: developmental and neuroplasticity obscure the genetic basis of behaviors.

… “developmental plasticity” does not stand as a dichotomous alternative to “evolved features.” Our developmental plasticity is to a large extent the product of evolution: our ability to learn language, our tendency to defer to authorities when we’re children, our learned socialization—those are all features almost certainly instilled into our brains by natural selection as a way to promote behavioral flexibility in that most flexible of mammals.

That’s a cop-out. Yes, developmental plasticity is an evolved property, but to study it, you study development. Not psychology. It’s a different level of the problem.

The reason plasticity is a serious (and far too ignored) issue for evolutionary psychology is that if you’re trying to identify a genetic basis for a specific behavior, it represents a huge amount of confounding noise. It’s HARD WORK to isolate the genetic core of a behavior (assuming there is one) from the learned properties of the organism.

For instance, I’m really interested in the behaviors of zebrafish, and one of the things I’ve done is tried to identify different behaviors in different lines of fish — they exist, and it would be really cool to identify alleles involved in the differences. Feeding behaviors, for instance, vary in different lines. One line may carry out what we think are wild-type patterns: they feed by darting to the surface, carrying the food down to the bottom, and gulping it down there. Another may indulge in stupid lab-bred behaviors: wallowing at the surface, chowing down on floating flakes — something that would get them eaten quickly by birds in the wild.

It turns out to be really hard to maintain that behavior in the lab. Raising fry to adults is actually a wonderful exercise in selection (wallowing babies get lots of food, cautious babies get less) and training. We really had to struggle to develop feeding regimens that were neutral to the behavior we wanted to study. That’s why plasticity is such an important factor in these kinds of studies — it’s really, really, really hard to separate learned behavior from genetically predisposed behavior. It demands a huge amount of rigor and all kinds of controls — the kinds of things you simply cannot do with humans.

Again, this is not to say that one can’t do good psychology. What I’m saying is that taking that next huge step of linking behavior to genes to evolution demands data and methods that are not present in our toolbox right now, making most of the claims of evo psych fallacious.

In our presentation at Convergence, Greg Laden mentioned being present at early seminars by Cosmides and Tooby in which they laid out their goals. They drew a big box and in one top corner, they wrote “behavior”; in a lower corner, they put “genes”. The idea was that this field would strive to connect the two words together — which I consider a wonderful goal and something I’d like to see, too. Unfortunately, the space between the two words is filled with handwaving right now. I’m much more respectful of science that tries to incrementally bring the two together, but evolutionary psychology prematurely tries to stitch them together with transparent guesswork. That’s not science.

Coyne closes with a couple more ad hominems.

One gets two impressions when listening to the skeptics’ criticism of evolutionary psychology. First, they haven’t read widely in the discipline, and are criticizing either pop-culture versions of the field or a caricature (born of ignorance, possibly willful) of EP. Even I know that EP advocates don’t often publish studies that rely solely on undergraduates.

As I mentioned, I’m very interested in the connection between genes and behavior — I’ve actually read quite a bit in this field. I’ve also read a fair amount of the evolutionary psychology literature, and the source of my animus is that in comparison to good science on the biological basis of behavior, it suffers abominably. It doesn’t even come close to evolutionary biology (my own work is more genetics and brain development, and I’ll be the first to tell you that work on lab-bred zebrafish is a piss-poor way to do evolution…so I find it particularly appalling to see human psychology touted as evolutionary).

As for the claim that EP doesn’t often publish studies solely on undergraduates — it’s worse. Stephanie Zvan looked at recent publications in the journal Evolutionary Psychology.

How many of these studies were done only using college students? More than half. In 33 studies, the population whose preferences were used as a proxy for human universals was a population of college students. Another six studies used a combination of college students and other populations. One of these additional study populations was young, educated Israeli adults. Two were populations from around the university attended by the student populations.

Other university town populations were used on their own, without student populations, but many of the studies that did not use college students could not. Studies of blind dates, cyclists, criminals, pregnant women, sleep deprivation, parents of premature babies, younger children, soccer referees, musicians, and severely disabled people all drew from specialized populations.

More striking than the use of college students, however, was the geographic restriction on the populations used. Out of 60 studies, 51 drew their samples entirely from the U.S., Canada, and Europe. The exceptions were (mostly students) from Japan, Singapore, China, Israel, World Cup countries, St. Kitts, Mexico, historical records from around the world, and an international sample drawn from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. While not all the samples were “Western” (in the odd, non-directional meaning that word has accrued), only those last four–7% of the total–were distinctly non-WEIRD.

Ooops. Really, look over the papers — they’re already restricted to one species, and it’s an exceptional work that even tries to reach out to different subpopulations. The study of the genetic basis of behavior is an extraordinarily complex problem, and I don’t see any adequate efforts being made to constrain the variables; and once you’ve got a genetic basis, identifying an evolutionary history for that is yet another non-trivial problem.

And then we get the ideology-bashing again.

Second, it’s pretty clear that the opposition to evolutionary psychology from these quarters is ideologically rather than scientifically motivated. One gets the feeling that research on gender differences shouldn’t be done at all because it’s either designed to repress women, motivated by the desire to do that, or has the likely outcome of promoting discrimination. Well, sexist scientists may try to do that, but I haven’t seen much of that since the Seventies. And gender differences are fascinating. There’s a reason, for instance, why human males are larger and hairier than females, and have more testosterone. Are we supposed to say “You can’t work on that—could have bad repercussions!” Sure, scientific results can always be misused, but I don’t see that as a reason to put up roadblocks against scientific research. After all, what field is more misused and misquoted than evolutionary biology? I am a frequent recipient of emails from Jews trying to convince me to reject evolution because Darwin ultimately caused the Holocaust.

Please. Have I ever said that we shouldn’t study gender or racial differences? No. We know there are going to be differences. The catch is that they have to be studied very, very well, with rigor and careful analysis, because they are socially loaded and because science has a deeply deplorable history of using poor methods to reach bad conclusions that are used as ideological props for the status quo. I’m not putting up roadblocks against scientific research; I would like to put up roadblocks to sloppy, lazy ideological nonsense touted as scientific research. I should think every scientist would want that.

To return to Coyne’s prior criticism of evo devo: that’s exactly what I appreciated about it. He took a strong stance, demanding hard evidence to support evo devo’s claims of the importance of regulatory mutations in evolution. And he was right to do so! If you’re going to make claims about genes and evolution, you had better be prepared to show the supporting evidence at all levels of the problem. I’m not sure why he’s gotten more soft on the demand for rigor from evolutionary psychology when he was far more demanding on evo devo.

Maybe it was ideology.

And this is just silly.

…the fundamental premise of evolutionary psychology is absolutely sound: our brains, like the rest of our bodies, are the product of evolution and natural selection over the past six million years, and some of our current behaviors reflect that evolution. To deny that is ideologically motivated nonsense. To parse out the evolutionary component of such behaviors is the goal of evolutionary psychology.

That’s another Dignified Retreat. Evolutionary Psychology is not synonymous with Evolutionary Biology. I can reject bad science in the form of evolutionary and genetical claims about behavior; it does not imply that I think evolution played no role in our brains.

Coyne has a long section where he solicited responses from Steven Pinker, as well. This is long enough so I’ll defer that for a different day, but I did note that there’s a lot of this ideological ad hominem in there, too, and some of it is even contradictory!

Kate Clancy tackles Evolutionary Psychology

It is a very good and measured response that highlights the flaws in bad evolutionary psychology.

Evolutionary psychology, the study of human psychological adaptations, does not have a popular or scientific reputation for being rigorous, even though there are rigorous, thoughtful scientists in the field. The field is trying to take on an incredibly challenging task: understand what of human behavior is adaptive and why. We can better circumvent the conditions that lead to violence, war, and hatred if we know as much as we can about why we are the way we are. What motivates us, excites us, angers us, and how can evolutionary theory help us understand it all?

Because of this, there are consequences to a bad evolutionary psychology interpretation of the world. The biggest problem, to my mind, is that so often the conclusions of the bad sort of evolutionary psychology match the stereotypes and cultural expectations we already hold about the world: more feminine women are more beautiful, more masculine men more handsome; appearance is important to men while wealth is important to women; women are prone to flighty changes in political and partner preference depending on the phase of their menstrual cycles. Rather than clue people in to problems with research design or interpretation, this alignment with stereotype further confirms the study. Variation gets erased: in bad evolutionary psychology, there are only straight people, and everyone wants the same things in life. Our brains are iPhones, each app designed for its own special adaptive purpose.

I’ve still got plans to post more on this subject, but an unfortunate event has blocked me. I was going to make my next post on evolutionary psychology one that focused on some of the papers, and in particular, I wanted to discuss a good paper or two, so that I could start off on the right tone. And people sent me links and papers.

Only problem: they were all awful. Every one. I couldn’t believe that even these papers that some people were telling me were the best of the bunch were so lacking in rigor and so rife with unjustified assumptions. I read through about a dozen before I gave up in disgust and decided that there were better things to do in my time.

I’d ask again, but I was burned so badly on that last go-round that I’d have a jaundiced view of any recommendation now.

αEP: The fundamental failure of the evolutionary psychology premise

This is another addition to my αEP series about evolutionary psychology. Here’s the first, and unfortunately there are several more to come.

I have a real problem with evolutionary psychology, and it goes right to the root of the discipline: it’s built on a flawed foundation. It relies on a naïve and simplistic understanding of how evolution works (a basic misconception that reminds me of another now-dead discipline, which I’ll write about later) — it appeals to many people, though, because that misconception aligns nicely with the cartoon version of evolution in most people’s heads, and it also means that every time you criticize evolutionary psychology, you get a swarm of ignorant defenders who assume you’re attacking evolution itself.

That misconception is adaptationism.

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Another ugly example of the abuse of Evolutionary Psychology

I have to take one more slash at evolutionary psychology, and then I’ll stop for the day. But first, maybe I should give you the tells I use to recognize good evopsych from bad evopsych (oh, dear, I just admitted that there’s some respectable evopsych out there…).

Here’s an easy indicator. If it’s a paper that presumes to tell you the evolutionary basis of differences between the sexes or races, it’s bullshit. That means the author is going to trot out some prejudice about how sexes or races differ before building some feeble case from a collection of poorly designed surveys or sloppily analyzed statistics to make up a story. Unsurprisingly, those differences always fit some bigoted preconception, and always have, from Galton’s determination of the ‘objective’ degrees of feminine beauty between races to Kanazawa’s, ummm, determination of the ‘objective’ degrees of feminine beauty between races. There really hasn’t been a lot of creativity in this subfield.

If it’s a paper that compares the behavioral psychology or cognitive abilities of different species, there’s a chance it might have something interesting to say. At least there’s a possibility that the crude kinds of essays for examining the workings of the brain might be able to detect a difference of that magnitude. But don’t forget that 90% of everything is crap, so don’t assume that just because the author is discussing chimpanzees vs. humans that it’s necessarily good work.

But now, here’s the ravingly awful side of evopsych, magnified even more because it’s not a scientist trying to make an argument: it’s a floridly batty pick-up artist trying to claim that evopsych supports his hatred of women. His deserved hatred of women, I should say, because he really regards them as little more than hideously deformed animals. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you…Heartiste, explaining why women hate evolutionary psychology. (Warning! You may want a bucket and damp cloth handy, to clean up any vomit. Below the fold because, well, this guy is a fucking abusive moron.)

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Belief in Evolutionary Psychology May Be Hardwired, Study Says

[It’s been a while since I’ve revived an old Pharyngula-safe post from my old blog, and it seemed like we have the appropriate theme going here today.]

Biologists have long assumed that evolutionary psychology, a controversial branch of psychology that ascribes many common social behaviors to genetics, is a muddled blend of half-understood evolutionary biology, selective data mining and resentment of women’s changing roles in society.

A new study, published in today’s issue of the German publication Unwirklichen Genetikjournal, does not challenge that assessment. But it does suggest that some men may be genetically predisposed to believe in evolutionary psychology, a finding that may well suggest future methods of treatment of the psychological malady.

Believers in evolutionary psychology maintain that feminism sets itself in opposition to millions of years of anthropoid evolution, and is thus futile and inhumane to men. Allegations made by believers include references to putative differences in math skills between men and women, a supposedly irresistible but entirely non-visually stimulated female attraction toward powerful and/or arrogant males, and the existence of a genetically preordained male right to multiple female sexual partners.

Many such men hold to these beliefs despite an absolute lack of supporting scientific evidence, says Dr. Ulrike Mann-Esser, chair of the sexual anthropology department at Universität Ulm and the study’s lead researcher. “But we had no way to determine why this was so until last year’s discovery of the locus taedius.”

The locus taedius, discovered accidentally last year by a graduate student working with David Gelernter, is a section of the human hindbrain that shows significant electrical activity when a person retrieves long-term memories that he or she does not find interesting.

In Mann-Esser’s study, 200 male subjects, who had small electrodes implanted in their locus taedius and glued to various places on the skin, were asked to stand outside the door of a glass cubicle and open the door for anyone trying to enter. Inside the cubicle was a male Pilates instructor posing as a researcher. A handful of highly attractive female graduate students were instructed to approach the cubicle, ignore the subjects while the door was opened, then proceed into the cubicle and place a hand on the chest of the “researcher.” Levels of locus taedius activity were recorded for each subject.

“By setting up a stimulus that often spurs EvPsych statements in the susceptible,” says Mann-Esser, “we hoped to be able to detect increased locus taedius activity among those men who had half-remembered bits of evolutionary biology come to mind from high school. The skin electrodes measured galvanic response and thus sexual arousal, which allowed us to determine which subjects were merely trying to recall female sexual anatomy from textbook figures so that we could exclude them from consideration.”

At first, approximately fifteen percent of male subjects showed significant locus taedius activity without sexual arousal. “We thought that seemed rather high,” says Mann-Esser, “until the Pilates instructor’s boyfriend showed up and two-thirds of that fifteen percent showed dramatic galvanic response changes.”

Further study by Mann-Esser’s team found a surprising commonality among the five percent of subjects showing clinical signs of susceptibility to evolutionary psychology, which the team refers to as “Desmond Morris Syndrome,” or DMS. Ninety percent of the DMS-positive subjects shared a single allele, first isolated by researchers at the University of Lucerne. The recessive allele, named luz-R, was absent from the remaining 95 percent of test subjects. (The corresponding dominant allele, luc-ID, has been tentatively linked to critical thought faculties and penis size.)

Mann-Esser admits that the existence of a “DMS gene” is confusing from an evolutionary standpoint. “Most genes persist because they contribute to reproductive success in one way or another. Sometimes this is in surprising ways, such as the gene for sickle-cell anemia, a crippling condition for those possessing two copies of the gene, but conferring resistance to malaria to heterozygous individuals with one normal gene. But the luz-R gene is strongly correlated with complete reproductive failure due to sexual selection against the gene by human females.

“It may be that early human populations carrying the recessive gene in their genome benefited from having certain individuals who were more likely to stand there and lecture the lion about how man is clearly the most fearsome predator on the savannah and then be eaten, thus allowing the rest to escape. It’s puzzling, though. We clearly need to study the issue further.”

One evolutionary psychology partisan maintains that evolutionary psychology itself holds the key to understanding the existence of the luz-R gene. “It’s ridiculously obvious, and has been proven time and again beyond the point where any rational person not swayed by politically correct feminism could dispute it,” says BigBoyBob87, a frequent commenter on a number of feminist blogs.

“You only need to look at sage grouse,” continues BigBoyBob87. “They reproduce by leks, in which a group of males converge in a spot to attract females and only the alpha males get to mate, while the others complain about the alpha males being big jerks. Anthropologists have proven that that very same evolutionary psychology observation is a major theme in Paleolithic art, as in for instance the Mousterian Pluvial cave painting Females of Breeding Age Always Mate With Damn Metro sapiens and Toss Us Nice Guys on Communal Trash Midden.” [See figure 1.]


When asked how any of the preceding actually supported his contention that DMS conferred selective fitness on men with the luz-R allele, BigBoyBob87 suggested that this author was only parroting the feminist line in order to get laid.

The impeccable logic of evolutionary psychology: spit or swallow?

Jerry Coyne carries out an amusing exercise in reasoning like an evolutionary psychologist: why does human semen taste bad? It turns out that it is really easy to invent all kinds of entirely reasonable rationalizations for it: in particular, it’s to promote ejaculation in the orifice that is more likely to result in pregnancy, since women can’t get pregnant by way of their stomach. It’s all deductively logical, but built on premises floating in thin air, with no empirical foundation at all…the usual flaw on which evolutionary psychology fails.

It does open up all kinds of angels-dancing-upon-pins sorts of questions. By the same logic, shouldn’t most women find anal sex extremely distasteful and unpleasurable (there’s another subject for Coyne to use in an informal poll — or maybe not, unless he really wants a reputation as a perv). Would the unusual anatomical arrangement in Deep Throat be evidence against evolution? And say…shouldn’t there be selection against male interest in fruitless pornography? There’s potential for a whole industry to flower around the pursuit of these questions. With illustrations.

Are all evolutionary psychologists this bad at thinking?

Uh-oh. Gad Saad is polluting the discourse again, this time in a vain attempt to discredit the concept of toxic masculinity. It’s embarrassingly bad. I would say that you need to first understand the concept if you hope to debunk it, and Saad does not; if you do not, then all your floundering about will simply reinforce the idea and lead you to use examples that actually demonstrate the phenomenon.

Toxic masculinity is actually not that hard to understand. It’s not a rejection of masculinity itself; it’s a problem that arises when men are socialized to conform to a cultural stereotype that doesn’t actually match their nature.

bell hooks wrote this quote in her chapter called Comrades in Struggle: “…Yet the poor or working class man who has been socialized via sexist ideology to believe that there are privileges and powers he should possess solely because he is male often finds that few if any of these benefits are automatically bestowed him in life.” One of the “powers” that men are socialized to believe that they have to embody is masculinity. Masculinity seems to be the running force of patriarchy, but this term has a very specific definition under patriarchy that is not inclusive of all forms of masculinity. This phenomenon is called toxic masculinity. Toxic masculinity “refers to the socially-constructed attitudes that describe the masculine gender role as violent, unemotional, sexually aggressive, and so forth.”

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It’s the stereotype of the steely-eyed muscular man who compels women to obey his will. The True Man is sexually aggressive. And what does Gad Saad do? He opens with examples of animals that engage in aggressive competition for mates!

Female fiddler crabs and hens prefer males with extravagantly large claws and tails respectively. Ewes (female rams) will mate with the ram that wins the brutal intrasexual head-butting contest. They reward targeted aggression by granting sexual access. Needless to say, there are innumerable other examples of sexual selection that I might describe, but I suspect that you get the general gist. Are rams exhibiting toxic masculinity? Are female fiddler crabs succumbing to antiquated notions of masculinity as promulgated by the crab patriarchy?

We are not crabs or rams. Saad has cherry-picked a few examples of species with the ideal behavior he’d like to see humans exhibit, which curiously enough, are all about sexual aggression, males beating up on each other to win access to mates. Not only is this the naturalistic fallacy, not only is this selective use of the data, but it also reveals that he doesn’t know what toxic masculinity is. You need to look at animals with more behavioral plasticity and a greater range of potential roles to see toxic masculinity, where among a range of possibilities, males are confined to a narrower and often uncomfortable role by cultural pressures. Rams and crabs do not have that flexibility.

Oh, but let’s watch Saad show off his evolutionary psychology bullshit.

Let’s now apply the exact same evolutionary process (sexual selection) to humans. Evolutionary psychologists have documented universal patterns of mating preferences that are invariant across time and place. In no culture ever studied have women repeatedly preferred to mate with pear-shaped, low-status, tepid men possessing high-pitched, nasal voices. In no documented culture do women’s sexual fantasies revolve around granting sexual access to unemployed, unambitious men who occupy the lowest stratum of the social hierarchy.

First, yes, let’s look at human evolution. The lesson ought to be that humans have not evolved by a strategy of beating up your competition, mating, and wandering away, like a ram or a crab. Relationships between males and females have been far more complex, involving prolonged association, integration with larger social groups, and shared responsibilities in food gathering and child rearing. The “exact same evolutionary process (sexual selection)”? Nonsense.

As for his ideal preferences by women, I will note that both Saad and I share similar physiques, lack a booming baritone, and are in professions that aren’t regarded as particularly manly, and in fact are being ‘taken over’ by women, numerically. Yet we’re both married! And, I assume, we’re both married to women who are happy with their choices! How did that happen?

He also sneers at unemployed, unambitious men who occupy the lowest stratum of the social hierarchy, and yet, unemployed men somehow acquire willing partners. They can even be good partners. I have to think of my own parents, who were loving and dedicated to their family, who were also part of the lower classes that Saad would probably spit upon, and had qualities that Saad has elided — my father was a caring parent, hard-working, a good storyteller, loyal to his friends, sociable, and thoughtful. My parents married for love, against the wishes of her parents, yet most of my childhood was spent watching him bounce from job to job, struggling to get a reliable income, not because he was lazy and unambitious, but because good jobs were hard to find and fleeting when you got one in Seattle in the 1960s-1970s.

Saad relies on stereotyping of lowest stratum men, deciding that they’re ugly and undesirable, and that no woman would desire them, despite the obvious evidence that they do. That’s toxic masculinity! It’s the judgment that there is an ideal man based on a narrow, biased set of criteria, and then heaping contempt on the men who don’t match it in every particular.

Then he uses this bias to stereotype women.

Instead, women are attracted to “toxic masculine” male phenotypes that correlate with testosterone, and they are desirous of men who are socially dominant, who are strategically risk-taking in their behaviors, and who exhibit patterns of behaviors that will allow them to ascend the social hierarchy and defend their positions from encroachers.

Jesus. How did I ever end up with an attractive, intelligent wife? I’ve never had to battle encroachers, ever. Maybe it’s because Saad’s entire argument rests on denying the richness and complexity of human interactions.

Of course this does not imply that women are not attracted to intelligent, sensitive, kind, warm, and compassionate men. The ideal man is rugged and sensitive; masculine and caring; aggressive in some pursuits and gentle in others. Think of the male archetype in romance novels, which is a literary form almost exclusively read by women. He is a tall prince and a neurosurgeon. He is a risk-taker who wrestles alligators and subdues them on his six-pack abs, and yet is sensitive enough to be tamed by the love of a good woman. This archetype is universally found in romance novels read by women in Egypt, Japan, and Bolivia, precisely because it caters to women’s universal evolved sexual fantasies.

Uh, “six-pack abs” are a culturally constructed archetype. They require very low body fat and a rigorous pattern of focused body building to create, and wouldn’t have been at all common in evolving human populations. Likewise, alligator wrestling would have been a lethal hobby that would have led to grossly reduced fitness. Romance novels are also an artificial phenomenon, and probably represent a kind of super-stimulus, just like the bad sex portrayed in the porn consumed by men. They are a poor guide to the kind of deeper decision-making made by human beings in choosing life-long partners.

When engaging in sexual role-playing in the bedroom, few women ask that their male partners wear their Google C++ programmer uniform. They ask for the fireman suit to make its presence. James Bond, the epitome of “toxic masculinity,” does not cry at Taylor Swift concerts. His archetype is desired by women and envied by men.

Wait…a “fireman suit”? Like this? Once again, Saad seems to confuse reality with fantasy. Most women are going to have a more realistic attitude towards prospective partners.

I do agree that James Bond is an epitome of “toxic masculinity”, and he makes my case for me. If you desire to be like Bond, you are going to be an aspiring asshole. This is not a good thing. I shouldn’t have to say that, but really, not a good thing. I’ve also noticed that James Bond movies are not particularly popular among women — they tend to notice that all of his partners end up murdered or abandoned. And how do you know he doesn’t cry at Taylor Swift concerts? It seems to me that women would favor men with shared passions, and this claim that a truly desirable man would not be brought to tears by music is yet another example of toxic masculinity.

The inimitable equity feminist Christina Hoff Sommers wrote a book back in 2001 titled The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men (see our chat on my show THE SAAD TRUTH_144 (link is external)). How prescient she was! There has been a relentless ideological attack on masculinity, stemming from radical feminism, the most recent example of which is the bogus term “toxic masculinity.” It literally seeks to pathologize masculinity in ways that are profoundly harmful to the existential sense of self of young men.

But this whole essay is about pathologizing masculinity! Men are supposed to have six-pack abs, be rich, and live like James Bond — if you were seriously concerned about the existential sense of self of young men, you wouldn’t be promoting these ridiculous and harmful delusions about how men should be. You wouldn’t be setting up rams butting heads as an evolutionary ideal for human beings. There has not been on ideological attack on masculinity by anyone other than the anti-feminists, who set up this unrealistic cartoon of how men are supposed to be that denies the reality of human potential — that thinks that men should be more like James Bond than Mr Rogers. (By the way, if we were setting up an artificial ideal that said all men have to be like Mr Rogers, that would be a different kind of toxic masculinity, perhaps more benign, but also denying the range of human lives.)

Saad really needs to step back and look at what feminists actually say about toxic masculinity.

When men seek that control — when we feel it’s our due — and don’t achieve it, we can resent and hate. Toxic masculinity sets expectations that prime us for disappointment. We turn that disappointment on ourselves and others as anger and hatred.

— James Hamblin

That’s toxic masculinity. And Gad Saad’s article is the pear-shaped embodiment of defining unrealistic expectations for men.

Rather than that phony, Christina Hoff Sommers, perhaps Saad ought to be reading a real inimitable feminist.

All men support and perpetuate sexism and sexist oppression in one form or another … Like women, men have been socialized to passively accept sexist ideology. While they need not blame themselves for accepting sexism, they must assume responsibility for eliminating it.

— bell hooks