EvoPsych, the PoMo-iest of them all

One last thing.

Feminism comes under fire for being “post-modernist,” a sort of loosy-goosy subject which allows for all sorts of contradictions and disconnects from reality. Evolutionary Psychology is held up as being on much firmer ground, in contrast. What is EvoPsych, exactly? Let’s ask David Buss, the most-cited researcher in the field:

  1. Manifest behavior depends on underlying psychological mechanisms, information processing devices housed in the brain, in conjunction with the external and internal inputs — social, cultural, ecological, physiological — that interact with them to produce manifest behavior;
  2. Evolution by selection is the only known causal process capable of creating such complex organic mechanisms (adaptations);
  3. Evolved psychological mechanisms are often functionally specialized to solve adaptive problems that recurred for humans over deep evolutionary time;
  4. Selection designed the information processing of many evolved psychological mechanisms to be adaptively influenced by specific classes of information from the environment;
  5. Human psychology consists of a large number of functionally specialized evolved mechanisms, each sensitive to particular forms of contextual input, that get combined, coordinated, and integrated with each other and with external and internal variables to produce manifest behavior tailored to solving an array
    of adaptive problems.

This is already off to a bad start, as Myers has pointed out in another context.

complex traits are the product of selection? Come on, John [Wilkins], you know better than that. Even the creationists get this one right when they argue that there may not be adaptive paths that take you step by step to complex innovations, especially not paths where fitness doesn’t increase incrementally at each step. Their problem is that they don’t understand any other mechanisms at all well (and they don’t understand selection that well, either), so they think it’s an evolution-stopper — but you should know better.

But I’m not really here to push back on that line. It’s these bits further on that intrigue me:

These basic tenets render it necessary to distinguish between “evolutionary psychology” as a meta-theory for psychological science and “specific evolutionary hypotheses” about particular phenomena, such as conceptual proposals about aggression, resource control, or particular strategies of human mating. Just as the bulk of scientific research in the field of non-human behavioral ecology tests specific hypotheses about evolved mechanisms in animals, the bulk of scientific research in evolutionary psychology tests specific hypotheses about evolved psychological mechanisms in humans, hypotheses about byproducts of adaptations, and occasionally hypotheses about noise (e.g., mutations). […]

Evolutionary psychology is a meta-theoretical paradigm that provides a synthesis of modern principles of evolutionary biology with modern understandings of psychological mechanisms as information processing devices (Buss 1995b; Tooby and Cosmides 1992). Within this meta-theoretical paradigm, there are at least four distinct levels of analysis — general evolutionary theory, middle-level evolutionary theories, specific evolutionary hypotheses, and specific predictions derived from those hypotheses (Buss 1995b). In short, there is no such thing as “evolutionary psychology theory,” nor is there “the” evolutionary psychological hypothesis about any particular phenomenon.

Wait, EvoPsych is a “meta-theoretical paradigm?” That would place it above theories like Quantum Chromodynamics, Plate Tectonics, Evolution, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and Logotherapy. Buss appears to consider EvoPsych more like Physics or Psychology, categories that we’ve drawn around certain sets of theories. But “Physics” the category makes no claim about how the world works. You can’t derive General Relativity from Physics, photons from “the way material and energy evolve.” Categories are just labels. The fact that Buss could list five assertions of EvoPsych means it is not a label, though, but a theory after all.

Buss is speaking in word salad! But he’s a major figure in EvoPsych, oft-cited and with decades of experience.

I’ve already explained how Evolutionary Psychology is based on a deep misunderstanding of evolution, but it really has nothing to do with psychology, either: where do they reference contemporary psychoanalysis? Scan over Buss’ deep summary, and you won’t see any mention of Behaviorism, Kohiberg’s Moral Development, or Attachment Theory. EvoPsych was not created by psychologists, nor does it draw from their theories; instead, it was created by biologists like Robert Trivers or E.O. Wilson, working with simplified mathematical models and personal observation. It doesn’t consider what people are thinking, and despite claiming otherwise Buss will go on to show his true colours:

Three articles in this special issue attempt to provide empirical evidence, some new and some extracted from the existing empirical literature, pertaining to one of the nine hypotheses of Sexual Strategies Theory — that gender differences in minimal levels of obligate parental investment should lead short-term mating to represent a larger component of men’s than women’s sexual strategies. This hypothesis derives straightforwardly from Trivers’s (1972) theory of parental investment, which proposed that the sex that invested less in offspring (typically, but not always males), tends to evolve adaptations to be more competitive with members of their own sex for sexual access to the more valuable members of the opposite sex.

So EvoPsych is a biology theory that doesn’t understand basic biology, and a psychological theory developed independent of psychology.

The lack of coherency bleeds through the entire project: an EvoPsych textbook is a parade of tiny “specific evolutionary hypotheses,” disconnected from one another. This makes them easily discarded and interchanged, like chess pawns protecting the king. David Buss once said aggression in women did not exist, and wasn’t worthy of study, but two decades on was studying it and argued they were equally aggressive but differed in the kinds of aggression they showed. Buss will flatly assert hunting requires mental rotation skill, gathering requires spatial memory skill, and therefore the sex differences in those skills are due to sexual selection over time. Consider this theory instead:

It’s probable humans typically hunted small game, since setting up snares is easy and cheap, as is killing a pinned animal. Effectively capturing a lot of food required not only setting out many traps, though, but remembering where they were.

In contrast, plant food tends to stay in one place, and over time well-worn foot paths would develop between food spots. This made navigation easy, so long as you could memorize and rotate angles effectively to remember which path you came from. As plants tend to bloom seasonally, you’d also need to keep track of time. Star calendars and constellations were the obvious choice, but in order to read them you had to be able to cope with rotated shapes.

Based on the observed sex differences, and assuming they were the result of sexual selection, women must have been the hunters in prehistoric societies, while men were delegated to do the gathering.

The conclusion is completely at odds with what most EvoPsych researchers propose, yet it uses their exact same methods. Merely by shifting the focus around, I can easily come up with theories that contradict EvoPsych claims. As EvoPsych is a “meta-theory,” though, falsifying every single “specific evolutionary hypothesis” would fail to falsify it. EvoPsych is thus unfalsifiable, even though it makes empirically-testable assertions about human evolution!

Feminism, in contrast, is much more like Physics. It too is a category, defined as the study and removal of sexism.

But what constitutes sexism? Early theorists proposed Patriarchy theory, that society is structured to disproportionately favor men. Starting the 1970’s, though, a number of people began arguing for a role-based or performative view: society creates gender roles that we’re expected to conform to, whatever our sex, gender, or sexuality. This might seem to contradict the prior view, as men can now be the victim of sexism, but it’s no worse than what you see in harder sciences. Aristotle thought everything was attracted to the centre of the universe; Newton thought objects had mass, which attracted other objects with mass through an all-pervasive force; Einstein thought everything traveled in straight lines, it’s just that mass bends space and gives the appearance of a force. All three are radically different in detail, but they all give the same general prediction: things fall to Earth. Likewise, both Patriarchy and role-based theories differ in detail, but agree in general. This makes Feminism-the-category coherent, as there’s substantial overlap between all the theories it contains. There’s something tangible there, which no amount of theory-churn removes.

EvoPsych is a theory masquerading as a “meta-theory,” making specific assertions about the world yet denying it is falsifiable. Practitioners propose an endless stream of “specific evolutionary hypotheses,” which are only coherent with each other because they’re heavily influenced by the cultural experience of the people making them. It is far more post-modern than feminism, but because it goes easy on the jargon it doesn’t appear that way at first blush.

[HJH 2015/03/25: Added the following]

Hmmm, having mulled this over for a day, I think those last few paragraphs were grasping at something I couldn’t quite put my finger on at the time. I think I have it securely pinned now.

Simple question: can you describe performative theory without referring to feminism? Sure, I’ve done it already: “society creates gender roles that we’re expected to conform to, whatever our sex, gender, or sexuality.” Categories are simplifications; if we were to recursively define “the study and removal of sexism” to ever-greater degrees, at some level we’d start describing performative theory.

Now, can you describe Sexual Strategies Theory without referring to EvoPsych’s five core tenants? Nope, because it depends on mind modules, hyper-adaptationalism, and the rest of Buss’ list to make any sense. EvoPsych isn’t a meta-theory to SST, it’s a sub-theory, a lemma. It’s not a simplification or over-arching category, because even if we clarified all the core parts to an arbitrary degree, SST wouldn’t pop out.

Even more confusingly, Parental Investment theory is neither a category containing EvoPsych (as there’s no mind modules buried in there) nor a sub-theory of EvoPsych (because it doesn’t depend on mind modules to make sense). It’s not part of the paradigm at all, even though it helped spawn the field via a paper of Robert Trivers and is frequently cited by researchers.

Buss could make a better case for SST being a “meta-theoretical paradigm,” yet he thinks it’s a part of EvoPsych. It’s more evidence the guy has no clue what he’s saying.