Evolution of the Mind: 4 Fallacies of Psychology

Philosopher of science, David J Buller, author of Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature, presents a refutation of some central claims of evolutionary psychology. In this Scientific American article, Buller focuses not on the motivations or political implications of evolutionary psychology proponents, but rather on the evidential claims advanced by those in the field.

Key Points:
* Among Charles Darwin’s lasting legacies is our knowledge that the human mind evolved by some adaptive process.
* A major, widely discussed branch of evolutionary psychology—Pop EP—holds that the human brain has many specialized mechanisms that evolved to solve the adaptive problems of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.
* The author and several other scholars suggest that some assumptions of Pop EP are flawed: that we can know the psychology of our Stone Age ancestors, that we can thereby figure out how distinctively human traits evolved, that our minds have not evolved much since the Stone Age, and that standard psychological questionnaires yield clear evidence of the adaptations.

Intro
Some evolutionary psychologists have made widely popularized claims about how the human mind evolved, but other scholars argue that the grand claims lack solid evidence

Charles Darwin wasted no time applying his theory of evolution to human psychology, following On the Origin of Species (1859) with The Descent of Man (1871) and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). Ever since, the issue hasn’t been whether evolutionary theory can illuminate the study of psychology but how it will do so. Still, a concerted effort to explain how evolution has affected human behavior began only in the 1970s with the emergence of sociobiology. The core idea of sociobiology was simple: behavior has evolved under natural and sexual selection (in response to competition for survival and reproduction, respectively), just as organic form has. Sociobiology thereby extended the study of adaptation to include human behavior.

In his 1985 critique of sociobiology, Vaulting Ambition, philosopher Philip Kitcher noted that, whereas some sociobiology backed modest claims with careful empirical research, the theoretical reach of the dominant program greatly exceeded its evidential grasp. Kitcher called this program “pop sociobiology” because it employed evolutionary principles “to advance grand claims about human nature and human social institutions” and was “deliberately designed to command popular attention.”

Times have changed. Although some self-identified sociobiologists are still around, the current fashion is evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychology maintains that adaptation is to be found among the psychological mechanisms that control behavior rather than among behaviors themselves. But, as the old saw goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Although some work in evolutionary psychology backs modest claims with careful empirical research, a dominant strain, pop evolutionary psychology, or Pop EP, offers grand and encompassing claims about human nature for popular consumption.

The most notable representatives of Pop EP are psychologists David M. Buss (a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of The Evolution of Desire and The Dangerous Passion) and Steven Pinker (a professor at Harvard University whose books include How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate). Their popular accounts are built on the pioneering theoretical work of what is sometimes referred to as the Santa Barbara school of evolutionary psychology, led by anthropologists Donald Symons and John Tooby and psychologist Leda Cosmides, all at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

According to Pop EP, “the human brain consists of a large collection of functionally specialized computational devices that evolved to solve the adaptive problems regularly encountered by our hunter-gatherer ancestors” (from the Web site of the Center for Evolutionary Psychology at U.C.S.B.). Just as evolution by natural and sexual selection has endowed all humans with morphological adaptations such as hearts and kidneys, Pop EP says, so it has endowed all humans with a set of psychological adaptations, or “mental organs.” These include psychological mechanisms, or “functionally specialized computational devices,” for language, face recognition, spatial perception, tool use, mate attraction and retention, parental care and a wide variety of social relations, among other things. Collectively, these psychological adaptations constitute a “universal human nature.” Individual and cultural differences are, by this account, the result of our common nature responding to variable local circumstances, much as a computer program’s outputs vary as a function of its inputs. The notable exceptions to this rule involve sex differences, which evolved because males and females sometimes faced distinct adaptive problems.

Moreover, because complex adaptation is a very slow process, human nature is designed for the hunter-gatherer lifestyle led by our ancestors in the Pleistocene (the period from 1.8 million to 10,000 years ago). As Cosmides and Tooby colorfully say, “our modern skulls house a Stone Age mind.” Pop EP proposes to discover our universal human nature by analyzing the adaptive problems our ancestors faced, hypothesizing the psychological mechanisms that evolved to solve them and then testing those hypotheses using standard-fare psychological evidence, such as paper-and-pencil questionnaires. Pop EP claims that a number of psychological adaptations have been discovered in this way, including evolved sex differences in mate preferences (males prefer nubility; females prefer nobility) and jealousy (men are more distressed by a mate’s sexual infidelity, women by emotional infidelity).

I believe that Pop EP is misguided. The ideas suffer not so much from one fundamental flaw as from many small mistakes. Nevertheless, recent critiques of evolutionary psychology point to some general problems of Pop EP.

Fallacy 1:
Analysis of Pleistocene Adaptive Problems Yields Clues to the Mind’s Design

Tooby and Cosmides have argued that because we can be quite certain that our Pleistocene ancestors had to, among other things, “select mates of high reproductive value” and “induce potential mates to choose them,” we can also be sure that psychological adaptations evolved for solving these problems. But efforts to identify the adaptive problems that drove human psychological evolution confront a dilemma.

On the one horn, while it is true that our ancestors had to “induce potential mates to choose them,” for example, such a description is too abstract to provide any clear indication of the nature of human psychological adaptations. All species face the problem of attracting mates. Male bowerbirds build ornately decorated bowers, male hangingflies offer captured prey, and male sedge warblers sing a wide repertoire of songs. Figuring out which strategies ancestral humans had to use requires a much more precise description of the adaptive problem for early humans.

More precise descriptions of the adaptive problems our ancestors faced, however, get impaled by the other horn of the dilemma: these descriptions are purely speculative, because we have little evidence of the conditions under which early human evolution occurred. The paleontological record provides a few clues about some aspects of early human life, but it is largely silent regarding the social interactions that would have been of principal importance in human psychological evolution. Nor do extant hunter-gatherer populations provide many hints about the social lives of our ancestors. Indeed, the lifestyles of these groups vary considerably, even among those who live in the regions of Africa populated by early humans.

Moreover, as biologist Richard Lewontin of Harvard has argued, the adaptive problems faced by a species are not independent of its characteristics and lifestyle. Tree bark contributes to the adaptive problems faced by woodpeckers, but stones lying at the foot of a tree do not. In contrast, for thrushes, which use stones to break snail shells, the stones are part of the adaptive problems they face, whereas tree bark is not. Similarly, our ancestors’ motivational and cognitive processes would have been selectively responsive to certain features of the physical and social environments, and this selective responsiveness would have determined which environmental factors affected human evolution. So to identify the adaptive problems that shaped the human mind, we need to know something about ancestral human psychology. But we don’t.

Finally, even if we could precisely identify the adaptive problems faced by our ancestors throughout human evolutionary history, we still couldn’t infer much about the nature of human psychological adaptations. Selection builds solutions to adaptive problems by retaining modifications to preexisting traits. Subsequent adaptation is always a function of how preexisting traits were modifiable. To know how a solution to an adaptive problem evolved, then, it is necessary to know something about the preexisting trait that was recruited and modified to solve the problem. Without knowledge of our ancestors’ psychological traits—which we don’t have—we can’t know how selection tinkered with them to create the minds we now possess.

Fallacy 2:
We Know, or Can Discover, Why Distinctively Human Traits Evolved

Biologists are often able to reconstruct the selection pressures that drove a species’ evolution by using the comparative method to study a clade, or group of species descended from a common ancestor. Because all the species in the group are descended from a common form, differences among them may be the result of variations in the environmental demands they faced. When a trait is shared by two or more species in a clade, but not by the others, it is sometimes possible to identify environmental demands common to those species but absent among the species without the trait. Correlating trait differences with specific environmental variations, in this way, can indicate the environmental demands to which a trait is adapted.

But the comparative method offers little help for Pop EP’s aspiration to reveal the adaptive history of the psychological traits—including language and forms of higher cognition—that putatively constitute human nature. Pinker, for example, has argued eloquently that language is an adaptation for verbal communication of infinite combinatorial complexity. He is probably right that language is an adaptation. But discovering why it evolved, what it is an adaptation for, requires identifying the adaptive functions that language served among early language users. To employ the comparative method to answer such questions, we need to compare some human psychological trait with its homo­logous form in species with whom we share a common ancestor. Here looms the problem. Among extant species, our closest relatives are the chimpanzee and the bonobo, with whom we share a common ancestor that lived approximately six million years ago. But even these, our closest relatives, don’t possess forms of the complex psychological traits, such as language, whose evolution Pop EP aspires to explain. So we can’t identify the environmental demands we share with our closest relatives to see what our common psychological traits are adapted to. Rather, we need to identify the environmental demands that drove our evolutionary separation from our closest living relatives during the past six million years.

What could enlighten us about these evolutionary events would be information about the ecology and lifestyle of more closely related species with whom we share some higher cognitive abilities. Then, perhaps, we could identify environmental demands shared with them but absent among the chimpanzee and the bonobo (and other primates). The species that fit this bill are the other hominins, the australopithecines and the other species in the genus Homo. Unfortunately, all other hominins are extinct. And dead hominins tell (virtually) no tales about their evolutionary histories [see “Once We Were Not Alone,” by Ian Tattersall; Scientific American, January 2000]. So there is a dearth of evidence necessary for using the comparative method to illuminate the evolutionary history of distinctively human traits. (That is why there are several theories about the evolution of language but no suggestions about how evidence can be used to choose among them.)

The comparative method does, however, sometimes provide useful information about distinctively human adaptations. But as philosopher Jonathan Michael Kaplan of Oregon State University has pointed out, when it does so, it is not for traits that are universal among humans, but for traits that appear in only some human populations. For example, we know that the gene that produces sickle cell anemia (when a person has two copies of the gene) is an adaptation for resistance to malaria (when a person has just one copy of the gene). Our evidence derived from comparing human populations that have the gene with human populations that don’t and identifying the environmental demands correlated with its presence.

Because the comparative method has illuminated such physiological adaptations, it is reasonable to suppose it could illuminate some psychological adaptations as well. But this is cold comfort to Pop EP, which claims that all human psychological adaptations are, in fact, universal among human populations. It is precisely such universal and distinctively human traits for which the comparative method offers little use. Therefore, it is unlikely that accounts of the evolution of our alleged universal human nature will ever rise above the level of speculation.

Fallacy 3:
“Our Modern Skulls House a Stone Age Mind”

Pop EP’s claim that human nature was designed during the Pleistocene, when our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers, gets it wrong on both ends of the epoch.

Some human psychological mechanisms undoubtedly did emerge during the Pleistocene. But others are holdovers of a more ancient evolutionary past, aspects of our psychology that are shared with some of our primate relatives. Evolutionary neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp of Bowling Green State University has identified seven emotional systems in humans that originated deeper in our evolutionary past than the Pleistocene. The emotional systems that he terms Care, Panic and Play date back to early primate evolutionary history, whereas the systems of Fear, Rage, Seeking and Lust have even earlier, premammalian origins.

Recognition of our deeper evolutionary history can greatly affect how we understand human psychology. Consider human mating. Buss has argued that human mating strategies were designed during the Pleistocene to solve adaptive problems that were unique in shaping human evolution. Accordingly, observing that humans pursue both short- and long-term mating (sometimes indulging in brief infidelities in the context of an ongoing mateship), he interprets these behaviors as aspects of an integrated set of psychological adaptations that unconsciously calculate the reproductive benefits of each strategy. When the potential reproductive benefits of a short-term mating opportunity are greater than the potential costs, these adaptations lead to infidelity.

If we recognize that aspects of our psychology are holdovers of prehuman evolutionary history, we get a very different picture. Indeed, because our closest relatives, the chimpanzee and bonobo, are highly promiscuous species, our lineage likely embarked on the uniquely human leg of its evolutionary journey with a mechanism of lust designed to promote promiscuous mating. Psychological characteristics that subsequently emerged during human evolutionary history were built atop that foundation. And we know that some emotional systems subsequently evolved to promote the pair bonding that is ubiquitous among human cultures but absent in our closest primate relatives. We have no reason, however, to think that mechanisms of lust and pair bonding evolved together as parts of an integrated mating strategy. Indeed, they likely evolved as separate systems, at diverse points in our lineage’s evolutionary history, in response to different adaptive demands, to serve distinct purposes. If this alternative interpretation of human mating psychology is correct, we are not “of one mind” about our sexual relationships. Rather, we possess competing psychological urges. We are pushed toward promiscuity by evolutionarily ancient mechanisms of lust and toward long-term pair bonds by more recently evolved emotional systems. Rather than being driven by an integrated Pleistocene psychology that unconsciously calculates which urge to pursue when, we are torn by independently evolved emotional mechanisms.

The view that “our modern skulls house a Stone Age mind” gets things wrong on the contemporary end of our evolutionary history as well. The idea that we are stuck with a Pleistocene-adapted psychology greatly underestimates the rate at which natural and sexual selection can drive evolutionary change. Recent studies have demonstrated that selection can radically alter the life-history traits of a population in as few as 18 generations (for humans, roughly 450 years).

Of course, such rapid evolution can occur only with significant change in the selection pressures acting on a population. But environmental change since the Pleistocene has unquestionably altered the selection pressures on human psychology. The agricultural and industrial revolutions precipitated fundamental changes in the social structures of human populations, which in turn altered the challenges humans face when acquiring resources, mating, forming alliances or negotiating status hierarchies. Other human activities—ranging from constructing shelter to preserving food, from contraception to organized education—have also consistently altered the selection pressures. Because we have clear examples of post-Pleistocene physiological adaptation to changing environmental demands (such as malaria resistance), we have no reason to doubt similar psychological evolution.

Moreover, human psychological characteristics are the product of a developmental process involving interaction between genes and the environment. Even if little genetic evolution has taken place since the Pleistocene, which is doubtful, human environments have changed in profound ways, as the examples above indicate. Any Pleistocene-selected genes we possess will interact with these new environments to produce psychological traits that may differ in important ways from those of our Pleistocene ancestors. So there is no good reason to think that all of our evolved psychological characteristics remain adapted to the lifestyle of Pleistocene hunter-gatherers.

Fallacy 4:
The Psychological Data Provide Clear Evidence for Pop EP

Pop EP argues that its speculations about our Pleistocene past have led to the discovery of many of the psychological adaptations that control our behavior. Because the approach has worked, it must be on to at least part of the truth about human evolutionary history. Of course, the soundness of this argument turns on the strength of the evidence for Pop EP’s alleged discoveries. That evidence usually consists of standard psychological pencil-and-paper data (such as responses to forced-choice questionnaires), but it sometimes also includes a limited array of behavioral data. As I argue at length in Adapting Minds, however, the evidence is typically inconclusive at best. Pop EP’s favored evolutionary hypotheses are, as philosopher Robert C. Richardson of the University of Cincinnati recently quipped, “speculation disguised as results.” The appearance that the evidence is compelling is created less by the data themselves than by the failure to consider and adequately test viable alternative explanations. Consider a single illustration of this point.

Buss argues that jealousy evolved as an emotional alarm that signals a partner’s potential infidelities and causes behavior designed to minimize losses of reproductive investment. Among our ancestors, the argument continues, infidelities entailed different reproductive costs for the two sexes. For men, a female’s sexual infidelity signified that he might be investing parental resources in another male’s offspring. For women, it was a male’s emotional involvement with another woman that could lead to the loss of his resources. And indeed, Buss claims to have discovered the requisite sex difference in the evolved “design features” of the jealous mind: the male mind is more sensitive to cues of sexual infidelity, whereas the female mind is more sensitive to cues of emotional infidelity.

The principal data cited in support of this theory are responses to forced-choice questionnaires. One questionnaire item, for example, asks subjects which they find more upsetting: “imagining your partner forming a deep emotional attachment” to a rival or “imagining your partner enjoying passionate sexual intercourse” with a rival. Results consistently show that more men than women report the thought of a partner’s sexual infidelity to be more distressing than the thought of a partner’s emotional infidelity.

But such data are hardly conclusive evidence of sex-differentiated psychological adaptations. Instead both sexes could have the same evolved capacity to distinguish threatening from nonthreatening infidelities and to experience jealousy to a degree that is proportional to the perceived threat to a relationship in which one has invested mating effort. This shared capacity could generate Buss’s questionnaire results because of acquired beliefs about a sex difference in the types of behavior that pose a threat to a relationship. In fact, several studies have found that it is widely believed, by both sexes, that men are more likely than women to have sex in the absence of any emotional involvement. Given this belief, men will find a woman’s sexual infidelity more threatening than women will find a man’s sexual infidelity, because female sexual infidelity is more likely to be accompanied by emotional involvement.

This alternative hypothesis also readily accounts for data that aren’t easily accommodated by the theory that there is a sex difference in the evolved design features of the mind. First, homosexual men are even less likely than heterosexual women to find sexual infidelity more upsetting than emotional infidelity. And homosexual males, as a group, are also less likely than heterosexual males or females to believe that sexual infidelity poses a threat to the primary relationship. If the sexes share the same capacity for jealousy, with the degree of sexual jealousy determined by the degree of the perceived threat to a relationship, homosexual males’ tendency not to find sexual infidelity threatening would cause them to depart from the male norm.

Second, the degree to which males find the prospect of a female partner’s sexual infidelity upsetting varies significantly among cultures. For example, only about a quarter of German males report sexual infidelity to be more upsetting than emotional infidelity. Interestingly, Buss and his colleagues have themselves noted that the German culture has “more relaxed attitudes about sexuality, including extramarital sex, than does the American culture.” So German males should be less likely than American males to believe that a female partner’s sexual infidelity threatens a relationship and hence less likely to be distressed by sexual infidelity than American males. Again, this cultural difference is precisely what we should expect if degree of sexual jealousy is a function of the degree to which sexual infidelity is perceived as a threat to a relationship.

It is unclear why Pop EP resists the idea that the sexes share the same emotional mechanism of jealousy and that attitudinal differences are a function of differences in the beliefs processed by the mechanism. According to Pop EP, many cultural differences stem from a common human nature responding to variable local conditions. Yet cultural differences are often more profound than the sex differences that Pop EP has transformed into sensational theory. If cultural variation can result from a common nature responding to dissimilar inputs, surely sex differences in attitudes and behavior can, too.

Coda
Among Darwin’s lasting legacies is our knowledge that the human mind evolved by some adaptive process. After all, the human brain is even more costly to run than an internal-combustion engine these days, consuming 18 percent of the body’s energy intake while constituting merely 2 percent of its weight. We wouldn’t have such an organ if it hadn’t performed some important adaptive functions in our evolutionary past.

The challenge for evolutionary psychology is to move from this general fact to some evidentially well-supported specifics about the adaptive processes that shaped the mind. But, as we have seen, the evidence needed to substantiate accounts of adaptation in our lineage during the past couple of million years is scarce. And this isn’t the kind of evidence that is likely to materialize; such evidence is lost to us, probably forever. It may be a cold, hard fact that there are many things about the evolution of the human mind that we will never know and about which we can only idly speculate.

Of course, some speculations are worse than others. Those of Pop EP are deeply flawed. We are unlikely ever to learn much about our evolutionary past by slicing our Pleistocene history into discrete adaptive problems, supposing the mind to be partitioned into discrete solutions to those problems, and then supporting those suppositions with pencil-and-paper data. The field of evolutionary psychology will have to do better. Even its very best, however, may never provide us knowledge of why all our complex human psychological characteristics evolved.

Source: Scientific American, December 2008

Posted By

Choccy
Dec 30 2008 06:03

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Choccy
Jan 30 2009 00:11

Today's Material World on Radio 4 was on evolutionary psychology.

Devrim
Jan 30 2009 10:05

I have just read through this, Choccy. It is pretty much a straw man argument really.

Maybe the most telling sentence was in the introduction:

Quote:
In this Scientific American article, Buller focuses not on the motivations or political implications of evolutionary psychology proponents, but rather on the evidential claims advanced by those in the field.

What does it imply other scientists have been focusing on?

Devrim

Joseph Kay
Jan 30 2009 10:42

Dev, lots of lefty scientists have attacked evolutionary psychology for its political motivations (rose, lewontin etc)

Devrim
Jan 30 2009 11:26

Yes, I know, but generally they try to come across as trying to do it on a scientific basis.

It doesn't sound good "I think your science is wrong because I don't like your politics".

Devrim

Joseph Kay
Jan 30 2009 11:33
Devrim wrote:
It doesn't sound good "I think your science is wrong because I don't like your politics".

i agree, but

Rose & Lewontin wrote:
There is nothing in Marx, Lenin, or Mao that is or can be in contradiction with a particular set of phenomena in the objective world.

they really do attack EP as much on ideological grounds as empirical, they do favour politically correct science, opposing Wilson for being a 'fascist' etc. (of course it's not that EP isn't enmeshed in ideology, but you have to show how its methodology or interpretation of datasets reflects this ideology, not just reject it cos you don't like it, as someone was arguing on here last time we had a philosophy of science thread).

Choccy
Jan 30 2009 18:49

That's precisely the distinction I was trying to make. It's an accurate description of the article. Devrim is being a muppet.

Choccy
Jan 31 2009 13:05

Actually JoeK that statement wasn't Rose and Lewontin, it's not from 'Not in our genes' - It's from 'Dialectical Biologist' by Levins and Lewontin.

But I agree it's absurd to begin from such an ideological position. far more fruitful is to ask 'what is the evidence?' for assertions made by proponents, and if it doesn't appear to be forthcoming or requires too much assumption then ask what social/political forces lead to its persistence.

To dismiss it based on a-priori ideological ground it knee-jerk lefty shite. Even Gould had no a-priori objection to EP:
'Humans are animals and the mind evolved; therefore, all curious people must support the quest for an evolutionary psychology.'

and he thought the discipline had positive potential, (see Evolution: The Pleasures of Pluralism) and even that sociobiology, while mostly hostile to it, had 'some solid successes when based on interesting theory and firm data, mostly from nonhuman species'.

Gould: '[evolutionary psychology] could, in my view, become a fruitful science by replacing its current penchant for narrow, and often barren, speculation with respect for the pluralistic range of available alternatives that are just as evolutionary in status, more probable in actual occurrence, and not limited to the blinkered view that evolutionary explanations must identify adaptations produced by natural selection.'
and also
'[EP]could be quite useful if proponents would trade their propensity for cultism and ultra-Darwinian fealty for a healthy dose of modesty. '

and again, on the softening of adaptationism by evo-psych in comparison to old sociobiology - 'I applaud this development. If this principle were advanced in conjunction with the recognition that a putative evolutionary origin does not necessarily imply an adaptive value at all, then evolutionary psychology could make a substantial advance in applying Darwinian theory to human behavior.'

And on the other side, John Maynard Smith, not an evolutionary psychologist at all but often accused of being a 'darwinian fundamentalist' welcomes the critiques of , oft-targeted in the arguments against EvoPsych, by Gould & Lewontin, while remaining a firm adaptationist:
Maynard Smith By and large, I think their paper had a healthy effect. There are plenty of bad adaptive stories: we can all laugh at the suggestion that flamingos are pink because it camouflages them against the sunset. Their critique forced us to clean up our act and to provide evidence for our stories. But adaptationism remains the core of biological thinking.

And interestingly Maynard-Smith himself shares a similar reservation (though is by no means as hostile) about evolutionary explanations for human behaviour (video interview10-12mins in)
Maynard-Smith: 'I have a kind of relectuance, nervousness, I'm not sure which is the right word, to think about human evolution... essentially because you very often can't answer the questions... questions are interesting, you can guess at answers, but you can't experiment on people, you can't tell A to marry B and have 56 children. So it's not like a fruit-fly, it's very hard to investigate.'

It's precisely the calls for 'interesting theory and firm data' that Gould called for that should found initial criticism. If no such data exists, or ideas never go beyond speculation, that the persistence of the EP program, and certainly of Pop EP as discussed by Buller should then be addressed by asking what social and political motivations lie behind this.

To be sure though, some are just laughable, even a strong adaptationist like Dennett is critical of the 'greedy reductionism' of much of the old sociobiology programme, and modern pop EP certainly often warrants nothing more than laughable derision (see Sandwalk and BadScience on pop EP), but it certainly should not be based on a-priori ideological positions.
Statements like Levin & Lewontin's are nothing short of science-stoppers.

Devrim
Jan 31 2009 06:29
Quote:
Devrim is being a muppet.

What, because I don't subscribe to the views of particular scientists that you support. Because I think that many of them spend time constructing and attacking straw men?

Now they cold be right, but all the things that I have read do nothing to convince me of it.

Nor does you calling me a muppet.

Devrim

Joseph Kay
Jan 31 2009 10:59
Quote:
Actually JoeK that statement wasn't Rose and Lewontin, it's not from 'Not in our genes' - It's from 'Dialectical Biologist' by Levins and Lewontin.

oops. that'll teach me to lazily source things on teh internet and not on my bookshelf.

Dev, i'm not sure what you're disagreeing with?

Choccy
Jan 31 2009 13:04

I'm baffled by Dev's posts here, really.

Devrim
Jan 31 2009 14:20

My point was that I think the article is attacking a 'straw man' version of EP, and I didn't find it very convincing.

Devrim

Choccy
Feb 1 2009 01:11

If you read it, he's qualified his criticisms, and makes clear he's attacking what he describes as Pop EP, he says there's a research programme worth pursuing, but that it needs to tighten its game and make much more modest inferences.

Devrim
Jan 31 2009 22:46

I did read it. I don't think that what he describes as Pop EP is actually what those people are saying.

Devrim

Choccy
Feb 1 2009 01:16

What which people are saying?
Sorry you're not giving us very much here Dev wink

Devrim
Feb 1 2009 07:31
Quote:
What which people are saying?

The EP people, like Pinker for example. I was interested in discussing it, but as you came on abusive straight away, and as people usually get abusive when discussing this topic. I don't think I will bother.

Devrim

Choccy
Feb 1 2009 13:40

You consider that 'abusive'?
Cool, means you don't have to actually bother looking at what I've written.

Devrim
Feb 1 2009 15:25

Well yes, I don't. I think it is an interesting, but not particularly politically important subject, and I don't feel any need to discuss it with people who are rude to me.

Devrim

rai linga
Jan 6 2010 08:05

I am an evolutionary psychologist and very proud of my science. It is clear the Mr Buller does not just hate "pop" evolutionary psychology ---his books demonstrate that he hates the entire scientific perspective.

Rather than challenge the thrust of this entire article, let me demonstrate the myopia inherent throughout it by a clear analysis of his very first claim. To dramatize the degree of his error, it is most useful to begin with an analogy. Imagine an article that would cross the Sci Am editor's desk: “The Four Fallacies of Zoology”. There, highlighted in red is “Fallacy 1: Analysis of the behavior of animals functioning in their natural habitat yields clues to the design of that animal’s brain.” I ask you, would not a rational editor be loathe to consider the article on the face of that assertion alone? Not only is “Fallacy 1” dead wrong , it turns out to be a basic principle of zoology.

Strangely, within Dr. Buller’s article “The Four Fallacies of Pop Evolutionary Psychology”, his attack on this basic zoological principle, as given application to the human primate, is made to sound eminently reasonable as his “Fallacy 1”: “Analysis of Pleistocene Adaptive Problems Yields Clues to the Mind’s Design”. (Certainly, the original human nomadic pattern of living in “herds” like other primates during the Pleistocene is, unarguably, the human “natural habitat” ---as a primate, what else could possibly qualify?)

In other words, what zoologists know “works” for every other animal somehow doesn’t “work” for that amazingly “special” human one ---that, somehow, only the evolutionary niche that shaped the human animal is irrelevant to its deeper understanding. This, despite more and more primatological research making clear that the human primate is less and less “special”. In sum, it’s highly ironic that, as Dr. Buller so bemoans the naïve conclusions of evolutionary psychologists, he himself has fallen victim to the most subtly persistent, yet wholly naïve of all scientific perspectives: anthropocentrism. In his own words, “the more things change, the more they remain the same”.

By the way, is there some subliminal prejudice inherent in certain philosophers that Evolutionary Psychology, as clear reminder of our status as primate animals, threatens the very foundation of their logical processing that begins with the misguided assumption of "philosopher as disembodies spirit", wholly disconnected from biological reality, floating high above it all, and engaging in endless meanderings about Truth, often to little pragmatic effect. Am I being unfair? Of course! But why should Mr Buller merit any measure of my own sense of fairness?

Choccy
Jan 6 2010 18:35

I'll try and reply on the article bits later when i've time, but I'll try and address the issue of philosophers and EP here.

One assertion of Buller (not in the article, but in Adapting Minds) is that EP as a programme has created its own legitimacy, by setting up it's own journals etc, thus saying 'it's legitimate, because we all say it's legitimate'. That said, the field's flagship journal, Evolutionary Psychology, has critics of EP and older sociobiology on its editorial board (Chomsky, Bateson)

As far as 'prejudice' on the part of philosophers, well I'm not sure that's fair. True, most philosophers of science or mind are sceptical of EP (and earlier sociobiology) (Dupre, Fodor, Kitcher, Pigliucci, Buller, Richardson) but others like Dennett are clearly very much in favour of it as a research programme. Those that are sceptical, i think are moreso out of their failure to see EP passing the criteria that they'd see other fields having to meet.

Outside of philosophers, there's of course considerable scepticism from high profile scientists and science writers (Lewontin, Gould, Rose, Kamin, Pigliucci, Jones, Coyne, Larry Moran, Goldacre) and touching on the claims about zoology, Pigliucci has claimed that much of what passes the mark in EP journals would be laughed out of review by ethology journals (think it was in his SGU podcast interview last year).

The assertion that many of EP's critiques are kneejerk lefties with an axe to grind has always struck me as somewhat hollow, as some of it critics have indeed been 'ultra-Darwinians' that Gould, Lewontin et al would normally associate with EP: John Maynard Smith was fairly repulsed by sociobiology, and Steve Jones barely conceals his contempt for EP, or 'arts faculty science', Jerry Coyne has a similar view to Jones. These guy are not your punk-eek, or 'evolutionary pluralist' types liek say Gould or Larry Moran, Jones and Coyne are gene-centrists and reductionists, Jones would even say he's a proud reductionist.

I have to say, as a psychology graduate who's now a science teacher, I don't share the automatic kneejerk revulsion many anarchos seem to have to EP, that said I find much pop EP fucking laughable. I can empathise with JM Smith's position during the original sociobiology debates; he had a foot in both camps, was a marxist (though had drifted somewhat),a nd initially repulsed by EO Wilson's 'Sociobiology'. But he later found himself alienated by some of what counted as criticism from lefty scientists like Gould and Lewontin. I've felt the same; when arguing with my ex who was a biologist in the ultra-darwinian vein and extremely sympathetic to EP, i'd find myself laughing at a lot of it, but when chatting with lefties who can barely define even basic scientific terms I'd get frustrated by their apparent contempt for the scientific method, evidenced in their failure to apply the rigorous demands the make of EP to some of their own half-baked shite.

Kohn's 'a reason for everything' and Segerstrale's 'defenders of the truth' had great stuff respectively about JM Smith's position and the personalities in the debate generally.

ludd
Feb 10 2010 19:58

Some posters above talked about ideological critique of EP that goes to the root of it's ideology underlying and shows how their conclusions follow their ideological position. Here's a book that tries to do it, it's called "Neo-Liberal Genetics: The Myths and Moral Tales of Evolutionary Psychology" by Susan McKinnon from Prickly Paradigm Press. This is a critique grounded in anthropology and it shows just how ridiculous some of the EPs anthropological pretenses are. Before I knew as much about politics, I found it quite enjoyable to read, but it might be perhaps because I am lefty who loves science and responds with deep revulsion to the whole EP worldview.

Anyway, here's the publishers summary from the catalog (http://www.prickly-paradigm.com/catalog.html)

Evolutionary psychology claims to be the authoritative science of “human nature.” Its chief architects, including Stephen Pinker and David Buss, have managed to reach well beyond the ivory tower to win large audiences and influence public discourse. But do the answers that evolutionary psychologists provide about language, sex, and social relations add up? Susan McKinnon thinks not. Far from an account of evolution and social relations that has historical and cross-cultural validity, evolutionary psychology is a stunning example of a “science” that twists evolutionary genetics into a myth of human origins. As McKinnon shows, that myth is shaped by neo-liberal economic values and relies on ethnocentric understandings of sex, gender, kinship, and social relations. Drawing widely from the anthropological record, Neo-liberal Genetics offers a sustained and accessible critique of the myths of human nature that evolutionary psychologists have fabricated. It also explores the implications for public policy of the moral tales that are told by evolutionary psychologists in the guise of “scientific” inquiry.

mugcake
Feb 20 2013 19:17
Quote:
Rather than challenge the thrust of this entire article, let me demonstrate the myopia inherent throughout it by a clear analysis of his very first claim. To dramatize the degree of his error, it is most useful to begin with an analogy. Imagine an article that would cross the Sci Am editor's desk: “The Four Fallacies of Zoology”. There, highlighted in red is “Fallacy 1: Analysis of the behavior of animals functioning in their natural habitat yields clues to the design of that animal’s brain.” I ask you, would not a rational editor be loathe to consider the article on the face of that assertion alone? Not only is “Fallacy 1” dead wrong , it turns out to be a basic principle of zoology.

Strangely, within Dr. Buller’s article “The Four Fallacies of Pop Evolutionary Psychology”, his attack on this basic zoological principle, as given application to the human primate, is made to sound eminently reasonable as his “Fallacy 1”: “Analysis of Pleistocene Adaptive Problems Yields Clues to the Mind’s Design”. (Certainly, the original human nomadic pattern of living in “herds” like other primates during the Pleistocene is, unarguably, the human “natural habitat” ---as a primate, what else could possibly qualify?)

In other words, what zoologists know “works” for every other animal somehow doesn’t “work” for that amazingly “special” human one ---that, somehow, only the evolutionary niche that shaped the human animal is irrelevant to its deeper understanding. This, despite more and more primatological research making clear that the human primate is less and less “special”. In sum, it’s highly ironic that, as Dr. Buller so bemoans the naïve conclusions of evolutionary psychologists, he himself has fallen victim to the most subtly persistent, yet wholly naïve of all scientific perspectives: anthropocentrism. In his own words, “the more things change, the more they remain the same”.

If you'll re-read what that author actually says about his "Fallacy #1", you'll see that you've misunderstood what he is actually claiming the problem is.

First of all, this is Buller's statement:
"Fallacy 1: Analysis of Pleistocene Adaptive Problems Yields Clues to the Mind’s Design"

So the Pleistocene environment is what's been defined by evo psych as humans' adaptive environment and it is this past environment upon which their assumptions rest. However, as Buller goes on to say, we don't have access to the relevant information from this time period. Studies of animal behaviour are at least able to rely on either current environmental observation or comparative historical observation. As Buller clearly states, evo psych denies the importance of the first situation (i.e. current human circumstances) and does not have access to information that could be gleaned from the latter.