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Evolutionary psychology

Terry Eagleton: Leave Darwinism to earthworms and mildly intelligent badgers

In “Who needs Darwin? (22 June 2011), a New Statesman review of George Levine’s The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now, Terry Eagleton gets it mostly right about Darwinism’s take on religion:

None of these writers points out that if Christianity is true, then it is all up with us. We would then have to face the deeply disagreeable truth that the only authentic life is one that springs from a self-dispossession so extreme that it is probably beyond our power. Instead, the volume chatters away about spirits and Darwinian earthworms, animal empathy and the sources of morality.

But earthworms is precisely what the Darwinists have got. And the humble earthworm still believes Darwinism. Read More ›

Paul Bloom, on the recent spate of “evil” books

Books trying to explain evil scientifically, that is. In “I’m O.K., You’re a Psychopath,” he makes a good point: People with autism and Asperger’s syndrome, Baron-Cohen argues, are also empathy-deficient, though he calls them “Zero-Positive.” They differ from psychopaths and the like because they possess a special gift for systemizing; they can “set aside the temporal dimension in order to see — in stark relief — the eternal repeating patterns in nature.” This capacity, he says, can lead to special abilities in domains like music, science and art. More controversially, he suggests, this systemizing impulse provides an alternative route for the development of a moral code — a strong desire to follow the rules and ensure they are applied fairly. Read More ›

Either you try to understand human nature or you try to defend Neo-Darwinism

File:Belisaire demandant l'aumone Jacques-Louis David.jpg
Belisarius asking for alms (Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825)/Remi Jouan. A general about sixth century AD, victimized by false accusation.

Why would anyone need “a growing body of evidence that humans are remarkably altruistic primates”? In a peaceful and prosperous society, one sees instances of altruism as well as its opposite every day. And, given most humans’ preference for peace and prosperity, we should just assume that we are acting most naturally when we can live that way. Anyway,

A growing body of evidence shows that humans are remarkably altruistic primates. Food sharing and division of labor play an important role in all human societies, and cooperation extends beyond the bounds of close kinship and networks of reciprocating partners. In humans, altruism is motivated at least in part by empathy and concern for the welfare of others. Although altruistic behavior is well-documented in other primates, the range Read More ›

“Grandmother” thesis in human evolution takes a hit

The “grandmother” thesis is that the reason our ancestors didn’t kill granny was that she helped out. (And then somehow religion got involved, and …) An actual study showed that “The hazard of death for Dogon children was twofold higher if the resident paternal grandmother was alive rather than dead. This finding may reflect the frailty of elderly grandmothers who become net consumers rather than net producers in this resource-poor society.”

Oh, and so did the comparison between a human group and co-operatively breeding animals: Read More ›

New York Times electrifies corpse of “it’s in your genes” – even while admitting that it’s sort of like, not true

“In Genetic Basis for Crime: A New Look” New York Times (June 19, 2011) , Patricia Cohen tells us

Researchers estimate that at least 100 studies have shown that genes play a role in crimes. “Very good methodological advances have meant that a wide range of genetic work is being done,” said John H. Laub, the director of the justice institute, who won the Stockholm Prize in Criminology last week. He and others take pains to emphasize, however, that genes are ruled by the environment, which can either mute or aggravate violent impulses. Many people with the same genetic tendency for aggressiveness will never throw a punch, while others without it could be career criminals. 

The subject still raises thorny ethical and policy questions.

In which case, these findings should – or should not Read More ›

Human evolution: Agriculture’s first steps were painful and profitless. So why did we really do it?

Greek agricultural gods (440-430 BC)/Napoleon Vier

At MSNBC’s Cosmic Log, we learn that “growing crops made us smaller” (June 20, 2011), John Roach tells us that the beginnings of agriculture were not obviously successful for our ancestors, as is often assumed:

People got shorter and sicker everywhere in the world when they started to farm about 10,000 years ago, according to a recent study that suggests the transition to an agricultural lifestyle came at a biological cost.

[ … ]

As people gave up the diverse diet of foraged foods and settled on eating a few staple food crops they “experienced nutritional deficiencies and had a harder time adapting to stress,” Amanda Mummert, an anthropology graduate student at Emory University, said in a news release.

Compounding the problem, growth in population density spurred by agricultural settlements led to an increase in unsanitary conditions ripe for spreading infectious diseases and the transmission of novel viruses from livestock to humans, she added.

Some would add that the earliest crop plants were probably just pampered weeds, from the modern farmer’s perspective. The precious seed stock for food grains that are well suited to human stomachs must have been a work of centuries, done with only the knowledge of plant genetics that one might gain from observation and experience. It’s doubtful our ancestors would have persisted without Read More ›

Human evolution: “Fatherhood made us human”is next up

By now, so many things made us human. Better to say we don’t know?

Here we are told about “How fatherhood made us human.”

According to Alan Boyle at MSNBC‘s Cosmic Log (06/2011/17):

Other research suggests that early humans diverged from chimps in the organization of hunter-gatherer societies. Groups of chimpanzees are generally organized along kinship lines, and there’s a high level of aggression between those kin groups. But Arizona State University anthropologist Kim Hill and his colleagues reported in the journal Science that today’s human hunter-gatherer groups are more mixed up, genetically speaking. Read More ›

“Slacker sociopath” says “science of evil” empathy test flawed

The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty

In his new book, The Science of Evil, developmental psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen thinkshe has the mysteryof evil worked out, or so Katherine Bouton explains, in “Book sees evil as zero empathy: Baron-Cohen’s study could stir controversy” (Halifax Chronicle-Herald, June 18, 2011):

“My main goal is to understand human cruelty, replacing the unscientific term ‘evil’ with the scientific term ‘empathy,’ ” he writes at the beginning of the book, which might be seen as expanding on the views on empathy expressed in his 1997 book, Mindblindness: An Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind (Bradford). Evil, he notes, has heretofore been defined in religious terms (with the concept differing in the major world religions), as a psychiatric condition (psychopathology) or, as he puts it, in “frustratingly circular” terms: “He did x because he is truly evil”).[ … ]

“What leads an individual’s Empathizing Mechanism to be set at different levels?” Baron-Cohen asks. “The most immediate answer is that it depends on the functioning of a special circuit in the brain, the empathy circuit” …

Must be somewhere near the charity neurons but far from the God circuit, right?

Baron-Cohen reckons without my friend Five Feet of Fury, who took his test and found it flawed: Read More ›

Baylor College of Medicine “rock star” neuroscientist David Eagleman knows evolutionary psychology is true.

Heck, it’s “science”, which is way better than being true, reasonable, or useful.

He tells us,

Recently, evolutionary psychologists have turned their sights on love and divorce. It didn’t take them long to notice that when people fall in love, there’s a period of up to three years during which the zeal and infatuation ride at a peak.

(Many parents of young adults, attempting to dissuade children from a predictably bad match, have noticed this.)

[ … ]

From this perspective, we are preprogrammed to lose interest in a sexual partner after the time required to raise a child has passed – which is, on average, about four years. Read More ›

How did evolutionary psychology’s “novel predictions” fare?

Tim_Wilson_ 06_DA.4-21-10.jpg
Tim Wilson

In “The Social Psychological Narrative — or — What Is Social Psychology, Anyway?
A Conversation With Timothy D. Wilson” (Edge (June 16, 2011), Wilson, a researcher into consciousness, comments on evolutionary psychology, taking on one of its most widely quoted exponents, Steve Pinker:

To be clear, evolutionary theory is obviously true and has added to our knowledge about social behavior, by suggesting novel hypotheses that could then be tested with the experimental method. But I believe the examples of this are far fewer than Steve suggests. He mentions a 2003 paper by David Buss that “listed fifty novel predictions about social behavior derived from evolutionary theory.” I went back and checked that list to see how novel those predictions were. Read More ›

Do you remember the psychology hoax before “evolutionary” psychology?

Before the Evolutionary Agony Aunt, Darwinian Brand Marketing, and thousands of dim frosh learning the “real” reasons people pray or why we don’t throw granny under the bus?

Think back. Think waaay back (if you can) to Wilhelm Reich, once the science darling of the Establishment, with a single, simple idea that governed everything:

The spiritual hysteria that Reich inspired in the America of the 1940s and early ’50s is as hard to explain now as the madness that 1920s crowds felt hearing Bix Beiderbecke play the cornet, especially when you consider that most Reichians were supposed to be educated skeptics and cultural critics. Even—or especially—intellectuals are not immune to America’s chronic and recurring religious revivals in their various forms.Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Dwight Macdonald, J.D. Salinger, Paul Goodman, William Burroughs and other bohemian culture heroes were among his followers: examples of what Lionel Trilling unsettlingly called “the moral urgency, the sense of crisis and the concern with personal salvation that mark the existence of American intellectuals.” Reich won a particular following among intellectuals, artists and cultural spokesmen who were looking for a new revo
ution after becoming disillusioned with communism.

– Henry Allen, “Thinking Inside the Box: Why some of America’s most prominent minds fell for the wildly eccentric ideas of Wilhelm Reich,”The Wall Street Journal, June 11, 2011

Reich was the prophet of the “apocalyptic orgasm.” No, really. And did any big brain get suspicious on account of his Read More ›

Prominent evolutionary psychologist tries to fix a has-been town, and its religion

In Nature News (8 June 2011), Emma Marris recounts how evolutionary biologist D. S. Wilson is trying to apply  his theories to once-prosperous Binghamton, New York (pop 47,000). In “Evolution: Darwin’s city,” she explains that he has focused much of his research on “the long-standing puzzle of altruism,” (“why organisms sometimes do things for others at a cost to themselves”).


The challenge Wilson has undertaken is to turn bad neighbours into good ones, and unwilling students into willing ones, using evolutionary psychology (though puzzled colleagues doubt that he is really doing EP). The problem is that he simply doesn’t have the needed grasp of human nature. Evolutionary psychology makes that impossible, as we shall see.


Some wonder why that’s even a puzzle, where humans are concerned. Darwinian social theory dictates that the default switch must be set to selfishness, because then the awesome power of natural selection can be shown. From an ID perspective,  the human default switch is not in fact set to selfishness exclusively and natural selection plays a limited role in human history. So Wilson’s “puzzle” disappears in favour of innumerable conflicting motivations, many of which do not happen to be especially selfish.   Read More ›

Atheist philosopher Raymond Tallis banishes evolutionary psychology from the choir.

Reviewing Elena Mannes’ “The Power of Music: Pioneering Discoveries in the New Science of Song” (The Wall Street Journal, May 21, 2011), Tallis writes,

Ms. Mannes, an Emmy-winning granddaughter of the founders of New York’s Mannes School of Music, is inspired by the possibility that neuroscience may help us harness the potential of music to treat the sick and even to build more harmonious communities. Yet her investigation, based on a PBS documentary that Ms. Mannes produced, gives us little reason to expect that neuroscience will deliver on this promissory note. Read More ›

He said it: Dinesh d’Souza vs. “evolutionary morality”

Renaissance political theorist Machiavelli

Dinesh D’Souza, well-known American commentator, offers a few in his book Life After Death: The Evidence (Regnery 2009) reflects on evolutionary psychology accounts of morality, for example, unidirectional skeptic Michael Shermer’s claim that “The best way to convince others that you are moral person is not to fake being a moral person but actually to be a moral person.” To which evolutionary psychologist David Barash adds, “Be moral, and your reputation will benefit.”

Many find this sort of thing uplifting, but what does it mean? D’Souza, noting that this is a version of the “selfish gene” argument, replies, Read More ›

Evolutionary psychologists take dead aim at mathematician who says they don’t add up

Recently, as some may recall, the pastor wrote to E. O.Wilson:

Gr8 you got it str8 about humans vs. ants. Keep on keeping on. – Yr Pastor

Seems the pastor didn’t believe in Wilson’s sociobiology theories and lots of other tenets of materialist faith. Now Wilson doesn’t either.


Earlier this year, sociobiologist E. O. “Dear Pastor” Wilson disowned his “inclusive fitness” (kin selection) theory, developed from his study of ants and bees. According to his theory, among life forms that live in groups, many members may give up the chance of reproducing their selfish genes so that the group as a whole is more fit. The problem is that it’s not clear how this situation could arise.

What’s very clear is that hundreds of cast members of the long-running Evolutionary Psychology Show ( everyone from the evolutionary agony aunt to the big bazooms boys) sense their jobs at risk. Hence viper mode!

In “Biologists Team Up to Quash New View of Cooperation”, Thomas Bartlett profiles Wilson’s co-author Martin Nowak, a Harvard math and biology prof for Chronicle of Higher Education, outlining that Nowak may have “an enviable resume, with tens of millions in grants and hundreds of publications,” but he also has a red bulls-eye on his back.

Read More ›