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Evolutionary psychology: Why it is finally on the way out, with last year’s magazines

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Sharon Begley’s critical look at evolutionary psychology in a recent edition of Newsweek is a must-read for anyone interested in the field. She is hardly the first, but the first to have so wide a non-professional audience for a rational, science-based evaluation of the topic. Many of us have regaled ourselves over the years with the distinct pop-culture sound – more lark than lab, more salon than science.

(This post has been updated, to add some details.)

We have learned so much from evolutionary psychology:

– Rape today can be explained because rape was once adaptive and rapists had more kids, so we carry rape genes. (The guys who didn’t rape just didn’t leave enough kids.) Then some ignorant scientist decided to pull in data from his many years’ observation of one of the few remaining groups of people who live much as all humans lived 100 000 years ago. He did not observe rapes, but ran some numbers on the probabilities, based on the lifestyle, and discovered that rape was quite unlikely to be adaptive. Unless a fine collection of spears in one’s back is adaptive …

Begley observes that one hindrance to a scientific assessment of evolutionary psychology has been the moral outrage it provoked. Moral outrage enables the purveyor of silly or pernicious ideas to don the mantle of science, invoke Galileo, and delay the day of reckoning.

But it seems to have stretched as far as it can go because, behind all the posturing, some were counting.

For example (these from Begley’s article, and don’t let my summary stop you from reading it):

– Is it true that men are genetically adapted to prefer women with a waist to hip ratio of 0.7? That depends on what other qualities are important. Could Barbie work 10 hours a day under a hot sun?

– Are men programmed to neglect or kill their stepchildren? Many such claims relied on social work data gathered for other purposes, and often poorly or prejudicially gathered. Also, and this is a point Mario Beauregard and I made in The Spiritual Brain, the term “stepfather” can sometimes be used very loosely, and one need not assume that the man even intends to stay long.

– The brave warrior gets the girls? Not necessarily. An analysis of the family histories of 95 Amazon warriors showed that women avoid the “badass” guy, who is typically a disaster as a husband, and may trigger a counterraid that gets his family killed.

Begley notes that a growing new approach, behavioral ecology, makes much more sense than evolutionary psychology (BE). BE posits that evolution created the core of human nature as variability and flexibility – the ability to adapt behavior to the environment quickly – and that there is no universal human nature.

I have qualms with this approach, because I think that some features of human nature are universal, other things being equal. The desire for approval comes readily to mind. What there isn’t are modules in the brain, created by selfish genes, that can be accounted for by the ways in which the behaviour was adaptive in the Pleistocene era..

But qualms aside, it is nice to see the subject finally leave the salon and get back to the lab. 

Also just up at The Mindful Hack:

Laugh and the world laughs with you, cry and …

Daydreaming: Neuroscientist calls it key to creativity, unimaginative boss still calls it loafing

Empathy: Hath not a Jew eyes?

Free will: Understanding what it means

Neuroscience and science fiction: Can we cure everything by advanced technology?

The Mindful Hack is my blog on neuroscience and spirituality issues, which supports The Spiritual Brain.

15 Replies to “Evolutionary psychology: Why it is finally on the way out, with last year’s magazines

  1. 1
    Lenoxus says:

    Certainly there’s something fishy about the extreme evo-psych position that the brain is filled with hundreds of specific evolved “items” like SPIDERS ARE SCARY and TYPE-X PERSONS ARE SEXY.

    But the article in question did seem to take a liking to the less extreme claim that our brains adapted for adaptability. The final sentences are Evolution indeed sculpted the human brain. But it worked in malleable plastic, not stone, bequeathing us flexible minds that can take stock of the world and adapt to it.

    In any case, let’s not forget that there really are psychological human universals that evolution readily explains — for example, the sex drive in general, or the fact that we experience hunger when we haven’t eaten long. We just forget about ones like that because they’re perhaps too obvious.

    I wonder, will there ever be such a thing as design psychology, or does the nature of ID disallow predictions in that realm?

  2. 2
    Anthony09 says:

    “Evolution indeed sculpted the human brain. But it worked in malleable plastic, not stone, bequeathing us flexible minds that can take stock of the world and adapt to it.”

    Evo-psych already makes this claim, so the article is tilting at windmills.

  3. 3
    herb says:

    I certainly hope this kind of information filters out into the popular press. No offense to the evo psychos, but are these people literally smoking crack?

  4. 4
    Avonwatches says:

    In any case, let’s not forget that there really are psychological human universals that evolution readily explains — for example, the sex drive in general, or the fact that we experience hunger when we haven’t eaten long. We just forget about ones like that because they’re perhaps too obvious.

    How has evolution ‘readily explained’ these? I think you mean ‘readily describes’ these.

    Explaining involves showing how hunger arose as a function, rather than just saying ‘animals with hunger have a better chance at surviving than those without therefore it evolved. How, what, when??!

    But evo leaves us in a pickle:
    i) hunger (i.e. telling an animal to eat) is a critical function, but how do creatures survive long enough without it to ‘evolve’ it?
    ii) but if hunger ‘evolved first’ before actual eating by animals, then what pressure did it ‘evolve’ on?

    The same goes for sex drive, or thermo-reg, or DNA, or… anything really.

  5. 5
    O'Leary says:

    Avonwatches and all,

    The thing to keep in mind about the sex drive, thermo-reg, and hunger is that they begin with physiological mechanisms that initiate physiological processes that affect one’s mental state.

    There is unambiguous physiological evidence for how these mechanisms work. One cannot merely speculate about how they evolved; all speculation must be tied to the specifics of intricate systems working together.

    Contrast that with “why men evolved to be big spenders.” That did not begin in science and will not end up there either.

  6. 6
    Lenoxus says:

    I’m having trouble understanding the “pickle”, but I’ll do my best by breaking it down:

    i) hunger (i.e. telling an animal to eat) is a critical function, but how do creatures survive long enough without it to ‘evolve’ it?

    Creatures without hunger are much less likely to survive, assuming that they do not constantly have a readily available supply of food, and that they routinely perform metabolic activities which would drain them without regular energy replenishment (so plants have a different story to tell). They are by no means guaranteed to all die instantly, though.

    At some point, the right combination of genes appears in enough organisms that it “avalanches” and spreads throughout the population. Species with the hunger experience will have that experience become more and more refined to circumstances, while those without it will not.

    ii) but if hunger ‘evolved first’ before actual eating by animals, then what pressure did it ‘evolve’ on?

    Technically, that’s totally possible too. A set of genes could come together that serve one purpose (or no purpose at all) and later change slightly to serve another.

    The thing to keep in mind is that environmental changes don’t “trigger” needed mutations — that would be something like Lamarckism.

    Of course, I totally admit that I’m not completely “explaining” the origin of hunger in the slightest. I have no idea what genes relate to hunger and in what ways. But I’m pretty sure that someone in biology does have a good sense of those details, perhaps even down to a pathetic level. Conversely, I’m not aware of anyone with a good “How, what, when??!” for design, except maybe Dembski and his notion that it could all be the modification of quantum variables.

    Just curious, Avonwatches: I assume you believe in genetic entropy? That would answer a lot of questions for me.

  7. 7
    allanius says:

    You remember Aristotle’s joke about Idealism—that the heavens must be pretty crowded if they’re full of forms of virtually everything that exists.

    The same thing can be said of evo psych. If every behavior as well as every memory and thought is a physical thing posted in consciousness, then it certainly must be crowded in there!

  8. 8
    Nakashima says:

    I’m not sure that universals such as getting hungry are really the realm of evo-psych. I think universals such as laughter, dreams, music, and dance are more interesting. Universals shared with other primates and social mammals, while more universal, are less interesting, IMHO.

  9. 9
    Lenoxus says:

    Nakashima:

    I’m not sure that universals such as getting hungry are really the realm of evo-psych. I think universals such as laughter, dreams, music, and dance are more interesting. Universals shared with other primates and social mammals, while more universal, are less interesting, IMHO.

    Ah, but to use a turn of phrase that folks here normally apply to evidence for evolution, I think the realm of strictly human phenomena is shrinking all the time. Chimpanzee babies laugh when tickled, birds and whales sing, and everyone with a canine companion knows that they dream.

    In the words of Tom Weller, Man is the only animal that wears bow ties. (okay, I would grant that we appear to be capable of a kind of abstract thought that animals don’t).

    (All that said, I don’t deny that there are much more interesting phenomena than hunger. I was just talking about the basics to make my basic point, when it got picked up by another commenter.)

  10. 10
    Diffaxial says:

    As Denyse and Mario Beauregard note in The Spiritual Brain, reasoning power and sense of identity are hosted by and dependent upon recently evolved prefrontal areas of the human brain, those areas that render us most characteristically human (see page 130).

    It follows that, because the cortical areas that host these crucial functions are recently evolved, some version of evolutionary psychology must in fact be correct, however silly other specific hypotheses may appear.

    Elements of human theory of mind, which is universally observed and universally indispensable to the conduct of human affairs, are among those that have an increasingly firm empirical grounding as cognitive capacities with origins in primate and human evolution. That theory and research both originated in and takes a rightful place among the fruits of empirical science.

  11. 11
    magnan says:

    Diffaxial (10): “It follows that, because the cortical areas that host these crucial functions are recently evolved, some version of evolutionary psychology must in fact be correct, however silly other specific hypotheses may appear.”

    I agree. But how to reconcile this with the huge body of evidence (summarized in part in The Spiritual Brain) that human consciousness is not (just) the operation of billions of neurons. It seems that some form of interactive dualism is really the case.

    The reality of psi and other psychical phenomena is well established. Of course the vast majority of Darwinists are categorical materialists and deny this and any form of dualism, but some parapsychologists try to have their cake and eat it too by adhering to a sort of dualistic Darwinism where they reconcile their belief in the modern theory of evolution with parapsychology using a sort of interactive Darwinism. They suggest that whatever “spiritual” forces or entities operate through the physical brain waited around until the blind forces of evolution just happened to come up with a brain able to manifiest the higher cognitive and spiritual capacities they desired.

    I don’t think that is very satisfactory for a lot of reasons, especially that such forces could manipulate the physical world and would not reasonably just hope that a suitable animal body just happened to evolve despite more than astronomical odds.

  12. 12
    Diffaxial says:

    Magnan:

    I agree. But how to reconcile this with the huge body of evidence (summarized in part in The Spiritual Brain) that human consciousness is not (just) the operation of billions of neurons. It seems that some form of interactive dualism is really the case.

    I’m not sure I follow, Magnan, as you embrace a position and its opposite in the span of three sentences. To embrace “interactive dualism” is to reject the notion that these human characteristics are instantiated in recently evolved neural structures.

  13. 13
    Cabal says:

    Rape today can be explained because rape was once adaptive and rapists had more kids, so we carry rape genes.

    Why aren’t we all rapists then? The non-rapists should have been weeded out by now?

    Maybe rapists didn’t have more kids?

    Maybe rape is a byproduct of civilization, after all, we don’t find much evidence for any distinction between modes of sexual behavior in the animal kingdom, from which we are supposed to be descended?

  14. 14
    magnan says:

    Diffaxial:
    (M):””I agree. But how to reconcile this with the huge body of evidence (summarized in part in The Spiritual Brain) that human consciousness is not (just) the operation of billions of neurons. It seems that some form of interactive dualism is really the case.”

    (D):I’m not sure I follow, Magnan, as you embrace a position and its opposite in the span of three sentences. To embrace “interactive dualism” is to reject the notion that these human characteristics are instantiated in recently evolved neural structures.”

    This is the very cognitive dissonance (the necessity of entertaining apparent opposites) I was pointing out. Evidence for the evolution of certain brain structures related to cognitive functions, and at the same time much evidence for the ultimate non-dependence of human consciousness on the human brain. One tentative solution to resolve the cognitive dissonance is proposed by some parapsychologists, the interactive dualist Darwinism I briefly described. Interactive dualism is not in conflict with the known intimate association of consciousness with cortical structures, rather it is a concept reconciling the apparent brain-dependence of consciousness with a vast body of evidence that consciousness is not one with and identical to brain structures or their functioning. The interactive dualist Darwinist considers that immaterial Mind has interacted with the Darwinist physical evolution of man.

  15. 15
    Diffaxial says:

    magnan @ 14:

    This is the very cognitive dissonance (the necessity of entertaining apparent opposites) I was pointing out.

    As I assume (although don’t know) that some sort of monism is correct, this is not a tension I feel.

    Is the solution you propose the solution you accept? It seems a reasonable resolution to me.

    I’d be interested to learn whether you posit that the ability to “access” psi phenomena is contingent upon heritable differences in brain structure/function.

    Were that the case, I would argue the adaptive value of even the most rudimentary of such abilities (say, the ability to detect of predators directing attention at one) would be so high that psi ability would quickly be selected for. That would solve the problem of having to “wait around until the blind forces of evolution just happened to come up with a brain able to manifiest the higher cognitive and spiritual capacities.” Indeed, I would expect arms races to ensue vis mind reading and the thwarting of same, as well as the evolution of mental indirection and deception.

    Ironically, I would say that one of the strongest arguments against the reality of psi phenomena (given an orthodox evolutionary framework) – at least in a form that it is in any way contingent upon particular neural configurations – is that it is not extremely common in nature, given this likely adaptive value.

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