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Evolutionary psychology: David Brooks on the growing pushback

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Everybody seems to be taking a whack at evolutionary psychology these days, and David Brooks gets in his shot in “Human Nature Today” (New York Times, June 26, 2009).

Evolutionary psychology has had a good run. But now there is growing pushback. Sharon Begley has a rollicking, if slightly overdrawn, takedown in the current Newsweek. And “Spent” is a sign that the theory is being used to try to explain more than it can bear.

The first problem is that far from being preprogrammed with a series of hardwired mental modules, as the E.P. types assert, our brains are fluid and plastic. We’re learning that evolution can be a more rapid process than we thought. It doesn’t take hundreds of thousands of years to produce genetic alterations.

Moreover, we’ve evolved to adapt to diverse environments. Different circumstances can selectively activate different genetic potentials. Individual behavior can vary wildly from one context to another. An arrogant bully on the playground may be meek in math class. People have kaleidoscopic thinking styles and use different cognitive strategies to solve the same sorts of problems.

Evolutionary psychology leaves the impression that human nature was carved a hundred thousand years ago, and then history sort of stopped. But human nature adapts to the continual flow of information—adjusting to the ancient information contained in genes and the current information contained in today’s news in a continuous, idiosyncratic blend.

Sharon Begley’s account, in my view, was not overdrawn, it was overdue. Re “Spent” – this sounds-like forgettable book takes evolutionary psychology to the shopping mall to show what we are genetically “hardwired” to buy and why, according to six (count ’em) big traits.

The book might have made a bigger splash before the recession hit. To listen to local retailers wail, many people just now have hardwired their wallets to their pockets. But surely Pleistocene cave men did the same thing, so there must be a module for that too somewhere in there …

Essentially, two things killed evolutionary psychology: Neuroplasticity, as Brooks notes, and Occam’s Razor. It’s never been clear that EPs’ selfish genes and brain modules ever existed, or ever needed to. Evolutionary psychologists keep looking for things that their current interpretation of human evolution can explain – which is to say, anything and everything, provided speculation is freely allowed.

Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose

I think that both Evolutionary Psychology (EP) and String Theory (ST) are good examples of at least part of the life-cycle of scientific theories in general. Both started out as untested and even initially untestable hypotheses. As both were explored more fully they were found to explain existing data extremely well, and both had exciting hints of possible expansions of our knowledge if we could just work them out and verify them. Those hints gave a powerful push to researchers to try and figure out ways to explore their consequences and hopefully one day test them. This is the point where many other theories, such as the Germ Theory of Disease or Newton's Theory of Gravitation, were found to make testable predictions which could be verified, allowing the theories to move on to the next stage in the life-cycle. As time passed for EP and ST, though, the lack of testability began to wear on everyone and we eventually reached a point where it became "put up or shut up". Yeah, they explained the data extremely well (some say too well), but was there any way to verify that those explanations were in any way valid? The fact that there was not meant that they were essentially sidelined as far as many people were concerned. They're interesting sure, but ultimately they are little more than mental mastur...um...little more than interesting side shows. There are those that still hold out hope, though, and they continue to do research to try and tease out testable predictions which can then be used to verify the theories. They are more and more the minority, though, and they are not really taken as seriously as maybe they once were. I stayed up late typing this (I'm a 3rd shifter) because I think it highlights something important.Even the silliest sounding hypothesis will be taken seriously if it seems to explain existing data very well, and if it appears to have at least the potential to be tested and verified.Even the most rigorously researched and earnestly pursued hypothesis will fall by the wayside if that potential doesn't eventually bear fruit. ... Sorry if this is somewhat off topic and possibly a little less clear than I'd hoped, but it's waaay past my bedtime. Thanks for indulging me. KRiS_Censored

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