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Evolutionary psychology: Have the refs finally begun to arrive?

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In “Evolutionary Psychology Can’t Be Wrong, Says Evolutionary Psychologist” (Science 2.0 , December 14th 2011), Hank Campbell offers a refreshingly honest look at the soft corruption that is “evolutionary psychology”:

Scientists are inclined to give it a break because they cleverly use the word ‘evolutionary’ in the name and if they don’t look at the actual claims they use the words in context and assume there must be something to it; other psychologists give the people in their field a break because they believe all publicity is good publicity; Satoshi Kanazawa and Marc Hauser were rock stars in psychology because they were popular so evolutionary psychologists ignored the sketchy data.  And since it is a social field, virtually anything can be rationalized.  Want to believe we evolved to like a certain type of car grill? Well, evolutionary psychology can throw out a science-y explanation.

Evolutionary psychologists insist they are using the same rigor as biologists and just want to explain the brain, but what they are really doing is rationalizing cultural positions and hoping to map that to a biological topology. Dr. Michael Price, Ph.D., lecturer in the psychology department at Brunel University, West London and co-director at the Centre for Culture and Evolutionary Psychology, wrote a whole article on Psychology Today discussing that there should be no confusion that the brain has evolved and adapted – yet it’s kind of a straw man because I can’t find anyone who contends the brain did not adapt.   What evolutionary psychology contends instead is that social constructs are biological; if I like girls with blonde hair, women evolve to have blonde hair. And that means with the advent of Miss Clairol, actual blondes may die out.

One might throw in “why black people evolved to be less moral than white people.” courtesy evo psych, but that particular one doesn’t get as much play even among critics, because it so clearly testifies to the lack of discipline in the field as a whole. See also the Big Bazooms theory of human evolution for a similar, less charged, “explanation.”

Campbell points out a very interesting distinction between evolutionary psychology and social psychology: Diedrik Staple’s social psychology frauds were unmasked by students because they “thought they were entering a science field discovered the biggest people in it were treating the discipline as some kind of hustle.” But, he says, it was external critics who first went after Hauser* and Kanazawa, and the nonsense continues unabated. We’ll watch this one. Well, good luck with reform.

Around here, we’ve never said that human evolution had no impact on human psychology. Surely right-handedness has had some impact on the usual perception that “right” is the good side, and walking upright has tended to promote the linguistic virtue of “up” vs. “down.” But we like to see all this firmly tethered to science, not popular culture.

Why don’t we leave popular culture to the multiverse cosmology crowd? Seems like it’s more their line. Why don’t we make this rule for ourselves: As a rule, anything that can’t be wrong isn’t science. It may be true, but it isn’t science.

*We’d heard that the students did play a role in “Evilicious” Marc Hauser’s fall. That makes sense. Would you like to be forced, down the line, to demonstrate that the monkeys talk to you, when you doubt that they ever actually did even to your lead investigator, but you didn’t dare say anything? How would that look?

Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose


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