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Tom Bethell on why evolutionary psychology is not a science

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Tom Bethell
Tom Bethell on why evolutionary psychology is not a science

But heck, Jerry “Why Evolution Is True” Coyne could have told you that.

Here’s American Spectator’s Bethell re Matt Ridley’s ”Hard-Wired Hypocrisy in Our Divided Minds” (Wall Street Journal, October 8, 2011):

Ridley writes a column every week for the WSJ. He’s basically a good guy. He was the Washington editor of The Economist and doesn’t say anything too outrageous. In The Origin of Virtue (1996), he used Darwinian arguments to come out in favor of private property, free trade and limited government. But as Michael Behe pointed out in a review of that book, Ridley didn’t need natural selection and selfish genes to get there. All the outcomes he sought to explain could have been attributed to the human faculty of reason. (But where did that come from?) S.J. Gould used similar arguments against some claims of sociobiology.

The problem with Ridley’s columns such as this weekend’s is that he is under the illusion that he’s giving us science when (as in this case) it’s common or garden psychology dressed up in evolutionist terms. Here he discusses hypocrisy, in particular the case of the former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, who condemned prostitution yet engaged in it. Evolutionary psychologists, he says, are now turning their attention to such “culturally variable cognitive conundrums.” His main source is someone called Robert Kurzban of the Univ. of Pennsylvania. who published a book titled Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite.

Kurzban’s theory starts with the idea that “the mind is modular.” Just as the body has its parts, so the mind has its modules, which Ridley calls “specialized mental circuits.” And the point about these modules is that they sometimes “contradict one another.” “The “hunger module will demand a cheeseburger while the vanity module demands a diet.” Willpower has its “mental rivals.” Spitzer’s moralistic module came up against his “lust module.” And so on. So Kurzban tells us not to expect consistency from modular minds. Quote Emerson here on foolish consistency being the hobgoblins of little minds. It “serves the purpose of one module to deceive another.”

Indeed, “there is no such thing as a unified self, just a collection of modules.” Minus the module talk, of course, Freud could have told us that the same thing: the self is not unified. Ditto philosophers throughout the ages. Have these modules or mental circuits been physically observed? Of course not. Can their activity, or the relative strength with which they compete be observed in any way other than by looking at the outcome that we are pretending to explain (Spitzer’s consorting with prostitutes)? No. Modules have simply been set up as competing elements in order to give a scientific patina to commonplace observations about human nature.

I think this idea of a notional competition between invisible forces is central to evo-psych and the point is that the action of these forces is never independently observed. But we already know the behavioral outcome (Spitzer yields to temptation) so that outcome pretends to “explain” which “module” was stronger at that moment. It allows us to play a game that resembles Science, like children playing “House” on the nursery floor.

(“Neuroscience” seems to be an attempt to translate module talk into observable brain activity. As a science I think that this may eventually meet the same fate as phrenology, which it resembles in some respects. But if anyone wants to leap to the defense of neuroscience I shall be all ears. Same with any defense here of evo-psych, of course.)

Sometimes I think Ridley knows there’s a problem — I have spoken to him once or twice — but no one calls him on it and he’s having a good time “explaining” whatever happens to exist in evolutionary language. Hmm, now maybe I’m accusing him of being the hypocrite . . .

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