Evolutionary Psychology

by Gene Callahan

I’ve just been re-reading John Dupre’s wonderful take-down of evolutionary psychology, Human Nature and the Limits of Science. Now, Dupre never disputes the obvious truism that, say, human ethics or religion evolved. But he notes that this is remarkably uninformative, since everything humans do so evolved, including their ability to write papers on evolutionary psychology! As Dupre convincingly demonstrates, ‘evolutionary psychology… offers us mainly simplifications and banalities about human behaviour with little convincing illumination of how they came to be banal… In relation to the illumination of the real complexities of human nature, the [research] programme may be declared bankrupt.’

All very true and worth noting, but what I really loved is how hard Dupre made me laugh at times. For instance, in considering the often bizarre animal analogies to human behaviour employed by evolutionary psychologists, Dupre notes that Buss claims that human strategies for keeping a mate are very similar to those of insects, and then Buss offers, amongst his examples, what ‘sounds to [Dupre] distinctly unlikely as a human strategy, shedding their broken-off genitalia after copulation to seal off the reproductive opening of the female.’

Aaargh! If only I had thought of that one earlier!

40 thoughts on “Evolutionary Psychology

  1. Gene, I’m going to resist the million-and-one double entendres that come to mind. Can you give us an example of the serious stuff? Like, an example of a typical “explanation” offered by an evolutionary psychologist, and then Dupre showing that it’s not helpful?

    While you’re at it, can you also elaborate a bit on the issue of writing evolutionary psychology as being an evolved trait? It’s not quite clicking with me. Is it as powerful as when someone says, “A statement must be falsifiable to be scientific,” and then you say, “What about that statement?”

  2. Well, a typical example would be the e.p. suggestion that people prefer “kind and intelligent” mates for the enhanced breeding success those traits offer. Dupre says, first of all, when we consider the prospect of spending the rest of our life with a mean dimwit, isn’t this explanation somewhat otiose? Secondly, once we allow, as e.p.’s do, that contingent factors can suppress the efficacy of these ‘mental modules’ that they posit evolution to have created, then the supposed existence of such modules can be reconciled with any evidence whatsoever — so, since they ‘explain’ all possible evidence, they don’t really explain anything at all.

  3. ‘While you’re at it, can you also elaborate a bit on the issue of writing evolutionary psychology as being an evolved trait?’

    Well, if you accept the general idea of evolution, then it is trivially true that everything that humans do, evolution has proceeded so as to enable them to do. The puzzle is why so many theorists who wish to assert a view, say, that morality is ‘just’ an evolutionary adaptation to enhance reproductive fitness, don’t also proceed to the logically equivalent conclusion that their own, ‘evolutionary’ theorizing is ‘just’ a way for they themselves to enhance their reproductive fitness, rather than anything true of the world apart from whatever advantages accrue to them by endorsing such a view.

  4. Gene,

    I think it is true that you can have a kind of cheap evolutionary psychology that veers into Panglossianism. I recently reviewed a book on “Evolutionary Forensic Psychology” and criticized some of the contributors for that sort thing. At one point I ask why we need Charles Darwin if we’ve got Gary Becker! But I think the basic idea of Evolutionary Psychology is quite well grounded, empirically and theoretically. I always suggest the “primer” by Cosmides and Tooby as a good place to start:

    How to you explain the results on the Wason selection tests? I think Cosmides et al. are right that you gotta go with an evolutionary account of “cheater detection.” How do you account for Chomsky’s universal grammar? And so on.

    Doesn’t it become hard to explain how we understand each other if we reject the idea of “mental organs” or “modules”? Without the “a priori” categories of human action, we could not understand each other. The inductive task of figuring out the meaning of gestures. facial expressions and so on is huge and would seem to blow out our computational capacity. But if we are pre-programmed by evolution with a “theory of mind module,” then we could overcome the inductive problem. And we have good scientific evidence of such a module: McCabe, K. D., Houser, L. R., Smith, V., & Trouard, T. (2001). A functional imaging study of
    cooperation in two-person reciprocal exchange. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 98, 11832–11835.

    If we reject evolutionary psychology, how do we account for the apparent fact that agents tend to do “better than rational” in natural social environments? (Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (1984). Better than rational: Evolutionary psychology and the invisible
    hand. American Economic Review, 84, 327–332. )

  5. The Wason selection tests? You’re giving me too easy a target here, Roger. How about, ‘People are good at thinking about things they think about a lot (like social rules), and bad at thinking about things they think about rarely (like geometrical shapes)? See Cheng and Hoyoak (1989) and Lloyd (1999) as to why “modules” are simply not a necessary hypothesis to explain this result.

    Please note that Dupre is not doing something silly like rejecting the idea that our minds evolved, or endorsing some ‘blank slate’ model of the mind! But he does spend a good bit of time showing how the current research program of e.p. is laregly scientistic rather than scientific — and he gives some great examples from Tooby and Cosmides of this character, like their list of ‘cultural universals’ from their 1992 paper.

  6. Oh fantastic. Blog poster has opinion on philosopher who he mistakenly thinks is an economist on philosopher on psychology.

    When you call Dennett a “philosopher,” it is always appropriate to use scare quotes. You could not have pointed me to a less convincing critic of Dupre if you had chosen Ronald McDonald.

  7. I do apologize, I though you were this Gene Callahan.

    I might regret asking, but why do you imply Dennett is not a proper philosopher? And why do you find his criticisms of Dupré unconvincing?

  8. I don’t think your alternative explanation holds up, Gene. We have lots of experience with geometrical shapes. And the socialized version works even for invented societies and circumstances. In some versions of the experiment, they make the social scenario weird and alien and far away from our experience. And people still do better on the social than the logical version of the task.

    Even if that example fails, though I think it does not, there are others: universal grammar, landscape preference, and so on. Even color vision counts in some sense, as Barkow, Cosmides and Tooby emphasize.

    What is your preferred alternative to evolutionary pscyhology?

  9. “I do apologize, I though you were this Gene Callahan.”

    I stand corrected. Wikipedia should certainly know better than me what it is I do.

    Gould on Dennett:

    ‘”Daniel Dennett devotes the longest chapter in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea to an excoriating caricature of my ideas, all in order to bolster his defense of Darwinian fundamentalism. If an argued case can be discerned at all amid the slurs and sneers, it would have to be described as an effort to claim that I have, thanks to some literary skill, tried to raise a few piddling, insignificant, and basically conventional ideas to “revolutionary” status, challenging what he takes to be the true Darwinian scripture. Since Dennett shows so little understanding of evolutionary theory beyond natural selection, his critique of my work amounts to little more than sniping at false targets of his own construction. He never deals with my ideas as such, but proceeds by hint, innuendo, false attribution, and error.”‘

    I think that sums up Dennett’s ‘contribution’ to philosophy: ‘hint, innuendo, false attribution, and error.’

  10. Michael Meadon wrote:

    “I do apologize, I though you were this Gene Callahan…”

    You have the right guy. Gene was the economist who wrote an introduction to the Austrian school, and he is a philosopher of science as well. It’s as if you shot a gun at Superman and it bounced off his chest, he said, “Silly man, I am impervious to bullets,” and then you said, “I do apologize, I thought you were the guy who could leap tall buildings…”

  11. Veblen had a pretty good explanation of landscape preference without having to resort to made-up “mental modules.”

    “What is your preferred alternative to evolutionary pscyhology?”

    If I am going to debunk astrology, do I need to recommend a preferred method of fortune telling?

  12. “And why do you find his criticisms of Dupré unconvincing?”

    Oh, and I’m not going to bother reading his criticisms of Dupre. If I read several things by someone and they are universally rubbish, I really can’t be bothered to keep going through the rubbish heap. Anyone dull enough to have come up with the ‘brights’ idea really can be dismissed out of hand, don’t you think?

  13. By he way, Roger, here’s what Chomsky says about e.p.:

    ‘evolutionary psychology [is] “a philosophy of mind with a little bit of science thrown in.” He suggested that the field is not really scientific, because it can account for every possible fact. “You find that people cooperate, you say, ‘Yeah, that contributes to their genes’ perpetuating.’ You find that they fight, you say, ‘Sure, that’s obvious, because it means that their genes perpetuate and not somebody else’s. In fact, just about anything you find, you can make up some story for it.”’

  14. More on Dennett:

    ‘THE question of the place of science in human life is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical question. Scientism, the view that science can explain all human conditions and expressions, mental as well as physical, is a superstition, one of the dominant superstitions of our day; and it is not an insult to science to say so. For a sorry instance of present-day scientism, it would be hard to improve on Daniel C. Dennett’s book. “Breaking the Spell” is a work of considerable historical interest, because it is a merry anthology of contemporary superstitions.’

  15. “If I read several things by someone and they are universally rubbish, I really can’t be bothered to keep going through the rubbish heap.”

    Regrettably, I was just thinking the same thing.

  16. Lee, just because you can’t actually opint to any rubbish and refute it is no reason to abjure cheap name calling!

  17. I agree with Roger Koppl’s objections.

    If science were considered as a spectrum, then I would concede that evolutionary psychology is *less* scientific than most, because it is unusually difficult to test its hypotheses against evidence. However, it is *not* impossible given the right assumptions regarding initial conditions.

    A lot of nonsense is written under the guise of evolutionary psychology, not unlike economics, but what you are describing seems like a quite unjust caricature.

  18. Gould was an ignorant deceiver motivated by Marxism & not taken seriously by evolutionary biologists. He was the Galbraith of evolution. So there!

    I actually found DDI a bit of a letdown. Not quite hardcore enough for my taste! Pinker is great though.

  19. Can you elaborate on your Veblen remark, Gene? I’m pretty sure we’re talking about different things. I am talking about results reported, among other places, in the 1992 Barkow, Cosmides, & Tooby book on “The Adapted Mind.” It turns out, for example, that young children everywhere prefer landscapes like you see on the African Savannah and grow less likely to do so the older they are. These and other related results suggest a kind of pre-programming for what’s a good place to be. I can’t think that’s what Veblen was on about, was it?

  20. “If I am going to debunk astrology, do I need to recommend a preferred method of fortune telling?”

    If that analogy holds, Gene, then we’re saying that no psychologic theories or insights are true and each of us is just a complete and total cypher to the others. I’m thinkin’ you probably don’t really want to say that, do you? If not, then it seems reasonable to ask what your alternative is to evolutionary psychology, given your curiously vigorous attach. Speaking of which . . . I don’t understand why the theory gets you goat like that. At least it seems to really irritate you. I don’t understand what might make it seem so hateful. If I’m misreading you, I can say that others really get bothered by it, so the mystery is there in any event.

  21. “I don’t understand why the theory gets you goat like that.”

    If I had to guess it would be because humans have had to evolve in such a way that…

  22. “can’t think that’s what Veblen was on about, was it?”

    Yes, that was just it — preference for open, grassy landscape — Theory of the Leisure Class.

  23. “Gould was an ignorant deceiver motivated by Marxism”

    OK, and maybe he was a pederast, and serial killer, and chewed with his mouth open. Wht does any of that have to do with his contention that Dennett did not understand his theory and attacked a strawman?

    ” & not taken seriously by evolutionary biologists.”

    Well, yeah, all Gould, as a paleontologist, had, was lots and lots of evidence. The evolutionary biologists, on the other hand, had a theory. And if Gould’s evidence went against their theory, well, he had to be wrong!

    “Not quite hardcore enough for my taste!”

    So “hardcoreness” is now a scientific virtue?

  24. “If that analogy holds, Gene, then we’re saying that no psychologic theories or insights are true…”

    Not at all! The point is only that debunking a false theory does not require having a true theory.

  25. “I don’t understand why the theory gets you goat like that…”

    And I don’t understand why whether it does or doesn’t “get my goat” is relevant. I thought we were discussing the scientific validity of the field, not my emotional response to it?

  26. This discussion seems somewhat unfocused. I’m not too familiar with the academic players reference in this discussion to say something intelligent on the specifics, but I will say that as pretentious and unrigorous evolutionary psychology seems to be, the search for coherent explanations for human behavior is often the search for a coherent story that goes beyond solipsism. This can be a religious story or a naturalistic story, both of which as the NYT article Gene references suggests, are superstitions of one sort or the other.

    However, is there a problem being honest about the sketchy territory we are on and still agree that evolutionary stories about why, for example, men are more likely to cheat on their spouses than women are very compelling provided that we accept some Darwinian framework?

  27. Gene,

    “Oh, and I’m not going to bother reading his [Dennett’s] criticisms of Dupre. If I read several things by someone and they are universally rubbish, I really can’t be bothered to keep going through the rubbish heap. Anyone dull enough to have come up with the ‘brights’ idea really can be dismissed out of hand, don’t you think?”

    I’m inclined to be charitable and think this isn’t your real position; that you just said something silly in the heat of the moment. The position, as it stands, is manifestly daft: Dennett’s work is “universally rubbish”? Universally? Sure, he’s fallible and wrong on some things and guilty of rhetorical excesses at times, but everybody is. Suggesting that an influential philosopher like Dennett – and one of the very few philosophers scientists actually, you know, respect — has produced nothing but rubbish is an extraordinary claim. Before I could possibly conclude you’re not a total moron not worth taking seriously, you’re going to have to explain not only how, say, DDI and CE is “rubbish” but also how so many intelligent people — whether they agree with Dennett or not — could have been led completely astray by concluding the opposite.

    As I said, perhaps you were pissed off and you made silly statements as a consequence. If not, frankly, STFU, GTFO and take your fail with you. Srsly.

  28. Oh… and, ummm, I’ve been looking at Google Scholar and I can’t find much scholarly work by you in peer reviewed journals. (Other than fringe in-house libertarian journals and a piece in Human Rights Review). Could you point me to your publications in mainstream journals on the philosophy of science, economics or psychology? I’m sure I’m just missing them.

    Oh, and… according to Google Scholar: Economics for Real People has been cited by 25… And Consciousness Explained? 4800+. And DDI? 3600+. And The Intentional Stance? 2900+. None of this proves Dennett’s right and you’re wrong, or that he’s smarter than you or anything like that. But it does show lots of people take Dennett seriously. Not many people seem to take you too seriously. (Maybe you’re an undiscovered genius, I don’t know. But I’m yet to see evidence of this).

    (I freely and happily admit that I’m yet to produce anything of scholarly worth. But, then, I’m in my twenties and I don’t go around arrogantly dismissing whole disciples or disparaging influential scholars as useless).

  29. Oh my God! You’re saying Dennett is more famous than me?! Well, I had no idea. But now that I know, I certainly will STFU. I will srsly GTFO. IMHO, I should be LOLed off of Teh Internet, even though I srsly know lots of kewl abbreviations!

  30. Oh. I see… Dennett is undeservedly famous. And you’re undeservedly not famous. No doubt because (a) most academics are idiots and (b) because the genius of your work has just not been recognized.

    About those publications? I’m genuinely interested. And perhaps you could point me to a published scholarly article of yours in which you analyze any part of Dennett’s work? I’d like to see a considered, rational and justified critique. Maybe you’re right about him. You might just convince me.

  31. I do enjoy the occasional Sisyphesian argument with the irrational but until you say something actually half intelligent that is half worth responding to, this will be my last comment.

    Note that there is an important distinction between “famous” and “influential”. Dennett is both, Paris Hilton is only the former, Frege (say) is only the latter, and you’re neither. (Just like me!).

    Out of interest, are you an Objectivist? And what is it with quantum mechanics and libertarianism that they attract the woos? (Libertarianism – like quantum mechanics – is intellectually respectable, of course, but both seem to attract the “unskilled and unaware of it”).

  32. OK, and maybe he was a pederast, and serial killer, and chewed with his mouth open. Wht does any of that have to do with his contention that Dennett did not understand his theory and attacked a strawman?
    A scientist could conceivably separate their serial-killing pederasty and poor table manners from their science. Gould’s ignorance though prevented him from understanding matters he pontificated on, his dishonesty misled leaders of his scientific work and his Marxism motivated attacks on other scientists (Science For the People vs E. O. Wilson, for example) with little basis in science rather than politics.

    Well, yeah, all Gould, as a paleontologist, had, was lots and lots of evidence.
    Gould had no problem spouting off on topics outside his area of expertise. “Mismeasure of Man” being an example. He was not constrained by evidence.

    So “hardcoreness” is now a scientific virtue?
    One devoted to ideas & intellectual consistency will tend to bite bullets. I should note that Dennet often mocks Jerry Fodor for his bullet-biting, but Fodor’s basis for his crazy views is philosophy rather than science.

    Michael Meadon, all are skill unaware.

  33. Gene,

    I searched an internet copy of Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class and found only one reference to landscapes. Here is the url:

    Here is the relevant bit from Veblen. (You can check the url to see whether my excisions alter the meaning.)

    a discrimination between serviceability and wastefulness . . . frequently happens that an article which serves the honorific purpose of conspicuous waste is at the same time a beautiful object; . . . [this] is true of some stuffs used for clothing, of some landscapes, and of many other things in less degree. Except for this intrinsic beauty which they possess, these objects would scarcely have been coveted as they are, or have become monopolized objects of pride to their possessors and users. But the utility of these things to the possessor is commonly due less to their intrinsic beauty than to the honor which their possession and consumption confers, or to the obloquy which it wards off.

    This passage presumes the beauty of “some landscapes” without either identifying the characteristics that make them beautiful or explaining why we think them beautiful. It is simply not addressing the questions addressed by the theory of landscape preference in evolutionary psychology. It says nothing, for example, about the particular I noted above, namely, that children tend to have a stronger preference for African landscapes the younger they are. Could you direct me to the part in Veblen about “open, grassy” landscapes and show how it explains the greater preferences of younger children?

  34. Sorry, Roger, I was citing from memory, and perhaps have cited the wrong Veblen work. I will look for the reference. (And no, he doesn’t mention anything about ‘younger children’ especially preferring these landscapes, but, as Bob Murphy notes, why wouldn’t evolution favor this preference arising more strongly in young adults, who actually might lead the tribe somewhere, rather than in young children?)

  35. “why wouldn’t evolution favor this preference arising more strongly in young adults, who actually might lead the tribe somewhere, rather than in young children?”

    1) Evolution is not Panglossian.

    2) Experience with, say, the New England woods may cause one to prefer such landscapes. Humans learn and learning works in part by creating such preferences.

    3) The greater preference of younger children is evidence that the preference is innate, not learned.

  36. This is the worst thread discussion I’ve ever read on this blog. It’s 95% ad homs and 5% content.

    It is obvious that some Evolutionary Psychologists push things much too far. Their work isn’t really scientific.

    But, does that mean that all of Evolutionary Psychology should be tied with the same brush, clearly it shouldn’t. It’s just like condemning all attempts at economics based on the problems of Keynesian economics or mainstream economics.

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