“Pop” Goes the Evolutionary Psychology?

So, as promised, I’m here to talk about Stephanie Zvan’s defense of Rebecca Watson’s speech at Skepticon 5. But, also as promised, I’m going to talk a bit about how evolutionary psychology and some of the evolutionary methodology that Watson criticizes is, in fact, critically important to New Atheism and Atheism+, and so how a talk like Watson’s may be actually quite dangerous to the atheist cause.

There have been a number of arguments that have been tossed out against atheists for quite some time, and the New Atheists have summoned various arguments to deal with them. If you want to start from what Dawkins at least popularized and seems to be one of the hallmarks of New Atheism, it’s the focus on evolution and evolutionary arguments as being not only just the nail in the coffin of theism, but also the foundation for the solutions to many of those problems. Now, many of the challenges are, in fact, psychological ones. The two most prominent challenges of this sort are the challenge to atheists to explain altruism if there is no God, and also to explain morality if there is no God. Again, starting from Dawkins, evolutionary arguments have been advanced to explain these things. For altruism, the claim is that various forms of altruism exist in us because it benefited our genes, even if it didn’t benefit the individuals themselves. And for morality the claim is that moral structures had benefit, and so could be selected for, which is why, the argument goes, we have morality and why it is and ought to be based on morality. So, for altruism it is an explanation and for morality it is more of a justification, but ultimately in both cases we have the same thing: our psychological states were at least heavily influenced by and were perhaps even determined by evolutionary pressures … and they all suggest ways in which that evolution occurred.

That is evolutionary psychology. Moreover, it is precisely the same sort of argument that Watson challenges in her talk; they find a psychological trait and find a story that explains how we could have evolved to have it. So, it seems that whatever Watson means by “evolutionary psychology” when she criticizes it, those arguments fit into that scope as well. But then, if her arguments are valid, then they apply to the arguments about altruism and morality as well, which would leave New Atheists stuck with those major problems that they thought they had solved.

The same thing applies to her attack on evolutionary arguments as a whole. Again, one major challenge to atheism has been “irreducible complexity” arguments, arguments that you simply can’t get something like an eye step-by-step. Again, Dawkins has popularized the “Climbing Mount Improbability” argument, where you don’t have to make great leaps, but can proceed step-by-step until you get there, and many have advanced at least what they think are plausible ways in which this could happen. But the eye developed right in that period of time when Watson claims we don’t know enough about the environment to make evolutionary arguments in her criticism of evolutionary psychology. So, then, doesn’t the same argument apply to the evolutionary argument for the eye? If not, why not?

Note that the criticisms of this sort are not, in fact, new. I’ve made them myself. But I have two advantages on Watson. The first is that there are no major arguments that I rely on that rely on evolutionary arguments, or evolutionary psychology, meaning that I am not undermining myself. That seems unlikely to be the case for Watson. The second is that I don’t attack and mock the entire field itself. At best, I point out conceptual problems with it and that it doesn’t quite provide the answers that it claims to. It seems to me that Watson is taking it a step further, and she definitely mocks it where I merely address its potential flaws. Thus, if I’m wrong I don’t look stupid, but just wrong. Watson’s strong mocking tone will make her look stupid if she’s wrong.

So, if Watson is right, it seems to me that the New Atheists have serious problems. Perhaps it might have been better for them to think about that than about Clint’s defense of evolutionary psychology. But, that said, let’s talk about Zvan’s defense of Watson against Clint’s comments:

You understand, presumably, that this talk was about the industry of pop psychology, which sells us reassurance that our world, in which gender roles are continually enforced, is just a consequence of natural differences between the sexes. Rebecca targeted both a credulous, sensationalist press and the methodologically weak science that produces the results used by that press.

If this is true, then why didn’t Watson stick to criticizing psychology, instead of focusing entirely on evolutionary psychology? After all, a number of the studies are more psychological in nature than evolutionary psychology. Also, the comment about “the methodologically weak science that produces the results used by that press” doesn’t, in fact, limit it to anything “pop”. It could, then, very well be the “real” science that is being called methodologically weak, and thus still an attack on the entire field. So, from this, it still isn’t clear, but Zvan’s post is much longer than this so surely she will explain why she thinks this is really the case.

Skipping over the discussion of Watson’s rather odd comment about how she’s using the term “theory”, which added nothing to her talk at all, we get to:

That last bit, however, is the main problem with Clint’s post. At least within the post, he fails entirely to distinguish between criticizing a practice that is well-represented in a field and saying that the entire field is worthless.

The problem here is that Zvan’s defense is based on saying that Watson was criticizing pop psychology and not the real field. But if he is failing to distinguish between criticizing a common practice in a specific field — and, by implication, one that is accepted — and saying that the field is completely useless, we already have to accept that Watson is talking about the field itself and not the pop or media representations and versions of it. You can’t say in any reasonable way that there is a well-represented practice in a pop field; pop fields aren’t, in fact, fields at all. Unless Watson wants to claim that all of the evolutionary psychology that uses those methods count as “pop”, and everything else would be okay, of course. But since Watson never says what she means and how to tell the difference, we just don’t know. And given her objections, it would still be reasonable for someone to say that she classifies the whole field as “pop” while knowing nothing about it by classifying methodologies that are inherent to the broad field as ones that indicate that it’s all “pop” or “pseudoscience”. So this reply won’t help Watson escape the charges that she’s broadly attacking the whole field.

Zvan seems to think that Watson’s answer to “Is there any good evolutionary psychology?” also saves her from that broad charge. The answer Watson gives is:

Is there any good evolutionary psych. Probably? I’m guessing yes, but it’s so boring, because you can only make it interesting if you make up everything. Because, really, good evolutionary psychology would be more like, “Well, we don’t really know what happened in the Pleistocene, and we have no evidence for this, but maybe this. It’s not the sort of thing that makes headlines. So if there is good evolutionary psychology, it’s not in the media, and therefore, it might as well not exist as far as the general public is concerned.

Why does Zvan think this helps?

Once again, this points to the fact that this is a speech about popular psychology. I happen to disagree about the “boring” part, but she’s dead right about the fact that evolutionary psychology in the popular media is appalling.

Okay, if you toss out a quote that’s supposed to prove your point explain how. Watson’s answer here is “I don’t know”, and she levels changes against good evolutionary psychology that, in fact, would invalidate it as being good science, such as saying that they’d have to say “We have no evidence for this”, which they clearly won’t accept (and don’t need to). Add in that Zvan again talks about psychology in a quote where Watson is clearly limiting it to evolutionary psychology — which is a specific branch of psychology, but not the totality of it — and I have to wonder what talk Zvan watched.

In response to Clint wondering about why Watson used a particular study, Zvan says:

Once again, this points to the fact that this is a speech about popular psychology. I happen to disagree about the “boring” part, but she’s dead right about the fact that evolutionary psychology in the popular media is appalling.

This seems to me to hint — and Zvan mentions this earlier as well — that we should use the title of her talk as indicating what Watson was trying to do. The problem is that Watson herself talks about the details of the “women evolved to shop” study for at most 10 minutes of her talk. She starts with it, and then jumps to it at the end saying that hopefully she has convinced us that it isn’t true. However, if she spends around 40 minutes talking about completely unrelated topics, the most charitable explanation is that that wasn’t really her main topic. The uncharitable one is that it was her main topic, and Watson rambled aimlessly through mostly irrelevant topics for most of her talk. I take the charitable interpretation, and so if the main thrust of her talk was not that specific study or media representation, then I should take Watson at her word that she’s going after the underlying science that allows for those media representations … and then it still leaves open the question of it is evolutionary psychology as a whole that is being criticized, or only some “pop” form that Watson never distinguishes.

The rest of her post is defending Watson against charges of science denialism, which I’ll say is probably too strong a charge, so I’ll mostly skip it. But note that all of these are criticisms that you’d level against the scientific field, and not pop versions of it. I do want to address the one where Zvan lists Coyne as making the same objection:

One of the major criticisms of evolutionary psychology’s methods is the lack of falsifiability in this backward look. Do we perform a particular behavior? Well, there’s this thing that it might have been important to do at one point that could maybe transfer to the modern world in that way, so that’s evidence to support an evolutionary perspective on the behavior. Any ways in which this behavior might be less than adaptive (or decrease reproductive fitness) are not discussed. If Rebecca is engaging in science denialism by pointing this out, so is Jerry Coyne when he looks at modern studies.

Now, follow the link to Coyne’s article and note that he … is criticizing evolutionary psychology as a field. Not “pop” forms of it, but the whole field. Which I think is indicative of where a lot of the problem might be coming from even if Watson was only criticizing the pop form of evolutionary psychology. Watson lists a lot of objections that other people have made, and have made against the field as a whole. In general, she doesn’t clarify her arguments as being against “pop” evolutionary psychology, as she uses that term twice in her talk (maybe three times if I missed one), against a vast number of times where she uses the unqualified term of “evolutionary psychology”. So, she repeats arguments that many people have leveled against the field as a whole and doesn’t clarify that that isn’t what she’s aiming it at. Certainly, then, it would not be unreasonable to think “Here we go again”, and this time it’s coming from someone who repeatedly claims to not have scientific knowledge and spends the talk mocking more than making actual arguments.

Ultimately, given that, the interpretation that she was going after all of evolutionary psychology seems not unreasonable. Watson should have made her point clearer if she was not intending to go after the entire field. Watson, in my view, should either flat-out say that she was going after the entire field or should say that she wasn’t and admit that she perhaps could have made that clearer. It is not, as Zvan seems to think, obvious.


One Response to ““Pop” Goes the Evolutionary Psychology?”

  1. Muñoz Says:

    This is a case of incredible amount of effervescence created by an intellectually dull attention seeker yet an interesting topic to discuss. If I recall correctly she also was in an overblown scandal about a man hitting her in an hotel.

    The two coherence problems you bring into attention really made think on the fact of now deeply do we, humans, need a justification for our moral standards and how contradictory can we be when creating those justifications. This is an example of even how people claiming to live the highest rational lives do behave in very irrational ways.

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