Myers On Evolutionary Psychology (again).

So P.Z. Myers is going on about evolutionary psychology again. The problem, though is that like so many times before the criticisms raised against evolutionary psychology are either problems with evolution, psychology, or are just the literal biological facts of life that the critics don’t seem to be able to understand or apply to the topics under discussion.

So let’s start with the first one, which is an example of the latter:

It’s all that nonsense about modules, whatever they are — they seem to be inventions by evolutionary psychologists to allow them to pretend that they can reduce behaviors to discrete regions in the genome, or the brain, or something (go ahead, try to pin one down on exactly what a “module” is — there is no clear association with anything physical).

Um, I presume that when they talk about modules they are talking about the well-known — and a commenter even points this out — fact that the brain is arranged generally into functional areas that do certain things, and that functionality is not distributed completely throughout the brain. Which means that if you damage certain parts of the brain, you will damage certain predictable functions and leave other functions unimpaired. We can even point to parts of the brain that are, in fact, older and so were developed first in humans, and what functions they have, and what functions arose in the later parts of the brain. All of which not only supports an evolutionary approach to looking at the brain — and the psychology produced by it — but in fact constitutes some fairly important evidence for those who claim that consciousness is just something produced by the brain and was produced through evolution. I doubt Myers wants to ditch that just to spite evolutionary psychology.

It’s about The Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness, the imaginary Garden of Eden in which our brains evolved 10,000+ years ago, which is the reference by which all adaptations must be explained…despite the fact that evolutionary psychologists know next to nothing about that environment.

Well, this is a problem for evolution as well, as any trait that can be traced back to that time period — and there are lots of those for humans, including pretty much all of our mental traits and abilities, at least in early form — is going to have been in the same environment and, if natural selection is correct, greatly shaped by that period … that evolutionary biologists also know next to nothing about. Unless evolutionary biologists are willing to limit themselves only to talking about vague selection pressures — and they usually aren’t — then they have the exact same problem, it seems.

It’s about deep methodological problems: researchers who make sweeping claims about human universals by studying just the middle class white American population attending their Psych 101 class.

Which is, uh, what psychology does, and has been criticized for. So they’re following standard (flawed) psychological practice and are being singled out for failing in that regard? It seems that this should be a call for better methodology, not an insistence that the whole field is a pseudoscience, useless, and wrong.

It’s about the focus on the status quo — somehow, every study seems to find that current social attitudes just happen to be a reflection of our evolutionary history on the African savannah tens of thousands of years ago, and endorses a kind of naive biological determinism that imagines that the way people are is the way they must be.

Um, as a psychological field, no one insists on that, or at least if that’s the case then the few who do say things like that last part should be criticized by their own field harshly. But my understanding every time I read evolutionary psychology — which is, indeed, limited — is that they aren’t trying to say that this is just the way things are and will always be, or in fact in any way committing the naturalistic fallacy, but are instead simply saying that we can explain these tendencies and structures in our personal and social behaviours by the evolved innate characteristics that were developed in that time period. Now, of course, this is controversial, and to make this stick it is perfectly reasonable to demand that they show this is sufficiently cross-cultural, because cultural structures don’t follow as strictly from evolved traits as physical structures do, so you can get a lot of contamination. That being said, to insist that culture is the most important factor a priori ignores that culture comes from the behaviour of individuals, which may well be tied to evolved traits. I suspect that what we have is an intricate dance combining culture, genetic traits, and environment, and note that different cultures are often found in radically different environments … and since environment impacts evolution to a large degree, cross-cultural differences aren’t in and of themselves evidence that a trait or cultural structure has therefore not evolved. Think of even peppered moths to see how that can work.

Reading the comments, I do think that one of the main reasons that evolutionary psychology is so derided is that it potentially provides what can be seen as a justification for certain social traits that some people don’t like and want removed. If you can say that it evolved for a benefit in relation to an environment, then it looks like it is being defended as actually useful and from there, potentially, to right or, at least, not really wrong. But since they think those structures wrong, that can’t be, so the theory must be wrong. This, of course, is ignoring the whole idea that just because we have a natural instinct that evolved and was even beneficial in the past doesn’t mean that it is still beneficial today, and certainly not that it’s right. Our sweet tooth is a prime example of an uncontroversial evolved natural psychological tendency that was useful in the past but is actually detrimental now, and thinking that we ought to do something just because we naturally desire it is, in fact, the definition of the naturalistic fallacy. Now, some people may indeed point to the results and say that those instincts are justified, but they’d be committing the naturalistic fallacy and we should point that out to them, not dismiss the idea that we have that instinct because it was more beneficial to us to have that than to not have that, so those who had it reproduced more and so did better wrt natural selection. After all, the explanation for altruism relies precisely on that sort of evolutionary psychological explanation, and no atheist wants to give that up.

The extent to which the critics of evolutionary psychology often rely on the precise same sorts of flaws that they claim should make us disregard evolutionary psychology always boggles my mind. I am skeptical of evolutionary psychology … and psychology … and evolutionary explanations … but I’m at least willing to give them the chance to prove their case. The critics of evolutionary psychology tend to not even do that, while committing the precise same sins. That’s not the way to go about proving your superior scientific approach and skills …

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3 Responses to “Myers On Evolutionary Psychology (again).”

  1. No Man's Land Says:

    The huge problem for evo-psych is that it is committed to a rather extreme form of gene selectionism, that is, the view that the only units of selection that are capable of forming lineages over evolutionary time are genes. But this is just conceptually flawed and empirically false.

    Check my February blog archives for the post “A Look at GEne selectionism” for my reasoning here.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Fair enough, but I’m not convinced that EVOLUTIONARY explanations in general don’t have that flaw; there is a lot of talk about expression in genes and not much else among the more famous and public of those using them.

      • No Man's Land Says:

        I don’t think a more robust view in regards to the units of selection (something like Kim Sterelny’s position) falls prey to those difficulties. In fact, I think it avoids them quite well, although Sterelny’s position has problems of its own, they are of a different degree.

        (Gould and Lewontin are some others whose views do not align with the extreme gene’s-eye-view-ism of Dawkins and the like.)

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