Only one reason for ignoring the E-word remains to be considered:
All branches of knowledge should ideally be consistent with each other, but every branch need not be consulted for the study of any particular branch. I rarely feel the need to consult quantum physics when I study evolution, and perhaps evolution rarely needs to be consulted for the study of many traits, in humans and nonhumans alike.
It’s true that each of Tinbergen’s four questions can be studied in isolation, but the essence of his essay describing the evolutionary perspective is that they are best studied in conjunction with each other. Moreover, what’s true for an individual is not true for an entire discipline, as I discussed for the study of proximate mechanisms in the previous post. I therefore conclude that all four reasons for ignoring the E-word fail to pass muster after they have been respectfully considered. Tinbergen’s four-question approach needs to be applied to any sizeable human-related subject, just as for any sizeable subject in the biological sciences.
I would like to think that a consensus can be quickly achieved on this matter, but a recent exchange on the relevance of evolution for the field of social psychology indicates that a consensus is a long way off. The exchange appeared on the Edge website in response to an essay on social psychology by Timothy D. Wilson, who happens to be my cousin. Tim included some comments on evolutionary psychology in his essay, which moved Steve Pinker to reply and Dan Gilbert and Hugo Mercier to join the fray. It is worth examining Tim’s essay and the exchange in detail, because it represents the state of play at the highest level of expertise. If these folks can’t agree on what evolution has to do with it, a broader consensus is indeed a long way off.
Social psychology is an excellent example of a human-related discipline that arose in the 1950’s and developed without explicit reference to evolution. By Tim’s own account, social psychology offered an alternative to behaviorism and showed how rigorous scientific methods could be used to study how the mind works in a social context. Tim himself finds it difficult to define the field and ends up listing a number of research programs, such as conformity, obedience to authority, affective forecasting, stereotype threat, and the fundamental attribution error. Tim also stresses that social psychology can contribute to the solution of real-world problems, although he acknowledges that its insights should be applied more actively in the future than in the past.
Tim received his PhD in 1977, just after the publication of E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology, so his career path runs in parallel with the modern history of evolution in relation to human affairs. His PhD research with his mentor, Richard Nisbett, became a classic paper titled “Telling more than we can know: verbal reports on mental processes” and initiated a line of research on unconscious processes that is summarized in Tim’s 2002 book Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering Our Adaptive Unconscious. His next book, titled Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change, will be published later this year.
It’s wrong to say that Tim Wilson doesn’t think about evolution. In fact, when I read Strangers to Ourselves, it struck me as an independent derivation of the field of evolutionary psychology. Tim said that there is an unconscious but it’s not what Freud had in mind. Instead, it represents complex mental processes that evolved by genetic evolution and will forever remain inaccessible to introspection. The only way to understand it is by studying it scientifically, as he and his colleagues in social psychology have been doing over the decades. Their inquiry is replete with speculation about the function of the subconscious processes that they are studying, which informs their empirical research.
Tim pays almost no attention to the self-described field of evolutionary psychology in Stranger’s to Ourselves. The neglect is reciprocal. In my experience, the only paper by Tim and his colleagues cited by self-described evolutionary psychologists is his 1977 classic with Dick Nisbett. I am confident that a proper citation analysis would reveal very little intellectual exchange between Tim’s world of social psychology and the self-described field of evolutionary psychology–even though Tim and his colleagues have become evolutionary in their own way.
The gulf between these two academic disciplines is apparent in the “strangers to each other” feel of the exchange on Edge. When Tim criticizes evolutionary psychology, it is the self-described field of evolutionary psychology that he frankly doesn’t know very well. His observations include the following:
• “There’s a very loose kind of theorization that goes on, where people just tell a story and assume that it’s true because it kind of makes sense.”
• Evolutionary psychology has become “the new psychoanalysis” that vacuously claims to explain everything.
• Like Freudian theory, evolutionary psychology has led to a lot of absurd conclusions that are hard to test rigorously.
• Like Freudian theory, evolutionary psychology is “obsessed with gender differences.”
• The “storytelling method” is irredeemably speculative. Tim gives an example of the color of blood as a byproduct rather than an adaptation and proceeds to give an adaptationist explanation that he regards as just as good, or at least immune to empirical test.
• On a positive note, Tim cites the work of Jon Haidt on moral psychology, which somehow escapes the weaknesses of the rest of evolutionary psychology. He also credits the evolutionary perspective for making a worthwhile contribution to the study of religion (perhaps a nod to his cousin!) and ends by emphasizing the role of narratives in religious (and other) meaning systems, which is the subject of his forthcoming book.
I invite the reader to compare Tim’s comments with my own consideration of “what’s evolution got to do with it?” in this series of posts. At best, Tim is accurately commenting on the particular way that the self-described field of evolutionary psychology has developed. At worst, he is grossly misrepresenting a literature that he doesn’t cite in his own work and therefore doesn’t understand. His blood example is especially silly and is easily dispatched by Steve Pinker. The fact that Tim is more charitable on the topics of morality and religion, with which he is a little more familiar, should make us cautious about the rest of his critique.
Among the many problems with Tim’s critique is the ghost of genetic determinism. Here is what he says about the climate of opinion when he received his PhD:
In the late ’70s, if a social psychologist were to say I’m an evolutionary theorist, that would have been a really taboo thing to say. It would have struck people as overly deterministic, and perhaps even sexist, to look at gender differences in social behavior as somehow inherent in the human condition.
Tim’s leap from “evolution” to “determinism” to “sexism” speaks volumes about where social psychology came from as a discipline, from which it has not yet fully recovered. Evolution is required to explain our capacity for social constructivism and its products, just as much as the aspects of our behavior that can be attributed more directly to genetic differences.
In his comment on Tim’s essay, Steve Pinker rightly objects to the charge that evolutionary science can’t be as methodologically rigorous as any other kind of science. This charge has become so common as a way to quickly dismiss the evolutionary perspective that is qualifies as a “just-so story” in its own right. It also confuses the role that evolutionary theory plays in the re-organization of given field such as social psychology. Consider Tim’s own use of evolution to re-organize the study of unconscious mental processes. Before, we had the Freudian conception of the unconscious. Thanks to Tim and his colleagues, we have a new conception based on automatic mental processes that evolved by genetic evolution. The new conception results in a re-organization of existing information and a new agenda for guiding future empirical research–using the exact same methodological toolkit that was being employed before. Some hypotheses will be more difficult to test than others, but that comes with the territory for any sizeable biological or human-related topic. In his comment, Hugo Mercier also uses Tim’s own work to make a similar point.
After defending the evolutionary perspective, Steve Pinker lodges a criticism against the field of social psychology, to which Tim and Dan Gilbert object. This might seem like your average turf war, but there is an important issue at stake that I would like to see all parties agree upon. There is a certain arbitrariness to the research programs that comprise the field of social psychology. Particular foci come and go with no particular rhyme or reason or relation to each other. Even Tim found it difficult to define the field and quickly resorted to a listing of research programs. This is not a pot shot; it is an accurate observation about social psychology and many other human-related disciplines.
Take the topic of Machiavellianism, which became a hot topic in social psychology in the 1970’s and now merits only a paragraph in current social psychology textbooks. It was initiated by a social psychologist who had the bright idea that the kind of personality associated with Machiavelli might be an interesting individual difference to study and went on from there. Another topic within social psychology was sociopathy, which generated its own literature in isolation from the literature on Machiavellianism, until someone noticed that they are largely overlapping constructs. Both were eventually reviewed and synthesized from an evolutionary perspective by myself and my colleagues (for Machiavellianism) and Linda Mealey (for sociopathy) as part of the much larger topic of cooperation and conflict in human social interactions. There is nothing arbitrary or faddish about cooperation and conflict. It will always claim a large section of an evolutionary social psychology textbook because it is so fundamental to the behavior and cognition of humans and every other social species.
Pointing out the arbitrariness of research programs within social psychology and the more unified nature of evolutionary social psychology is not a cheap shot; it’s a legitimate observation that Tim implicitly acknowledges in his own account and needs to be addressed in a conversation on “what’s evolution got to do with it?”
Having critiqued social psychology, I need to give equal time to the self-described field of evolutionary psychology. One of my most difficult tasks, when talking about evolution to a broad audience, is to distinguish the evolutionary perspective writ large from the ideas of particular people such as Leda Cosmides, John Tooby, Steve Pinker, and David Buss. I have always had a love-hate relationship with their particular formulations, which I have expressed in many academic articles and for a general audience in my own forthcoming book The Neighborhood Project. To focus on the hate part, it was a great error to portray evolutionary psychology and “the standard social science model” as black-and-white alternatives. Ever since, it has been a struggle to portray the open-ended capacity for individual and cultural change associated with behaviorism and social constructivism as part of evolutionary psychology.
For the purposes of this post, the most important take-home message is not that the evolutionists already have everything figured out. It is that the evolutionary perspective provides a toolkit for scientific inquiry, nicely summarized by Tinbergen’s four questions, that is required for all sizeable subjects in the biological and human-related sciences. Ever the optimist, I would love to think that experts such as Tim, Dan, Steve and Hugo can agree on this point, as the first step toward a broader consensus. If so, then the absurd fact that evolutionary psychology and social psychology continue to inhabit parallel universes can become a thing of the past.