Pharyngula

Jerry Coyne gets everything wrong, again

I wish I knew what it was about the appeal of evolutionary psychology that makes otherwise intelligent people promote outright silliness in its defense, but here comes Jerry Coyne again in a poorly thought-out piece. He disagrees with the anti-EP piece I linked to yesterday, which is fine, but I expect better arguments than this. He completely mangles the story.

An example: he cites a section of Annalee Newitz’s story like this, as the one substantive argument she presents against EP:

Humans evolve too fast to bear behavioral traces of ancient evolution.

I agree. That statement is total nonsense, simply not true, an absurdity on the face of it. Unfortunately for Coyne, Newitz said nothing of the kind! And most strangely of all, Coyne goes on to quote the relevant section of Newitz’s piece, and it’s obvious that she said nothing like that.

This is all part of [Miller's] and many other evopsych researchers’ project to prove that humans haven’t changed much since we were roaming east Africa 100,000 years ago. Evolutionary biology researchers like Marlene Zuk have explored some the scientific problems with this idea. Most notably, humans have continued to evolve quite a lot over the past ten thousand years, and certainly over 100 thousand. Sure, our biology affects our behavior. But it’s unlikely that humans’ early evolution is deeply relevant to contemporary psychological questions about dating, or the willpower to complete a dissertation. Even Steven Pinker, one of evopsych’s biggest proponents, has said that humans continue to evolve and that our behavior is changing over time.

There’s no denial of ancient attributes in there. There isn’t even anything about the rate of evolution. It’s more specific than that: the kinds of questions we see most evolutionary psychologists exploring (dating or writing dissertations) represent novel challenges that aren’t easily explained by simply citing ancient tribal organization or food gathering practices, especially since all those ancient properties are unknown to us, and are often simply invented by evolutionary psychologists to put an imaginary evolutionary gloss on modern behaviors.

And then, to back up his assertion that we retain relics of our evolutionary history (which no one seems to be arguing against), Coyne lists a collection of morphological traits — wisdom teeth, bad backs, goosebumps, etc. — which, again, no one is saying don’t exist. I’ve read Shubin’s Your Inner Fish, too, and agree completely that what we are now is a product of a long evolutionary history.

But please, none of these are subjects of evolutionary psychology. It’s simply irrelevant, except possibly to shoot down a passing zeppelin carrying a cargo of straw.

Coyne does do something promising: he lists some psychological attributes that he considers worthy of an evolutionary psychology approach.

Higher variance in male than in female reproductive success due to differential behavior of the sexes
Weaning conflict between mothers and their infants
Preference for relatives over nonrelatives (kin selection), and xenophobia (useful for when we lived in small groups)
Fear of spiders and snakes

I agree! Those do look like phenomena that would have a deep evolutionary history and would affect modern humans in interesting ways. If that were the kind of thing evolutionary psychologists study — and I’ve said this multiple times now — the deep generalities of human behavior, rather than the parade of nonsense about foraging for berries and it’s effect on women’s shopping preferences, I’d have no complaint at all about EP. But those are hard questions. You generally can’t answer them with a quickie survey of your intro psych college students (let’s not even pretend that that isn’t what evolutionary psychologists do, ‘k?).

I’ve read some on his second subject, conflict between mothers and infants. I really recommend Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s Mother Nature as a great study of the issue — but it’s also a very anthropological topic. If you want to say something about common elements of human nature, you really do need to survey something broader than American college students.

I thought the last topic is a good one, too, and when I was trying to find worthwhile EP papers, that was one I focused on. It seems reasonable and complicated, and definitely psychological. I’ve also got a personal interest, because I have no obvious fear of spiders or snakes (other than an intellectual wariness…but otherwise, I find myself feeling attraction rather than aversion), but I do have a fear of guns — point one at me, and my heart rate goes up and I feel a lot of anxiety. So how do we sort out cultural vs. genetic predispositions? I’m assuming I don’t carry a “fear of guns” gene.

One review I found by Öhman and Mineka, “Fears, Phobias, and Preparedness: Toward an Evolved Module of Fear and Fear Learning” seemed to be an exercise in ambiguity and vague explanations. They actually compared fear of spiders and snakes vs. fear of guns and electrical outlets. The answers were confusing: some studies find a greater resistance to extinction in spider phobias, others can’t replicate it. It seems to be a subtle phenomenon. It left me wondering more about how EP can say anything about more detailed behaviors when they can’t even nail down this rather fundamental one. I was also deeply put off by one of their interpretations.

Finally, even if true selective associations could be demon- strated with pointed guns, we would not consider this very damaging to our account, because ontogenetic and phylogenetic accounts of fear relevance are not inherently incompatible or mutually exclusive.

I can agree completely that fear responses can have multiple causes, and finding that one response is conditioned by experience does not rule out the possibility that another has a significant genetic component. But isn’t that the question? If you’re trying to claim that there is a heritable psychological pattern, shouldn’t you be designing your experiments specifically to distinguish conditioning from instinct?

So yeah, Jerry, you’re right, there are a lot of good questions that evolutionary psychologists could be studying. Which only highlights the strangeness of all the crap we do see published.

Wait…another blimp full of straw floats by. How do they stay up in the air?

It’s simply nonsense to dismiss the field on the grounds that there’s no way that human behavior could show traces of its deep evolutionary past.

Which no one has claimed. Done.

So now we get down to the really offensive part. The one where the proponents of EP deny that there are any structural problems in their field, and instead all of their opponents are ideologically motivated. Let’s go imagine some intent!

The real reason why people like Newitz and others (that includes P. Z., I think) dismiss evolutionary psychology in toto is because they find it ideologically unpalatable: they don’t like its supposed implications. They presume that evo-psych somehow validates misogyny or the marginalization of women and minorities. They will deny this to their dying breath, of course, and pretend that it’s purely a scientific issue, citing a few anecdotal studies that are indeed laughable. But I think we know where these people are coming from. Evolutionary biology itself has been used to justify racism or the sterilization of supposedly “defective” humans, but we don’t dismiss evolutionary biology because of that. Likewise, we shouldn’t dismiss evolutionary psychology just because some cranks draw “oughts” from “is”s.

When you read a statement like this:

“Developmental plasticity is all. The fundamental premises of evo psych are false”,

then you know you are dealing with ideology rather than science. The fundamental premise of evolutionary psychology is simply that some modern human behaviors reflect an ancient evolutionary history. It would be odd if that were completely false. And developmental plasticity is not all. If that were the case, then why do we still have wisdom teeth and bad backs?

It doesn’t seem to matter how often we point out bad science or lousy protocols or unjustifiable interpretations — the criticisms will be dismissed with this “Oh, they’re just leftist ideologues!” baloney. Yet somehow the converse never seems to be brought up by the EP defenders: that somehow, these EP papers almost universally seem to find rationalizations for the status quo, that they take existing behaviors in our culture and slap on a just-so story to claim women’s roles or the place of minorities is biological or natural or genetic or determined by 100,000 years of selection. If I were to turn this argument around, and say that supporters of EP are all ideologically driven fellow travelers of Kanazawa and Murray and Herrnstein (which I am NOT doing here, by the way), we’d immediately recognize this as a beautiful example of poisoning the well.

But somehow, it’s acceptable for Coyne to claim on no evidence at all that our objections are tainted by ideology? To dismiss criticisms of the premises and procedures of evolutionary psychology as unfounded because we’re not right-wing nutcases?

I will concede that my quoted sentence was poorly worded and prone to misinterpretation, and that that is entirely my fault. (It was a quick comment on an article made while I was at a con, so don’t get too worked up about it.) The context is that I’m talking about human behavior, not wisdom teeth or bad backs (although, actually, developmental plasticity does play a huge role in both of those). Every aspect of human psychology carries a huge load of cultural and psychological conditioning; even the genetically determined elements of our behavior (note: I do not deny that those exist) are going to be heavily layered with non-genetic baggage, and every biological predisposition is going to be swimming in an ocean of plastic responses and environmental reactivity. I expect that evolutionary psychologists should be especially sensitive to and appreciative of the problems that confers on analysis, and that they seem to be more often dismissive of the most important element of their field is grounds to reject the discipline.

And now I expect that the fact that I actually do oppose misogyny or the marginalization of women and minorities will somehow be used as an excuse to claim I’m ideologically driven. Of course, I suspect that Jerry Coyne also opposes misogyny or the marginalization of women and minorities; maybe he ought to say so more often so we can use that as a reason to reject his opinions.

Comments

  1. #1 flask
    United States
    September 1, 2013

    wait, wait.

    is there something wrong with my berry foraging and my shopping preferences?

    because quite frankly, my shopping is often based on what berries i have foraged. am i doing that wrong?

  2. #2 Bob gorge
    September 1, 2013

    Seems to me pz’s angst at ep is the same angst his opponents have to evolutionary theory in general,

  3. #3 David Marjanović
    Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin
    September 2, 2013

    Seems to me Bob gorge hasn’t read the post, but has commented on it anyway.

    BTW, I have no particular fear of spiders or snakes either. OK, the largest solifuges could make me uncomfortable, but snakes? I’ve never understood why it’s so often taken for granted that there’s such a thing as innate fear of snakes. ~:-|

  4. #4 Steven Earl Salmony
    Chapel Hill, NC
    September 2, 2013

    If human population dynamics is essentially common to the propulation dynamics of other species and, consequently, if food supply is the independent not the dependent variable in the relationship between food and population, then a lot of what has been reported could be distractions that serve to dismiss rather than disclose vital but unwelcome science of what could somehow be real regarding the human population and, more importantly, why our behavior is so utterly destructive of everything we claim to be protecting and preserving. May I make a request? Could we focus now, here, on whether or not human exceptionalism applies to its population dynamics alone or is the dynamics of all species, including human beings, similar? Whatever your response, please make reference to scientific research that supports your point of view.

    It seems to me that if we keep engaging in and hotly pursuing worldwide overproduction, overconsumption and overpopulation activities, distinctly human activities that cannot be sustained much longer on a planet with size, compostion and ecology of Earth, then the human species is a clear and present danger on our watch to future human well being, life as we know it, and environmental health. If we can see ourselves to be ‘the problem’, then it is incumbent upon us to bring forward the best available evidence from science, especially when that evidence happens to relate directly to why we are pursuing a soon to become, patently unsustainable (superhigh)way of life. A tip of the hat is due Rachel Carson for making me aware of the superhighway. Should humankind emerge from ‘the bottleneck’ E.O. Wilson imagines for us in the future and somehow escape the precipitation of our near-term extinction, how are those survivors to organize life sustainably and not repeat the mistakes we are making now… and have been making for a long time? Without knowledge of why we are doing what we are doing, every one of us is forever trapped in an eternal recurrence of unsustainable life cycles, I suppose.

    Sincerely yours,

    Steve Salmony

    PS: Rachel Carson’s quote,

    We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road—the one “less traveled by”—offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.
    Rachel Carson (1907 – 1964)

  5. #5 David Marjanović
    Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin
    September 4, 2013

    a lot of what has been reported could be distractions that serve to dismiss rather than disclose vital but unwelcome science of what could somehow be real regarding the human population

    *blink*

    what

    Without knowledge of why we are doing what we are doing, every one of us is forever trapped in an eternal recurrence of unsustainable life cycles, I suppose.

    Yes, of course. Look at birthrates around the world, and you’ll see what brings them down: wealth & security, education in general, and education of girls in particular. That’s where more needs to be done lest food production – “oil into potatoes” – fails when Peak Oil comes.

  6. #6 Henry Harpending
    Utah
    September 10, 2013

    How much of your objection to EP is to journalists’ accounts of EP as opposed to regular literature in EP?

  7. #7 Jimmy Trendd
    Ontario
    September 14, 2013

    In my experience Jerry Coyne can be a real jerk to people on his blog. He has been really disrespectful, and on some occasions he loses it and goes off onto little tantrums like a five year old boy child.