The Thoughtful Animal

Evolutionary Psychology suffers from a PR problem, which can be mostly blamed on ignorant (even if well-intentioned) members of the population who don’t know what they’re talking about.

Evolutionary psychology attempts to describe the evolution of the mind and of behavior and, well, everyone has a mind, and everyone can observe behavior. This makes people think that they are experts. Anybody who has ever had a child knows everything there is to know about child development. Anybody who has ever owned a dog becomes an expert on canine behavior. Study after study demonstrates the fact that humans have very little intuitive insight into the way our minds work (let alone the minds of other kinds of animals). Cognitive and perceptual illusions abound. People have plenty of intuitions, but they’re usually wrong.


Having completed some college-level coursework in psychology, many people think that they know enough about evolution, natural selection, brain, and behavior to derive conclusions about human nature. This leads to various iterations of the same tired old nonsense, like this gem:

Man is a herd animal. The man is on the edge of the herd. The women in the center. There are different skills for surviving in the different positions. The ability to count the lions is important on the edge. It’s not so important in the middle where other skills are important. The male has larger rewards for succeeding, but a bigger loser if he fails.

We can’t change this by penalizing the successful and subsidizing the failures.

It’s a hard reality but it’s the reality we evolved in and it dictates our behavior.

This is called a just-so story, which is an explanation for the evolution of a given trait that rests on nothing but its own internal logic. Of course, this is ridiculous. Any responsible scientist knows that you need actual data. Just-so stories could reasonably provide various alternative hypotheses, but without the data, they’re hypotheses and speculations. Hypotheses and speculations play an important role in the process of scientific discovery, but their role needs to be understood.

One such responsible scientist is Leda Cosmides, who said in an interview (emphasis added),

More to the point, every decent evolutionary explanation has testable predictions about the design of the trait. For example, the hypothesis that pregnancy sickness is a byproduct of prenatal hormones predicts different patterns of food aversions than the hypothesis that it is an adaptation that evolved to protect the fetus from pathogens and plant toxins in food at the point in embryogenesis when the fetus is most vulnerable – during the first trimester. Evolutionary hypotheses – whether generated to discover a new trait or to explain one that is already known – carry predictions about the nature of that trait.

But then there’s another important criticism of evolutionary psychology: that evolutionary psychologists conflate “is” with “ought,” and that they use principles of evolutionary psychology to perpetuate and maintain the status quo. They insist that evolutionary psychology is a tool used to maintain oppression against minorities or women, or to normalize things like rape, murder, or warfare.

My scibling Christina, of the Oscillator blog, recently described this problem quite well:

Science news stories about duck rape become hugely popular because we apologize for rape as a “natural” event caused by the male evolutionary need to spread their seed widely. Biases and prejudices become natural, women’s bodies are explained as in terms of men’s desires, in our culture, in our media, and too often in our science.

I don’t deny that this is a problem, but I think this is a problem related to the one I described above. Often, people who think they understand the mind by virtue of the fact that they have minds, don’t really know what they’re talking about. And so it is that evolutionary arguments are mis-used in our culture, in our media, and sometimes even in our science.

But I think this argument – the is/ought conflation – confuses evolutionary psychology with social darwinism. Responsible evolutionary psychologists go out of their way to avoid things like the naturalistic fallacy and the moralistic fallacy.

Speaking as an evolutionary psychologist myself, I don’t think that evolutionary psychologists – at least the responsible ones – are guilty of confusing “is” for “ought.” Instead, I think that the critics of evolutionary psychology confuse descriptions of phenomena with excuses for the perpetuation of those same phenomena. Studying the consequences of drug abuse does not imply approval of drug abuse. Studying the spread of some infectious disease does not suggest that the researcher thinks this is a good thing. Studying the way alcoholism in fathers affects child development is not tacit endorsement of alcoholism in fathers. Similarly: investigating the evolutionary bases for homicide or warfare in no way endorses the continued existence of those phenomena. One day, I will probably write about the evolutionary and developmental origins of racism. This does not mean that I think racism is a good thing. In fact, I think that by understanding the evolutionary origins of some of these societal problems, we will be better able to address them. If we wish to reduce the incidence of the transmission of the H1N1 swine flu, we need to understand how it works. Similarly, if we wish to reduce the incidence of hate crime, we likewise need to understand how racism works.

When human adults show complex, possibly culture-specific skills or behavior, they emerge from a set of psychological (and thus neural) mechanisms which have two properties:
(1) they evolved early in the timecourse of evolution and are shared with other animals, and,
(2) they emerge early in human development, and can be found in infants and children, as well as adults.

This allows very specific predictions to be made on the basis of hypotheses. We can ask if a given trait is unique to humans, or is shared with other animals. We can ask if the acquisition of a trait depends on uniquely human capabilities. We can ask what functional problem a given trait may have emerged to address. We can ask if there is developmental continuity – if certain traits have similar properties in infants, children, and adults. We can ask if these patterns persist in other cultures.

By subjecting evolutionary hypotheses to rigorous experimental investigation, such as by using a comparative, developmental, or cross-cultural approach, one can begin to understand the origins of a given trait or behavior. This makes it very easy to quickly dismiss all sorts of uninformed assertions. It allows us to ask the right questions instead of the wrong ones.

For example, asking if there is a biological basis underlying the observed discrepancy on math scores between men and women is the wrong question to be asking. Because proficiency in mathematics depends on years of formal schooling. There is no way to isolate the effects of biology when the very thing you are interested in emerges only extensive explicit instruction. Instead, the right questions are: what are the evolutionary mental building blocks that combine to give rise to mathematics? Are these shared with other animals? Do these cognitive traits have the same characteristics in other cultures? What about in human infants? Do we observe any sex differences among human infants, or in other cultures? Even if we did find sex differences in something like approximate large number representation, does this bear on more complex mathematics and test scores? Does the ability to form large number representations, for example, even matter, when it comes to abstract language-dependent things like multivariate regression, or even long division?

We don’t look down upon autism research, as a field, because Andrew Wakefield is a bad scientist who should know better. We don’t look down upon autism research, as a field, because uninformed individuals like Jenny McCarthy preach garbage about vaccines. And we don’t look down upon autism research, as a field, because otherwise well-intentioned but also uninformed individuals actually listen to them. Instead of calling the entire field unscientific and garbage, we call out the douchehats for what they are: batshit crazy. There’s nothing inherently unscientific about evolutionary psychology, yet so often it’s decried on the basis of the same kinds of bad scientists, bad communicators, and uninformed populace.

Well, I think it’s time we take evolutionary psychology back from the bad scientists and uninformed populace. And we’re going to do so by using the tools of our trade: comparative, developmental, and cross-cultural research. We’re going to demonstrate that you can make evolutionary arguments about mind and behavior, but only by asking the right kinds of questions.

Comments

  1. #1 Cassidy
    June 13, 2010

    Awesome post. Back when I was a psych major, Evo Psych was the course that set me on my current trajectory of actually being a scientist. Even now that I’m acutely aware of the view many evolutionary biologists have of the field, I’m still taken aback sometimes when I read some of the vitriolic posts that pass for legitimate criticism of it.

  2. #2 Mike Mike
    June 13, 2010

    I don’t think evolutionary psychology is the only field with this problem. I think that the field of psychology in general is perceived as “common sense” in western culture, both because it’s relatively easy to feel like your engaging in it when you’re really just watching people and thinking about their behavior, and because psychology has been so successful that our culture has a significant amount of working knowledge about it just floating around.

    One field of study that has personally bugged me is research on the brains of gay men and their development. There’s a bunch of people who are trying to study what in utero or early childhood events determine how one’s brain develops into a “gay brain.” It’s one of those fields where the good science is actually rather hard to pick out from the political/social agendas of the writers, publishers, or reviewers.

    On an unrelated note, I think it’s interesting how it will become harder and harder to do any straightforward cross-cultural evolutionary psychology in the future, as the societies that used to be isolated become more and more globalized and share more and more child-rearing practices and other currently culturally-specific behaviors.

  3. #3 Comrade PhysioProf
    June 13, 2010

    This allows very specific predictions to be made on the basis of hypotheses. We can ask if a given trait is unique to humans, or is shared with other animals. We can ask if the acquisition of a trait depends on uniquely human capabilities. We can ask what functional problem a given trait may have emerged to address. We can ask if there is developmental continuity – if certain traits have similar properties in infants, children, and adults. We can ask if these patterns persist in other cultures.

    You can ask these questions, but you can’t even come close to imagining obtaining supportable answers.

  4. #4 Jason G. Goldman
    June 13, 2010

    You can ask these questions, but you can’t even come close to imagining obtaining supportable answers.

    Sure you can, depending on the question. As an example in the number domain, large number representation:
    http://thoughtfulanimal.wordpress.com/2010/03/23/what-are-the-origins-of-number-representation-2/#more-442

    or small number representation:
    http://thoughtfulanimal.wordpress.com/2010/03/31/the-origins-of-small-number-representation/

  5. #5 ewe-man
    June 13, 2010

    I thought at least one well-known and respected philosopher of biology had done an excellent take-down of Cosmides (and Tooby).

    I want to say it’s a critique of a late-eighties paper on decision theory (C&T, 1988?), and the critique is by Dr. Elisabeth Lloyd, because I know Lloyd has offered substantive critiques of recent explanations of ‘adaptation’ in evolutionary biology, especially w/r/t humans. (Her book, ‘The Case of the Female Orgasm,’ for one.)

    Dr. Free-Ride could probably correct me here, if I’ve gotten mixed up. It’s been a looooong time since I took philosophy of science, and my computer isn’t letting me access the direct citation. I had a hard copy in some files that I just cleared out, too…dang.

    NM…got it: http://psy2.ucsd.edu/~mgorman/Lloyd.pdf

  6. #6 Christina Agapakis
    June 13, 2010

    This is a really interesting post, and I agree that it’s not fair to throw out all of a field because of a few baddies. I think it is interesting to study psychology, human behavior, and human societies, to compare across cultures, and across developmental and educational levels. I think it is also very hard to avoid naturalizing sociocultural biases and norms, to make hypotheses that can turn into just-so stories that make our way of doing something seem like the only normal way to do it, especially when talking about evolution. Just because something evolved doesn’t mean it’s the only way that it could happen, or the way that it should be, or even fundamentally biological rather than social (societies evolved too, and culture and learning are part of evolution and animal behavior). Psychology can tell us a lot about ourselves and how we can trick ourselves into thinking different things, it should also be self-aware of how psychology experiments themselves can trick scientists and non-scientists who like reading blog posts about science. What are the assumptions and biases embedded in the questions that we ask? How does the scientist’s privilege and social position influence the way that the experiments are formulated, the data is interpreted? How does the scientist’s position of privilege as a scientist affect how the hypotheses and data are interpreted by other people? These questions are not unfair to ask, and from what I see (from a position as a well-educated affluent white woman scientist that reads a lot of feminist social studies of science and a lot of work critical of academic evolutionary psychology and not just armchair evolutionary psychologists) a lot of the evidence supports my critical position. I hope that your work as a psychologist will change things for the better prove me wrong in the long run, but if we’re talking about what people do and how people behave we can’t ever talk just about biology or science as a pure activity outside of the influence of culture.

  7. #7 Christina
    June 13, 2010

    P.S. I just wanted to add that I think you’re spot on with the whole girls are bad at math thing; I haven’t seen anyone else talking about how all of math is learned which I think is really important to remember in this most recent internet fight :)

  8. #8 katie
    June 14, 2010

    Have you seen the recent stuff on children’s intuitions about the relative difficulty of sciences?

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20121309

    I would never call myself an evolutionary psychologist but I totally agree about these assumptions – I’m guessing they are worse in children because children have poorer intuitions about their own mind-reading abilities.

  9. #9 Brian Switek
    June 14, 2010

    To play off of what Christina mentioned, I think one of the biggest problems for evo psych is the kind of adaptationism that S.J. Gould, Richard Lewontin, Niles Eldredge, and others criticized when it was emerging under the heading of “sociobiology.” All too often evo psych researchers pick a trait or phenomenon and treat it as an adaptation – leading to the construction of a “just-so story” about how it evolved – and this, I think, is why many scientists have been critical of it. Take, for example, the ballyhooed study which implied that modern women preferred pink to other colors due to fruit-gathering habits of Pleistocene – http://scienceblogs.com/mixingmemory/2007/08/do_women_have_an_evolved_prefe_1.php

    Granted, the study was misinterpreted by the media, but even in the paper the authors consider their results to be indicators of evolved preferences rather than the signs of cultural preferences or some other phenomena. There was no attempt to rigorously rule out alternatives – the just-so story was the preferred one.

    Likewise – and as Christina also mentioned – the role of personal bias/background/privilege can no doubt influence how such studies are interpreted. The cultural background of a scientist affects all researchers – we’re not robots programmed to be 100% objective – and I think this is especially true in fields focused on figuring out our origins.

    This is not to say that the entire field is absolute rubbish or there cannot be a rigorous kind of evo psych. I just don’t think we’re there yet. For whatever reason, just-so stories fraught with adaptationist thinking still dominate, but if researchers within the field can move past that then perhaps some progress can be made.

  10. #10 Dave Lukas
    June 14, 2010

    I didn’t realize that evolutionary psychology was so maligned within the discipline of psychology. But I think that Mike Mike is right, and I will generalize his statement even further to say that most people seem to be pretty comfortable putting themselves forth as experts on everything. Armchair political analysts, armchair quarterbacks, and armchair economists, etc. encumber messageboards in every imaginable area of study with their ridiculous gibberish.

    But vis a vis the greater question in this post, maybe I’m missing something. It seems abundantly clear to me that the pursuit of knowledge, in an of itself, in no way constitutes approval or endorsement, or any other ethical pronouncement.

    If you want to get rid of something that you deem to be bad, you usually have to study it first.

    Boom. That right there seems like a pretty airtight repudiation of any claim to the contrary. It is so incontrovertible that I am frankly stunned to see people hemming and hawing about it (especially on the last post on the topic).

    What is going on here?

  11. #11 Jason G. Goldman
    June 14, 2010

    I think Brain (@9) makes some very good points (as does Christina).

    Taking the example you mentioned, if you’re going to work from a hypothesis that women have an evolved preference for pink, and men for blue, then the only way I can see to test that hypothesis is with infants. And even then, those infants will probably have spent their first few weeks of life wrapped up in pink or blue (or whatever) blankets and clothes and whatnot. But assuming you could reasonably run that study and found convincing evidence (which I doubt would be found), the speculation would be *why* those preferences evolved, not *that* they evolved.

    I think a good psychological scientist knows the difference between correlation and causation, between speculation and legitimate interpretation. That we study things that are harder to quantify and that often require indirect measurements shouldn’t undermine the rigorousness of our work. (And, that mainstream media likes to run away with stories from the psych literature shouldn’t undermine it either). Experimental design is still experimental design, no matter what the level of analysis is; whether you’re talking about atoms or cells or organisms or behaviors. Right?

    Am I just approaching evolutionary psych from a different perspective? I think the only way you can reasonably make evolutionary arguments is by combining evidence from developmental, comparative, and cross-cultural research. Are we really talking about the same thing? I’m starting to get the sense that what I consider to be evolutionary psychology is somehow different.

  12. #12 Azkyroth
    June 14, 2010

    But I think this argument – the is/ought conflation – confuses evolutionary psychology with social darwinism. Responsible evolutionary psychologists go out of their way to avoid things like the naturalistic fallacy and the moralistic fallacy.

    Well, there you go. Responsibile evolutionary psychologists aren’t the problem, then.

  13. #13 Justin
    June 14, 2010

    Excellent post! I don’t think anyone could have addressed the misconceptions of evolutionary psychology in a more eloquent and erudite manner. This discipline has so much to offer in terms of explaining and understanding human behaviour, particularly problematic ones such as violence and rape, yet so many intellectuals and laypeople dismiss its theories because of erroneous beliefs that it is a form of social Darwinism or that its findings will be used as a justification of the status quo. As you mentioned in the post, people often confuse explaining a behaviour with justifying it, and feel that if we even so much as hint that there might be a biological explanation for a behaviour that we are, in effect, implying that it is a “natural” occurrence and therefore we should simply accept it.

  14. #14 Pierce R. Butler
    June 15, 2010

    … complex, possibly culture-specific skills or behavior… emerge from a set of psychological (and thus neural) mechanisms which … emerge early in human development, and can be found in infants and children, as well as adults.

    Thus, we have to sort out that humans have evolved to learn behaviors, particularly at very early ages. Given that in most species, including ours, infancy is/was the time of greatest mortality – hence, greatest selection – and that in humans one of the greatest and most consistent pressures was/is pleasing and motivating Mommy, distinguishing nature from nurture is going to be like isolating hydrodynamics from gravity by studying Niagara Falls.

    It may be possible to figure out the pink/blue question by having parents agree to decorate nurseries (and clothe themselves) only in white (my guess: babies will then prefer colors most like their caretakers’ skin). Pulling out, say, xenophobia from the blooming, buzzing confusion of infant development will be so close to impossibility that even analogies to quantum mechanics may be justified.

    My (lay, worthless) advice to those attempting to work out evolutionary psychology from behavioral studies: go pick up a doctorate in developmental neurology on top of your degree(s) in psychology and evo-bio. Next, encourage your students to take up gerontology, so they can help you live long enough to see your work in the footnotes of those who finally put together enough pieces to start making actual progress.

  15. #15 Ruth
    June 15, 2010

    “Taking the example you mentioned, if you’re going to work from a hypothesis that women have an evolved preference for pink”

    But why would you work from such a hypothesis in the first place, when a cursory study of history cultures would tell you that it’s bollocks?

    Witness the quotes in the comment on the linked post showing that in the early part of the 20th century the convention was pink for boys and blue for girls. I was also told by a French woman once that she found the whole colour-coding of baby clothes in Britain mystifying, as there was no such convention in France.

    The whole problem is that both armchair, and on occasion academic, evolutionary psychologists are prone to assuming that what they see in their own culture is present in all cultures. They then try to explain the prevalence of a trait whose ‘prevalence’ is an artefact of their own (lack of) imagination.

  16. #16 DuWayne
    June 15, 2010

    This is not to say that the entire field is absolute rubbish or there cannot be a rigorous kind of evo psych. I just don’t think we’re there yet. For whatever reason, just-so stories fraught with adaptationist thinking still dominate, but if researchers within the field can move past that then perhaps some progress can be made.

    Honestly Brian, I think the problem is entirely grounded in the desire of various folks to equate certain archetypal Western social constructs with evolution. There is a very strong tendency among several writers to imply that they are talking about facts, when all it really is, is a wild guess. Not even an educated guess, in many cases. I see a lot of talking in absolute/factual terms, about “research” in a field that is barely in it’s infancy.

    I also find it fascinating that a lot of this crap is coming from people who aren’t even evopsych researchers.

    Jason –

    Am I just approaching evolutionary psych from a different perspective? I think the only way you can reasonably make evolutionary arguments is by combining evidence from developmental, comparative, and cross-cultural research. Are we really talking about the same thing? I’m starting to get the sense that what I consider to be evolutionary psychology is somehow different.

    If you are coming at it from a different perspective, it is the same mistaken direction that I am coming from as well. I am studying linguistics and international studies, because I am very keen on cross cultural perspectives as a critical component to evopsych. I cannot learn nearly enough minutia about the behaviors of our earliest modern human ancestors – or even about our more recent ancestors, to make very firm conclusions. I can however, take what I can learn about our ancestors and combine that with cross cultural studies of the specific neuropathologies that I intend to study.

    Even at that, it is unlikely that, given the tools currently available, we can develop a theory that will be as robust as, say, gravitational theory. What we will come up with, is a foundation for others to build on and hopefully better methods for (in my case) better methodologies for dealing with addiction in it’s many facets.

    I think this is what irritates me the most about the bull that ought=is folks are coming out with. It is completely bloody damned useless.

  17. #17 Jason G. Goldman
    June 15, 2010

    Ruth (@15): You have illustrated my point quite nicely. If someone *were* to start out with such a hypothesis, it could be rejected on the basis of responsible science fairly quickly.

    Pierce (@14): William James’ characterization of infants as living in a world of “blooming, buzzing confusion” has been rejected by decades of child development research. Infants actually understand the world is pretty sophisticated ways, and we’ve only recently (more recently than William James and more recently than Piaget) come up with the proper ways of testing infants. I recommend reading up on some of the research of Renee Baillargeon or Elizabeth Spelke or Susan Carey, to start with.

  18. #18 Pierce R. Butler
    June 15, 2010

    Jason @ # 17 – I had thought the Jamesian allusion better described the conceptual world of the poor researcher attempting to trace the wires of infantile responses, but wuttever.

    Thanks for the reading tips!

  19. #19 skeptifem
    June 15, 2010

    The critics are not the ones who are mistaking the research with endorsement. Fans of EP DO use EP research as endorsement of sexism and racism all the damn time. What is so annoying about it is that secular knobs have all this ready made “science” to help them talk down to me about my nature. It also makes self interested women who don’t know much about science think that all science is a load of crap after being lectured by an EP fanboy too many times.

    I am with CPP about how meaningful answers cannot be found for quite some time. You can answer the questions you put up, but you are far from being able to explain HOW any of this happens. I have a difficult time accepting evolutionary explanations without that piece of information.

    For the record, I am FAR from being ignorant about psychology. I read about it extensively because I found it very interesting. It is valuable as a discipline and helps many people.

    What is weird is how many of the pro EP dudes I know dismiss psychology as a “soft” science.

  20. #20 Jason G. Goldman
    June 15, 2010

    Skeptifem (@19) has a fair point: there is fault that lies with the EP fanbois and fangrrls who misuse or at least misinterpret the data. That said, there are certainly critics who also misuse and misinterpret the data, even if there are other critics (e.g. skeptifem, CPP) who seem to be otherwise well-informed.

    You can answer the questions you put up, but you are far from being able to explain HOW any of this happens.

    Certainly before we can ask questions of “how” we need to be able to address the question of “whether.” I think the tools that are currently available to us can reasonably address the question of whether some trait has an evolutionary basis or not. Of course, you have to be asking the correct questions. (e.g. asking about the evolutionary basis for mathematical skill is too broad, since mathematics itself is something that only emerges because of experience)

    But I also think we’re beginning to be able to reasonably address some of the questions of the mechanisms (the “how”) as well, with things like molecular and behavior genetics, controlled rearing studies, and so forth.

  21. #21 DuWayne
    June 15, 2010

    skeptifem –

    I would just like to point out that there are a whole lot more scientists involved in evopsych, who are not into trying to justify racism and archetypal Western gender constructs with “science,” than there are who are. The majority of evopsych scientists that I know, are either researching cognitive evolution or evolutionary psychopathology. Now I will grant that I have a selection bias, because those are the areas that are of interest to me and the research I want to conduct. But even in the context of a behavioral approach, most evopsych doesn’t go in for that crap.

    What is so annoying about it is that secular knobs have all this ready made “science” to help them talk down to me about my nature. It also makes self interested women who don’t know much about science think that all science is a load of crap after being lectured by an EP fanboy too many times.

    You forgot to mention racism as well.

    What is so annoying to me, is that it makes self interested people who don’t know much about evopsych think that it’s all a load of crap. Not to mention that it also feeds the self-loathing that some POCs and women are stuck dealing with and were dealing with before some snazzy academic type came along and told them there is “science” to back up preexisting social stigmas.

    There is a great deal of legitimate research to be done. Some of it will even yield results that we can consider having a high probability of being correct. But even in cases where there is a lower degree of confidence in the results as an evolutionary claim, there is a great deal of useful information to be garnered. For example the process of trying to learn about the evolution of a given psychopathology, or class of psychopathologies will by it’s very nature yield useful results.

    The study is necessarily as much a cross cultural study, as it is an archeological study. In particular, the goal is to find common denominators in cultures where a given pathology is expressed very differently than it would be in U.S. culture – it probably won’t be a big surprise if I tell you that there are oftentimes very different expressions. One of my favorite examples is actually found in U.S. culture – the difference between men and women, and how we express depression.

    It has pretty much been gospel, for as long as depression has been recognized as a pathology, that women experience depression at exponentially higher rates than men. It turns out that any difference is considerably smaller than thought, if there is any difference at all. And if there is a difference, it may well be that men experience depression at a higher rate than women. Over the last few decades, research has indicated that most men express depression in ways that are considerably different from most women (though there is a significant amount of almost polar crossover).

    So what I would find interesting, are the characteristics that are the same for men and women. Likewise I would be interested in the characteristics that are the same for Russians and U.S. Americans, Chinese and Russians, etc. Though my personal interest is in substance use disorders and addictive behaviors. That will crossover into depression and several other pathologies, but the focus will be on addiction.

    The bottom line is that while there are some definitive challenges to developing comprehensive and robust theories describing the relationship of psychopathologies and evolution now, there is a great deal of useful and important material to be gained from the study. And that research is going to be useful as a foundation for later research – even if it just indicates that a given direction is a likely dead end. I have no illusions about the nature of research I intend to embark upon. I don’t expect to see a robust theory developed in my lifetime.

    I will just be happy if my contribution can help real people in my lifetime and possibly contributes to the body of knowledge about evopsych.

  22. #22 James Dean
    June 15, 2010

    I would simply point out that every field from philosophy to anatomy has been used to justify sexism, racism, and, at least once, a prohibition against eating beans. Criticizing a field of rational endeavor based on the misguided opinions of a few bad practitioners is not only illogical, but harmful to the progress of knowledge.

  23. #23 skeptifem
    June 15, 2010

    Whatever james dean. There were (now extinct) disciplines that went away because they were useless and did nothing but perpetuate the status quo. Once they became too offensive, they were replaced by something new. Eugenics was something you could study at college back the day. Classes were taught in college about baking and husband pleasing in the name of ‘functional psychology’. I have a feeling EP is going to end up in the same box eventually, replaced by some other thing used chiefly to keep people in line.

    What the majority of scientists in EP are about doesn’t change the social reality of what EP is used for. The usefulness of it (which I am not convinced of) cannot possibly outweigh the [redacted] spawned from it.
    [expletive edited out by JG]

  24. #24 Ruth
    June 16, 2010

    Unfortunately some of the unquestioned assumptions that EP researchers start from are more subtle that the easily-debunked one about women’s preference for pink. Take the assumption that women, and therefore females of all species, don’t actually like sex. An awful lot of research into animal sexual behaviour, certainly in the popular press, seems to start from this assumption. Male animals having sex doesn’t need to be explained, because duh, but female sexual behaviour is assumed to require an explanation focused on something other than the sex itself.

    Take that recent study that found that female monkeys were more likely to have sex shortly after being groomed by males. If I google monkey+sex+grooming 9 out of the 10 hits on the first page present it as prostitution, i.e. male monkeys paying for sex with grooming. The more obvious explanation (and simpler – Occam’s razor, anyone?), that female monkeys find the grooming a turn-on, and so are more likely to have sex because, wudyabelieveit, they are more likely to WANT sex after being groomed, didn’t seem to occur to anyone but the feminist critics.

  25. #25 Ruth
    June 16, 2010

    One criticism levelled at mainstream science fiction in its 1950s ‘golden age’ was that most of its writers assumed that 25th century Earth would be “just like 1950s America, but with more gadgets”. In spite of the huge progress towards greater equality for women in the writers’ own lifetimes, it didn’t seem to occur to them that said progress might continue, and that there might (gasp) be a few women piloting the 25th century spaceships.

    The same criticism is now being levelled at the Ev Psych crowd, in that far too many of them appear to assume that our early human ancestors lived in a world that was also just like 1950s America, only with fewer gadgets.

  26. #26 DuWayne
    June 16, 2010

    How very sad, Skeptifem, that you can simply dismiss something you know absolutely nothing about.

    By your logic, we should dismiss all of psychology. After all, clinical psychology was mostly predicated, early on, on the idea that women are by definition, mentally unstable. Obviously the social implications of the field outweighed what very little good it did anyone.

    Of course we should also dismiss all of anthropology as well. Early on in anth, after all, the field was rife with systemic racism. And to make it worse, it’s early practical application was entirely focused on exploitation. That should have just been nipped right in the bud from the very start. Of course the fact that cultural anth eventually was very useful in actually fighting exploitation is irrelevant.

    What a sad little person you are, deciding that because the voices getting the most press in a field are absolutely reprehensible – and considered so by most practitioners in a field, that field is obviously not worthwhile. Even sadder is your ability to dismiss out of hand, something you are completely ignorant of. Yet again you show that the “skepti” part of your moniker is not the least bit indicative of who you actually are.

  27. #27 Jason G. Goldman
    June 16, 2010

    It seems to me that skeptifem et al are taking a narrow view of the field. There are plenty of things entirely un-controversial that evolutionary psychology addresses (this is why i wondered in comment 11 above if we’re not talking about different things). Some examples: object recognition, action perception, spatial navigation, face recognition, numerical cognition (note this is different from mathematics, which necessarily requires schooling), and so forth.

    Throwing away the entire field of evolutionary psychology because some people take some findings from within a broad field is (pardon the expression) throwing the baby away with the bathwater. And, to draw upon an analogy I’ve made before: when people mis-use nuclear chemistry to build bombs, we don’t throw out the entire field of nuclear chemistry. When irresponsible scientists (e.g. Andrew Wakefield) or irresponsible regular people (e.g. Jenny McCarthy) spout crap about autism, we don’t throw out the entire field of autism research. Instead, we call out the individual morons.

    Now, sometimes we do throw out entire fields, like eugenics, which are based upon faulty premises. Evolutionary psychology starts from the premise that behavioral and cognitive traits, just like morphological or physiological traits, have roots in evolution. This is not a faulty premise. But because of the effects of experience and culture, it requires that we be extra careful about how we design our experiments and interpret our data. To be clear, experience and culture also affect morphology and physiology, it is just a bit easier to identify when and how that occurs.

  28. #28 Mal Adapted
    June 16, 2010

    Skeptifem:

    What the majority of scientists in EP are about doesn’t change the social reality of what EP is used for.

    Once again, we’re up against the way science is conveyed to and used by the larger society in which it’s imbedded. What the public thinks scientists say about a subject is often a ludicrous distortion of what the scientists are actually saying. The more complex or “emergent” the subject matter is, the harder it is for non-specialists to have a complete and accurate understanding of the state of expert knowledge, particularly when there are self-interested parties engaged in disinformation. Responsible experts may protest that “that’s not what the science means at all”, to no avail.

    Those of us who aren’t ourselves expert contributors to a scientific discipline must always beware the Dunning-Kruger effect. IMO, the best defense against D-K is to defer judgement.

  29. #29 Restructure!
    July 2, 2010

    I think there may be two meanings of “evolutionary psychology”: there is scientific study of evolutionary psychology (there is a smaller number of people, scientists, studying it), and then there is “evolutionary psychology” as discussed by mainstream newspapers and the general public (a larger number of people use this definition). On the Internet, most people talk about “evolutionary psychology” in the form of mainstream newspaper articles, magazines, pop-sci web articles by lay people, pop-sci web articles by actual evolutionary psychologists, and technology sites where male tech geeks provide “evolutionary psychology” explanations for why there are few women in their field. On the other hand, academic evolutionary psychology occurs in science journals that are meant to be circulated only among certain academics and which the general public is not meant to access.

    Thus, the Evolutionary Psychology Bingo Card is in reference to the much larger number of people in the world who actually make sexist arguments in the name of “evolutionary psychology”, calling it such, and calling themselves advocates of evolutionary psychology.

    But why aren’t evolutionary psychologists (especially bloggers) publicly condemning other evolutionary psychologists like Satoshi Kanazawa? It’s easy to ignore Kanazawa because you think it’s “so obvious” that evolutionary psychology is not like that, but knowledge is not going to automatically trickle down from academia to the general public. That’s what this whole problem is about.