Myles Power's dishonest defense of evolutionary psychology

Back around the 11th of July, I saw a few comments by a guy named Myles Power, a science youtuber, who was quite irate that Rebecca Watson criticized evolutionary psychology five years ago. There were the usual vaguely horrified reactions implying how annoying it was that some mere communications major would criticize an established, credible, true science like EP, and how she was prioritizing entertainment over scientific validity (not all from this Power guy; Watson is a magnet for the same tiresome bozos making the same tiresome complaints). So I told him that no, her criticisms were not off-base at all, and then a lot of scientists consider EP to be poor science. I also gave him a few links to consider.

He saw them, and acknowledged it.
@pzmyers This may take me some time to get back to you :)

He did not get back to me. Instead, he came out with a video titled Rebecca Watson’s Dishonest Representation of Evolutionary Psychology. It did not use a single scrap of the information I sent him. Not one bit. Furthermore, he just made this excuse.
I am also doing the ground work in organising a google+ debate with PZ and a Prof in EP from a reputable university.

Say what? He wrote that on the 14th. Not once has he contacted me about "organizing" a debate. One would kind of think that contacting both of the principals in this planned debate would be the very first step in organizing it. Do I get to say "no", are is he just assuming that all he has to do is contact the esteemed EP professor and then I'll self-evidently fall into line? I'm not at all impressed with Myles Power's honesty so far.

So then I watched the video.

It does not start well. In the first minute and a half, he talks about the universality of many human facial expressions, like anger or happiness. It's irrelevant. Critics of EP are not disagreeing with the existence of evolved human traits. Humans evolved, the brain evolved, but that does not imply that every human behavior is the product of natural selection. Some behaviors are, others are not. The problem lies in sorting out which is which, and the assumptions and methodology of evolutionary psychology can't do that.

Power then presents a summary of the domain of evolutionary psychology.

Evolutionary psychology is a theoretical approach to psychology that attempts to explain useful mental and psychological traits -- such as memory, perception, o[r] language -- as adaptations, i.e., as the functional products of natural selection.

Does anyone else see the problems with this definition? Myles Power doesn't. Maybe you can help him out.

The obvious flaw is the assumption that all useful mental traits are adaptations. This is not necessarily true. In fact, the central problem in this version of EP is that it simply sails right past all the difficulties in determining whether a trait is a product of selection. According to EP, it just is, and to question that makes you the equivalent of a creationist. Apparently, only because evolutionary psychologists don't understand any of the other mechanisms of evolutionary biology. Their shortcut is this naive idea that if a behavior exists, it is necessarily an adaptation.

There's another flaw in the definition, and it's one that Power indulged in in his opening: the EP bait-and-switch. They are going to explain evolved human traits, and a core premise of EP, the EEA, or environment of evolutionary adaptation. We were shaped by the environment humans lived in 10,000 and more years ago. But look at that list: Memory? Perception? Invertebrates have those. You're not going to work out the origins of those by giving questionnaires to undergraduates. Language might be a bit more appropriate, but it's a bit peculiar to deny the existence of antecedents in non-humans, and to claim that the biological substrate for language reached its completed form 10K years ago.

But then, Power is a chemist. Maybe he's had no exposure to modern evolutionary biology.

At 1:50, we get another common refrain -- the criticisms of EP are all based on accusations that it promotes gender stereotypes, racism, and classism, and they're all straw men. No. I criticize EP because it is a lazy, invalid discipline built on a fallacious foundation. However, all that keeps it going and popular is because it does validate cultural stereotypes, over and over again. The fact that Rebecca Watson points out the fallacies of EP is treated as reason to call her dishonest.

So he throws in some excerpts from Rebecca's talk, "How Girls Evolved to Shop", and the first thing he does is agree with the first part: she uses an example of EP that was commissioned by a shopping center, and Power thinks it is a good example of how the media warp and distort science to sell newspapers. He doesn't seem to recognize that it is also evidence of a source of pervasive bias, that there is real incentive for scientists to fit data to a cultural stereotypes…which ought to make one more critical of EP, and less likely to accept its conclusions as valid.

But no, Power wants to deny the implication that scientists could be prone to media manipulation. This study doesn't count, apparently. Widely reported newspaper articles written by evolutionary psychologists about ridiculous conclusions of evolutionary psychology do not count as examples of bad EP -- Watson did not plumb the scientific literature sufficiently deeply.

Here's some unsurprising news for you: neither does Myles Power. He doesn't address any papers in EP that he would judge worthy.

Then he complains that Watson claims that EP argues that the human brain hasn't evolved in 10,000 years…which they do, of course. But Power argues that no significant amount of evolution could have possibly occured in the last few millennia. OK, maybe lactose tolerance. Maybe a few nucleotide changes (did I mention that he's not an evolutionary biologist or population geneticist?), but it wasn't enough time for anything important to have occurred. Except, you know, agriculture and urbanization and multiple sweeps of disease.

But there's also another implicit assumption in what he's saying: that the only changes that count are biological. Perhaps he ought to stop and think about the fact that maybe, what evolved was a general biological substrate for unspecified complex behavior, and that all those details evolutionary psychologists love to spin adaptive scenarios for aren't genetic at all. Studying something as malleable as human behavior is not a sound foundation for making evolutionary inferences.

He declares that it only took 2 nucleotide changes to generate lactose tolerance, but that really pales in comparison to the amount of changes you would need to change complex behaviors. Do tell. How many does it take? How many were involved in the many behavioral changes that occured in the switch from the hunter/gatherer lifestyle to life as a farmer?

Shouldn't this tell you right away that all of psychology isn't determined by your genes, and that maybe the methodology of EP isn't going to be able to tease apart the causes?

But brace yourself for the most shockingly dishonest part of Watson's talk, in which she cites VS Ramachandran's paper, "Why do gentlemen prefer blondes?", which was published as a satire of evolutionary psychology in the journal Medical Hypotheses. But it was a satire, Power explains, so it wasn't fair for Watson to discuss it. Except, of course, that Watson plainly states that it was a satirical paper to mock the poor basis in evidence of EP work, and the silliness of their just-so stories. What it's saying is that these flaws in EP are widely known among scientists, and that even genuinely highly reputable neuroscientists like Ramachandran are acutely aware of the problems. What Power needs to do is stop and think and realize that he's not just arguing with Rebecca Watson, but with VS Ramachandran…and he's oblivious to the implications.

Instead, Power claims that Watson is implying that the entire field was taken in by this mockery. Nope. He is basically claiming to have read Rebecca Watson's mind, and determined that she believed this satire had fooled all evolutionary psychologists. But I know this is not the case -- I've actually talked with Watson about evolutionary psychology, and understand her position from the evidence of that mundane means of sound and language, rather than telepathy.

Watson explained that about the paper in her talk, and joked about the fact that it got published. Power then explains what Rebecca Watson is really saying: she's saying that the entire field was taken in by this mockery. She is implying that it got published in a good journal, and she's basically making evolutionary psychology look bad. That's an awful lot of mind-reading.

No, again. I'm familiar with the response by evolutionary psychologists to that paper. It was not equivalent to the Sokal hoax (and Watson did not say it was), in which a paper fooled credible reviewers in a field; it was open satire of their ideas, and evolutionary psychologists saw it as such (and they didn't like it). Power then states that to imply as Watson did that this somehow fooled them is incredibly dishonest. Except Watson did not imply that. All the dishonest implications are being drawn by Power.

But here's the thing: Ramachandran's paper was supposed to be outright mockery of a ridiculous hypothesis. Except, of course, that you can find other, serious papers on the same topic. Swami and Berrett tested it by dyeing a women's hair different colors and having her sit in a nightclub. A University of Westminster study looked at how well blondes and brunettes scored on an attraction scale. A Guardian journalist, Carole Jahme, seriously produces a list of adaptive explanations for blonde hair.

There are higher numbers of females born blonde than males and retention of blonde hair into adulthood is a sexually selected indicator of fitness in females.4 Caucasian blondes are usually slightly higher in oestrogen than brunettes and are likely to exhibit other infantile sexually selected traits (indicating low levels of testosterone) that are considered desirable by males, for example finer facial features, smaller nose, smaller jaw, pointed chin, narrow shoulders, smooth skin and less body hair, and infantile behaviour such as higher energy levels and playfulness.

Another possible reason for Nordic gentlemen preferring blondes is to assure their paternity. The genes for blue eyes and blonde hair are recessive, meaning both parents must have the genes for them to be expressed in their offspring. So it has been proposed that blue-eyed men prefer blue-eyed women as mates because they have some degree of certainty over fatherhood. A blue-eyed male with a brown-eyed mate would not have the same assurance the resulting brown-eyed infant was his child and therefore worthy of a slice of the mammoth he risked his life trapping and slaughtering and then spent days dragging back across miles of icy tundra.

Power might have a point if this satirical story weren't also the subject of a great deal of serious evolutionary psychology speculation.

I have to include one more example: this article titled Do Gentlemen Prefer Blondes?. It's just more garbage, but what makes it most relevant is that a heck of a lot of Power's commenters are recommending that he follow up with Gad Saad, author of that article, and a very vocal evolutionary psychologist. Also amusing is how those commenters also demean Rebecca Watson for her communications degree, while ignoring the fact that Saad is a professor of fucking marketing, who knows nothing of biology.

Finally, Power makes another exercise in mind-reading: he claims that the only reason she was having a go at this particular branch of psychology is because it conflicts with her ideology. That's a clear attempt to smear her motivations, not her evidence, and given that Power could not cite any reasonable studies based on evolutionary psychology, it's clear that that's the only tactic he's got for his emotional defense of bad science.

He's also annoyed that she was applauded by an audience of skeptics, who are supposed to question everything they hear. Unless it's evolutionary psychology. True skeptics do not question that, I guess. And once again, he questions Watson's motivations, that she wanted to produce something that is so anti-science, that blatantly only exists because this branch of science conflicts with their dogmatic view on life. Now that is the dishonest bullshit.

And he goes further to present a pre-emptive defense. The fact that I am a chap, I am white…I am doing rather well financially, and I'm straight…if these are reasons why you think that the things I've said in this video should be discredited, you need to stop for a second and have a think about what you are saying, and think is that really a good reason to dismiss what I'm saying.

Poor man. He's worried that he'll be persecuted for being a straight white man with a stable job. After all, that's the only possible reason someone might disagree with what he's saying. Not because of his rhetorical fallacies, his ignorance of evolutionary biology, his irrational defense of a field he also knows little about, or the fact that he's pandering to a mob of MRAs who have been hating on Rebecca Watson for years, and are probably thrilled to have another opportunity to throw more slime her way.

I could also point out that I'm a straight white man with a stable job, so I'm not likely to think his color or sex or finances represent insuperable flaws. But it's not necessary.

I will say that this is the first of his videos I've seen, and I'm unlikely to watch any of the others, if this is the quality of his reasoning and the kind of audience he is aspiring to. I'm also pretty damned unlikely to participate in this debate he claims to have been organizing for me.


More like this

I don't understand why it is fair to raise the objection that evolutionary biology possesses an "assumption that all useful mental traits are adaptations". The definition of this video provided did not include that scope.

By adding the word "all" and then attacking the theoretical model for overreaching seems like a straw man fallacy. Why are we justified to conclude that advocates for this theoretical model generally believe that it can explain all behavior rather than merely some behavior?

By Buck Field (not verified) on 18 Jul 2016 #permalink

Was Myles Power's description of Evolutionary Psychology incomplete? Yes. But that is not really the point.
He crticises the arguments of Watson, the shallowness of her reasoning. He says (at least I interpreted it this way, no mindreading here) it's wrong to discredit EP on the basis of the reasons she gives. He does never say it's wrong to critisice EP altogether. In fact, he states at 11:17 : "In this video, I'm not saying Evolutionary Psychology does have no problems whatsoever - no, it does. But you have to adress them correctly." [Punctuation from me (duh)]

I'm under the impression that you are deliberately "twisting the words in his mouth", so you can argue against another argument than the one he really gave.

However, the criticism of (some portion of) EP you stated seems reasonable and well placed (I can't really judge the whole field on the basis of what read this evening).

I'm just saying, please don't start an argument over "nothing".

By Eliane Stähli (not verified) on 18 Jul 2016 #permalink I’m under the impression that you are deliberately “twisting the words in his mouth”, so you can argue against another argument than the one he really gave.

By atakan tan (not verified) on 20 Jul 2016 #permalink

The facts that link ecological variation to ecological adaptations without the pseudoscientific nonsense about mutations, and/or natural selection and evolution were established during the time since Schrodinger first linked the anti-entropic energy of sunlight to all biodiversity in 1944.

See for instance: RNA mediated molecular epigenetics and virus driven entropy

By James V. Kohl (not verified) on 21 Jul 2016 #permalink

Psychology in general is a field which pays lip service to the scientific method but which often fails to use it. Many psychologists don't distinguish well between hypotheses with no evidence and theories backed by good evidence. The whole "recovered memory" fiasco with which they ruined so many lives was an excellent example of the absurd and dangerous follies they sometimes follow.

If evolutionary psychology wants to be regarded as a science, it's practitioners need to pay much closer attention to filtering out their assumptions, they need to look at the psychological characteristics of other primates and other mammals to see what common traits are likely to be hard-wired across species, and they need to be much more cross-cultural when evaluating human characteristics - the referenced serious articles about hair color, like so many evolutionary psychology "studies", are so culturally constrained that they are useless for unpacking possible evolutionary mechanisms.

Evolutionary psychologists need to be MUCH more rigorous about what they accept as evidence. They are remarkably casual and sloppy all around, so it's no wonder the field is not respected by both scientists and non-scientists who understand how science works.

By Edgar Carpenter (not verified) on 24 Jul 2016 #permalink