Evolutionary psychology

2009 07 28
Ev Psych in the mainstream media

It’s really refreshing to read a piece so sceptical of evolutionary psychology in the mainstream media.

(My own take on the subject from a few years ago is here.)

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2008 03 23
Recently read

Brecht. Galileo

Brecht explores the moral difficulties in Gallileo’s decision to recant. Not bad.

Paulos, John Allen. Innumeracy

A fun little book that provides a healthy dose of motivation to the non-mathematical to get their (our!) act together. Paulos provides lots of examples of fuzzy thinking that follow from a neglect of basic mathematics. At times Paulos seems to cast his net a bit more broadly than mathematics even, commenting on various fallacies in informal reasoning. But that’s ok – those mistakes matter too.

Frank. Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class

Entertaining and reasonably well-written. Frank charts the rise of inequality in American society since WWII, and then explains why he thinks that inequality is so harmful. Some goods are absolute goods. These we care about regardless of how much other people have. Others are positional goods. These we value very differently depending on context, most importantly how others around us are doing with respect to that good. Frank argues that many more goods are positional than one might first think, and then ties this insight to his observations about rising inequality. The result is a decent critique of a lot of mainstream assumptions about inequality in American society, and more broadly of the social policies that have produced it.

Two quibbles. First, it’s ok to dumb down a bit for a popular book, but Frank’s remarks about evolutionary psychology were pretty silly at times. I’d have to read Frank’s other work on the subject to know whether I would find a more careful statement of his views silly. But anyway, I don’t really think Frank needed to introduce claims about evolutionary psychology in the first place. His motivation for doing so, if I understood it correctly, was just to point out that the psychological tendencies he’s attributing to us are fairly stubbornly entrenched. But a) you don’t need to point to evolutionary considerations to do that; and b) you shouldn’t point to evolutionary considerations to do that (just for starters, innateness and malleability are completely distinct issues).

Second quibble: Frank talks throughout about the middle class. He even put the middle class in the subtitle of his book. But the book really seems to be about how just about everyone gets screwed by rising inequality, even very well-off people. So perhaps the subtitle to his book ought to have been “How Rising Inequality Harms Us All.”

Tufte, Edward R.The Visual Display of Quantitative Information

Superb. Tufte wrote the book in the last seventies and early eighties; it changed the way many people think about how to display quantitative information in a clear, engaging and helpful way. Tufte’s book is part polemic against a dumbing down of statistical charts on the grounds that no one finds them interesting, and part analysis of what considerations go into getting it right. Good stuff.

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2007 07 07
David Brooks on race

I made the mistake of reading a David Brooks column (“The End of Integration”) the other day. I can’t link to it properly, and you probably don’t care to read it anyway. But I can’t help making two points about it.

But first the column. Watch as Brooks bemoans the failure of integration, as part of a larger narrative in which the world is coming apart:

Over the course of the 20th century, the civil rights movement promised to heal the nation�s oldest wound. Racism and discrimination would diminish. Blacks and whites could live together, go to school together and gradually integrate their lives.

. . .

The progress in civil rights has not produced racial integration. Amid all the hubbub about last week�s Supreme Court decision, we were reminded that five decades after Brown, blacks and whites do not live side by side, even when they share the same income levels. They do not go to the same schools. And when they do go to the same schools, they do not lead shared lives. As several people noted last week, many educators are giving up on the dream of integration so they can focus on quality.

Brooks goes on to pose a false dilemma, and then chooses the worse of the two options:

Expecting integration, Americans find themselves confronting polarization and fragmentation. Amid all the problems that have made Americans sour and pessimistic, this is the deepest.

It could be that all we need is a change of leadership in order to rediscover the sense that we�re all in this together. That�s what the Obama and Bloomberg boomlets are all about. It could be we just need to work harder to overcome racism and tribalism.

But it could be the dream of integration itself is the problem. It could be that it was like the dream of early communism � a nice dream, but not fit for the way people really are.

And where do we turn to for clues about how people are? Oh man, you just knew he wouldn’t be able to help himself:

For hundreds of thousands of years our ancestors lived in small bands. Surviving meant being able to distinguish between us � the people who will protect you � and them � the people who will kill you. Even today, people have a powerful drive to distinguish between us and them.

As dozens of social-science experiments have made clear, if you separate people into different groups � no matter how arbitrary the basis of the distinction � they will quickly begin discriminating against others they deem unlike themselves. People say they want to live in diverse integrated communities, but what they really want to do is live in homogenous ones, filled with people like themselves.

If that�s the case, maybe integration is not in the cards. Maybe the world will be as it�s always been, a collection of insular compartments whose fractious tendencies are only kept in check by constant maintenance.

There’s more to the column, almost every line of it stupid, but that’s enough for the points I want to make.

First, I haven’t seen actual numbers on this, but I was under the impression that interracial marriages and mixed-race neighbourhoods were increasingly common these days. As it happens, tomorrow Yoon and I will celebrate 6 years of marriage, almost all of it spent in the U.S., and we’re coming up to 11 years together. With the exception of this incident, we’ve had virtually no comment from anyone about the fact that we’re in a mixed-race marriage. And that’s no surprise, given how common white-Asian pairings are these days. Nor would this likely surprise Brooks. Black-white integration lags behind (in both marriages and in housing), if I understand correctly, but I suspect here that Brooks is conflating racial integration in general with the lack of progress in black-white integration in particular. (By the way, we live in Flatbush, and there are, I notice, a ton of black people here, along with the Russians, Pakistanis, Orthodox Jews, and other whites. But perhaps my neighbourhood is atypical.)

So this is my first point: Notice how much this messes up Brooks’ musing about the probable inevitability of it all. If the problem is more specifically lack of progress on black-white integration, then the explanation can’t be an innate and unmalleable tendency to xenophobia in general. Perhaps there are other causes. Perhaps they’re specific to blacks because of an enduring legacy of racism that the Brown decision only began to address. Perhaps these might even be the subject of columns more interesting than the one Brooks actually wrote.

Second, the musing about evolutionary psychology here is a textbook case of what I’ve complained about in the past. The appeal of the evolutionary story that Brooks trots out here is not just that it allows him to reach his alloted word count and go home early. It’s obviously that it ratifies his prejudices. True, Brooks presents his point in the speculative mode. But there is, I submit, a fine line between just tossing out an idea on the Op-Ed page of the NYT and advancing an idea couched in rhetoric that allows you to dodge responsibility for justifying it.

What a fucker. And he has the nerve to pretend that continuing problems in race relations in the US sadden and distress him. They don’t. If a social tendency distresses you, the last thing you do is provide a sloppy analysis of it and then retreat into sociobiological mumbo-jumbo. This is not a column that someone who gives a shit could write.

Howls of outrage (14)

2006 03 24

William Saletan’s latest piece in Slate tackles the question of how to draw a principled line between same-sex unions and polygamy, which is apparently what deep thinkers on the right are scratching their heads about these days. Forget about that question though. I’m interested in the way that Saletan invokes nature in his argument. His basic idea is that two is the natural number for both mixed and same sex-unions, and it’s natural because jealousy is natural. Oh sure, many of us want a little on the side, but we dislike our partner getting a little on the side more than we like to get some ourselves:

The average guy would love to bang his neighbor’s wife. He just doesn’t want his wife banging his neighbor. Fidelity isn’t natural, but jealousy is. Hence the one-spouse rule. One isn’t the number of people you want to sleep with. It’s the number of people you want your spouse to sleep with.

For all I know, and for all I’m going to say, that could all be perfectly true. But Saletan’s piece is still irritating because he’s just so damn sloppy with his subject matter.

Saletan’s research seems to have consisted in reading a few articles on polyamatory unions which reported that polyamatory unions had . . . many of the same problems that monogamous (in either theory or practice) unions have. Now, it seems to me that if you wanted to take an honest look at non-standard behaviour of this sort you’d want to keep an eye on a few issues. Among them:

1. Am I falling prey to confirmation bias?

It’s ironic that Saletan shows so little awareness of this potential problem in an article sympathetic to same-sex unions, since much of the explicitly homophobic opposition to same-sex unions gets into the same damn problem. Here’s how it works: People observe heterosexual unions breaking up over various issues, including infidelity, and think, “How terrible,” and then they see a same-sex union break up for similar reasons, and think, “Ah ha! It’s not natural.” There’s – ahem – a natural tendency to slip into this trap when evaluating nonstandard arrangements like polyamatory unions, so we ought to be highly suspicious of anecdotal or impressionistic results of the kind that Saletan has lazily scrounged up for his article.

2. Are the allegedly dysfunctional or harmful effects of the practice under investigation intrinsic to the practice itself or (partly?) the result of prejudices against the practice?

I’m reminded of the Philip Roth novel in which the parents of a Jewish-Gentile marriage oppose the marriage because such marriages tend not to work out, and some of the marriage’s troubles are traceable to the opposition of the parents and their complete lack of support. Again, this pattern ought to be familiar to us from the debate over homosexuality. Homophobes like to justify disgraceful treatment of homosexuals by pointing to data apparently showing how unhealthy homosexual lifestyles are (e.g., greater incidences of depression) – without asking first whether any of that is attributable to the disgraceful treatment! Given that polyamatory unions face a lot of social resistance and don’t have the kind of social acceptance and support that regular unions have, it’s worth asking what effects that might have on polyamatory unions as they exist in this culture.

3. Does the rarity of the practice under investigation skew our observations of the effects of the practice?

Related to this is the worry that because polyamatory unions are less socially acceptable, the subset of people who engage in them will be more adventurous, more transgressive, and possibly wilder, than they would otherwise be if this sort of arrangement were more common. An unmarried 20-something year old woman in the 1950s who slept with several men over several years is a very different case from an unmarried 20-something year old woman in NYC right now who has slept with several men over several years. The former was engaging in fairly non-standard behaviour, the latter in something she might casually mention to her mother in conversation. Same behaviour, but we would be less surprised to find the former case associated with other sorts of unhealthy activities (drinking too much, for example), since sleeping with several men over several years isn’t the sort of thing that good girls did back then, whereas it’s perfectly normal now. It would have been arguing in a circle back in the 50s to point to our adventurous lass and her problems as evidence in favour of sticking with 1950s pre-marital sexual mores, since those problems were arguably at least in part artifacts of the fact that wilder people tend to be the ones deviating from the mores. Once the behaviour became more widespread, it began to attract more conventional types, the sample size increased, and many of our (using “our” tendentiously, of course) worries subsided. And it’s very difficult to know if this might also be the case with polyamatory unions. (Obviously I’m simplifying a lot here in order to get across the basic idea.)

4. Are we projecting our own cultural quirks onto our image of human nature?

The piece under discussion isn’t quite as bad as this earlier one, in which Saletan kept referring to what “men” and “women” preferred exclusively on the basis of American opinion polls, since at least in his latest reflections on human nature Saletan reached for his Bible as an aid to speculation. But still, it’s annoying that Saletan doesn’t indicate more puzzlement about this very tricky problem.

5. In discovering what is natural, have we discovered the limits of what is possible without undue strain?

There’s an odd assumption that many people make that if an activity is unnatural in some interesting sense of the word, then engaging in the activity will necessarily result in an intolerable strain. That’s not necessarily so. To borrow Frans de Waal’s example, it’s natural for a tiger to kill a dog. But if you raise a tiger with a dog in a zoo (dogs are sometimes used to socialize tigers) then the tiger won’t be interested in killing its adopted mom or siblings. This is highly unnatural, but it’s hardly an intolerable strain on the tiger. (Similarly, there’s no easy inference from the fact that something is a strain to the claim that it’s unnatural. Lots of things we recognize as natural are strains on us.)

And so on. There’s a lot more to say about Saletan’s piece, but I’m well over my alloted blogging time for today. Again, I’m not taking any position on polyamatory relationships or polygamy or polyandry or jealousy or whether you should always wear matching socks. Also, since liberals are often accused of having a radically pared-down blank slate conception of human nature, let me just point out that what sensible liberals object to is not (necessarily) attempts to ground normative claims about humans on claims about human nature, but rather crude and unreflective appeals to human nature to ratify whatever prejudices a writer happens to have. Indeed, there’s a venerable tradition in Western ethics, from Aristotle to Aquinas to Philippa Foot of looking to human nature to draw far stronger and more interesting conclusions than Saletan does in his article.

Update: More here.

Howls of outrage (12)

2006 02 06
Award time

I’m going to have to give one of Explananda’s coveted “Journalist Most Out of His Depth” awards to Joe Robinson for his piece in the L.A. Times, “Get Out of the Way.” This long, confused piece wanders over a bunch of topics: road-rage as an expression of territoriality, territoriality in general, and jealousy, among others. Along the way, it tosses out a number of half-baked pieces of speculation from psychologists, and most of all, evolutionary psychologists. The basic questions are, of course, really interesting, even if the author doesn’t focus his topic well enough to examine them properly. But it’s annoying to see them treated so sloppily, and to see the speculations of evolutionary psychologists like Buss treated with so little scepticism.

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2005 11 03
Charles Darwin demands hott chixx

Scientist have spoken again! It’s Natural for men to be attracted to Pretty, Feminine women! There’s a new study!

I saw these reports today too, and had the same reaction of shuddering barfitude, but as ever, Twisty says it better. And look on her main page for more recent stupidity in the reporting of “scientific studies” about sex differences.

I link to different articles than Twisty comments on; mine are dumber. The first in particular is a doozy. It begins by describing make-up application — apparently without irony — as “the most important part of a woman’s day”, and goes on to be confused in various ways about what the study purports to show. The second article quotes someone saying that this study has the shocking — shocking! — “implication… that women are employing a deceptive strategy. They can fool the male visual system with make-up.”

Howls of outrage (5)

2005 08 16
Buller on Evolutionary Psychology


(My roughly similar take on the pop versions of evolutionary psychology here.)

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2005 05 16
Adapting Minds

Good golly, I wish I had time to read this book:

Adapting Minds:
Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature
David J. Buller

Was human nature designed by natural selection in the Pleistocene epoch? The dominant view in evolutionary psychology holds that it was — that our psychological adaptations were designed tens of thousands of years ago to solve problems faced by our hunter-gatherer ancestors. In this provocative and lively book, David Buller examines in detail the major claims of evolutionary psychology — the paradigm popularized by Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate and by David Buss in The Evolution of Desire — and rejects them all. This does not mean that we cannot apply evolutionary theory to human psychology, says Buller, but that the conventional wisdom in evolutionary psychology is misguided.

Evolutionary psychology employs a kind of reverse engineering to explain the evolved design of the mind, figuring out the adaptive problems our ancestors faced and then inferring the psychological adaptations that evolved to solve them. Evolutionary psychologists claim many discoveries based on this approach, including the evolutionary rationale for human mate preferences (that males prefer nubile females and females prefer high-status males) and “discriminative parental solicitude” (the idea that stepparents abuse their stepchildren at a higher rate than genetic parents abuse their biological children). In the carefully argued central chapters of Adapting Minds, Buller scrutinizes several of evolutionary psychology’s most highly publicized “discoveries.” Drawing on a wide range of empirical research, including his own large-scale study of child abuse, he shows that none is actually supported by the evidence.

Buller argues that our minds are not adapted to the Pleistocene, but, like the immune system, are continually adapting, over both evolutionary time and individual lifetimes. We must move beyond the reigning orthodoxy of evolutionary psychology to reach an accurate understanding of how human psychology is influenced by evolution. When we do, Buller claims, we will abandon not only the quest for human nature but the very idea of human nature itself.

Howls of outrage (5)

2005 02 13
Quiggin on Evolutionary Psychology

If you were following all the hyperventilating about pop evolutionary psychology on this blog earlier, you may also want to read John Quiggin’s smackdown of a recent Nicholas Kristof column. I saw the blurb for the column in the NYT email that comes around every morning, but deleted it quickly with a shudder.

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2005 01 22
Percentage of female physics faculty by country


Howls of outrage (2)

2005 01 22
Evolutionary psychology references

OK, I’ve managed to track down the references for my two favourite papers written by philosophers on problems in evolutionary psychology. They are:

Boyd, Richard. “Reference, (In)commensurability and Meanings: Some (Perhaps) Unanticipated Complexities”, in P. Hoyningen-Huene and H. Sankey (eds.). Incommensurability and Related Matters, 1-63. (c) 2001 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.

Sober, Elliott. “Evolutionary Altruism, Psychological Egoism, and Morality: Disentangling the Phenotypes.” In M. Nitecki and D. Nitecki (eds.), Evolutionary Ethics, SUNY Press, 1993, pp. 199-216.

I’m still really pissed off at myself for botching my last post on this subject so thoroughly. So go read those papers and stop wasting your time here with me.

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2005 01 20
The best post on Larry Summers’s remarks that I’ve seen . . .

. . . is here.

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2005 01 20
Kleiman responds

Update: Oh crap. I’ve completely misunderstood both Kleiman’s remarks and the basic issue. If you want to untangle my confusions, you’re welcome to peek below the fold. But I don’t think it’s worth the time, really.

[And if you came here from a search engine looking for discussion of evolutionary psychology, this is probably a better post to read.]
Continue Reading »

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2005 01 20
Evolutionary just-so stories

Yesterday’s post has me all worked up about evolutionary just-so stories, so I thought I would give a quick example today. My target here is not extrapolative evolutionary psychology as professional evolutionary psychologists practice it, but rather commonsense evolutionary psychology. I’ve met some very intelligent people who find commonsense armchair evolutionary psychology absolutely irresistible. I’m not sure if it’s the snug fit between prejudice and scientific authority, or the ease with which such theorizing produces elegant solutions to complex problems, or what, but there is something about armchair evolutionary psychology that turns it into a mental tick for some people. Once you get going with this stuff, you can get to feeling that you never have to stop. But you do. You do have to stop. Now.

I know the temptation myself, to be honest. Raised as an atheist, I grew up pondering how to fit my own observations and intuitions about people into a Darwinian framework. Now, I’m still an atheist, and I’m still very much a fan of Darwin, but I’ve come to see that armchair evolutionary psychology is cheap trick. And because it’s so widespread, and for some people so irresistible, I think it is vitally important that people come to see that they’re not being clever, or scientific, or especially rational when they indulge in armchair evolutionary psychology. They’re just being fucking wankers.

This is supposed to be a short post, because I have work to do, so I confess that if you’re that kind of wanker, I won’t be able to save your soul today. But I can get us started by talking about a just-so story, and explaining where it goes off the rails. It’s important to see that I will not be disputing the theory of human nature that the just-so story purports to explain or confirm. My point is that the evolutionary story adds nothing in the way of justification to the theory.

Let’s take an old favourite, xenophobia. The story goes like this: In the environment of evolutionary adaptation (the EEA), behaviour favouring kin over non-kin would have conferred some selective advantage. So considerations of optimality suggest hostile behaviour towards non-kin in the EEA. Now human behaviour(of this sort) is the product of human desires, beliefs, drives, etc. So we need to posit an underlying psychological mechanism to explain hostile behaviour to non-kin in the EEA. And the most obvious underlying psychological mechanism to produce hostile behaviour to non-kin in the EEA is . . . hostility to non-kin, or xenophobia. So evolutionary pressures would have favoured early humans whose psychological makeup was partly xenophobic. And that would explain a lot about contemporary humans too, wouldn’t it? After all, modern humans are essentially gussied up early humans, and we might wonder if we carry to this day the same xenophobic psychology that carried us through thick and thin in an earlier age. And – lo and behold – if we turn on the television they’re killing each other, yet again, in Yugoslavia, or Rwanda, or Iraq, or down the block, or wherever it happens to be. What better explanation for the xenophobia we do see in the world than that contemporary humans are acting on an innate drive? Sure, we can work against the drive, but you’ll be working against primordial passions which are built deeply into the grain of human nature. Evolutionary theory suggests that this is part of the human condition.

Well perhaps. But if it’s so, it can’t be claimed on the basis of a just-so story like the one I very briefly sketched above. To see why, let’s break it down into steps. Here’s are the basic moves driving the story above:

1. Construct an optimality model predicting a certain type of behaviour in the EEA.
2. Posit an underlying psychological mechanism which would reliably produce the behaviour in the EEA.
3. Posit that the underlying psychological mechanism is a part of human nature, i.e. that it is innate and non-malleable.
4. By 3, extrapolate the lesson to contemporary humans.

There is a vigorous debate in the literature about optimality modeling, which I’m not going to pretend to be familiar with. The upshot seems to be that it’s methodologically very tricky, trickier than you might think if you’re an armchair theorist. I’m sure that many just-so stories never make it past #1, but let’s let that point go for now. I’ll just say that it’s at this point that armchair theorists start speculating about sex without remembering that in the EEA women would be either pregnant or lactating for most of their lives (which really throws off your calculations, if you’re not paying attention), etc. etc. etc. If you’re going to do this, get help or you’ll end up looking like an ass. It’s harder than it looks.

Step #3 also gets into terrible trouble over unsophisticated confusions about innateness and malleability. But let’s let those worries go too. Just let me point out that even if we know that some tendency or capacity is innate, we still know virtually nothing about how malleable it is. To borrow an example from a guy whose name escapes me at the moment, it’s awfully natural for tigers to kill dogs. But if you raise a tiger in a zoo, so that it suckles at the teats of its dog surrogate-mommy from infancy, and it is socialized as a dog, then the last thing it’s going to do is kill that bitch (or perhaps any dog – I’m not sure). And despite the unnaturalness of the arrangement, working against nature in this case doesn’t produce any psychological strain on the tiger. So even if we knew that in the environment of the EEA, humans were naturally and innately xenophobic, this would tell us nothing about how malleable we ought to expect the tendency in contemporary humans to be. But, as I said, set aside this point too. I want to focus on the apparently obvious and natural move from #1 to #2.

The basic problem with the move from #1 to #2 is that it illicitly reads the evolutionary function of the behaviour described in #1 into the content of the beliefs and desires that we posit as the psychological mechanism underlying the behaviour – illicitly because there’s absolutely no reason to do that.

What the hell do I mean? Here it is more slowly: We agree for the sake of argument that the evolutionary function of the behaviour is to provide a selective advantage by being part of a complex of behaviours that favour kin over non-kin. It’s therefore vital that any satisfactory description of the behaviour in an evolutionary context is going to involve some statement about non-kin. But the beliefs and desires that produce that behaviour don’t need to have anything to do with non-kin in order to reliably produce that behaviour. They might. But they certainly need not. To see this, consider the following alternatives:

a) A hatred of non-kin because they are non-kin.
b) A hatred of non-kin because they are unfamiliar.
c) A hatred of non-kin because they are potentially dangerous.
d) A hatred of non-kin because speak a different language.
e) A hatred of non-kin because they have different initiation rites.
f) A hatred of non-kin because they are outsiders.
g) A hatred of non-kin because . . .

. . . And we can do this all day. The move from #1 to #2 above assumes that a) provides the only possible description of the content of the beliefs and desires which we need to posit in order to explain xenophobic behaviour to non-kin. But b) through z) will do just as well in the EEA, because in the EEA non-kin will be unfamiliar, potentially dangerous, speaking a different language, outsiders with different initiation rites, and so on and so forth.

Now there are two very important points here. The first is that because of this we simply can’t move from #1 to #2. So many different possible underlying psychological mechanisms might underwrite any given behaviour that we can’t infer safely from the fact that our optimality model predicts a given behaviour to any particular psychological mechanism that would have to underwrite it. The inference only seems like a no-brainer because you’re not thinking hard enough.

The second point is that although all these underlying psychological mechanisms would do an equally good job reliably producing xenophobic behaviour in the EEA, they would not do an equally good job producing xenophobic behaviour outside of the EEA. That is what makes the extrapolation to contemporary humans so dubious. Suppose that the underlying psychological mechanism is actually c). That is, in the EEA, strangers were an unknown quantity, and since it’s much better to be safe than sorry, hatred towards potentially dangerous people is quite enough to produce xenophobic behaviour towards non-kin in the EEA. But once we leave the EEA, then it becomes clear why we’re typically so comfortable with non-kin, and in a way that we couldn’t possibly have been in the EEA: they’re probably not dangerous. (And when they are, we get ready to fight back or run away.)

This is all very brief and schematic. I’ve got to leave it at that, though, or my mother will begin to worry about the progress of my dissertation (on a topic wholly unrelated to any of this). Just a few closing points: First, we could run through the same difficulties with some other old favourites, including evolutionary stories about sexual behaviour. I just don’t have time. Second, it’s been several years since I read much of the literature in this field, so I’m a bit rusty. If you go this far, you might really enjoy the name of the paper of Richard Boyd’s (the Richard Boyd in the Cornell philosophy department) I recommended the other day, without being able to remember the title or citation. I’ll post that when I get a chance.

Finally, I’ll just admit that I find these discussion a bit upsetting. As a good friend of mine remarked the other day, people who indulge in this crap just don’t seem to see how intellectually irresponsible it is. They don’t seem to understand that, especially when it touches on gender issues, unwarranted and lazy speculation about evolutionary theory can affect people’s lives, and shape their self-understanding in ways that are really unhealthy. This kind of lazy speculation is part of a culture that remains deeply sexist and cynical about human beings, even if some of the cruder elements have been swept away (or undercover) in the last generation or two. If the theories promoted in this way turn out to be true, so be it. I’ll post them on the damn blog if they’re true. But until you know them to be true, on the basis of something a bit more solid than armchair theorizing, then don’t be such a fucking wanker, ok?

Howls of outrage (2)

2005 01 19
Evolutionary reasons

Mark Kleiman writes:

For excellent evolutionary reasons, human males display higher variance than human females on many important traits, including measures of mental capacity. That means that they are likely to predominate among the top one hundredth of one percent of almost any cognitive talent, unless women are on average much better endowed in that particular department.

I’m not sure what excellent evolutionary reasons Kleiman has in mind here.

Human beings evolved. Any theory of human nature therefore has the following constraint on it: it has to be consistent with evolutionary theory. But it is very important to see just how weak a constraint that is. An awful lot of theories about human beings are consistent with the theory that human beings evolved. This, in a nutshell, is why extrapolative evolutionary psychology gets intellectually dicey so quickly. Since so many different and incompatible theories of human nature are consistent with the fact of human evolution, the fact that we’ve evolved gives us no reason by itself to prefer any of the various theories on offer. In popular discussions, that usually means that the most cynical or crude theories get pushed on us by people who say that, sadly, they’re just following the science where it leads them. Which is a pile of steaming crap.

Of course, claiming that evolutionary theory gives us reason to believe some theory or other of human nature is often just loose talk. Extrapolative evolutionary psychology typically involves a story about the environment of evolutionary adaptation (the EEA): say, that the early human environment favoured bias towards kin, so that that tendency was gradually selected for. But then we’re not just talking about what evolutionary theory gives us reason to believe, but what evolutionary theory combined with (an often tendentious) story about early human life was like. More than that: we’re usually asked to believe in addition (an often extremely tendentious) characterization of the relevant psychological states which would have produced the relevant advantageous behaviours in the EEA. And finally, we’re often asked to believe that the relevant psychological states are hard-wired in some fairly inflexible way.

The point is not that the theories of human nature promoted in this way are false. It’s that there are an awful lot of very thorny methodological issues involved in extrapolative evolutionary psychology, and so it’s hardly surprising that we end up with an awful lot of scientific sounding just-so stories. Nor is it – or at least nor should it be – terribly surprising that we end up with an awful lot crappy scientific literature in the field that tends to basically reproduce established prejudices. The prejudices can make it very hard to even notice crucial methodological issues. Again, the prejudices might all be right in the end. But the evolutionary reasons cited for them will still be stupid, for all that.

Which is why I wonder what exactly Kleiman means when we says that we have excellent evolutionary reasons for “human males display higher variance than human females on many important traits, including measures of mental capacity.” It might be that Kleiman has something else in mind. He’s a smart guy, and I like his blog – I really hope he hasn’t been taken in by crude, unreflective, warmed-over sociobiology.

Sorry to jump on this. The whole subject just really pisses me off.

I’ve been meaning to write about this subject for a long time, and to write about it at greater length and more coherently. But Larry Summers – the bastard – has everyone talking about it, and I couldn’t resist chiming in with something a bit half-baked. If you want a serious discussion of the methodological problems in extrapolative evolutionary psychology, the best place I know to start is an obscure paper by a philosopher of science at Cornell, Richard Boyd (for whom I TAed a course in this subject). But, damn it, I’ve recently lent the paper to a friend, and can’t remember the citation. If you’re really curious, send me an email, and I’ll try harder to track it down.

UPDATE: I noticed on re-reading this that I say a few times that the prejudices might for all I say be right. I hope it’s clear that I say that in order to make a logical point – that I don’t take the methodological worries I mention to decisively refute any particular theory by themselves. But for what it’s worth I do think that the prejudices typically manifested in the scientific just-so stories are false.

Howls of outrage (3)