The women of Slate take on evolutionary psychology

I’m not a big fan of “feminist science”—the idea (promulgated by people like Evelyn Fox Keller and Sandra Harding) that women’s psychology gives them unique insights into nature and unique ways to study it.  But I am a fan of “feminist science criticism”: the idea that women can sometimes point out male biases in research strategies and in the interpretation of scientific results.  And a prime example of feminist criticism is on offer this week on Slate.  Three of its columnists have taken on evolutionary psychology, using as a springboard the Slate article by Jesse Bering that I wrote about a few days ago.

As you recall, Bering highlighted a number of “scientific” studies purporting to show that women have a genetic “rape kit”: an evolved set of behavioral modules that act only during ovulation to reduce the possibility of rape.  These behaviors include increased grip strength, avoidance of places where they’re likely to be assaulted, and increased racism (the latter is supposed to be an adaptation to avoid being raped by a member of an “outgroup”).  I questioned these results because they were based on single studies using using a small sample size of undergraduates at single American colleges.  Further, the authors neglected potential weaknesses of the work—or alternative, non-evolutionary interpretations.  (P. Z. also leveled these criticisms at Pharyngula.)

A couple of evolutionary psychologists went after me in the comments, claiming that I was tarring the field by criticizing some articles that were, after all, in the popular press.  What these critics don’t seem to realize is that many evolutionary-psychology papers themselves—papers from the primary scientific literature—are also lame, dubious, or even laughable.

And that’s what two of the Slate columnists found. They simply read the original papers.

In a post at Slate’s XX Factor, “Ovulating woman seeks better science,” Amanda Schaffer dissected the paper by Navarrete et al. (reference and link below) that purports to show that women become more racist during ovulation. I’ve now read it as well.  Schaffer points out that the authors (and Bering, who reports their results) neglect two results that go against the authors’ own hypothesis:

In the single, unreplicated study he [Bering] cites, researchers gave women several tests of racial prejudice and tried to correlate the results with their menstrual cycles. On a few measures of implicit or unconscious racial bias, they found that women who were more likely to be ovulating tended to score higher. On a measure of explicit or conscious racial bias, however, they found no link between ovulation and prejudice. Now, we could delve into the minutiae of those tests and argue about whether implicit or explicit attitudes about race matter most. But Bering doesn’t do that. He simply ignores the negative finding.

Yep, he sure does, and so do the authors of the study.  They—and Bering—also neglect the observation that there is no correlation between ovulation and fear of rape, something that should certainly be seen if racism is a result of that fear:

Meanwhile, that same study complicates his argument in another, unacknowledged way. The researchers measured women’s feelings of “vulnerability to sexual coercion” using something called the “fear of rape scale.” And they reported that women who are both more likely to be ovulating and more afraid of sexual coercion were more likely to show racial bias. But here’s the confusing part: they also looked at the more basic question of whether ovulating women were, in fact, more likely to fear rape or take measures to avoid it in the first place – and they found no connection. That would seem to be a problem for Bering. Higher up in his piece, after all, he argues that “ovulating women overestimate strange males’ probability of being rapists.” He cites a study that claims: “women perceive men as more sexually coercive at fertile points of their cycle than at non-fertile points.” This is supposed to help prove that rape-avoidance around ovulation is an evolved adaptation. Yet when another study in his grab bag turns up negative evidence, as in no link between fertility and fear of rape, he never mentions it. The study authors don’t highlight it either—it’s tucked in a data table. And they all go blithely on their story-telling way.

Do we need a layperson to tell the authors this? Why didn’t the reviewers catch it?

It’s typical of many evo-psychology studies that they simply ignore, or downplay, results that don’t support the authors’ a priori Darwinian hypothesis.  Indeed, in many ways evolutionary psychology resembles religious belief—at least in the fervor of many of its advocates and their tendency to completely ignore data that don’t support their hypothesis.

That tendency is highlighted by another Slate piece, one by the ever-thoughtful (and entertaining) Emily Yoffe, “Not that time of the month again.”  Yoffee goes after a different paper: one by Meghan Provost et al. (citation and link below) that studied changes in women’s walking gait during their menstrual cycle.  As author Provost reported in an interview with BBC news, the authors expected to find that women would walk in a “sexier” manner during ovulation, adopting the salacious hip-swinging gait made famous by Marilyn Monroe.  This prediction stemmed from previous evo-psychology studies showing that women become more attractive during ovulation, presumably to attract a mate when they’re most fertile. (These earlier studies claimed to show that men found women’s faces more attactive during ovulation than at other times; the same held for the smell of vaginal secretions.)

But what Provost et al. found was the exact opposite of their prediction.  Women walked in an “unsexier” way during ovulation, swinging their hips less and keeping their knees closer together.  And when men were asked to judge the attractiveness of women’s walks at different stages of their cycle, they found them sexier when women weren’t ovulating!  So the author’s thesis was disproved. Did that show that variations in walk during the menstrual cycle had nothing to do with ovulation? Nope, the authors simply told another story.  As Yoffe notes:

Having their thesis disproved was no obstacle for the researchers.  They just came up with an equally spurious thesis: Evolution made women want to look “unsexy” during ovulation to discourage nonpartners from raping them. Actually what the study proves is that there is no finding that won’t prove something about women and ovulation. However, I have the feeling when, say, Mongol horsemen galloped into a village they weren’t calculating, “Hmmm, that one, not so much hip swing, not going to bother to rape her!”

It’s actually worse than this.  The authors have to reconcile their finding that women’s walks are less attractive when they’re ovulating with the earlier findings that female faces and vaginal secretions are more attractive when they’re ovulating.   Provost et al.’s theory—wait for it—is that women give different signals to men at different distances.  Here’s what the authors say:

It is possible that faces and gait present different information because of the intimacy with which the stimulus is viewed. For example, faces can only be seen in a fairly close encounter, whereas gait patterns can be seen from a large distance. If women are trying to protect themselves from sexual assault at times of peak fertility, it would make sense for them to advertise attractiveness on a broad scale when they are not fertile, yet still being attractive to people they choose to be with (i.e., during face-to-face interactions).

Like the stories of the Bible, there’s no evolutionary psychology hypothesis that can be disconfirmed by data. If your story doesn’t hold up, simply concoct another story.  Of course, there’s no evidence for the alternative stories, either.

In a Slate post called “Rape likely not genetic adapation,” Amanda Marcotte is less successful in her criticisms.  Although she mentions the posts by both P.Z. and me, she also goes off the mark a bit.  For example, she says this about Bering’s article:

There’s also the weird side assumption that features prominently in many half-baked evolutionary theories, which is that sex is strictly about reproduction in a species that has homosexuality, contraception, and old people who get it on.

This is based on a misunderstanding of evolutionary psychology.  Evolution has given us orgasms as a proximate cue to reproduce: orgasms almost certainly evolved to make us want to copulate, since they provide profound pleasure associated with the act of copulation.  But using our evolved brain, we can experience that pleasure without reproducing (other animals can do this too, as you may know from visiting the zoo!) “Getting it on” as a gay, a lone masturbater, or an old person, simply takes advantage of the orgasm cue in a way that dissociates it from its evolved “purpose.” The same thing happens when we eat too much fat or sugar—we’re using cues that were adaptive in our ancestors (our taste for rare but nutritious substances) in a way that doesn’t further our reproductive output.

Marcotte also accuses Bering of being soft on rape:

Even with his disavowals, the fact remains that Bering’s article downplays the severity of rape.  It suggests that there’s not much to be done about rape and that men are just programmed to do it, and it distracts from the fact that it’s a violent act, experienced by both victim and assailant as assault.

I think this accusation is unfair, since Bering does go to great pains to say that he recognizes the severity of rape, and certainly does not say there’s nothing to be done about it. And yes, rape is a violent act, but it’s also a sexual act. Granted, some rapists use condoms, or engage in non-vaginal penetration, but there is still a sexual side to the act: the attainment of orgasm.  And orgasms were our evolved cue to reproduce.  My own theory is that rapists tend to be men with violent tendencies who use violence to both dominate women and have sex.  But that’s just a hypothesis, and I certainly do not think that rape is an evolved behavioral module in males.

At any rate, the fact that two laypeople can read papers in evolutionary psychology, and find obvious problems with them, shows that it’s not just the popular press that distorts the scientific findings. It’s the authors of the papers themselves who are lax, as behavioral biologist Marlene Zuk has pointed out in her comments on this site.

I maintain my claim that much of evolutionary psychology is scientifically weak: little more than exercises in story-telling with a thin veneer of science.  I emphasize again that not every study in the field is weak or flawed: there is some good work in evolutionary psychology.  But the field suffers in general from not only scientific lassitude, but a failure of its practitioners to police the discipline.  Many of them have an interest in selling the field (which, of course, enhances their careers), and you can’t do that if you spend your time criticizing shoddy work by your colleagues.  It’s this failure of policing that leads me—and Yoffe and Schaffer—to put on our badges and nightsticks.

___________

Navarrete, C. D., D. M. Fessler, et al. (2009). “Race bias tracks conception risk across the menstrual cycle.” Psychol. Sci. 20(6): 661-5.

Provost, M. P., V. L. Quinsey, et al. (2008). “Differences in gait across the menstrual cycle and their attractiveness to men.” Arch. Sex. Behav. 37(4): 598-604.

124 Comments

  1. Posted January 20, 2011 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    In addition to the selectivity of data reporting, it’s the uber-adaptationism that really bugs me with evo-psych. The thing about the unsexy gait is a perfect example:

    The authors expected to find women walking in a more “sexy” fashion when ovulating — not an unreasonable hypothesis by any means. So far, so good. When they found not just no correlation, but a correlation in the opposite direction of what they expected, their first reaction is “ZOMG it must be a different adaptation!” Um, no. Ignoring for a moment that it could easily have been a statistical fluke, there are plenty of possible non-adaptationist explanations for this. Just throwing a hypothesis out there: Perhaps women have evolved to “walk sexy” all the time (which we would not be surprised if it improved reproductive success, no?), and that some physical side-effect of ovulation made it more difficult to maintain the adaptive gait. Maybe a slight cramping, or some side effect to the changes that take place in the cervix, I dunno.

    Of course that hypothesis has pretty much zero evidence going for it (just like the one tossed out there by the authors), but it illustrates that there could be plenty of non-adaptationist explanations for the data. The initial hypothesis — that sexy walking during ovulation would be an adaptive trait — was perfectly reasonable, but the researchers’ certainty that, whatever the data eventually said, any trends must indicate the presence of an adaptive trait… Not so reasonable.

    • Posted January 20, 2011 at 7:56 am | Permalink

      Walk sexy while menstruating? Srsly? Of course they got the outcome they did–women walking without swaying their hips and knees together. Who wants to leak when they’re on the heavy day of their cycle?!

      • Posted January 20, 2011 at 8:04 am | Permalink

        Also–going back through Buss’ Ev Psych book, I notice that there’s a *lot* of green highlighter in there (color I used for areas that need more research). Every chapter ends with a statement about the need for more research (isn’t that true of *every* field of research?), but he shouldn’t be faulted for that. But whole sections are written that end with something like the following:

        “This is merely one study using a restricted sample of U.S. undergraduates, so no grand conclusions can be drawn. Certainly, it would be useful to replicate this study in different cultures.”

        Which is fine, as far as it goes, except that it comes after a couple of paragraphs of…grand conclusions. Hmmmm…

      • Dominic
        Posted January 20, 2011 at 8:06 am | Permalink

        Yes, perhaps this really is a case where we should write about what we know – so a bloke should be very careful drawing conclusions about female behaviour – ?

        Also another case for distinguishing between the behaviour of a child (‘unthinking’/’instinctive’ to recall a post in the autumn when JC was away) & an adult. The ‘instinctive’ being more likely explained by Evolutionary Psychology than the behaviour of the adult. (I refer here to humans & our learned behaviour rather than animals.)

      • Grzegorz
        Posted January 20, 2011 at 8:25 am | Permalink

        Ovulating, not menstruating.

      • MadScientist
        Posted January 20, 2011 at 9:42 am | Permalink

        since when was ovulating = menstruating?

        • Dominic
          Posted January 20, 2011 at 10:13 am | Permalink

          Ah – yes…

        • Helen Wise
          Posted January 20, 2011 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

          far as I know, that would be seldom to never.

          Pardon. Was I stating the obvious again? It’s one of my worst faults.

    • Posted January 20, 2011 at 8:06 am | Permalink

      Marcotte’s criticisms are a really disappointment, though. That stuff really drives me nuts. The confusion of “is” with an “ought” continues to distract from the real problems of evolutionary psychology. If you think that it’s sexist to suggest that natural selection might contribute to gender inequality, that there’s no way an adaptive trait could give the female of the species the shaft, allow me to introduce you to the reproductive habits of Cimex lectularius. Obviously that’s an extreme example, and the relatively moderate degree of sexual dimorphism in our species suggests that we are unlikely to see a huge amount of evolved behavior contributing to gender inequality — but then again, it would be sort of surprising if we didn’t see any.

      I absolutely believe that there are evolved tendencies in both male and female brains that contribute to patriarchal dominance. (I would be loathe to point to a specific instance, wanting to avoid falling prey to the “just-so” stories of evo-psychologists… but the relative paucity of matriarchal societies throughout history, as well as the sexual dimorphism we see in humans together with the social structures of other primates with a similar amount of dimorphism… I feel pretty confident in this conclusion).

      We also, with our big ethical brains, know that patriarchy is morally wrong. So the takeaway for me from realizing that there are probably naturally selected traits that contribute to it is not to shrug and say, “Oh well, nothing to be done. It’s the way God — er, uh, Darwin — made me!” — rather, the takeaway is that we, both as individuals and as a society, should devote even more effort to promoting gender equality and discouraging gender-based discrimination than we otherwise would.

      If men had an evolved rape module (and I agree with Jerry that there is basically no evidence for this, and the hypothesis seems rather superfluous and somewhat preposterous, but let’s just take it as a hypothetical) then the conclusion would not be, “Those nasty sociobiologists are trying to downplay rape!” Instead, the conclusion would be “We need to devote even more effort than we already are into rape prevention.”

      • Posted January 20, 2011 at 8:15 am | Permalink

        Agreed–and well said!

        (sorry to bring this up again–but I can *not* get over that study done on walking gait during menstruation. And it was done by a *woman*, for pete’s sake–does she not ever get back pains, girl-part pains, cramping, leg pains, stomach aches, tired? Considerate Mr. Sweet up there thought of cramping right away–why didn’t they, as the obvious solution to the actual results they got?)

        • Posted January 20, 2011 at 8:21 am | Permalink

          Considerate Mr. Sweet up there thought of cramping right away–why didn’t they, as the obvious solution to the actual results they got?

          Two words: Future funding.

        • Posted January 20, 2011 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

          It’s strange that you continually use this as a criticism. As others pointed out, ovulation does not equal menstruation.

          Thankfully, the woman who did the study understood this important difference.

      • Dominic
        Posted January 20, 2011 at 8:16 am | Permalink

        Yes – we are the product of a long evolutionary process while ‘cultures’ are comparatively new (unless we include the types of chimpanzee ‘cultures perhaps) – & what we are really talking about is nature v. nuture, I would say? However it is but one step from the sublime to the ridiculous so any study that draws conclusions like this needs to be very rigorous & comprehensive.

        I would add James that when you say there is a “relative paucity of matriarchal societies throughout history” – that is so as far as we know, but what is less clear is the situation in prehistory.

        • Posted January 20, 2011 at 8:42 am | Permalink

          I would add James that when you say there is a “relative paucity of matriarchal societies throughout history” – that is so as far as we know, but what is less clear is the situation in prehistory.

          Fair enough — though my understanding is that in anthropology, it’s general considered fair play to make inferences about prehistoric societies based on modern hunter-gatherers who have remained isolated.

          It’s worth exploring this point further. I am not an expert on any of this crap, but it’s my rough understanding that if you look at modern hunter-gatherer societies, there are many which are less brutally patriarchal than, say, the Romans (or pick whatever powerful historical civilization you want), and even a handful of explicitly matriarchal societies. So I’m really only talking trends here.

          Now I venture into the territory of wild speculation: It seems to me that civilization provided/provides a means for the patriarchy of consolidating power. This would explain why we see some hunter-gatherer societies that are relatively egalitarian in regards to gender, whereas we see absolutely no examples of this whatsoever among historical empires and nations up until very recent history. And it doesn’t seem unreasonable: history abounds with examples of those with a little bit of power wielding it in order to consolidate it into a lot of power. We are seeing it right here, right now in the plutocratic aspects of American society and governance.

          I’m telling a bit of a “just-so” story here, I admit. It’s conceivable — though I’d be rather surprised — that all other things being equal it’s a 50/50 chance between patriarchy and matriarchy, and by pure historical accident a couple of extreme patriarchal societies rose to power.

          To me, though, the idea that there is nothing in the evolved behavior of Homo sapiens that contributes to a tendency towards male dominance smacks of human exceptionalism. True, there are some primate species (I am made to understand many lemur species are included here?) which display virtually no sexual dimorphism, and where the sexes are pretty much interchangeable in all regards except the reproductive act. But that’s not the case for primates that display any amount of sexual dimorphism, nor is it the case for the vast majority of sexual species on the planet (though it’s true that in some species, it is the males who get the evolutionary short end of the stick — but none to which we are closely related). To me, the simplest explanation for the shocking and shameful treatment of women throughout history is an evolved tendency towards male dominance, combined with an aggressive and sustained power grab by the patriarchy. I don’t think we can do what it takes to put things right unless we are willing to acknowledge both sides of that coin.

          • Posted January 20, 2011 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

            though it’s true that in some species, it is the males who get the evolutionary short end of the stick — but none to which we are closely related

            Bonobos?

          • jose
            Posted January 20, 2011 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

            Our two closest species, chimps and bonobos, are hugely different with respect to dominance and sex.

            Then you have gorillas, the next most related species after chimps and bonobos. Gorillas are also hugely different to chimpanzees and bonobos and humans with respect to dominance and sex.

            Things are always more complicated than that.

            “To me, the simplest explanation for the shocking and shameful treatment of women throughout history is an evolved tendency towards male dominance”

            Evidenceless claim.

            To me, the simplest explanation for the shocking and shameful treatment of blacks throughout history is an evolved tendency towards white dominance. How do you like that?

            Here’s a simpler explanation: males are bigger and stronger because we have inherited that difference from our ancestors, the same way we have inherited our armpit hair. Then, the stronger ones saw the opportunity to take power through violence, and they did it, because being the one in charge has a lot of advantages over being the oppresed one. Then, they made shit up about the innate inferiority of the losers to justify themselves. And they have never been defeated ever since. No need for evolutionary tendencies.

            • maryellen
              Posted January 21, 2011 at 9:20 am | Permalink

              Physical strength is obviously a factor in male-male dominance/competition, but there is no evidence it has anything to do with the subjugation of women. Evidence is strong that prehistoric societies were generally egalitiarian. The forces involved in the rise of patriarchy are sociological not evolutionary.

          • Diane G.
            Posted January 22, 2011 at 9:43 pm | Permalink

            James Sweet, I’ve always seen it exactly like that and couldn’t agree more with both this and your earlier, related post.

            Accepting an evolutionaty “is” is the first step to rationally deciding which steps we “ought” to take before evolution catches up (if ever) with modern social realities, such as the lesser need for brute strength and the greater need for intellectual investigations involving contributions from all stakeholders or their advocates…

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted January 25, 2011 at 3:01 am | Permalink

          “‘cultures’ are comparatively new (unless we include the types of chimpanzee ‘cultures perhaps)”
          But if we do, the parsimonious tree would be that cultures is a trait that goes back at least 6 My, no!? Meanwhile, chimps started to knuckle walk and humans evolved obligatory bipedalism, et cetera. Considering that culture couple heavily into sexual behavior, it would be very surprising if not the small difference there is has lead to some evolved traits.

      • maryellen
        Posted January 20, 2011 at 10:23 am | Permalink

        “I absolutely believe that there are evolved tendencies in both male and female brains that contribute to patriarchal dominance.”

        Patriarchal dominance emerged from the natural division of labor which existed in primitive societies due to sexual dimorphism. Primitive societies are/were generally egalitarian, but there is/was a definite division of labor – men hunted, women took care of the children and the house, etc. When hunting gave over to herding, men became the owners of this new kind of property – men controlled the wealth. This is where patriarchal dominance has its roots. It’s unclear to me how differences in brain structure might tie in to this.

        • Posted January 20, 2011 at 10:32 am | Permalink

          When I read back my comment right after I posted it, I wished I had not used “brains” in that phrase. I meant behavior, but of course behavior is not purely a function of brains, as you point out — it can result indirectly from an expression of a physical characteristic, as in your example.

        • wh
          Posted January 20, 2011 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

          I personally suspect patriarchies emerged because dominance is inherently more rewarding to males than it is to females in terms of reproduction. This was likely exasperated by factors such as you’ve described.

          • Posted January 20, 2011 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

            I think you meant “exacerbated”, although it is exasperating!

          • Diane G.
            Posted January 22, 2011 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

            Yes. I suspect it arose as the best insurance males had for knowing that the offspring they were raising were indeed their own.

    • Tyro
      Posted January 20, 2011 at 8:59 am | Permalink

      In addition to the selectivity of data reporting, it’s the uber-adaptationism that really bugs me with evo-psych

      You’d think that by incorporating “evolution” into the name of their field they would at least have a cursory understanding of modern evolution.

      I’m just a layperson but I know that not all features of an organism are an adaptation, and I know that selection is just one of many mechanisms of evolution.

    • Frank
      Posted January 20, 2011 at 10:55 am | Permalink

      All of the points in the original post are good ones, but a failure of practioners to police the discipline is true to a lesser degree in other areas of science (I can think of community ecology in 70s as an example). And this failure likely occurs for some of the same reasons noted in the original post. The relative newness of evolutionary psychology probably contributes to the fact that some of its practitioners are not sufficiently familiar with genetic mechanisms and constraints, and therefore become especially prone to arm-chair, adaptive story-telling hypotheses for human behavior. Maybe I am a little hesitant to castigate the entire field because I remember the excessive, almost knee-jerk criticisms leveled at ‘sociobiology’ in the 70s by otherwise brilliant minds (Gould, Lewontin, Levins, etc.). In retrospect, some of the early sociobiological studies were ALSO sloppy or unreplicated, and failed to consider non-adaptive alternative hypotheses. But you could also argue that many of the criticisms back then were way too harsh.

      • Diane G.
        Posted January 22, 2011 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

        Not to mention, ultimately, political.

        • Marco DG
          Posted January 23, 2011 at 6:27 am | Permalink

          Diane: criticism *back then* may have been too harsh and ultimately political, but of course, criticism *right now* can’t be. What we hear today is just an objective, informed, even-handed call for scientific rigor. Nothing like the criticism by Lewontin and others in the seventies and eighties. These guys insisted they were making… oh wait… an objecive, informed, even-handed call for scientific rigor. Woops.

          • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
            Posted January 25, 2011 at 3:13 am | Permalink

            You are equating without evidence.

            Speaking of which, I believe that a) calling out “over-adaptionism” when observed b) demanding actual evidence and testing of _any_ case in any area _is_ objective, informed and even-handed.

  2. Dominic
    Posted January 20, 2011 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    A fair analysis, & too true that we like to have stories to explain things – a “narrative fallacy” (see Nassim Nicholas Taleb http://www.fooledbyrandomness.com/blackswanglossary.htm )… just as long as we do not throw out the Evolutionary Psychology baby with the Evolutionary Psychology bathwater!

    • Posted January 20, 2011 at 8:06 am | Permalink

      Stories are so easy to remember, too…much easier to remember than all those pesky graphs and numbers…

      *And* they can be turned into sound-bites!

      • Tulse
        Posted January 20, 2011 at 9:07 am | Permalink

        Stories are so easy to remember, too…much easier to remember than all those pesky graphs and numbers…

        Stories are especially good for girls, since they are naturally bad at math.

        • TheBear
          Posted January 20, 2011 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

          Especially if you ask them if they are good or bad at math. And remind them that they are girls and girls are supposed to be bad at maths. You don’t want to be one of the horrible man-girls do you? Or one of those awful out-group lesbians?

          (Disclaimer: Actually testing people in a gender-neutral setting might lead to different results. But of course there’s no use in sullying important EP research with such consideration.)

          • Lucette Smoes
            Posted January 20, 2011 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

            I am (or maybe was) good at math.

        • Lucette Smoes
          Posted January 25, 2011 at 11:29 am | Permalink

          Yuck!

  3. AT
    Posted January 20, 2011 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    Jerry wrote:

    “I maintain my claim that much of evolutionary psychology is scientifically weak: little more than exercises in story-telling with a thin veneer of science.”

    i would argue that most social sciences or “soft sciences” do not deserve to be named “science”

    mankind evolved out of ignorance and continues to experience fresh injections of ignorance with each generation – newborns have the brain capable of learning but they know nothing

    most of the institutions of mankind are institutions of ignorance that have thousands of years of self perpertuating

    hard science only has a few hundreds of years and does not have any proper institution that would guarantee people exposed to it to become hard scientists

    it is the fact of life that a person is first exposed to institutions of ignorance and learns to regurgitate the ignorant opinions of previous generations

    if the critical thinking is not developed in a person over formative years it is not possible for that person to see thru institutionalized ignorance and become a proper scientists

    in fact most of the people who practise science are not scientists in a strict sence because they hold beliefs incompartible with science

    conclusion:

    institutionalized ignorance will continue to be defining force in everything human until the time the scientists who understand this chose to work on building a proper institutions of science that would be based on the understanding of evolutionary origins of human condition

    • Helen Wise
      Posted January 20, 2011 at 9:03 am | Permalink

      “i would argue that most social sciences or “soft sciences” do not deserve to be named “science””

      You could argue it, but it would be useful if you provided an example.

      • AT
        Posted January 20, 2011 at 9:12 am | Permalink

        i can provide an example and an argument

        this would be an undertaking of certain length and depth that is not suitable for this forum

        if you are still interested in such discussion we can do it off site

        • Posted January 20, 2011 at 11:09 am | Permalink

          Certainly, because your email address will be a cinch to find. Just google “AT” – no problema.

          • AT
            Posted January 20, 2011 at 11:49 am | Permalink

            i once posted at your batterflies blog – my post went unnoticed :)

            we can always arrange a meeting and have a disccussion if there is an interest

            • TheBear
              Posted January 20, 2011 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

              So, from the position that “I have an argument – I really do, I just can’t forward it here” you want someone to arrange a meeting?

              If it was me who got the invitation I would schedule it right about when Ken Ham starts talking sense…

              • AT
                Posted January 20, 2011 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

                TheBear,

                if my original post is not enticing enough for you to follow up outside of this forum there is no need for me to digress here on a lengthy discussion that first would require to come to common definition of many terms such as “science” and “social science” to name a few

                this is not the place for such discussion

              • TheBear
                Posted January 20, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

                A one-line, unsubstantiated opinion could never be enticing except to highly qualified idiots.

                If you have some special definition of both science or social science that requires a lengthy explanation, you should really not be talking about them at all. Not without actually giving the definitions first at least.

              • Posted January 20, 2011 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

                I found the “batterflies” thing to be the most enticing thing about AT. Indeed. Failure to do even the most basic proofreading. Yay!

                Also, capital letters at the beginning of sentences… they are your friend.

                (Important note: Misspellings and formatting problems do not invalidate an argument, I grant. But AT’s dangling of “I am so enticing, follow up with me!” is so funny, I’m just going to mock her/him in whatever way I see possible, even if it’s not entirely “fair”.)

              • Diane G.
                Posted January 22, 2011 at 10:03 pm | Permalink

                To me, many of AT’s points sounded defensible, and I agree that the question of whether “social sciences” as a whole deserve the name science is worth talking about while also being a huge discusion and only tangential to the matter of hand.

                It also seems to me that quibbling about mispellings, grammar goofs, and the like are not always warranted if a post sounds otherwise well-intentioned; often times there are hints that English is not a poster’s first language, for instance. And the lack of caps and certain punctuation marks is often the result of having to post from phones or other keyboard-challenged objects.

                This medium is still regarded as being rather like having a conversation, if I’m not mistaken, something that generally tends to be more informal than published writing, e.g.

  4. Posted January 20, 2011 at 8:20 am | Permalink

    My problem — the elephant-size problem — is with “Slate Science.”

    • Tulse
      Posted January 20, 2011 at 8:38 am | Permalink

      Well, it’s not the Huffington Post…

  5. Tyro
    Posted January 20, 2011 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    the fact that two laypeople can read papers in evolutionary psychology, and find obvious problems with them, shows that it’s not just the popular press that distorts the scientific findings

    I’ve seen how laypeople can find “obvious problems” with even solid results. What’s key and disturbing is that the laypeople are finding obvious valid problems.

  6. daveau
    Posted January 20, 2011 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    I’m sorry. What time of month do women prefer to be raped? I can’t find that part.

    I know that if there was a measurable difference, that this might be a legitimate study. Or even if they concluded that there was no measurable difference. However, since they’re just letting their imaginations run wild, maybe they should STFU.

    • Helen Wise
      Posted January 20, 2011 at 9:06 am | Permalink

      Completely agree. Very well put.

  7. Jimbo
    Posted January 20, 2011 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    But Jerry, haven’t men “taken on” evolutionary psychology? I don’t understand the gender bias still present in your distinction. I seems that scientists are taking on EP regardless of their reproductive equipment and rightly so.

    I fail to see why a female scientist should receive special accolades other than encouraging women (vocal ones too!) in science in general.

    • Sal Bro
      Posted January 20, 2011 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

      The key phrase is “the idea that women can sometimes point out male biases in research strategies and in the interpretation of scientific results”.

      Evo psych is particularly prone to bias (gender, racial, economic) due to its reliance on storytelling, which draws heavily from personal experience. Women are in a position to more easily recognize male biases that creep into such storytelling. That makes criticism of evo psych by women, and especially on a topic that affects women exclusively (ovulation), especially valuable.

      Your comment resembles some common criticisms of affirmative action.

  8. James Book
    Posted January 20, 2011 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    You Wrote:
    “I maintain my claim that much of evolutionary psychology is scientifically weak: little more than exercises in story-telling with a thin veneer of science. I emphasize again that not every study in the field is weak or flawed: there is some good work in evolutionary psychology. But the field suffers in general from not only scientific lassitude, but a failure of its practitioners to police the discipline. Many of them have an interest in selling the field (which, of course, enhances their careers), and you can’t do that if you spend your time criticizing shoddy work by your colleagues. It’s this failure of policing that leads me—and Yoffe and Schaffer—to put on our badges and nightsticks.”

    This reminds me of the issues of “putting Statin drugs in the water supply” and “the Lipid Hypothesis” about “Artery clogging Fats being a major cause of cardiac deaths” in clinical cardiology.

    “I maintain my claim that much of cardiology is scientifically weak: little more than exercises in story-telling with weak oor cherry picked data with a thin veneer of science. I emphasize again that not every study in the field is weak or flawed: there is some good work in cardiology. But the field suffers in general from not only scientific lassitude, but a failure of its practitioners to police the discipline. Many of them have an interest in selling the field (which, of course, enhances their careers), and you can’t do that if you spend your time criticizing shoddy work by your colleagues. It’s this failure of policing that leads a few bold critics to put on their badges and nightsticks and publish articles and books on the “Cholesterol Scam”. “

  9. Kevin
    Posted January 20, 2011 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    I think you might have gone off the rails just a bit with your claim that rapists use rape as a method to orgasm.

    The research shows that about half of rapists do not ejaculate — either through erectile dysfunction (impotence) or ejaculatory dysfunction. Only about 1/3 of rapes involve ejaculation into an orifice.

    Therefore, it appears that for a large proportion of rapists, it’s about the power, not about the sex.

    However, if we go to the crux of the argument — that women have a “tool kit” to prevent rape during ovulation — then the statistics are damning. According to the DOJ, the pregnancy rate as a result of rape is about 4.7%, which is pretty much the rate of pregnancy as a result of any sexual encounter – consensual or not. Which means that if there is an evolutionarily adapted rape “tool kit”, it’s a piss poor one.

    • Posted January 20, 2011 at 10:06 am | Permalink

      Perhaps this can be explained by the way in which power and sex have been traditionally interchangeable in patriarchal societies. Much of abnormal psychology is rooted in compensatory behavior to manage a perceived lack of control over one’s environment — rape being a way to dimish the threat of fragmentation in regards to a constructed gendered psyche.

    • Tulse
      Posted January 20, 2011 at 10:07 am | Permalink

      Which means that if there is an evolutionarily adapted rape “tool kit”, it’s a piss poor one.

      No no no, you misunderstand, this must be further evidence of some compensatory “rape fertilization adaptation” by males, as part of the “rape evolutionary arms race”.

      I see a long and lucrative research program….

      • Kevin
        Posted January 20, 2011 at 10:16 am | Permalink

        Ah yes, how silly of me not to recognize it.

    • Sal Bro
      Posted January 20, 2011 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

      According to the DOJ, the pregnancy rate as a result of rape is about 4.7%, which is pretty much the rate of pregnancy as a result of any sexual encounter – consensual or not.

      But if an individual has a near-0% chance of having consensual sexual encounter (perhaps because of qualities related to being a rapist), 4.7% is a big improvement.

      • Kevin
        Posted January 20, 2011 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

        That doesn’t appear to be the case, either.

        The majority of rapists are known to the woman in question. The vast majority of rapists engage in consensual intercourse (including, of course, paying for it via prostitution — legal or otherwise).

        The picture of a rapist as an angry, violent loner/loser who can’t get a date and who therefore resorts to rape because he has no other recourse to sexual intercourse is a strawman.

        • Sal Bro
          Posted January 20, 2011 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

          It’s a strawman if it’s applied to all or most rapists, which I didn’t do. You’re correct to point out that this doesn’t apply for most rapists, though–I should have said that.

    • Marco DG
      Posted January 23, 2011 at 5:43 am | Permalink

      In fact there is some evidence suggesting that, for whatever reason, rape may indeed result in a higher likelihood of conception. Just for the record.

      See:

      http://www.springerlink.com/content/wp5cnp43k6byxj4d/

      see also this:

      http://www.ajog.org/article/S0002-9378%2896%2970141-2/

      and this:

      http://www.rbej.com/content/8/1/53

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted January 25, 2011 at 4:56 am | Permalink

        Well, the first article confirms the ~ 5 % outcome on older statistics,and use their own statistic there penile insertion is necessary for defining “rape”.

        [Here in Sweden any forced sexual behavior is rape.]

        They exclude a high number of unsuccessful rape by definition.

        • Marco DG
          Posted January 26, 2011 at 12:34 am | Permalink

          I don’t get your point. You don’t need statistics to know that the likelihood of conception is zero when there is no insertion, rape or not. The informative comparison here is between rape with insertion and non-rape intercourse with insertion. The frequency of “successful” vs. “unsuccessful” rape is another question (though a loegitimate and interesting one).

  10. MadScientist
    Posted January 20, 2011 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    “It’s typical of many evo-psychology studies that they simply ignore, or downplay, results that don’t support the authors’ a priori Darwinian hypothesis.”

    That’s funny – that’s exactly what I’ve been telling people the past 4 or 5 years. Personally I’ve found that trying to reason with a True Believer is futile – where I see no connection whatsoever, they see an Obvious Truth. It’s almost like trying to explain to a christian that his god doesn’t exist.

    • Diane G.
      Posted January 22, 2011 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

      + 1

  11. jose
    Posted January 20, 2011 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    Could someone direct me to the book or article where Evelyn Fox Keller defends women’s unique insights in science? It’s not a rethorical question, I’m genuinely interested.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted January 20, 2011 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

      I believe that is the thesis underlying Keller’s biography of the geneticist Barbara McClintock. It’s called “A Feeling for the Organism.” As I recall, Keller’s view was that McClintock’s gender gave her a unique perspective on her organism, leading to the discovery of transposable genetic elements.

      • jose
        Posted January 20, 2011 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

        Thank you Dr. Coyne.

      • Marlene Zuk
        Posted January 20, 2011 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

        I really appreciate the shout-out here (or I guess I do, given the contentious topic). But Keller and other “feminist scientists” don’t all simply suggest that women’s unique sensibilities give rise to a different way of doing science. There is a large and varied literature in feminism and science, with lots of different perspectives. And the McClintock bio isn’t arguing that she had a unique perspective because of being a woman, just that her “feeling for the organism” was a different way of gaining insight into scientific processes, one that she later used with standard scientific methodology.

        At the risk of too much self-aggrandizement, I wrote a book several years ago, “Sexual Selections: What We Can and Can’t Learn About Sex from Animals”, in which I tried to steer a path between my scientist colleagues who were surprised that I thought biases about gender deeply influence science (with EP studies providing some good examples) and my feminist colleagues who had a recoil response of “science is a tool of the patriarchy.” It’s certainly possible that as is sometimes the case, I tried to please everyone and ended up offending them instead. But it got a good review in the NYT if you want to check it out without reading the whole boook.

        • Diane G.
          Posted January 22, 2011 at 10:36 pm | Permalink

          That sounds well worth reading, and I wish you hadn’t been so reluctant to include links. (Just because I’m lazy. :D I think, though, that I can rise to the effort required to cut and paste…)

  12. Sal Bro
    Posted January 20, 2011 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    My biggest suspicion about the quality of these particular evo psych studies is that womens’ “fertile window” is rather large and notoriously difficult to pin down based on the (remembered) date of the last menstrual period (the “forward-counting method” that many of these studies seem to use). This further reduces the reliability of any correlation data that are based on the fertile window.

    For example, paper that examined the fertile window found

    In only about 30% of women is the fertile window entirely within the days of the menstrual cycle identified by clinical guidelines—that is, between days 10 and 17.

    (Ironically, this paper was cited in the Bröder & Hohmann paper that examined risk-taking behavior [cited in the Slate article], but the researchers still chose to use an even narrower fertile window of 13-17 days.)

  13. Scott
    Posted January 20, 2011 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    Wow, the racial bias study could be involve any number of adaptive responses, or even just unintended side effects, yet they choose to pin it on rape. It’s sad that EP is so quick to label behaviors as specifically adaptive on such scant evidence. =/ That could just as easily be the result of heightened oxytocin during ovulation, which has also been shown to increase “ethnocentrism” in males. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2011/01/06/1015316108.full.pdf+html

    • Marco DG
      Posted January 23, 2011 at 5:53 am | Permalink

      This is what the authors of the study actually said: (p. 664, emphasis mine):

      “These results *suggest* that *at least some facets* of modern race bias are *by-products* of an evolved system predisposing women to avoid persons and situations perceived as dangerous, particularly when costs are high. [...] The results described here *are not sufficient to distinguish* whether basic categorization, social transmission, or both processes are operative in producing greater race bias when fertility rises. *Further work is necessary to more fully understand the mechanistic processes* underlying this effect.”

      I’m always amazed (and fascinated) at how people feel entitled to criticize a study without even reading it, provided the authors and/or discipline are perceived as morally tainted.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted January 25, 2011 at 5:01 am | Permalink

        The last part is called “efficiency”.

        • Marco DG
          Posted January 26, 2011 at 12:38 am | Permalink

          I see. OK, I’ll stop bothering with you. Have fun.

  14. jose
    Posted January 20, 2011 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    “female faces and vaginal secretions are more attractive when they’re ovulating.”

    Hmmm. What?

  15. JdL
    Posted January 20, 2011 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    I’m not going to take issue with Coyne’s take on the scientific papers cited (haven’t read them), but I would like to take issue with his general approach.

    Jerry: “I maintain my claim that much of evolutionary psychology is scientifically weak: little more than exercises in story-telling with a thin veneer of science. I emphasize again that not every study in the field is weak or flawed: there is some good work in evolutionary psychology. But the field suffers in general from not only scientific lassitude, but a failure of its practitioners to police the discipline. Many of them have an interest in selling the field (which, of course, enhances their careers), and you can’t do that if you spend your time criticizing shoddy work by your colleagues.”

    These empirical claims are sweeping generalizations, presented without any bet-hedging. The EP literature is huge, so citing a few examples of questionable studies cannot establish Coyne’s conclusions. Any field can be tarred using a look-for-poor-studies method. This does not prove him wrong of course, but it does suggest that his critique does not satisfy the evidential standards he is (rightly)demanding of others.

    Coyne criticizes others for using biased samples (see his last post on EP). But his critique of EP, on this blog at least, is based on highlighting articles that were specifically selected for being crap.

    If Coyne wants to argue that more bad studies (assuming for the sake of argument that these are bad papers, since I haven’t read them) get published in EP – a hypothesis that at present has the status of just-because-Coyne-says-so story) – he’ll have to do better than merely assert it. You know, maybe do some science to test a strong empirical claim.

    It should also be noted that the combined Google scholar references to the two studies critiqued above amount to a grand total of SEVEN, including one self-reference and several non-EP references. In other words, ‘The Women of Slate Take on Evolutionary Psychology’ by trashing two papers (no less!) that have been completely ignored by evolutionary psychologists, that have had literally zero impact on the field. A damning indictment indeed.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted January 20, 2011 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

      Sorry, but the studies weren’t selected for being crap; they were selected because Jesse Bering cited them–approvingly!–as exemplars of research on evolutionary psychology.
      And even if they’ve been ignored by others in EP, they’ve sure gotten a fair amount of press.

      And, as Marlene Zuk noted, there are many other studies of this ilk.

      • JdL
        Posted January 20, 2011 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

        I was talking about the evidence required to support your sweeping generalizations about the quality of the EP literature. Attacking a handful of studies – whether or not Bering cites them approvingly – cannot establish such a conclusion. And ‘Zuk said so’ is not an argument. Again, I am not disputing your claim as such, just questioning the evidentiary basis adduced to support it.

        Also, while you say that good work is possible and being done in EP, that you are not opposed to evolutionary psychology as such, and say that your criticisms are intended to be constructive, I can’t remember ever reading a favorable discussion of an EP paper on your blog (which I generally enjoy btw).

        To show some good will towards the ‘good’ evolutionary psychologists, it would be much appreciated if you could discuss some work in EP that you do approve of.

    • JdL
      Posted January 20, 2011 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

      Also, Archives of Sexual Behavior is not an EP journal and Psychological Science is a general empirical psychology journal, so we have no reason to assume that any of the referees were evolutionary psychologists.

      • whyevolutionistrue
        Posted January 20, 2011 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

        If the problems with these papers were evident to journalists, they should certainly be evident to reviewers! And the subject of both papers is certainly evolutionary psychology.

        • JdL
          Posted January 20, 2011 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

          The point I intended to make by pointing this was about quality control in EP. You complain about a lack of self-policing by the EP community, and I just wanted to make the point that there is no indication that the EP community had an opportunity to police before publication in these two instances.

          • Davros
            Posted January 22, 2011 at 12:29 am | Permalink

            Except that the journals in question should have sent the papers out to review by experts in the field (i.e. evolutionary psychologists).

            • JdL
              Posted January 23, 2011 at 5:53 am | Permalink

              “Should have,” but did they? We don’t know and the point stands.

            • Marco DG
              Posted January 23, 2011 at 5:59 am | Permalink

              I agree, they should. But, at least in my personal experience and that of my colleagues, this rarely happens. Quite often, a psychological paper based on evolutionary theory will go out to reviewers that are unfamiliar with both EP and evolutionary biology.

            • Marco DG
              Posted January 23, 2011 at 6:55 am | Permalink

              Note: I’m not implying that there *has* been a problem with quality control with respect to these papers. As I detail in comment #21, the Navarrete et al. paper is actually pretty good, and the results are solid. I haven’t read the one by Provost & Quinsey yet, so I can’t comment on it.

              • JdL
                Posted January 23, 2011 at 10:44 am | Permalink

                To be sure, my criticisms were aimed at Coyne’s general approach to evaluating EP, which I find objectionable. They are independent of the actual quality of the papers discussed (which I haven’t read).

  16. Posted January 20, 2011 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    Actually, I don’t disagree that violence is an evolved trait. Where I get off the train is people who try to argue that rape is a specifically evolved reproductive strategy. That basically recasts a rapist as just really horny and not as someone trying to hurt and dominate his victim, which research shows is usually the case. It decouples rape from other violent behaviors. But in the real world, rapists tend to be more violent *overall*. It’s best understood as violence that uses sex instead of punching as a weapon. Yes, it’s “sexual”, in the sense that the sex is the weapon. But that’s sort of like saying punching someone is just a really forceful pat.

  17. Luke
    Posted January 20, 2011 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    Just me the “troll” again, been awhile.

    This piece caught my eye and made me want to possibly tweak Jerry a bit by posting from S.J. Gould’s, New York Review of Books (since mentioned in following post), essay “Darwinian Fundamentalism.” It’s some of the wording Jerry used that fostered the memory and how vitriolic Gould’s critics became which gave rise to quite the monumental essay to which he at times used their own words to decimate them.

    First, as far as I know, it’s been some time, though this I remember as correct – “Gould and Lewontin borrowed the term “Just So Stories” from a children’s book by Rudyard Kipling by the same title, in which he concocted fictional explanations for why different animals have different features.

    Gould – “Evolutionary psychology could, in my view, become a fruitful science by replacing its current penchant for narrow, and often barren, speculation with respect for the pluralistic range of available alternatives that are just as evolutionary in status, more probable in actual occurrence, and not limited to the blinkered view that evolutionary explanations must identify adaptation produced by natural selection.”

    And of course the reference to “theological fervor” – and yes, you know he had Pinker in mind here too.

    Gould – “The irony of this situation is twofold. First, as illustrated by the quotation above, Darwin himself strongly opposed the ultras of his own day. (In one sense, this nicety of history should not be relevant to modern concerns; maybe Darwin was overcautious, and modern ultras therefore out-Darwin Darwin for good reason. But since the modern ultras push their line with an almost theological fervor, and since the views of founding fathers do matter in religion, though supposedly not in science, Darwin’s own fierce opposition does become a factor in judgment.) Second, the invigoration of modern evolutionary biology with exciting nonselectionist and nonadaptationist data from the three central disciplines of population genetics, developmental biology, and paleontology (see examples below) makes our pre-millennial decade an especially unpropitious time for Darwinian fundamentalism—and seems only to reconfirm Darwin’s own eminently sensible pluralism.”

    • gillt
      Posted January 20, 2011 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

      Is this Luke Vogel from The Intersection? If so, I’d like to caution anyone against engaging you because you are unhinged, and if you aren’t that person please disregard.

  18. Posted January 20, 2011 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    “I maintain my claim that much of evolutionary psychology is scientifically weak: little more than exercises in story-telling with a thin veneer of science. I emphasize again that not every study in the field is weak or flawed: there is some good work in evolutionary psychology.”

    What is some of the work that you consider good? As someone else said,
    not rhetorical–genuinely interested.

  19. Mrnaglfar
    Posted January 21, 2011 at 12:26 am | Permalink

    One quick comment; this is an important idea, so let it sink in fully:

    There is no such thing as “non-evolutionary” psychology.

    Psychology is biology. Any psychological trait in question – adaptation or byproduct or otherwise – has an evolutionary history behind it. Whether you want to consider it adaptation or not, you’re bound to “just-so” stories (for instance, what adaptations are represented in a byproduct). There are just some of those stories that are more correct than others.

    The only difference between “evolutionary” psychology and other fields that do not explicitly consider evolution is that evolutionary psychology actually has a unifying theory behind it. It’s just a research paradigm; a way of thinking about what questions to ask. Without evolution, psychology research flounders for any real explanation. It would be like trying to study any other field of biology without evolution.

    Each time I see you try to cover evolutionary psychology – be in on your blog or in your otherwise excellent book – you really do a piss-poor job of it. The Bering article deserves criticism (for instance, Palmer proposes that rape is a byproduct and wrote a series of good articles on that point, yet Bering lumps him in with Thornhill as proposing rape is an adaptation in men), as does plenty of research in psychology (whether explicitly evolutionary or not), but you go beyond your facts to try and tar a whole field of research that you don’t seem to understand as being substantially worse than other comparable fields, in this case by citing two whole papers that appear to have been widely ignored.

  20. Marco DG
    Posted January 21, 2011 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    I read the Navarrete & Fessler paper, too, and I strongly disagree with the harsh evaluation offered by Coyne and the Slate columnists. The two supposedly glaring “weaknesses” of the paper both turn out to be red herrings on closer examination.

    1) The correlation with conception risk was significant for 4 out of 5 measures of race bias (r from .25 to .40). The marginally non-significant correlation with explicit race bias (p=.08) was very similar in magnitude (.20). One should keep in mind that the statistical power of the study is not very high (N=77), so a certain rate of false negatives in multiple tests is to be expected. This is definitely *not* strong evidence against the hypothesis – again, 4 out of 5 measures significantly correlated with conception risk.
    Moreover, each measure of bias carries some amount of measurement error; in particular, the reliability of explicit race bias (the non-significant variable) is not very high (alpha=.69), and this will predictably reduce its correlations with other variables. It would make more sense to create a composite bias variable to increase overall reliability, and the authors correctly did so (p. 663). The composite was significantly correlated with conception risk, and the magnitude of the correlation was larger than each of the single variables (r=.45).

    2) The criticism based on the lack of correlation between conception risk and the Fear of Rape Scale is misguided. I looked at the FRS in the original paper, and it turns out to be a “trait” scale, focusing on habits and asking questions about general behavior patterns. Responses to this kind of scale are *not* expected to vary from week to week. The fact that they don’t correlate with conception risk is not evidence against anything.

    I’m sorry, but the methods and conclusions of the study hold. I find Coyne’s dismissal shameful and misinformed.

    • Davros
      Posted January 22, 2011 at 12:26 am | Permalink

      I find your understanding of statistics and their logical interpretation shameful and misinformed…

      • Marco DG
        Posted January 23, 2011 at 12:57 am | Permalink

        Davros,
        thanks for sharing your opinion on my statistics. This, however, is hardly an argument. Below you raise three statistical issues, of which one is irrelevant, one is just plain wrong, and one is correct but was already taken care of in the paper. Perhaps a bit of humility would help.

    • Marco DG
      Posted January 22, 2011 at 2:09 am | Permalink

      It would be nice if Coyne took the time to reply to my comment, explaining why he still believes the paper to be “lame, dubious, or even laughable.” Perhaps some apologies to the authors of the study would be in order as well. But of course the damage is already done, ridicule has been thrown on the authors, and the average reader will stop well before comment #21. Weel done.

      The criticism relating to the “Fear of Rape Scale” is especially ironic. The basic rules of critical thinking would have one look up the questionnaire before stating with absolute confidence that “[the] correlation between ovulation and fear of rape [...] should certainly be seen if racism is a result of that fear.” Note the word “certainly” – but of course, “good” skepticism only cuts one way.

      I wonder, what would we do without Coyne, generously helping us “policing” our field with his objective and heven-handed approach…

      • Davros
        Posted January 22, 2011 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

        When I look at the numbers that you cite from the paper I draw the opposite conclusion. Their best correlation didn’t even explain half of the variation in race bias. So, sure there might be significant effects, but those correlation coefficients say that none of them are very important effects. Moreover, small sample sizes and multiple testing inflate the risk of detecting false positives, which is of far more concern when interpreting your data than the risk of failing to detect a real effect. Their data is weak and they have drawn conclusions beyond what their weak data even shows them. It’s bad science.

        • Marco DG
          Posted January 23, 2011 at 12:48 am | Permalink

          Davros,
          you essentially prove my point. Your criticism is also a red herring for a number of reasons:

          1) The authors never claimed they were gong to explainin all variation in race bias, and certainly nobody has ever suggested that race bias is *completely* determined by ovulation. Your cricism would be on target only if the authors had made that crazy claim, which they didn’t. Also, an overall correlation of .45 is not a negligible effect, not even by conventional rules of thumbs such as Cohen’s guidelines. Most correlations in psychological research are in the .30 range, especially when relatively subtle effects are investigated (as in this case).

          2) Small sample size does not inflate the likelihood of false positives. Small sample size always *reduces* statistical power, which increases the likelihood of type II error (false negatives). For N=77, the statistical power to detect a (population) correlation of .30 is .76. This means that a true effect will be detected as significant about 3 times out of 4.

          3) Multiple testing increases the likelihood of both false positives and false negatives (in this case, it increases false negatives at a rate that is about five times that of false positives; alpha=.05, beta=.24). One appropriate strategy to avoid false positives is to combine variables into a composite and test the composite. The authors did so (see above), and the result was significant. Other strategies are possible (e.g., latent variable modeling), but creating a stadardized composite is a reasonable approximation, especially with a relatively low N.

          So, let’s evaluate your criticism. You made an irrelevant claim (nobody has suggested that race bias is completely determined by ovulation) based on your subjective judgement that the correlations are “too small”. Then you made a completely incorrect claim (that small Ns increase false positives). Finally, you raised a real issue (multiple tests increase false positives), which however had been already taken care of in the original paper. Yet, you feel justified to declare the paper “bad science.” Not just methodologically weak (which it isn’t), not just in need of replication (which it is, like virtually 100% of empirical studies i any discipline), but “bad science.” Welcome to the wonderful world of “feminist science criticism”…

          • Davros
            Posted January 23, 2011 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

            Lets evaluate your claims. You build straw man arguments and attack statements that I never made…

            My main point was that the relationship was a poor fit to the data, which it is. Correlation coefficients are, after all, objective means for drawing conclusions about the fit of data.

            Their data only suggests that there may be some relationship between the timing of ovulation and race bias. It says absolutely nothing about whether increased race bias at the time of ovulation evolved by means of natural selection.

            So, I stand by my conclusion that their data is weak and they have drawn conclusions beyond what their weak data even shows them. It’s their conclusions that makes it bad science.

            • Marco DG
              Posted January 24, 2011 at 7:52 am | Permalink

              Davros,
              by all means, do stand by your conclusion. I wasn’t expecting to convince you. Readers will decide for themselves whether the statements I attacked were or were not made by you.

              My final remark will be about the “technical” point you made about correlations. Contrary to what you claim, a small correlation between two variables does not necessarily indicate a poor fit of the statistical model. It only does so if the model specifies a strong (or even perfect) relationship between the variables. However, as noted above, the authors made no such assumption. Two variables may be weakly correlated because, well, they are weakly correlated. In this specific case, there are likely many different factors that contribute to individual differences in race bias; nobody expects ovulation to explain all, or even most of it.

        • Marco DG
          Posted January 23, 2011 at 1:03 am | Permalink

          I forgot to cite the authors of the study (p. 664, emphasis mine):

          “These results *suggest* that *at least some facets* of modern race bias are *by-products* of an evolved system predisposing women to avoid persons and situations perceived as dangerous, particularly when costs are high. [...] The results described here *are not sufficient to distinguish* whether basic categorization, social transmission, or both processes are operative in producing greater race bias when fertility rises. *Further work is necessary to more fully understand the mechanistic processes* underlying this effect.”

          Where did the authors draw “conclusions beyond what their weak data even shows them?”

          • Davros
            Posted January 23, 2011 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

            “These results *suggest* that *at least some facets* of modern race bias are *by-products* of an evolved system predisposing women to avoid persons and situations perceived as dangerous, particularly when costs are high.”

            These results say *nothing* about whether some facets of race bias have evolved. The hypothesis that this relationship is the product of evolution by natural selection is *untested* speculation. To suggest that these data are evidence of an evolved trait is drawing conclusions beyond what they show.

            • Marco DG
              Posted January 24, 2011 at 8:08 am | Permalink

              These data do not make sense on their own, but should be interpreted in the context of the evidence and theory presented on p. 661-662. Taken together, the evidence does suggest (not *prove*) that women have an evolved tendency to avoid unwanted intercourse, especially during their fertile phase. That variations in race bias follow the same time course, and especially so in women who feel at risk for sexual coercion, does suggest that it may indeed be a by-product of a threat-avoidance mechanism. Furthermore, it is difficult to think of a convincing alternative explanation that does not involve evolution; and as far as I know, there is no supported alternative explanation in the literature. All this is not *proof* that such evolved mechanism exists; but evidence, yes. Perhaps you confuse “evidence” with “proof”?

              • Davros
                Posted January 24, 2011 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

                Their introduction highlights that their hypothesis rests on several assumptions for which there is no evidence. Furthermore, using a failure to conceive of an alternative hypothesis is not an argument (although, it could be an argument from ignorance). But, in fact, their is a plausible alternative hypothesis, that this is not a product or by-product of evolution (i.e. the null hypothesis). Perhaps you confuse “plausible speculation” with “evidence”?

              • Marco DG
                Posted January 25, 2011 at 1:38 am | Permalink

                Davros,
                it has been tremendous fun, but this conversation has reached the point of zero returns. I think you are confused about the role of assumptions in science, the evidence for adaptation, and what a plausible alternative hypothesis is (certainly “this is not a product or by-product of evolution” is not an explanation of anything). I also find you lacking in basic statistical knowledge – I hope you are not a scientist. But hey, this is a blog. Have fun.

        • Marco DG
          Posted January 23, 2011 at 7:52 am | Permalink

          A couple of statistical notes for those interested in this discussion:

          1) The rate of false positives (type I error) only depends on alpha, which is conventionally set at .05 most of the times. In other words, the likelihood of detecting a false positive does *not* depend on sample size.

          2) If only alpha is set a priori (as is usually done), then sample size will only determine the likelihood of false *negatives* (type II error).

          3) What actually happens with small samples is that the effect sizes (of statistically significant effects) may be over-estimated. This is why effect size magnitudes typically decrease with sample size in meta-analyses. In this specific case, the “real” population correlation is probably somewhat smaller than .45. Note however that: (1) the study N (77) is not huge but not minuscule, either; power is reasonably high for correlations of .30 or larger; and (2) as noted above, the author’s conclusions do not depend on explaining all, or even most, of the inter-individual variance in race bias. If the true effect were (say) .30 instead of .45, this would still support the authors’ hypothesis.

        • Marco DG
          Posted January 23, 2011 at 8:23 am | Permalink

          Incidentally: nobody here seem to have realized that Navarrete et al.’s hypothesis is a *by-product* hypothesis (see p. 664). Surprising as it may be to some, the authors did not argue that increasing race bias at ovulation is a specific adaptation.

          It’s ironic that critics routinely chastise EPs for (supposedly) not giving proper consideration to by-product hypotheses, then fail to even recognize one when they see it… could it be that “uber-adaptationists” are more convenient straw-men than actual evolutionary psychologists?

          • Davros
            Posted January 23, 2011 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

            Whether it’s a by-product or specific adaptation is irrelevant. Their data show no evidence that anything has evolved.

            • Marco DG
              Posted January 24, 2011 at 8:12 am | Permalink

              You take an overly narrow view of what constitutes evidence (versus indisputable proof) of adaptive design. I strongly suggest you read the following papers:

              Schmitt & Pilcher (2004). Evaluating Evidence of Psychological Adaptation.
              How Do We Know One When We See One? Psychol Sci, 15.

              Ketelaar & Ellis (2000). Are Evolutionary Explanations Unfalsifiable? Evolutionary Psychology
              and the Lakatosian Philosophy of Science. Psychol Inquiry, 11.

              • Davros
                Posted January 24, 2011 at 11:35 pm | Permalink

                I don’t think I take a narrow view at all. Indeed, on the first page of Schmidt and Pilcher (2004) I find this quote:

                “Williams (1966) provided perhaps the most influential and enduring
                guide to identifying historical adaptations. He argued that only when an attribute shows evidence of special design for the purpose of increasing
                fitness should one consider an attribute to be an adaptation. According to this definition, to call an attribute an adaptation one
                must demonstrate that it increases a creature’s fitness (i.e., leads to
                differential genetic contributions across generations; Alcock, 1993).”

                Where is the evidence that there is heritable genetic variation in “rape avoidance behaviour”? Where is the evidence of fitness effects? All there seems to be is speculation based on assumptions. Maybe it is plausible speculation, maybe they’re plausible assumptions, but they’re not the kind of evidence that is acceptable in science.

                I strongly recommend that you read this:

                Stephen Jay Gould and Richard C. Lewontin (1979): The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme.

                It’s freely available from here: http://ethomas.web.wesleyan.edu/wescourses/2004s/ees227/01/spandrels.html

              • Marco DG
                Posted January 25, 2011 at 1:40 am | Permalink

                Davros,
                see my comment above (January 25, 2011 at 1:38). And your suggestion that I read the San Marco paper – I take as a last joke. Bye.

      • Marco DG
        Posted January 23, 2011 at 1:34 am | Permalink

        Still waiting for Coyne to reply to my comment and explan why the study is lame/dubious/laughable… funny how informed, reasoned counter-arguments do not attract much attention on this blog.

        • Marco DG
          Posted January 25, 2011 at 1:40 am | Permalink

          Still waiting. Is it already old news?

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted January 25, 2011 at 7:40 am | Permalink

          Well, I read the post, and your “informed, reasoned counter-arguments” are orthogonal to the criticism.

          • Marco DG
            Posted January 25, 2011 at 11:40 am | Permalink

            Torbjörn:

            Thanks for responding, but I’m sorry I don’t get your point. The Navarrete et al.’s paper was criticized on two specific counts (I quote from the original post):

            1) “On a measure of explicit or conscious racial bias, however, they found no link between ovulation and prejudice. [...] He simply ignores the negative finding. [...] and so do the authors of the study.”

            and

            2) “They [...] also neglect the observation that there is no correlation between ovulation and fear of rape, something that should certainly be seen if racism is a result of that fear”

            What I did was to show that:

            1) the (marginally) non-significant correlation between ovulation and explicit race bias is not strong evidence against the hypothesis, given the power of the study and the low reliability of the bias variable; moreover, the authors did not “ignore” the finding, but adopted the reasonable strategy of computing a composite bias variable and correlating it with ovulation.

            2) There is no reason to expect a correlation between ovulation and the “Fear of rape” scale, which (despite the name) is not specifically about fear, and – more importantly – focuses on general patterns of behavior, not on current behavior (e.g., the last few days).

            How are these orthogonal?

          • Marco DG
            Posted January 25, 2011 at 11:44 am | Permalink

            I hope you weren’t sidetracked by the discussion with Davros, who raised other (in my view, irrelevant) issues such as the magnitude of correlations between ovulation and race bias.

  21. Posted January 21, 2011 at 11:50 pm | Permalink

    re: amanda’s point about being soft on rape- she is exactly right about how these studies support rape myths in society. If someone is going to put out a study that supports rape myths (like the idea that dudes just can’t help it, that women provoke their own rapes somehow) without some really compelling evidence they are supporting rape culture. Trying to deny it doesn’t change the real effect of the press release. What do rape victims think when they read this kind of crap in the news media? What about rapists? Potential rapists? The “great pains” come off a lot like “I’m not racist, but…”-what follows that phrase is very racist the vast majority of the time. Someone saying they know rape is a Very Bad Thing doesn’t excuse putting out unsupported science supporting justifications for rape. Rape is a humanitarian crisis that receives very little real attention from society or the justice system. Its a BFD. The kind of treatment victims of rape receive from others after the rape, like the kinds of attitudes in their community about it, deeply affect the mental health outcome of victims. I could go on and on about why putting out the study without GOOD evidence was a really messed up thing to do to women, a disclaimer can never excuse real hurt done to people who have already been victimized.

  22. Diane G.
    Posted January 22, 2011 at 10:50 pm | Permalink

    This is based on a misunderstanding of evolutionary psychology. Evolution has given us orgasms as a proximate cue to reproduce: orgasms almost certainly evolved to make us want to copulate, since they provide profound pleasure associated with the act of copulation. But using our evolved brain, we can experience that pleasure without reproducing (other animals can do this too, as you may know from visiting the zoo!) “Getting it on” as a gay, a lone masturbater, or an old person, simply takes advantage of the orgasm cue in a way that dissociates it from its evolved “purpose.”

    Can’t a propensity to have non-reproductive sex be selected for if doing so results in better offspring survival? I.e., human females being receptive to males at non-fertile times may result in strengthening pair bonds (or simply, less straying by males) and thus greater paternal contribution to offspring protection, feeding, etc.

    • Marco DG
      Posted January 23, 2011 at 8:48 am | Permalink

      Of course, that’s entirely possible (indeed, probable). This and other topics are covered in detail in this book written by two evil, evil evolutionary psychologists:

      Thornhill, R. & Gangestad, S.W. (2008). The evolutionary biology of human female sexuality. Oxford University Press.

      I also recommend the book as an extensive, up-to-date review of ovulation research in humans.

    • David Elliott
      Posted November 3, 2011 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

      In theory, but Occams Razor would cut it away pretty quickly.

      Almost anything is plausible in theory. The question is whether this theory is actually necessary to explain the data. Occams Razor refers to the idea that a theory shouldn’t “multiply unnecessary entities” – that is, it shouldn’t

      What it comes down to is that there is no observation that requires “selection for non-reproductive sex” as an explanation.

      You might be able to come up with an experiment that tried to find such an observation, but I would suspect you would be wasting your time, as nobody has ever identified a normal human behavioural trait with a genetic basis (and even some abnormal traits, such as schizophrenia, have had their genetic basis called into question), let alone found evidence that this genetic basis had been subject to selective pressure.

      If you designed and carried out such an experiment, it would be probably the first real result ever produced in evolutionary psychology… I’m not sure whether many evolutionary psychologists would notice, though.

      • David Elliott
        Posted November 3, 2011 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

        Sorry, I left a sentence unfinished there! I meant to say, ‘Occams Razor refers to the idea that a theory shouldn’t “multiply unnecessary entities” – that is, it shouldn’t produce convolutions of theorizing that are actually completely unnecessary to an explanation of the world. Most of evolutionary psychology attempts to do exactly this. The field is almost defined that way.’

  23. Posted September 27, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    There seems to be a disconnect in regards to the mate selection process. What is she looking for in a mate? Why a protracted and profound menstruation?
    Most important in the mate selection is finding a mate that will stay! Any time a dominate male comes in and there is offspring from a previous male minimally disenfranchisement or death occurs. The later being socially unacceptable in modern society. Otherwise he is competing again his own reproduction.
    Humans take a long time to self sustainability therefore she needs a mate with shared biologic interest.
    Humans, the most aggressive primate. her responsibility, find a mate the will protect his own offspring.

  24. Posted September 28, 2012 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    It seems most on here think the world is dominated by men. How do you figure?
    Sex is dominated by the females. I personally believe the reason we are human is the domestication of the male by the female. This allowed the woman to “grow” the child over a much longer period of time. The longer you can grow without having to defend ones own life the more developed the organism can develop traits not exclusive to self defense.
    Animals that need to provide their own protection mature very rapidly out of necessity. This does not allow the development of intellectual aptitude humans posses.

    The females ability to captivate his interest changes everything. This may be tied to her reproductive cycle and hence her mate selection. She needs to find the best mate that she can get to stay.

    This world is not dominated by men! It is dominated by the women that run the men. Mans nature is to serve the woman. most men would die for their mate. almost never the case for the woman. It simply is not in her interest.


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