A defense of evolutionary psychology (mostly by Steve Pinker)

I’ve been known for a while as a critic of evolutionary psychology, particularly when it first began as “sociobiology” in the Seventies.  At that time there was a lot of unsupported speculation being bruited about as “science” (i.e., human males evolved to have “rape modules”, a view that I criticized strongly). But over the decades, evolutionary psychology has matured, and I now see it as a valuable way of studying the origins of human behavior. Not that it’s all perfect—the “pop” versions, such as those produced by Satoshi Kanazawa, seem pretty dire to me, debasing a field that’s striving for scientific rigor. But even Kanazawa has been rejected by serious evolutionary psychologists.

Sadly, some self-professed skeptics have decided to debunk the entire field of evo-psych, and for reasons that I see not as scientific, but as ideological and political. That is, like the opponents of sociobiology thirty years ago, these skeptics object to the discipline because they see it as both motivated by and justifying conservative political views like the marginalization of women.  Well, that may be the motivation of some people, but not, I think, of most well-known workers in evo psych, who are merely trying to study the evolutionary roots of human behavior.  It pains me that skeptics are so dogmatic, so ideological, in viewing (and rejecting wholesale) a legitimate scientific field.

Because of this ideologically-motivated critique, last December I published a defense of the field, “Is evolutionary psychology worthless?“, pointing out a dozen areas of evo-psych research—most of them not involving gender differences—that I saw as valuable, interesting, and productive.

Nevertheless, the dissing of evo-psych by skeptics continues.  The latest critique occurred at the Convergence 2013 conference on a panel described in a post by P. Z. Myers at Pharyngula:

First panel: Evolutionary Psychology, with Stephanie Zvan moderating, and Greg Laden (a biological anthropologist), me (neuroscience by training, evo devo by occupation), and Indre Viskontas (neuroscience) (and who I met for the first time, and who was on a panel at an SF con for the first time…she’s good). My main point: Developmental plasticity is all. The fundamental premises of evo psych are false.

This paragraph disturbed me for two reasons. First, the notion that “the fundamental premises of evo psych are false” seems deeply misguided. After all, those premises boil down to this statement: some behaviors of modern humans reflect their evolutionary history. That is palpably uncontroversial, since many of our behaviors are clearly a product of evolution, including eating, avoiding dangers, and the pursuit of sex.  And since our bodies reflect their evolutionary history, often in nonadaptive ways (e.g., wisdom teeth, bad backs, the coat of hair we produce as a transitory feature in fetuses), why not our brains, which are, after all, just bits of morphology whose structure affects our behaviors?

Second, “developmental plasticity” does not stand as a dichotomous alternative to “evolved features.” Our developmental plasticity is to a large extent the product of evolution: our ability to learn language, our tendency to defer to authorities when we’re children, our learned socialization—those are all features almost certainly instilled into our brains by natural selection as a way to promote behavioral flexibility in that most flexible of mammals.

I haven’t listened to the entire Convergence panel because the audio is apparently quite bad, but I was distressed by the comments P.Z. made in the ensuing discussion, in which he expands his reasons for rejecting evolutionary psychology.  I sent P.Z.’s post and comments to my friend Steve Pinker, whose books have engaged quite deeply with evolutionary psychology, to get his reaction.  Steve sent me an email with his responses, and then gave me permission to publish them.  (I add the caveat, at Steve’s request, that this was an informal email, and he’s not to be held responsible for slips of grammar or punctuation!)

I post P. Z.’s comments (with links) below in italics (and an “M”), and Steve’s responses in bold type (with a “P”)

A comment P. Z. made in the ensuing discussion:

M: Fundamental assumptions of evo psych: That you can infer an adaptive history from the distribution of current traits — that they are adaptations at all is an assumption usually not founded in evidence (this is not to deny that that there are features that are clearly the product of selection, but that you can’t pick an arbitrary attribute and draw elaborate scenarios for its origins). . . 

P: Of course “arbitrary” and “elaborate” are the straw-man giveaways here. What about carefully selected attributes, and minimal assumptions about phylogeny with a focus on function, as we do for other organs? You can ask what the spleen is for – and it would be perverse to do physiology without asking such a question – without “drawing elaborate scenarios for its origins.”

M:. . . That behavioral features that have been selected for in our history are represented by modular components in the brain – again with rare exceptions, you can’t simply assign a behavioral role to a specific spot in the brain, just as you can’t assign a behavior to a gene.

P: No one in Ev Psych points to specific spots in the brain – that’s cognitive neuroscience, not evolutionary psychology. The only assumption is that there are functional circuits, in the same way that a program can be fragmented across your hard drive.

M: . . . That the human brain is adapted to a particular environment, specifically the African savannah, and that we can ignore as negligible any evolutionary events in the last 10,000 years, that we can ignore the complexity of an environment most of the evo psych people have never seriously studied, and that that environment can dictate one narrow range of outcomes rather than permit millions of different possibilities.

P: The savannah is a red herring – that’s just a convenient dichotomization of the relevant continuum, which is evolutionary history. A minimal commitment to “pre-modern” gives you the same conclusions. By saying that the brain could not have been biologically adapted to stable government, police, literacy, medicine, science, reliable statistics, prevalence of high-calorie food, etc., you don’t need to go back to the savannah; you just need to say that these were all relevantly recent in most people’s evolutionary history. The savannah is just a synechdoche. 

M: I’d also add that most evo psych studies assume a one-to-one mapping of hypothetical genes to behaviors. . .

P:  Completely untrue – this was Gould’s claim in the 1970s, which confused a “gene for x” (indispensable in any evolutionary thinking, given segregation) in the sense of “increases the probability of X, averaging over environments and other genes” with “a gene for X” in the sense of “necessary and sufficient for X.” Every honest biologist invokes “gene for X” in the former sense; evolution would be impossible if there were no additive effects of genes. No one believes the latter – it’s pure straw.

M [continuation of previous sentence]:. . . and never actually look at genes and for that matter, ignore most human diversity to focus on a naive typological simplicity that allows them to use undergraduate psych majors at Western universities as proxies for all of humanity”

P: It’s psychologists, not evolutionary psychologists, who focus on Western undergrads –field research and citations of anthropology are vastly more common in ev psych than in non-ev-psych. PZ is engaging in prosecution here, not analysis – he’s clearly ignorant of the sociology of the fields.

As for diversity – is he arguing for genetic differences among human groups, a la Herrnstein & Murray?

P.Z. then made a second comment:

M: Developmental plasticity vitiates most of the claims of evo psych. Without denying that some behaviors certainly have a strong biological basis, the differences in human behaviors are more likely to be a product of plasticity than of genetic differences. . .

P: Plasticity is just learning at the neural level, and learning is not an alternative to innate motives and learning mechanisms. Plasticity became an all-purpose fudge factor in the 1990s (just like “epigenetics” is today). But the idea that the brain is a piece of plastic molded by the environment is bad neuroscience. I reviewed neural plasticity in the chapter “The Slate’s Last Stand” in The Blank Slate, with the help of many colleagues in neuroscience, and noted that the plasticity that allows feedback during development and learning during ontogeny is superimposed on an innate matrix of neural organization. For example if you silence *all* synaptic activity in the brain of a developing mouse with knock-outs, the brain is pretty much normal.

M: . . . I think good evo psych would focus on human universals (much more likely to be driven by genetic properties!) than all this stuff seeking justifications for cultural differences between the sexes or the races or arbitrary subgroups.

Steve didn’t respond to this last bit, but I did ask him to tell me what he thought were the greatest accomplishments of evolutionary psychology. This was in response to one remark (made, I think, by a panel member) that the discipline had produced no substantive accomplishments. Steve’s response:

P:  On accomplishments – there are vast numbers of topics in psychology that were barely studied before EP came along, and in which you just can’t formulate sensible hypotheses without giving some thought to function – they’d include sexuality, violence, religion, beauty, play, emotions, and parenting. Even other areas, like perception and memory, have always been evolutionary in the sense that researchers had a vague idea about “function” – the difference being that common-sense is enough when it comes to seeing in 3D, whereas you need to give some more thought to function in the case of, say, beauty.

For me there shouldn’t even be a field called “evolutionary psychology” for the same reason there shouldn’t be a field called “cognitive neuroscience” – you can’t understand any biological system without considering each of Tinbergen’s four levels of mechanism, development, adaptation, and phylogeny. “Ev psych” is simply the attempt to take adaptation/function seriously, just as “cog neuro” is the attempt to sharpen mechanism.

One gets two impressions when listening to the skeptics’ criticism of evolutionary psychology. First, they haven’t read widely in the discipline, and are criticizing either pop-culture versions of the field or a caricature (born of ignorance, possibly willful) of EP.  Even I know that EP advocates don’t often publish studies that rely solely on undergraduates.

Second, it’s pretty clear that the opposition to evolutionary psychology from these quarters is ideologically rather than scientifically motivated.  One gets the feeling that research on gender differences shouldn’t be done at all because it’s either designed to repress women, motivated by the desire to do that, or has the likely outcome of promoting discrimination.  Well, sexist scientists may try to do that, but I haven’t seen much of that since the Seventies.  And gender differences are fascinating.  There’s a reason, for instance, why human males are larger and hairier than females, and have more testosterone. Are we supposed to say “You can’t work on that—could have bad repercussions!” Sure, scientific results can always be misused, but I don’t see that as a reason to put up roadblocks against scientific research. After all, what field is more misused and misquoted than evolutionary biology? I am a frequent recipient of emails from Jews trying to convince me to reject evolution because Darwin ultimately caused the Holocaust.

And the differences in sexual behavior between males and females do parallel those seen in many animals.  Is that just cultural construction, or are there genes and selection pressures involved? One can surely study such things scientifically, just as one studies differences between the sexes of other mammals, without being committed to sexism. There are, after all, testable predictions involved.

No, the fundamental premise of evolutionary psychology is absolutely sound: our brains, like the rest of our bodies, are the product of evolution and natural selection over the past six million years, and some of our current behaviors reflect that evolution.  To deny that is ideologically motivated nonsense. To parse out the evolutionary component of such behaviors is the goal of evolutionary psychology.

 

258 Comments

  1. Posted July 7, 2013 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    It’s precisely the area of sexual dimorphism that we most need a solid evolutionary understanding of what’s going on if we are to have any hope of shaping our society in an intelligent manner.

    And only the naturalistic fallacy could convince somebody otherwise.

    Let’s pick the hyperbolic fantastic boogeyman and say that it could be proven that all males have a propensity to rape, and such-and-such a genetic makeup is directly responsible. Wouldn’t you want to know that so that we could figure out the most effective means of suppressing that disposition and how best to tailor the approach based upon the individual’s genetic makeup? You could easily imagine it being a standard genetic test, with special counseling being offered to men with the rape gene.

    (Just in case it’s not clear: that’s all purely hypothetical, and the evidence as understood today does not support what I presented as hypothetical facts.)

    Really, it’s no different than testing for BRCA mutations. Would you rather know so you can intelligently design treatment modalities (possibly including prevention as well as cure) and better focus monitoring efforts; or would you say, “Well, so-and-so has that mutation, so she’s just a goner. Nothing we can do for her. Too bad, so sad, have a nice death.”

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Posted July 7, 2013 at 9:54 am | Permalink

      There were a lot of Big Words I didn’t quite get in Jerry’s post…but I got the gist of it enough, and I agree with the both of you that suppressing the inquiry into gender differences does no one a favor. It’s rather like those misguided souls who declare “I don’t see color.” Homogenizing humans, be it through gender or race squashes social progress and undermines any challenges still facing the demographic. This is where feminism reaches the point of kicking herself in the arse, imho.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted July 7, 2013 at 10:13 am | Permalink

        Ha ha. I have a friend of East Indian heritage. We often would describe one another to strangers as, “a white gjrl” or “a brown girl”. White people were noticeably uncomfortable with that. I even remember meeting her for dinner at a restaurant and holding off describing her as a brown girl so as not to freak out the hostess who let me look for her in the restaurant. I think the comedian, Russell Peters does a whole schtjck on this phenomenon.

        • Posted July 7, 2013 at 10:18 am | Permalink

          I will look him up! Amy Schuler has a funny bit on that, although she’s pretty hit and miss for me…she easily descends to a very unfunny level of crude.

        • Posted July 7, 2013 at 11:37 am | Permalink

          You could try, “the one with a built-in tan” as opposed to “the one who burns easily,” but that’s a bit of a mouthful.

          But any computer scientist will tell you that it’s best to start your sorting by broad-brush easily-identifiable characteristics. Male / female instantly cuts the search space in half, which is ideal from an information theory perspective. Skin color is almost as good, and eye color is probably even better. Eye color, height, weight, and age are all really good, too; in a restaurant, it’s possibly all you need to identify somebody — and certainly to narrow it down to a small number. At that point, there’s not much more you need to complete the unique identification.

          Sure, we all think of ourselves most importantly and significantly as our personalities, what goes on inside our heads…but not only is it impossible to identify those characteristics just by looking, it’s a really bad sorting criteria even if you could. You’d again want to start with oversimplified broad categories and narrow it down from there.

          Cheers,

          b&

          • cherrybombsim
            Posted July 7, 2013 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

            Anybody trying to identify me by eye color would be s/o/o/l. Depending on how dilated my pupils are, they can be brown, hazel or grass green.

    • Linda Grilli Calhoun
      Posted July 7, 2013 at 10:45 am | Permalink

      You do realize that some cultures would consider the “rape gene” as a positive? L

      • Posted July 7, 2013 at 11:39 am | Permalink

        Yes. And I’m really glad I’m not living in one of them.

        But, even still, you’d want to understand as much about it as you could.

        And those of us who don’t live in such a society especially should want to understand it so we can best counter it.

        b&

        • Kevin Alexander
          Posted July 8, 2013 at 3:51 am | Permalink

          You don’t need a gene ‘for’ rape any more than a gene for bank robbery. It’s enough that you want something coupled with a disregard for social taboos.

    • darrelle
      Posted July 8, 2013 at 5:39 am | Permalink

      “And only the naturalistic fallacy could convince somebody otherwise.”

      This was precisely my first thought after reading the first of Myers’ comments. It is extremely obvious, and it is hard to comprehend how he could not be aware of it. Depressing, but not surprising.

    • Posted July 8, 2013 at 9:54 am | Permalink

      When I was an undergradute student of Bunge’s in the late 1990s, we argued over three principle topics of disagreement: the merits of human sociobiology/evolutionary psychology, the computational “theory” of mind and the prospects of AI.

      It seems that PZ is doing what Bunge did about the former: seeing some sloppy scholarship (and there is some!) and wondering about motives (for that’s one way one gets sloppy scholarship). I made exactly Ben’s point in a paper, that Bunge’s own views on the ethical neutrality of science show that even the “most dire” findings of evo. psych., if true, have at least two possible policy or ethical outcomes. The comment on that part of the paper was (IIRC) – make sure that the finding IS supported, first.

      One thing I would like to hear more about is the status of the “combinatorial” argument – neuroscientists and Bunge have pointed out *another* form of plasticity that is not addressed by Pinker here. Namely that there doesn’t seem to be enough genetic “information” (or whatever) to code for all the subbrain organs, and moreover, that tissues in the brain do seem quite plastic in the sense that very often they can be repurosed – as in the case of the hapless person born with a single hemisphere! I suspect the answer will lie in gene regulation. But then I (informally: I can’t do better at present) wonder about “data compression” – one way to do more with less is simply to be redundant, but that doesn’t help here.

      • Dino Rosati
        Posted July 8, 2013 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

        I think Pinker did implicitly address your question. I think (could very well be wrong here) that the genome contains enough information to set up many (read millions) of simple heuristic mechanisms for learning and interconnecting them stochastically and pruning away connections that are not useful, i.e. low level plasticity. This is done in such a way as to achieve higher level adaptive purposes (the ones Pinker listed above).

    • kagehi
      Posted July 16, 2013 at 11:07 am | Permalink

      Ugh.. See, this is the exact problem a lot of people have with the so called “science”. There is a book out called “Sex at Dawn” (partial title), which makes a very good case for how our most basic assumptions of what is considered the “standard” model of human sexuality is, if not in fact wrong, at least badly biased. It goes back and looks at, in a few cases, some of the “key” data collected by people who are considered the “standard” for this knowledge, and questions both their methods, and conclusions. It also points out that, in pretty much every such case, even the definition of “hunter gatherer” used wasn’t accurate, and that looking at those harder to find tribes, which don’t have clear concepts of property, and inheritance, often radically changes the picture. Rape, in some cultures appears to be completely unheard of, for example. There is even an example provided on TV, in one of those programs on sex, which found a culture who placed young women at the center of deciding such things, to the point of building their young daughters special huts, to literally entertain guests. When asked how often things like rape happened, they couldn’t even comprehend the question, since the power dynamic was, “You get to come in if **I** say so, not if you say so, and you can’t force me to let you in.”

      It only gets worse when you have clowns ignoring say, bonobo behavior (one of the recent ones which, ironically, proved that, if the females have any say in the matter, introducing a concept of ‘money’, in the form of tokens, to buy food, led to the females inventing prostitution. i.e., trading favors, to get more of the money.), purely because we have, at some point, managed to become hyper territorial, and that has led to behaviors that look more like those of chimpanzees. Only problem is.. even that becomes a problem, because much of their behavior, as we understand it, comes from studies where *we* introduced a free, but limited, resource (food in boxes), to get them nearer, so they could be observed, and that led to more, otherwise unrelated, groups coming together in semi-neutral territory, and then fighting over the resource.

      The problem with Evo-Psych isn’t that it can’t find answers, it is that it “assumes” that the existing behavior is evolved, and normal, then tries to, well… do what religions have bad habit of doing, which is, having drawn its conclusions, it then goes hunting for evidence, much of which ends up consisting of made up stories, about how it got that way. Which isn’t to say that its stories are not more logical, or reasoned, or even plausible, but.. they are also a prime example of “garbage in = garbage out”.

      If you don’t know your assumptions are correct, then you don’t know what evidence to look for. If you don’t know what constitutes valid evidence, or, worse, there isn’t any way to collect, or verify, it, then you can just as easily follow a perfectly logical series of assumptions, and explanations, to a completely wrong bloody answer, as you can, even purely by accident, run into the correct one. And, it seems to me, that how ever “mature” the science thinks itself, its still making the same sort of stories, and assumptions, as the fools who, based on their biases, and assumptions, all of them 100% supported by their own societies “normal” behaviors, that all birds mate for life, a concept that was, along with the stories about how that worked, accepted, whole hog, for decades, before someone bothered to ask, “Is this actually true?”

      Well.. Where the frak are the people in Evo-Psych asking, “Are all the assumptions about what is ‘normal’ for humans actually true?” Because.. you know what I see – a lot of people making up stories about women looking for berries, and excuses for why rape is caused, in spite of evidence that it is in fact rarer, or even non-existent, in other cultures/sub-cultures, by “biology”, not “sociology”.

      In other words, a lot of bloody assumptions about how the mess we see is “how we are”, instead of a social construct, and a mess of stories about how that happened, which ironically, excludes the most plausible explanation – It was all made up, by steps, and over time, by people who had not one bit of their “natural biology” in mind when they invented it, just like the stories evo-psych, too often, make up to explain how this “trait” can be tied back to some poor hunter, a million years ago, who, if some of the alternate evidence is correct, would probably be thinking, “Are you kidding me?”

  2. NewEnglandBob
    Posted July 7, 2013 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    This is a fascinating post, on several levels. We laymen can learn a lot but also can be confused.

  3. Lianne Byram
    Posted July 7, 2013 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    I used to think the study of sex differences was more trouble than it as worth – back in the seventies when I was young and foolish. I realize now that was a mistake. Ideology should never stand in the way of the pursuit of knowledge.
    I agree with Ben that if we understand the less desirable aspects of our evolutionary heritage we can take steps to manage them and mitigate harm.
    I find evolutionary psychology fascinating. I don’t think it is reasonable to think that we can have any really fundamental understanding of human behaviour without acknowledging and investigating the evolutionary history of the human brain.

    • Posted July 7, 2013 at 10:33 am | Permalink

      Watching my 3 yo son develop is astounding. I delight that he can make motor/engine sounds way better than I ever could. His first sentence was “IT HAS WHEELS!!!” (Which, I think holds true for a good portion of men throughout their lives lol.) His play is aggressive, he is loud, things have to crash and blow up. We do offer him dolls to play with, and they usually end up in tragic fiery helicopter incidents. This is so highly fascinating to me, there is a reason boys and girls have generally vastly different play styles. I marvel at the girls his age – how gentle and detailed they are in comparison. I believe good EP can enrich our understanding of these very real differences and in turn provide us with better tools in which to better establish humanitarian values.

      • Linda Grilli Calhoun
        Posted July 7, 2013 at 10:41 am | Permalink

        Dave Barry has a hilarious essay about little boys and little girls.

        In it, he describes little girls as “miniature human beings”, and little boys as “pod people from the planet Destructo”.

        And, he, too, observes that little boys are born knowing how to make motor noises. L

        • Posted July 7, 2013 at 11:24 am | Permalink

          Not just human boys. Baihu does that, too, when he runs around….

          b&

          • Linda Grilli Calhoun
            Posted July 7, 2013 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

            Maybe you should by him some Tonka trucks to play with. L

  4. Diana MacPherson
    Posted July 7, 2013 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    I’m glad you mentioned the tacit aversion to studying anything to do with male and female differences. I remember frowning often at some of the assertions in cultural anthropology that just seemed based mostly on conjecture and that legacy seems to have left its mark. With the maturation of evolutionary psychology and I’m hoping the departure of sexist attitudes this aversion will be abated.

    Indeed, one of the most interesting chapters in Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature is Chapter 7: The Rights Revolutions. In particular, his discussion about male and female attitudes about sex. In my copy, I half jokingly highlighted the following simple sentence and wrote the comment, Where was Steven Pinker to explain this to me when I was in my 20s? “Men fantasize about copulating with bodies; women fantasize about making love to people”. The whole chapter is fabulous and details violence against women, how it has changed and explains how the two genders deal with this.

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted July 7, 2013 at 9:15 am | Permalink

      I recently finished reading “Better Angels…” And I thought it to be a wonderful book.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted July 7, 2013 at 9:16 am | Permalink

        I really like it too. It takes me forever to read anything because I read at night then fall asleep so I progress at about 1% per day. I’m about 62% through now.

        • Think first...
          Posted July 7, 2013 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

          Audio books ftw!

          Ay more than 40 hours it’s a whopper… but better to fall asleep to because I always drool on my books.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted July 7, 2013 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

            Yes, I sometimes do listen to audio books as well but I like to put notes in books so usually I’ll read it then listen to the audio book to remember things better (I tend to remember things I hear over things I read) hence while in school, I went to all the lectures and only read the text books when studying unless it was a course where we read fiction or a language course where you were tested (often a surprise) as you went.

    • karmakin
      Posted July 7, 2013 at 9:30 am | Permalink

      What about those of us in the middle? I’m a man, who generally is about the latter. (Making love to people).

      I actually think that’s the divide here, how prescriptive these roles are. To its credit, I’ve seen a lot of EP move away from the notion that these roles are prescriptive, however they can be used in that fashion.

      Not that I’m saying that by and large these criticisms are much better, as it’s made by people who act like social/cultural pressures are prescriptive.

      • darrelle
        Posted July 8, 2013 at 6:00 am | Permalink

        There are certainly people, perhaps even some scientists in the field, who think of the general characteristics of gender roles as prescriptive. But decent scientists, and even decent amateurs these days, understand that that is a fallacy. That things like this are always a spectrum. This is where a better understanding of statistics comes in. Because you can determine with some accuracy the general characteristics of a large sample does not mean that you will be able to accurately predict the characteristics of individuals.

        In addition to basic critical thinking skills, I think a basic understanding of statistics is one of the most important things that should be incorporated into primary school curricula.

        • karmakin
          Posted July 9, 2013 at 5:08 am | Permalink

          Like I said, I’ve seen a lot of EP researchers take an active stance on the issue and state that their research isn’t prescriptive, and I applaud them for it.

    • Diane G.
      Posted July 7, 2013 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

      “Men fantasize about copulating with bodies; women fantasize about making love to people”.

      That’s been around for a long time.

      And IMO, not necessarily always true.

      • ksolway
        Posted July 8, 2013 at 12:42 am | Permalink

        “women fantasize about making love to people”

        From what I’ve read, “rape” fantasies, and fantasies of rough sex, are very common in women. I’m not sure if that is what you call “making love”.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted July 8, 2013 at 6:12 am | Permalink

          I’m sure there are exceptions to every rule. Steven Pinker was assessing, along with other inputs, what men and women on average prefer in fantasy materials for women it is usually the plethora of romantic materials like romance novels etc. they consume vs. men – pornography. You really should read the book and that chapter to understand that context.

          My larger point was that it was refreshing to see that Steven Pinker didn’t shy away from these topics and he addresses them with solid evidence (vs. the weak arguments many of us were exposed to in the past wrt evolutionary psychology and the tacit fear of studying the difference between men and women).

          Also, I don’t buy your assessment that rape fantasies are “very common” in women.

          • threeflangedjavis
            Posted July 8, 2013 at 7:17 am | Permalink

            Ask a male stripper about the sexual aggressiveness of women.In my humble lay opinion, the sexual behaviour of women can be situational. There is reproductive sex and there is ‘emotional’ sex and I don’t think you can make much sense of it all without taking evolutionary factors into account.

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted July 8, 2013 at 7:20 am | Permalink

              Again, Pinker was talking about fantasy. The word “fantasizes” is in the quote.

          • Diane G.
            Posted July 8, 2013 at 11:24 am | Permalink

            Solid evidence?

            One has to remember that there are problems with data collected by survey and interview. There have been quite a few discussions about the reliability of what different people are likely to divulge when questioned.

            There is such a huge element of social conditioning in human sexual behavior that I’m not sure it’s easy to say what may be the evolutionarily derived parts.

            And in fact, if we turn to animal models for comparison–one word: bonobos! :D

        • Diane G.
          Posted July 8, 2013 at 11:18 am | Permalink

          I wasn’t talking about “rape fantasies.” (And BTW, to the extent those may exist, they might very likely have to do with cultural conditioning that teaches women that they shouldn’t be promiscuous, so that sex with a different partner seems only excusable if it’s non-voluntary.)

          I just meant that women as well as men can desire sex for sex’s sake…and appreciate one-night-stands and the like–sex without a lot of baggage.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted July 11, 2013 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

            No Diane, I know you didn’t say rape fantasies but someone did (I’m too lazy too look – migraines all week make Diana lazy). But these are about fantasies not actual behaviours and the evidence is the plethora of romance novels for women (which I find amusing myself because those are so ridiculous but I’m not a normal woman either).

            • Diane G.
              Posted July 11, 2013 at 11:09 pm | Permalink

              And if I’m keeping the indents straight, here, my reply above was to ksolway. (Though of course I’ve another reply to you right above that one.)

              And hey–you’re not normal, I’m not normal…hmmmm, are we sure? Even if we’re not in the majority, we’re probably firmly on the frequency distribution somewhere.

              I don’t think the romance novel (bleah) connection proves anything regarding EP; again, if many women are brought up with the traditional double standard, the only sort of sexual encounter they can comfortably fantasize about is one that’s seemingly against their will. (Not that they have one… :D )

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted July 12, 2013 at 5:37 am | Permalink

                Yes – the 20th C version of lie back and think of England? :D

              • Diane G.
                Posted July 12, 2013 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

                Ha, ha! I was thinking of free will, given its frequent attention here; but your interpretation works as well. :D

  5. gbjames
    Posted July 7, 2013 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    Sub

    • jimroberts
      Posted July 7, 2013 at 11:11 am | Permalink

      sub

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted July 7, 2013 at 11:58 am | Permalink

        Groovy avatar Jim

        A monochrome embossed or carved version that looks like a bit like THIS perhaps?

        • jimroberts
          Posted July 8, 2013 at 4:35 am | Permalink

          Thank you.

  6. Posted July 7, 2013 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    Jerry, thank you SO MUCH for organising some top level critiques of the this anti-EP stuff.

    To my mind, Myers’ worst paragraph was the last one quoted:
    I think good evo psych would focus on human universals (much more likely to be driven by genetic properties!) than all this stuff seeking justifications for cultural differences between the sexes or the races or arbitrary subgroups.

    I think this rather gives the ideological game away. After claiming that the underlying assumptions of evolutionary psychology are wrong, he then goes on to suggest that it’s actually all OK so long as the focus is restricted to evolutionary universals! But why exactly are they “more likely to be driven by genetic properties”?

    They aren’t of course, but at least this way around you don’t get that “frisson of ideological disquiet” you might otherwise be forced to endure.

    • Posted July 7, 2013 at 9:21 am | Permalink

      Oh, meant to add: the wonderful “frisson” phrase I quoted is by Richard Dawkins, of course.

    • windy
      Posted July 8, 2013 at 3:38 am | Permalink

      It’s not necessarily an ideological argument – there has been less time available for adaptations to evolve among human subgroups (essentially the same point that Pinker made about ‘pre-modern’ times!) But, as you point out, it’s rather inconsistent to say that the fundamental premises of a discipline are wrong, and at the same time argue that it only needs to change focus.

      And PZ is missing a good reason why EP would put a bit more emphasis on differences between humans rather than human universals: there’s a better chance of being able to test hypotheses about the former.

  7. Posted July 7, 2013 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    (I should be clear here that now that you’ve written this, the horde of SJWs at Myer’s blog will likely descend and start putting words in the mouths of others and the insults will start flying fast-and-furious over your challenge of ‘Dear Leader’s’ horse-crap.)

    Well, once you jump on one of the ‘isms’ SJW sharks, you’re going to throw science out the window when ever it casts a negative light on your unfalsifiable beliefs. What you’re seeing out of that group is the natural and logical consequences of worshiping at the alter of radical feminism and the replacement of thought, science and skepticism for a quasi-religious Marxist-Gender-Feminist dogma.

    Anyway, gender feminists are not all of feminism. I believe I once read that, as practicing feminists, the bulk of feminists in the West are known as ‘equity feminists’. However, most of the feminist movement is lead by the gender-feminists.

    Equity Feminism is:

    Sommers describes equity feminism as an ideology rooted in classical liberalism, and that aims for full civil and legal equality for women. Experimental psychologist Steven Pinker expands on Sommers to write, “Equity feminism is a moral doctrine about equal treatment that makes no commitments regarding open empirical issues in psychology or biology.”

    Pinker is, like myself and much of my family & relatives, an equity feminist.

    He will likely be slimed, too.

    Oh, nice topic. Glad you took it up. Good luck with the potential fall-out but I’m tired of the FtB trolls stinking up the Internet and have better things to do than argue with oolOn, et. al..

    • Posted July 7, 2013 at 9:29 am | Permalink

      one of the ‘isms’ SJW sharks

      That should have said:

      one of the ‘isms’ beloveded by the SJW sharks

      (I really suck at editing. I’m always messing things up…)

      • Larry Gay
        Posted July 7, 2013 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

        There are many things that impress me about Steven Pinker. One of the most impressive is that he speaks in virtually perfect paragraphs that need no editing whatsoever. So what a surprise to see Jerry’s warning today that Steve’s comments are off-the-cuff and not to be held the usual standards of grammar and punctuation. I have only one complaint with his exposition: he forced me to go look up “synechdoche” (spell-checker doesn’t like it) once again.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted July 7, 2013 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

          Ha ha! I thought that as well. Steven Pinker’s grammar is always perfect, even in casual conversations and my sad posts are full of errors even after I proof read them! I too looked up synechdoche as well but happily on my Mac, I just highlight the word and right click to look it up in the dictionary.

    • Marta
      Posted July 7, 2013 at 9:50 am | Permalink

      Jeepers.

      Speaking of “nice topic”, might I beg that the language used when criticizing other websites be parked? It’s unnecessarily divisive and derailing.

      Will we never get to the place where we can talk about controversial subjects without setting each other on fire when we do it?

    • Posted July 7, 2013 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

      Marta is right here; I don’t approve of using this post to go after other people or websites. While I was going after the views of a group of people, as expressed by P.Z., I’d like to keep the discussion on the topic of evolutionary psychology itself. Stuff like “Dear Leader” is an ad hom that shouldn’t be here.

      Keep it classy, please, folks.

    • Jason
      Posted July 7, 2013 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

      After reading your post, I’m fairly certain every Marxist feminist in the world simultaneously facepalmed but aren’t quite sure why. This is what happens when people in one field comment outside their field. I have Gould, Dawkins, Pinker, and Coyne on my shelf. Somehow I doubt any of you have Marx, Kollontai, Goldman, Spivak and Butler on yours. Pinker sure as hell doesn’t, which became perfectly clear after his embarrassing foray into feminism in The Blank Slate.

      If Pinker gets slimed, it’s not for being an “equity” feminist, it’s for deliberately choosing a simplistic, straw man dichotomy that utterly fails to account for the wide diversity of feminist critiques. The originator of that system dumbs it down to “liberal feminisms gooooooood, all other feminisms baaaaaaaaaad” while blatantly misrepresenting radical feminisms as being a cult of misandry and completely ignoring all the (majority) literature to the contrary. If Pinker gets slimed, it’s for being a privileged twit who feels entitled to comment on matters far outside his field of expertise then deliberately cherry picking junky sources that support his presupposed conclusions. Academic integrity, right there.

      Meanwhile, on Jerry Coyne’s blog, these statements will move absolutely no one to actually read feminist thinkers and discover for themselves why Pinker’s dichotomy is bullshit, yet will still accuse those of us who reject it of being “dogmatic.” If there is a God, Irony is its name.

      • Posted July 7, 2013 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

        I will not have my friends insulted on this site. You either apologize in your next post for calling Pinker a privileged twit or you’ll need to find somewhere else to comment.

        And your level of invective and arrogance is, by the way, a bit high for this site.

        • Jason
          Posted July 7, 2013 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

          Also: I’ll concede on “twit.” That was going too far. I was angry when I wrote it. While I respect Pinker’s work, I had some serious issues with some of his statements in The Blank Slate.

      • Jeff Johnson
        Posted July 7, 2013 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

        Well, I’ve got Spivak: “Calculus on Manifolds” and the first two volumes of “Differential Geometry”. You probably don’t have those.

        • Jason
          Posted July 7, 2013 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

          *snort*

          I see what you did there.

        • andreschuiteman
          Posted July 7, 2013 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

          That’s the good Spivak.

      • andreschuiteman
        Posted July 7, 2013 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

        Somehow I doubt any of you have Marx, Kollontai, Goldman, Spivak and Butler on yours.

        No, I must admit that I have very few, if any, books by anti-democrats, bolsheviks and their apologists on my shelves.

        This is Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak on Aleksandra Kollotai:

        Aleksandra Kollontai’s life has the quality of an exemplum for the feminist theorist of practice. What is it to articulate the revolutionary politics of class struggle with a feminist vision? How does one plan ideological transformation in the interest of lasting social change? How should the socialist feminist understand her own place in the sexual text? (…) These instances give the merest hint of the extreme moments of bourgeois feminism in the English speaking First World.

        “revolutionary politics”, “class struggle”, “bourgeois”. This drivel was not written in the Soviet Union in 1926, nor in China in 1950, nor even in Cambodia in
        1976, but was published in the Minnesota Review in 1983. Some people never learn.

        • Jason
          Posted July 7, 2013 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

          Not really the place for a discussion on this, but would you care to point out what’s wrong with what she wrote?

          • Kevin Alexander
            Posted July 8, 2013 at 4:02 am | Permalink

            Translate it into English and we can say what’s wrong with it.

          • andreschuiteman
            Posted July 8, 2013 at 5:16 am | Permalink

            Do you mean apart from not criticising Kollontai for joining the bolshevik thugs (on the contrary calling her life an exemplum, which I suppose is intended in a complimentary fashion) and apart from using without irony the Marxist cliches that have been used as excuses to destroy millions of lives? (From ‘bourgeois’ to ‘kulak’ to ‘enemy of the people’ are but small steps, as we have seen.)

            Well, apart from that, this piece is just atrociously written, as Kevin Alexander already indicated. It resembles a Google translation of what may have been an only slightly less atrociously written Indian(?)original. I was actually being mild when I called it drivel. ‘Garbage’ may have been more accurate.

            • Jason
              Posted July 8, 2013 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

              1) Yikes, god forbid people read things before speaking their minds on it. For example, taking the time to read Kollantai would reveal that she was highly critical of the Bolsheviks while they paid lip service to women’s issues. How critical? Enough to have herself booted from her position and sent off as an ambassador.

              2) This is conflating Marxism with Stalinism. Unless you’d like to point out which book or pamphlet within which Marx, Engels, Gramsci or Lukács (that’s four of the most period-relevant thinkers. There are plenty to choose from) called for gulags, extreme dogmatism, unscientific, dogma-based farming methods which led to mass starvation, et al. then please, point me in their direction because I would find their categorical rejection of everything else these men wrote fascinating. Otherwise, consider toning down the ahistorical Marxism=mass death trope or the absurd slippery slope that saying certain words magically leads to Stalinesque atrocities.

              3) Spivak is also criticizing language as she writes, and has addressed the charge that her writing is inaccessible multiple times. To me it is apparent that she wrote in precisely the manner she wanted to express herself and, just like any other complex text in the world, it falls on us to understand it. Saying you don’t like how it is written isn’t a substantive critique, but a superficial complaint. Imagine if someone came here and argued that evolution is untrue because they don’t understand it. What would the response be? Why do you think an exception should be made when you use the same argument?

              I’ll grant you that Spivak is notoriously difficult to read (if you think the above paragraph is bad, try “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism.” That one made my head spin). She writes in English (she translated Jacques Derrida’s “Of Grammatology” from French to English) and she’s well aware of her style. It’s difficult, not impossible. Her writing is complex, but so are the issues she discusses. If there’s a problem with what she writes, let’s hear it. But dismissing her because she doesn’t write in the manner you’re accustomed to? Sorry, not good enough.

              • andreschuiteman
                Posted July 9, 2013 at 3:18 am | Permalink

                This is all seriously off-topic, so I’ll keep it as short as possible (with apologies to Jerry).

                (1) An ambassador representing the Bolsheviks is still a Bolshevik.

                (2) Marx’s ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ has atrocities built straight into the concept. After all, what should be done with the non-proletarians of the world? The best they can hope for is some kind of forced re-education. We all know how that works out in practice. This is not a slippery slope argument; every single attempt to establish a dictatorship of the proletariat has resulted in mass atrocities and the establishment of a new upper class of privileged rulers. This looks very much like an inevitable outcome. There is not even a slippery slope. It is more like jumping off the north face of the Eiger without parachute and expecting to survive.

                I have to take issue with this characterisation of yours: “unscientific, dogma-based farming methods which led to mass starvation.” You are playing the apologist here. The mass starvations under Stalin in the 1920s and under Mao around 1960 were not the result of incompetence and unscientific farming methods. They were caused mainly by the state confiscating so much food from the peasants (much of it for export) that what was left was insufficient to feed them. Peasants were not considered proletarians, so presumably this was all part of the class struggle against the bourgeoisie.

                (3) As Wittgenstein stated, “What can be said at all can be said clearly; and whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.” When someone makes an effort to write as cryptically as possible, as Spivak apparently does, this is most likely not evidence of deep and significant thoughts but rather an attempt to hide the absence of such. It betrays at the very least an inability to communicate.

                (Sorry, this is both too short and too long at the same time.)

  8. Pliny the in Between
    Posted July 7, 2013 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    A problem with all of this is separating prejudice from fact which includes the progressive aversion to even considering that there may be biological factors at work. Skeptics can’t oppose the notion of the absence free will from one side of their mouth while resisting the idea that there may be very real programmed (some gender specific) behaviors underlying some of our social ills.

    If we ignore the evidence, no matter how uncomfortable it may be, we open ourselves to the same criticisms leveled against the religious.

    Studying the root causes of these problems doesn’t condone the actions. Reaching beyond our programming is the very basis of why we have laws. With the right understanding, the laws of humankind can overcome the laws of our nature.

  9. John C. Welch
    Posted July 7, 2013 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    After all, what field is more misused and misquoted than evolutionary biology? I am a frequent recipient of emails from Jews trying to convince me to reject evolution because Darwin ultimately caused the Holocaust.

    Well, Chemistry and physics come to mind :-P

    But even my own field, computers and IT, is misused. Malware, phishing and other such misuses of programming and security techniques is a global multi-billion dollar industry devoted to using a lack of skepticism so as to bilk people out of their savings and identity. Devices that let you slurp up ATM mag stripe data and PINs are now kits that require no mechanical or electrical expertise at all, and will even email you the data so you don’t have to run the risk of grabbing the devices off the ATMs you’ve attached them to.

    Should we reject computers and computer programming because they are used for ill? I doubt that would even be taken seriously as an idea, it’d be too inconvenient. The same thing with rejecting physics, chemistry, or biology because they have been misused.

    Ev psych is easy to reject, it’s still new, and you can’t point, to my knowledge, at any work it’s yet done that would cause real inconvenience if it were forgotten and deleted. So, it’s an easy target for stuff like that panel.

    I wish someone in the audience, some form of “skeptic” perhaps would have asked the members of the panel about any peer-reviewed research they’d read in the 90 days prior to the panel, so they were solidly familiar with the current state of ev psych.

    I would imagine the answers would have been most illuminating.

  10. notsont
    Posted July 7, 2013 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    I think a lot of the…aversion, to much of EP is that it is quite often used by people to justify actions, “See this study says men are predisposed to do this (insert horrific act) therefore we shouldn’t blame men when they do (insert horrific act)”

    • Posted July 7, 2013 at 10:01 am | Permalink

      Rather like the free will argument, people should still be held responsible for their actions. Having more information as to why certain behaviors exist only expands our toolbox for proper prevention and treatment. I don’t think anyone really believes that it’s “ok” for males to rape females due to evolutionary influences. I really, really hope that is the case anyhow.

      • Boris Tchevchenko
        Posted July 7, 2013 at 10:07 am | Permalink

        That’s pretty much exactly what the naturalistic fallacy is. Just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s right or appropriate. War is natural. Tribalism is natural. Rape is natural. Natural =/= good.
        Medicine isn’t natural. Technology isn’t natural. Any sort of social order more complex than an extended family group isn’t natural. Unatural =/= bad.

        • Posted July 7, 2013 at 10:38 am | Permalink

          Ahh….I’m kind of embarrassed then. I didn’t think that people…hrm…I can’t even put it into words…I didn’t realize there was a title for that level of gullibility.

          • Posted July 7, 2013 at 11:23 am | Permalink

            I don’t think people fall for it so much as people think (hope / fear) that other people will fall for it.

            In PZ’s case, he’s afraid that evolutionary psychology will reveal effective tricks for men to use to get women into bed with them, and that will lead to a culture of rape. The misogynist crowd will be looking for excuses for their behavior with the hope that it’ll let them get away with more shit.

            In all cases, everybody’s convinced that they’re too smart to fall for that sort of thing, themselves, yet they’re convinced that nobody else is smart enough to figure it out.

            It’s actually a perfect parallel for the accommodationist reasoning that we shouldn’t disabuse the little people of their religious fantasies because it might upset them and then how will we control them?

            Cheers,

            b&

            • Posted July 7, 2013 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

              Well, quite a number of people do fall for it, quite often, but in its very slightly modified form, the Appeal to Nature.

              Take a stroll down the homeopathy aisle (a major selling point is “all natural!”), visit the RawForBeauty Facebook page, and, oh my god! Did you just eat a GMO?!

              • Posted July 7, 2013 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

                True, too true.

                And, let’s not forget: hemlock is natural, and Luther Burbank was a genetic engineer….

                But it is, as you note, a different angle on the subject.

                b&

            • andreschuiteman
              Posted July 7, 2013 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

              Those who argue against EP tend to employ the Appeal to Consequences fallacy, in particular by making the strawman argument that those who accept EP tend to fall for the Naturalistic fallacy. It’s fallacies all the way down.

      • Jeff Johnson
        Posted July 7, 2013 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

        Yes, because another obvious conclusion in the context of evolutionary psychology, heavily backed up by anthropology and by our observations of present day society, is that over time humanity has developed civilization, culture, and various societal institutions that counterbalance some of our more anti-social traits.

        The argument is not about the existence of such changes, but over the extent to which biological and cultural evolution play a determining role. This is mostly a question with no clear answers though, kind of like the nature vs nurture debate.

        • Posted July 7, 2013 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

          Indeed, there have been enough generations of humans with some form of civilization for evolution to have worked its magic. It’s quite likely that the allele frequency has shifted in the past ten thousand years in such a way that today’s humans are more fit for living in civil society than our forebears.

          Though, of course, such changes may well be subtle given the relatively short timespan in question.

          Cheers,

          b&

          • Posted July 7, 2013 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

            I would like to think so.

          • Jeff Johnson
            Posted July 7, 2013 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

            I’m speculating like a popular evolutionary psychologist here, but a few million years of tool making and social cooperation in hunter-gatherer bands must have been laying important biological foundations that enabled civilization to take hold (no teleology intended here) while cultural evolution fed off the expansion of brain capacity. A dynamic process of feedback between biological and cultural evolution must have occurred over this time period, with the rate and role of cultural evolution accelerating as more complex societies developed.

            It seems a maddening but also fascinating task to try to untangle the roles of biology and cultural evolution, for example, in the development of language. Cultural evolution has the property of being transmissible horizontally as well as from generation to generation. It’s an interesting question to ask whether language was solely enabled by expansion of brain capacity, or whether the success of primitive language formation among early hominins triggered the expansion of brain capacity. I don’t know if anyone has a convincing theory about this. Something I need to read more about (when I find the time).

    • Taylor M. Brown
      Posted July 7, 2013 at 10:13 am | Permalink

      Look up “Naturalistic Fallacy.”

    • Gary W
      Posted July 7, 2013 at 11:44 am | Permalink

      I think a lot of the…aversion, to much of EP is that it is quite often used by people to justify actions, “See this study says men are predisposed to do this (insert horrific act) therefore we shouldn’t blame men when they do (insert horrific act)”

      I think your “quite often” is a gross exaggeration, and I defy you to find even a single example of a reputable EP researcher who has done what you claim above. I think it’s rare even in pop reporting of EP. In any case, rejecting science because some people use it to make specious social or political arguments (see also Social Darwinism) is completely irrational. The problem with people like PZ is that they are unwilling or unable to distinguish the science from ideology.

      • Posted July 7, 2013 at 11:55 am | Permalink

        notsont wrote that people often use the findings to justify actions, and even gave the example of, “See this study says….”

        Your defiant challenge that no reputable researcher has done that is a shameless strawman.

        Knowing you, you’ll now shift the goalposts and insist that I or notsont provide peer-reviewed references describing people who distort the peer-reviewed literature like that, but I’m personally not interested in playing your games today.

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Gary W
          Posted July 7, 2013 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

          notsont wrote that people often use the findings to justify actions

          What “people?” Where did they say this? Since you seem to agree with notsont that this happens “quite often,” you shouldn’t have any problem coming up with a long list of names and quotes.

          • Jeff Johnson
            Posted July 7, 2013 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

            Even prior to the popularization of evolutionary psychology, there have been prevalent cases of evolutionary, biological, genetic justifications for male sexual behavior such as rape or promiscuity.

            Who hasn’t encountered the “she asked for it” justification? Then the Senate candidate from Missouri for the R’s who claimed that a woman’s body “shuts all that down” during rape, a biological justification for lessening the concern about ensuring access to abortion in the case of rape induced unwanted pregnancy.

            Who has never heard a man make excuses for his infidelities in terms of the biological imperative for a male to spread his seed?

            So while I can’t cite specific examples of popular media citing an EP based justification for some bad behavior, who can look at the history of male bastards, especially conservative male bastards, excusing sexist behavior by appealing to nature and biology, and sincerely doubt that this more “sophisticated” form of the same thing would not be taken advantage of by likeminded opportunists?

            It would shock me to learn that Rush Limbaugh had never appealed to some popularized notion of evolutionary psychology in either justifying conservatives or denouncing liberals.

            This is not a reference to actual EP scholarship, but it is an example of corrupted evolutionary psychology infecting pop culture: http://jezebel.com/5941433/you-can-tell-evolutionary-psychology-isnt-true-because-its-not-true

            • Gary W
              Posted July 7, 2013 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

              Who hasn’t encountered the “she asked for it” justification? Then the Senate candidate from Missouri for the R’s who claimed that a woman’s body “shuts all that down” during rape, a biological justification for lessening the concern about ensuring access to abortion in the case of rape induced unwanted pregnancy.

              Neither falsely asserting that a woman consented to sex nor falsely asserting that a woman cannot become pregnant through rape has anything to do with evolutionary psychology.

              Who has never heard a man make excuses for his infidelities in terms of the biological imperative for a male to spread his seed?

              I’ve never heard this. Please document it. And again, this has nothing to do with evolutionary psychology. A man could try to excuse his infidelities on the grounds of a strong desire to have sex with other women regardless of whether that desire was the result of biology or culture.

              This is not a reference to actual EP scholarship

              Yes, not only is it not a reference to actual EP scholarship, it’s completely worthless. An opinion piece attacking EP by a writer on a feminist blog who clearly has no understanding of the field and who doesn’t even pretend to offer a serious critique. The title alone (“You Can Tell Evolutionary Psychology Isn’t True Because It’s Not True”) should have clued you in to the vapidity of the piece.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted July 7, 2013 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

                Yes, I think the “boys will be boys” excuse predates EP. So does girls are made of sugar and spice and everything nice while boys are made from slugs and snails and puppy-dogs’ tails. I always thought boys were made from way better stuff. I was indignant of this nursery rhyme as a little girl but my point is, these are cultural attitudes independent of EP.

            • gbjames
              Posted July 10, 2013 at 5:52 am | Permalink

              It isn’t just Rush Limbaugh. Using “Democrat” where “Democratic” is correct is standard Republican language use. They use it as a sign of disrespect.

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted July 10, 2013 at 6:04 am | Permalink

                Indeed they do. It practically qualifies as a shibboleth for clan membership.

                You probably meant to reply to this post: http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2013/07/07/a-defense-of-evolutionary-psychology-mostly-by-steve-pinker/#comment-465883

              • gbjames
                Posted July 10, 2013 at 6:16 am | Permalink

                Yes, Jeff. Sometimes WordPress just doesn’t cooperate with me.

              • Diane G.
                Posted July 10, 2013 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

                I thought they used it so as not to give Dems the benefit of sounding democratic, an otherwise positive word and one that connotes our national ideals better than the perhaps more apt ‘republican.’

                But of course, that has the result you mention.

                We could try calling them the Republic party and see how it goes. Or maybe have a war of syllable attrition…

              • gbjames
                Posted July 10, 2013 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

                You sometimes hear the tea party types run on about the US being a republic not a democracy. It’s how they spend their time.

              • Diane G.
                Posted July 10, 2013 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

                Well, good, if it keeps them occupied and out of everyone else’s hair.

                Though I might suggest crocheting.

          • Posted July 7, 2013 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

            Gary, ample examples have already been posted in this example.

            But here’s a good starting point for your further research:

            http://bit.ly/vtrdvR

            Cheers,

            b&

            • Gary W
              Posted July 7, 2013 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

              Gary, ample examples have already been posted in this example.

              What examples?

              But here’s a good starting point for your further research

              It’s not my job to look for evidence for your assertions. That’s your job. Show us your evidence.

              • Posted July 7, 2013 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

                Since you’re too lazy to even bother to click on a link that I provided for you — or too blind to notice that I provided one — then I really don’t see any point in providing you with any replies past one for you to use as an excuse for further bloviation.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • NewEnglandBob
                Posted July 7, 2013 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

                He just did.

                On that note, I unsubscribe.

              • Gary W
                Posted July 7, 2013 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

                Your link is to a google search box. I asked for evidence that “people often use the findings [of evolutionary psychology] to justify actions.” Still waiting for it.

            • Leo
              Posted July 8, 2013 at 4:32 am | Permalink

              Pharos University of Alexandria? But seriously.

              Pickup artists use evolutionary psychology even less than my grandmother uses astronomy when she cooks. So pointing at http://www.pick-up-artist-forum.com/ as proof of anything is a bit pointless.

              Also, as fun as they sometimes are to read, it’s a good idea to take any atricle published on a Gawker site with several very large grains of salt. As for the ‘mate preferences with presumed evolutionary roots’, Chrostopher Boehm in his ‘Moral Origin’ (p. 299) paints a somewhat different picture of what the cave-men from whose shadow we’re supposed to be stepping out of wanted.

              • Posted July 8, 2013 at 6:42 am | Permalink

                The question isn’t whether the PUAs and the MRAs and the rest are legitimately applying the information learned from science, any more than than the Social Darwinists are actually preaching anything related to anything Darwin himself wrote. Nobody here is suggesting that they are.

                The point we’re making is that they craft their gobbledy-gook to rhyme with the findings of evolutionary psychologists so that they themselves take on a patina of something they hope will resemble legitimacy.

                And that itself is only a sideshow, because the real act is that PZ would seem to think that the fact that the misogyny corps is wont to do that is sufficient reason to deep-six the whole field of evolutionary psychology.

                b&

  11. Boris Tchevchenko
    Posted July 7, 2013 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    Evo-Psych isn’t misused often by “people”, it’s misused by a small group of rabid idiots who call themselves PUA, or “pick up artists”, basically a bunch of conmen selling self-justified rage to insecure hormonal teenagers.
    It’s also misused and misrepresented by what I would call the flip side of that “gender war”, the dogmatic and unskeptical radical feminists. One of the other speakers on that pannel was supposed to be Rebecca Watson, of “men are testosterone damaged women” fame, which is completely an evolutionary psychological arguement to make. The only difference is that it criticized the “enemy”, and thus was a perfectly valid arguement. There is no consistent philosophy there beyond “women good, men bad”.
    Which completely ignores that evo psych doesn’t set out to take any sides on the “gender war”, but it’s conclusions can be rabidly misused by misogynists and misandrists respectively.

    • wildhog
      Posted July 7, 2013 at 11:49 am | Permalink

      “Evo-Psych isn’t misused often by “people”, it’s misused by a small group of rabid idiots who call themselves PUA, or “pick up artists”, basically a bunch of conmen selling self-justified rage to insecure hormonal teenagers.”

      Would love it if you could provide some examples of such misuse of evo-phych.

      • Jason
        Posted July 7, 2013 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

        Google “pick up artist.”

        TA DAH.

        • wildhog
          Posted July 7, 2013 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

          I googled “pick up artist”, but didnt find any such examples. I did find interesting articles like this one:

          http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-attraction-doctor/201301/do-pick-artist-techniques-really-work

          The author does make reference to evo-psych, saying, “When [pick up artist techniques] work, they do so by tapping into some very basic, evolutionary and psychological mechanisms.” However, the author has a phd in social and personality psychology, as well as a Master in social work (not what I could call a rabid idiot), and I wouldnt describe the readers of “Psychology Today” as “insecure hormonal teenagers.”

          Perhaps you’re viewing this topic through the lens of some sort of issue of your own?

          • Leo
            Posted July 8, 2013 at 2:51 am | Permalink

            There’s a(n) (in)famous book called “The Game” by a gentleman who calls himself Neil Strauss. I haven’t studied it in detail, but from what I’ve read, it has nothing to do with nor is it based on science of any kind (evolutionary psychology included).

      • Pirate
        Posted July 16, 2013 at 3:17 am | Permalink

        For a specific example, google “Chateau Heartiste”, but only if you have a strong stomach. The proprietor of that fine website often uses pop evo-psych to bolster his reprehensible views on gender relations.

    • mordacious1
      Posted July 7, 2013 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

      “… Rebecca Watson, of “men are testosterone damaged women” fame…”

      I might be wrong, but I thought it was Laden who said that men’s brains are just testosterone damaged women’s brains.

  12. Stephen Barnard
    Posted July 7, 2013 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    I read PZ’s blog and generally like his point of view, but I think he’s sometimes too motivated by ideology. Evo psych is vulnerable to just-so stories in pop science journalism, but that doesn’t mean the whole enterprise is wothless.

    • dongiovanni
      Posted July 7, 2013 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

      Sounds about right… then again, everyone has some objectionable qualities.

  13. Posted July 7, 2013 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    Pinker is one of my favorites — especially since he offers sound arguments on topics of great interest to me, language and the mind, and lately a topic I didn’t know I was interested in: the decline of violence.

    “the fundamental premise of evolutionary psychology is absolutely sound: our brains, like the rest of our bodies, are the product of evolution and natural selection over the past six million years, and some of our current behaviors reflect that evolution.”

    I think that’s about as succinct as it can be put.

    • D. Taylor
      Posted July 7, 2013 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

      Pinker’s capacity to be both succinct and profound at the same time is, indeed, extraordinary. My favorite example is from a 2007 occasion when Pinker was a guest on The Colbert Report. Colbert asked:
      “How does the brain work – in five words or less?”
      Without hesitation, Pinker shot back:
      “Let’s see. Brain cells fire in patterns.”

      So absolutely spot on! He is remarkable. And as someone who has followed evolutionary psychology closely for years myself, I am quite convinced that Pinker understands it very well.

      • Jeff Johnson
        Posted July 7, 2013 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

        Colbert is often able to befuddle his guests with his quickness and spontaneous off-the-wall psuedo-hyper-conservative opinions.

        I can easily imagine Pinker being able to run circles around Colbert. He seems way smarter than even the smartest people I’ve ever met.

        Of course, if I had to guess Colbert’s response, it would be “I’m sorry, but you lose, that’s seven words” (counting “Let’s see.”)

  14. krzysztof1
    Posted July 7, 2013 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    I continue to be impressed with Pinker’s clarity of thought.

  15. Cliff Melick
    Posted July 7, 2013 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this post, Jerry.

    I can’t help feeling a bit sad, however, that in all probability, most of the people at the conference who were subjected to Myer’s criticism of evolutionary psychology will not see the responses from Steve Pinker that you posted.

  16. Posted July 7, 2013 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    It seems to this non-biologist, non-psychologist that PZ’s use of “justification” in the bit to which Pinker didn’t respond is an obvious mischaracterization of ev-psych’s goal.

    Explanation is not the same as justification.

    When ev-psych claims to explain my desire for lots of high-calorie foods, it is not giving me the ok to binge on brownies and doughnuts every day.

    • Posted July 7, 2013 at 11:39 am | Permalink

      Are there research/evidentiary problems with EP? Maybe. As I wrote, I am a layperson. I’m neither defending nor indicting the field. But that word “justification” seems obviously problematic.

    • Grania Spingies
      Posted July 7, 2013 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

      “When ev-psych claims to explain my desire for lots of high-calorie foods, it is not giving me the ok to binge on brownies and doughnuts every day.”

      Exactly.

      Being able to explain something is not the same as excusing it at all.

  17. andreschuiteman
    Posted July 7, 2013 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    How many evolutionary psychologists were on that panel? None, of course. A panellist with actual credentials in the field might have burst their ideological bubble. Ignorance is bliss.

    I find it disappointing and disturbing to see PZ Myers, who has done good work fighting creationism, descending to creationist-level science denialism himself. Science and ideology mix as poorly as science and religion.

    • Posted July 7, 2013 at 11:51 am | Permalink

      It also suggests a profound lack of confidence on his part in his own position.

      If the territory he’s staked our is sound, he has nothing to worry about. If he’s intellectually honest and new findings suggest his position isn’t sound, he still has nothing t worry about; just revise the position based on the new discovery and go from there.

      But not even looking — and especially discouraging others from looking and being dismissive of their findings — because the findings might not comport with your current position? That’s the defining characteristic of an ideologue.

      And PZ damned well should know better. Really, he has no excuse.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • andreschuiteman
        Posted July 7, 2013 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

        It’s even worse than not looking. It’s deliberately misrepresenting a field of enquiry because its findings are not convenient for your ideology-driven position.

      • gillt
        Posted July 7, 2013 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

        Ben

        First, they haven’t read widely in the discipline, and are criticizing either pop-culture versions of the field

        But that’s not the case Ben. PZ has read and reviewed some Evo Psych papers before

        http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/category/bad_science/evolutionary-psychology/

        Now it’s obvious to me that PZ is selectively applying hyperskepticism to a field he doesn’t like as opposed to other similar and well-established fields such as quantitative genetics.

        • T.
          Posted July 10, 2013 at 3:27 am | Permalink

          From PZ article you quote:
          “A recent analysis of the top journals in six sub‐disciplines of Psychology from 2003‐2007 revealed that 68% of subjects came from the US, and a full 96% of subjects were from Western industrialized countries, specifically North America, Europe, Australia, and Israel (Arnett 2008). 67% of the American samples (and 80% of the samples from other countries) were composed solely of undergraduates in psychology courses”

          How is this hyperskepticism? If I would see a, say, ob-gyn paper in which 67% white college women I would consider it spurious and useless (it is a well-know fact african-american women have more problem in childbirth and that lower-income people are less likely to be healthy in general).

          ___

          Also, I find amusing the idea that women couldn’t have a rape-gene, if such a gene exists (but please, before show me the arm-gene and the ear-gene*). Isn’t it better for me if I can, say, rape Benedict Cumberbatch? He is intelligent, handsome and has proved to have good genetic, and having an offspring with him would be surely better than having it with just everybody. He doesn’t want to breed with me? Too bad. Lets rape him and get his baby.
          The fact that women often find ways to get a good genetic for their offspring is so forgotten… (1 over 7 child on average is not child of his father. Ops. Another interesting tidbits of information: overhelming, the bio-father will be of HIGHER SOCIAL STANDING than the social-father. The number is a avarage, the more monogamous women? Amish women, 1 in 20 children not child of the social-father).

          *I am fully aware that there is no such thing as a ear-gene or a arm-gene. Our bodies are made from the complex interaction of many genes. Genes like the BRCA mutation that code for a particular disease are relatively rare, and getting cancer is a lot easier to code than rape is. Similarly, our brains are coded by several genes working in veery complex ways. As such, I find the idea of “finding the rape-gene” amusing. Find me the autism-gene, since we are at it… *lesigh* Possibly, there are many genes that codes for autism, too. And there may be substitution in which some genes may be substitute for others…

    • gillt
      Posted July 7, 2013 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

      If true, then it is a suspiciously odd oversight to dedicate part of a panel to criticizing a scientific discipline and not invite any researchers/experts from that discipline. I suppose one could argue that since this isn’t a science (but science fiction) conference therefore we shouldn’t expect discussions about actual science to be very serious or objective…though the organizers did go out of their way to invite a lot of biologists, biologists who aren’t evolutionary psychologists by training or occupation.

  18. Jeff Johnson
    Posted July 7, 2013 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    When E.O. Wilson published Sociobiology I think much, but not all, resistence to it was effectively political correctness.

    It was an article of liberal faith that the human could be remade into something, if not perfect, at least something without racism, sexism, violence, and other pernicious traits that always seem to throw a wrench into any dreams of utopia. One way this faith is characterized is in modeling the human character as a “Blank Slate”. I certainly adopted this faith for much of my life.

    To challenge this faith with the notion that there are negative aspects of human nature that are instinctual and biological, rather than conditioned by or learned by negative reinforcement from the environment, wired in rather than being theoretically unlearnable or correctable, was an unpardonable affront to a lot of political ideology.

    When I first read P.Z. Myers quote that “developmental plasticity” is everything, it immediately set off the “Blank Slate” alarm in my brain. It raises the suspicion that his thinking is clouded to some degree by a committment to political correctness. And sure enough Pinker in this email suggests that relying on plasticity is a kind of substitute for the Blank Slate, which essentially is the belief that the human can learn or unlearn any traits, and thus be molded by society into the ideal citizen of liberal utopia. The truth is messier than that of course.

    Just over a decade ago I read Steven Pinker’s “The Blank Slate”, after devouring an earlier book of his “The Language Instinct”. Prior to that most of my education and self education had been limited to physics, math, and computer technology. I had never studied biology, just a tiny bit of psychology, little politics, history, economics, anthropology, or philosophy. All that stuff just seemed to be messy symptomatic specific cases or conditional contingent embodiments of the more noble and fundamental truths of math and physics, and thus for me less interesting.

    Of course that was a silly self-limiting viewpoint in many respects, a kind of nerdly refuge in familiar territory, and The Blank Slate really opened my eyes, changed my thinking on many subjects, and made me fascinated for the first time with something I had always kind of taken for granted, the human brain and consciousness. It awakened my interest in biology, evolution, and all things human.

    Anyone who hasn’t read The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker, I can’t recommend it enough. I think it is the best of all of his books.

    He starts by challenging three common notions that affect people’s thinking about humans, three notions that are opposed to the idea that certain aspects of human nature are inherent and biological: 1. The Blank Slate 2. The Noble Savage, and 3. The Ghost in the Machine.

    Each these notions have long been used to argue against the notion of a genetically based biological human nature. In the first part of the book Pinker entirely demolishes each of these notions.

    He then goes about examining the implications for a variety concerns of society, social science, and humanities, including politics, art, economics, feminism, racism, conservatism, liberalism, etc.

    The liberal reaction to Wilson’s Sociobiology turns out to have included many misconceptions, as Pinker successfully argues. Pinker shows that the idea of a biological nature actually reinforces some liberal ideals while contradicting others, and the same goes for conservative ideals. But he shows how this better understanding of the human being can improve how we think about and order human society.

    When I read this book it challenged several cherished notions and articles of faith, and the result was that rare thing, a book that actually changed my mind about many things.

    Perhaps I need to reread the book. It may be the case that much of the thinking and argumentation of this book has been broadly absorbed into academic culture and thinking in many fields. So many of his arguments may seem less provocative or exciting today than they did when I first read it. But I still consider this to be one of the best and important books I’ve read in my lifetime.

    • gbjames
      Posted July 7, 2013 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

      I completely agree with the value of The Blank Slate.

    • Posted July 7, 2013 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

      “…can learn or unlearn…”

      I think an even better way of describing the fallacy of the Blank Slate is to say that we are born without instincts, that nothing about our behavior or nature is hardwired, and that everything is therefore necessarily learned.

      Any parent who was paying attention during their child’s first couple of years will recognize that as baloney.

      And I must concur. The Blank Slate is a great book, and remarkably broad. So many issues areas of human endeavor are discussed.

  19. wildhog
    Posted July 7, 2013 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    I really enjoyed this post. I was raised by a feminist mother who was probably a “blank slater”. It was evo-psych that rescued me from cluelessness about the sexes and human nature in general.

    “Second, it’s pretty clear that the opposition to evolutionary psychology from these quarters is ideologically rather than scientifically motivated.”

    I have an ex who fits that description perfectly. Ironically, when we first met, the thing we connected over was a book by SJ Gould and an interest in evo-biology. Fast-foward a few years and she became a masters student in American History. The deep immersion in that program seemed to do her mind more harm than good. I showed her an article by Pinker at one point and she was enraged by it. She made the assertion that evo-psych was about justifying racism and sexism. (Of course, she didnt believe race exists.)

    • Jason
      Posted July 7, 2013 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

      Wow. Sounds like you could learn a thing or two from her.

      1) Evo-psych, like Social Darwinism before it, does justify these things. If true, we can’t be mad at humans for being racists any more than we can be mad at cats for scratching things. It’s part of their nature. It’s essentialism, an old idea that’s been done before.

      2) On no planet is there an inconsistency between considering race as a social construction and thinking people are racists. Even though Jesus probably never existed, people are still Christians. Even though race doesn’t exist, people are still racists.

      • Gary W
        Posted July 7, 2013 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

        Evo-psych, like Social Darwinism before it, does justify these things.

        Nonsense. EP is an effort to describe and understand why people think and behave as they do, not to justify any behavior.

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted July 7, 2013 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

          I totally agree: nonsense.

          There is a big difference between understanding and explaining something, and justifying it.

          There have always been men who would try to justify rape. They will use any tool they can find, including EP. Just because ignorant people use EP to justify something doesn’t mean one can blame EP for that.

          Oh, and I forgot to sub…

      • wildhog
        Posted July 7, 2013 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

        “Evo-psych, like Social Darwinism before it, does justify these things. If true, we can’t be mad at humans for being racists”

        Sure we can. Just because we have a tendency doesnt mean we have to act on it.

      • Posted July 7, 2013 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

        As has already been pointed out repeatedly, just this is the naturalistic fallacy.

        For example, we are evolutionarily predisposed to like foods that are sweet, but that doesn’t justify eating nothing but ice cream. It is, however, essential to understanding why you might feel an urge to eat nothing but ice cream, and make it possible to come up with ways to eat better food.

        You’d be an idiot for blaming personal obesity on evolutionary factors that cause somebody to eat only ice cream…and you’ve be even more of an idiot to insist that we shouldn’t study the evolutionary origins of our food preferences because somebody might then get fat after reading the study and then only eating ice cream.

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted July 7, 2013 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

          ….puts down big spoon and skulks away from huge bowl of ice cream. :) Joking of course but completely agree here. I really like knowing the answers to things like this but I’m not going to use it to justify my behaviour (except in jokes).

          • Posted July 7, 2013 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

            Well, there are behaviors that you can have some evolutionary justification in engaging in — such as snacking on nuts and berries and eating plenty of fresh and minimally-processed food, much of which still remains the tastiest options.

            But ya gotta use some criteria in addition to evolution / history to justify such things.

            b&

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted July 7, 2013 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

          Who needs evolutionary psychology as a scape goat? The Devil made me do it. ;)

          • Posted July 7, 2013 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

            Did I twist your arm? Did I hold a gun to your head? Did I threaten your family?

            Well, did I?

            Sheesh. Why the hell am I the one who always gets the blame? Sure be nice for people to take some personal responsibility for the actions for a change….

            Cheers,

            b&

        • threeflangedjavis
          Posted July 8, 2013 at 7:47 am | Permalink

          Actually, you might be able to blame obesity on genes.Their levels of hormones indicating fullness differ from the norm. The desire for fatty and sugary foods is also affected by these hormone levels. It would take an astonishing level of willpower to overcome a constant craving for fatty foods.

          • Posted July 8, 2013 at 8:14 am | Permalink

            There’s very likely a genetic component to obesity — but that most emphatically doesn’t mean that all people who are obese are obese because of their genetic makeup, or that those whose obesity comes at least in part from their genetic makeup are doomed to obesity.

            As for the willpower question…there are ways to help mitigate the problem. For example, if you were to stuff yourself silly with fresh vegetables, that would help reduce your cravings. Further, if you only permit yourself to indulge in your cravings after you’ve eaten an entire bunch of celery and an entire head of cabbage, you’re probably not going to want to eat as much of whatever you’re craving — and, when you do, the deleterious effects won’t be so bad. And there aren’t any deleterious health effects from stuffing yourself silly with fresh vegetables.

            I’d suggest that almost all dietary problems could be greatly diminished by telling people to start every meal by stuffing themselves silly with fresh vegetables.

            Cheers,

            b&

      • Jeff Johnson
        Posted July 7, 2013 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

        Re: race, the fact that humans are able to generate and use social constructions at all probably has an EP explanation, which throws some irony into the simplistic view that EP justifies racism.

        Sure, the biological basis for race is thin to non-existent, but human psychology certainly seems to include a fear of the other, of anything foreign, strange, unusual, or different. But EP can also explain why humans can lose that fear when the strange is rendered familiar through extended contact.

        It’s not as if EP denies plasticity. It helps define some limits to plasticity.

        • Gary W
          Posted July 7, 2013 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

          Sure, the biological basis for race is thin to non-existent

          Not true. See this, for example.

      • gbjames
        Posted July 7, 2013 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

        What particular definition of “race” are you using?

      • Posted July 7, 2013 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

        Regarding no 1:

        You’ve just made the same argument William Lane Craig makes when he insists that if god were non-existent, we’d be no more accountable than lions that “murder” or sharks that “rape”; that without god there can be no “murder” or “rape” because animals do it and we don’t call it “murder” or “rape” and we would simply be another kind of animal instead of god’s special pets.

        Shelly Kagan quickly dispatched this argument by noting that the cognitive differences between organisms matter. A 1-year-old who destroys a piece of your property hasn’t committed a crime but if an adult does so, s/he is a vandal because of the disparity in cognitive capabilities between the two. When it comes to humans and animals, our bigger brains mean we have to measure ourselves against higher standards.

        Like Spidey says: with great power comes great responsibility.

      • articulett
        Posted July 7, 2013 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

        Although evo-psych might make us more likely to understand racism/tribalism and the like, it doesn’t make us more likely to justify these things, silly! Evo-psych might also help explain why men are more likely to be violent than women or why women are more likely to be risk averse than men– or why babies suffer separation anxiety at a certain age– But that is hardly the same as endorsing such traits. To the extent that genes influence these traits, they can be selected for or against in the environment. Human clearly evolved “to be” very sexual and produce lots of offspring very easily without trying to hard… that doesn’t mean most humans think that big families are good or that most of us don’t attempt to limit our reproduction while still enjoying sex.

        Think of the traits that allow men to control harems– surely the genes involved in those traits are preferentially passed on as are the traits of women who have the most children (submissive/religious?). The X chromosome spends 2/3 of it’s time in woman and so we’d expect the genes on there to favor health and reproductive success of woman– whereas, genes on the Y chromosome will be selected in accordance with how well their owner does in the reproduction lottery.

  20. Jason
    Posted July 7, 2013 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    Spare me your moaning about politically/ideologically-motivated responses. Science has always been subsumed in ideology and politics, and anyone who denies this either hasn’t adequately studied its history, ignores it, or hasn’t been keeping up. From the racist biology of the early twentieth century to the weaponization of physics for political ends to the profit-driven funding of scientific research, science is and always has been TOP TO BOTTOM a politically and ideologically saturated endeavor. I’m sure Mr. Coyne feels it whenever he’s searching for grant money. Objective inquiry is the ideal, not the reality, nor can it be when conducted by subjective beings with interests and biases. (Before someone constructs another straw man, no, I am not claiming that all science is based on ideological whim nor that we should reject science because of its external influences.)

    Now we’re confronted with a branch of “science” (apparently resurrected essentialism based almost entirely on speculation without the kind of evidence trail the rest of evolutionary studies have at their disposal passes for science these days) that is nearly indistinguishable from Social Darwinism. If the response has been too political for your taste, it’s because the science is too political for ours.

    • Marta
      Posted July 7, 2013 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

      An otherwise excellent argument ruined by the manner in which you make it.

      Eesh. It’s like I’m the diary police or something.

      • Jeff Johnson
        Posted July 7, 2013 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

        Yes, overcoming the opening “Spare me your moaning” made me expend some useless energy overcoming the impulse to want to disagree with everything the author wrote, simply because of that tone.

        There are many good points about the commonly understood notion that science is a double edged sword, and society can be prone to misusing the findings of science.

        But I think it veers way off course by comparing evolutionary psychology to such societal misuses of science, and especially by comparing it to Social Darwinism. Such a comparison can only be made based on a popularized oversimplification of EP. To refute this idea, one need only re-read what Pinker wrote in his email above.

      • Jason
        Posted July 7, 2013 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

        Fair enough. I was pretty cranky when I wrote it.

    • andreschuiteman
      Posted July 7, 2013 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

      You are confusing the (ab)use of science with science itself. If you want to discard theories of evolutionary psychology you should do that by pointing out why a specific, published and peer-reviewed paper is flawed, not by throwing around vague insinuations about essentialism or by comparing EP to a discredited social movement (not a science) like social Darwinism. I guess you are not a scientist.

    • wildhog
      Posted July 7, 2013 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

      “Now we’re confronted with a branch of “science” (apparently resurrected essentialism based almost entirely on speculation without the kind of evidence trail the rest of evolutionary studies have at their disposal passes for science these days) that is nearly indistinguishable from Social Darwinism.”

      Nearly indistinguishable? No. Social Darwinism seeks to justify in-compassionate behavior. Evolutionary biology only seeks to understand the evolutionary origins of our psychological mechanisms. If you cant distinguish between justifying an action and understanding motivation, that says something about you, not the science.

    • gillt
      Posted July 7, 2013 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

      I am not claiming that all science is based on ideological whim nor that we should reject science because of its external influences.)

      Then you just undercut your entire point for you devote the entire paragraph to the claim that the entire scientific enterprise, from securing funding to interpreting data to its history, is political. Maybe it’s just the kind of science you don’t undersand that gets tarred with sub-objectivism.

      • Jason
        Posted July 7, 2013 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

        Baseless speculation is baseless. The point was not to make a categorical statement. Gravity is pretty non-political but where there are social implications, history has taught us to proceed with caution.

        • gillt
          Posted July 7, 2013 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

          Instead of telling, show us the pairwise comparison of EP and “the rest of evolutionary studies” that you undertook which supports your claim that EP is Social Darwinism and “resurrected essentialism.”

        • Gary W
          Posted July 7, 2013 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

          You haven’t shown that evolutionary psychology is “baseless speculation.” You haven’t offered any serious scientific critique of the field at all. You just keep uttering your magic words (“essentialism!” “speculation!”) as if that somehow constitutes a serious argument.

          • threeflangedjavis
            Posted July 8, 2013 at 7:56 am | Permalink

            It’s very frustrating when you just know you are right but just can’t find that smoking gun to kill off the opposition. Have some compassion for the guy.

    • dongiovanni
      Posted July 7, 2013 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

      Alan Sokal might want a word with you.

  21. gillt
    Posted July 7, 2013 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    JAC:

    First, they haven’t read widely in the discipline, and are criticizing either pop-culture versions of the field…

    Which is what Pinker does here with a field whose “sociology” he is obviously unfamiliar.

    P:

    Plasticity became an all-purpose fudge factor in the 1990s (just like “epigenetics” is today).

    • Posted July 7, 2013 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

      Sorry, but I happen to know that Steve knows a great deal about epigenetics, and so do I. In fact, we both know at least enough to see that the “fudge factor” comment is pretty accurate, for epigenetics is often invoked as the “missing element” in the Darwinian synthesis on specious grounds. I’ve posted on this quite often.

      • gillt
        Posted July 7, 2013 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

        Yes, and I’ve commented on some of those posts and, while generally okay, pointed out where they oversimplify or are are otherwise lacking.

        Granted it maybe be true that just like in pop-culture epigenetics may be used as a fudge factor among evolutionary biologists but questions in evolutionary biology are not where most epigenetic research is conducted. Look to cancer and biomedical research. For those in the field who want to stay abreast, you could do worse than subscribe to Epi-genie’s newsletter* (a topical post from that website germaine: http://epigenie.com/messed-up-epigenetic-modifications-at-the-root-of-cancer/

        and Nature’s “Next Generation Sequencing” newsletter http://www.nature.com/subject/nextgenseq
        Peruse the “Recent Articles from NPG”

        *I recently reviewed a book chapter for that site on epigenetics and the evolution of the mammalian genome.

  22. --bill
    Posted July 7, 2013 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    Pinker says: “The savannah is a red herring – that’s just a convenient dichotomization of the relevant continuum, which is evolutionary history. A minimal commitment to “pre-modern” gives you the same conclusions. By saying that the brain could not have been biologically adapted to stable government, police, literacy, medicine, science, reliable statistics, prevalence of high-calorie food, etc., you don’t need to go back to the savannah; you just need to say that these were all relevantly recent in most people’s evolutionary history.”

    This article in the New York Times suggests that humans have evolved within the last 10,000 years. Wouldn’t that undermine this assumption?

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted July 7, 2013 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think so. What Pinker is saying, as I read it, is that it is incorrect to say that EP assumes human biology is tuned to the Savannah. The Savannah, as a synecdoch, is just a term to represent pre-modern human evolutionary history because the bulk of it was on the Savannah. It’s a linguistic short cut, a form of metonymy, not to be taken literally as the source of all human evolution.

      Pinker is countering the claim by PZ that EP says the Savannah can account for everything. He does not say no evolution has occurred in the last 10,000 years, just that most of it occurred before the last 10,000 years.

      As I see it, he is saying that it is unrealistic that 10,000 years of civilization has had a large biological impact on the brain because it so recent. More likely that the rational, linguistic, and other capacities of the brain that make civilization possible, evolved for other reasons prior to civilization, so that civilization is effectively an accidental consequence of biological evolution that happened for other reasons.

    • gbjames
      Posted July 7, 2013 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

      No. Humans have evolved in the last 24 hours. People die. People are born. The frequency of various genes in the gene pool changes. And evolution has happened.

    • articulett
      Posted July 7, 2013 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

      Evolution is just change in allele frequency over time– so it’s constantly happening to populations– certain genes are being passed on preferentially and, to the extent that these genes influence behaviors or mental characteristics, we can ask ourselves why they might have been selected for. Why do we think cats are cute, for example? Chances are they are tweaking some buttons involved in thinking that babies are cute or worthy of nuturing and such.

      Think of people who have lots of children– their genes are passed on preferentially whether it’s genes involving height or musical ability or social skills or sex drive or religiosity or fondness for small fuzzy creatures.

      Even if these things can be used to justify prejudices, that doesn’t make them any less true.

      Although men and women have the same average number of children, women are much more likely to fall in the middle of the bell curve (congregate toward the mean) and men are more likely to be the outliers (think of polygamous clans and all the men who don’t get to mate in such clans). I hear that this is true for other traits as well, and I think EP can give us clues as to why.

  23. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted July 7, 2013 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    After all, those premises boil down to this statement: some behaviors of modern humans reflect their evolutionary history. That is palpably uncontroversial,

    I can feel your pain. Astrobiology is similarly under attack from microbiologists (Redfield and others) for reasons of imperfectness (NASA “pop versions”), ideology (“unnecessary” cross discipline) and likely politics (shares science financing).

    But astrobiology boils down to: the same process that happens here happens elsewhere. That is uncontroversial, since chemical evolution is ubiquitous.

    After all, how could one else describe the homology (as Lane & Martin describes it) between early chemoautotroph metabolism and alkaline hydrothermal vents? Or the homology (in the L&M sense) between CHNOPS element fractionation in cells and environment?

    The Drake equation is a correct and early (1961) predictor of the frequency of habitable worlds. And with Curiosity’s find of early habitable conditions on Mars, I think the field has matured.

    “Ev psych” is simply the attempt to take adaptation/function seriously,

    As astrobiology is simply the attempt to take the homogeneity of our inflationary standard cosmology seriously.

  24. marksolock
    Posted July 7, 2013 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Mark Solock Blog.

  25. Posted July 7, 2013 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    Interesting article and now I’m temped to discuss this with my sister who majored in Evolutionary Psychology. I also had problems with my fellow MOT on Darwin causing the holocaust until I gave each a copy of Martin Luther’s Von den Juden und Ihren Lügen.

  26. JB
    Posted July 7, 2013 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

    Solid article. I’m sure PZ Myers is a decent guy but his comments on EP are so cartoonishly inane and ignorant that you’re not even sure where to begin. It’s been done for me nicely, so I’ll say no more on that.

    The snarky Jason character in this thread is better, but not by much. For what it’s worth, my own academic background is is literary theory, cultural theory and so on–Butler, Foucault, Derrida, de Beauvoir, et al–and I can say that once I got over my initial churlish whining about some of more subtle points that Pinker ostensibly missed, he is remarkably on-point in his discussion of these ideas (which are very often self-righteous, biased and intolerant).

    I think the clarity of Pinker’s exposition–which sacrifices a little subtlety for the sake of clarity– is a jolt to the system of the crowd mired in Cultural Marxism/Feminism, and so they lash out to ease the cognitive dissonance. To say EP across the board attempts to “justify” racism or sexism is just nonsense–it’s a red flag that the person has no idea what they’re talking about

  27. JJH
    Posted July 7, 2013 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

    First a disclaimer; I’m not a psychologist or a biologist (one of the reasons WEIT is on my top bookmarks is that I want to get smarter in biology).

    That said, I do have a background in physics and history (history major, physics minor, don’t ask) and so I do understand methodologies. And I have noted a similarity between the anti-no-free-will group and the anti-evo/psych group: They both appear to try to redefine terms or control the argument so that they can hold on to a concept for other than scientific purposes. I’ll elaborate and explain why I think it’s wrong (in these two particular cases only).

    Dan Dennett wants to hold on to the idea of free will (maybe not for him, but you know the little people). Now, I don’t know what his particular motive is for doing that (read Freedom Evolves, it’s a great book where he basically makes the argument that free will is just an illusion, but it’s a good illusion given our circumstances). Fair enough, but then – in the four horsemen video – he explicitly advocates that there may be ideas that are so dangerous that when we find them, we should just shut up about them (I can agree with him up to a point; if I figured out to produce an H bomb in my garage, I’d destroy the entire trail). But I have to wonder if, “there is no free will” is one of those ideas? In fairness to DR. Dennett, I haven’t directly asked that question to him (studies show there is an effect on morality, but it is only short term).

    Along a similar line, PZ is on a panel about evo-psych, without a single expert in that field on the panel (good thing someone consulted an expert in that field) and then passes judgement on that field. I wonder what his reaction would be if there was an evo-devo panel discussion that dismissed that entire field without an evo-devo expert on the panel. Just like Dennett, I admire the work PZ has done, but I have to wonder if he isn’t dismissing an idea out of the possible consequences. And in this case, it makes even less sense than in the free will debate: the brain is an evolved organ; to say evolution has no effect on it’s function makes no sense. Additionally, PZ makes a plasticity argument, which means that given the correct stimulus many of the brains evolved traits can be altered; so what is the reason to deny that there are certain proclivities that we should know about so that they can be countered with socialization? As analogy, there is good evidence that the appendix performed an important function during human evolution; that doesn’t mean that if it’s about rupture I don’t get it cut out because it’s “natural.” It just means that I understand why it’s OK to make that change.

    • Gary W
      Posted July 7, 2013 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think your attempt to draw some kind of equivalence between Dennett and Myers make much sense. Dennett isn’t attacking science. He’s not arguing for contra-causal free will. He’s arguing for a conception of free will that is compatible with physical determinism — a position shared by many other prominent cognitive scientists and philosophers of mind, including Steven Pinker. Myers, on the other hand, is (ignorantly and stupidly) attacking evolutionary psychology as science.

      • Jeff Johnson
        Posted July 7, 2013 at 11:50 pm | Permalink

        The point wasn’t an equivalence in what Dennet and Myers are arguing.

        The point was that both are making an argument that seems motivated by an ideological commitment more than by scientific accuracy.

        For what it’s worth, which may not be a lot, that point seems to have some truth in it.

        Dennet does admit in his latest book, Intuition Pumps, that when we choose, it is based on competence, and just as with a chess playing computer, each choice we make is determined and could not be otherwise. He challenges indeterminists to explain why we should even want to have the ability to choose otherwise, i.e. why libertarian free will should be considered more desirable than the deterministic intelligence we actually possess.

        While he acknowledges that our will is thus constrained by determinism, he also tells a story about a “Truly Nefarious Neurosurgeon” who turns a patient into a Phineas Gage simply by deceiving him into believing his free will has been disabled. The moral of the story turns out to be that Dennet worries that scientists who declare to the public that we don’t have free will are running the risk of mass producing this harm.

        This seems to be a worry that places ideology over truth, and it seems a very misguided one, especially from one who is committed to the idea that humans possess a kind of autonomy and control worth having. Certainly if we have the kind of valuable autonomy worth having (and we do), then there is no need to worry that people are so easily suggestible that their entire personality would degrade simply because scientists tell them they don’t have free will.

        • Diane G.
          Posted July 8, 2013 at 12:19 am | Permalink

          But I could also call your position an ideological commitment; one to the proposition that all people are actually capable of critical thinking. Not only do we not know this, the evidence around us indicates it may not be so.

          Evolution could have resulted in a proportion of the population being natural followers; tell them what they like, and they’ll like it. Tell them what to think, value, admire, and they will do so.

          Try to convince them that there’s no absolute moral authority, and they may not have wits to fall back on. And remember that there are also psychopaths who are more than willing to fill any leadership vacuum.

          • Jeff Johnson
            Posted July 8, 2013 at 3:39 am | Permalink

            That’s a good point. I’d say the fact that I think people ought to know we don’t have free will, and that I think that they could handle it are ideological in nature.

            But my conclusion that we don’t have free will, because of our brain’s determinism and our inability to will something other than what we are determined to will, is a conclusion without ideology, one that is based on the bet scientific knowledge available.

            Dennet actually agrees that we are deterministic, and that when we make a choice it is determined, not something we could have changed. But his ideological concern is that this knowledge is dangerous and harmful, which in his own words is an important reason not to tell people that we don’t have free will.

            The irony is, people know what their behavior is like. They have long mistakenly thought of it as deriving from free will, but learning that it isnt relky based on free will doesnt change how humans behave, abd they know this. Dennet goes to great lengths to explain what even a child can see, which is that people can still behave the same way they always have, even if it doesn’t stem from any underlying phenomenon that is free will.

            It’s very much like if people were presented with evidence that they had no soul, Dennet would worry that would make people immoral, so he goes to great lengths to reinvent the concept of soul so that he can tell people that they still have a soul. This is placing ideology above scientific accuracy.

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted July 8, 2013 at 6:24 am | Permalink

              I agree with you and JJH. I find the arguments concerning free will & EP from Dennett and Myers to be condescending with regard to witholding the truth.

              I’ve heard Dan Dennett make the argument that if we told people they did not have free will, they would lose all control and society would break down into violence and chaos. That seems to disregard human empathy and all the other controls we have in place that stop us from becoming crazed murderers and it is frankly insulting.

              I don’t know if what others have posted about PZ’s position is true, namely that his motivation for rejecting EP is that women would be taken advantage of by slick talking men – that to me seems very paternalistic to women and insulting to men and I hope it isn’t PZ’s position, though I do agree there is ideology at play.

              • Gary W
                Posted July 8, 2013 at 9:14 am | Permalink

                I’ve heard Dan Dennett make the argument that if we told people they did not have free will, they would lose all control and society would break down into violence and chaos.

                Where does Dennett say this? Citation, please.

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted July 8, 2013 at 9:31 am | Permalink

                Gary,
                I’ve already given a citation. It’s in his latest book, “Intuition Pumps”, in the section titled “The Truly Nefarious Neurosurgeon”.

              • Gary W
                Posted July 8, 2013 at 9:48 am | Permalink

                Direct quote please, not your tendentious spin (“The moral of the story turns out to be that Dennet …”).

                By the way, Jerry has himself written that he thinks society would break down if we do not find a way of reconciling free will with determinism:

                [Defining free will in a way that comports with determinism] seems to be a philosophical shell game, conducted so that we can conclude that we’re morally responsible agents. If we didn’t, of course, society would break down, so we really need to find a philosophical justification for moral responsibility.

                https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2010/08/31/did-freedom-evolve/

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted July 8, 2013 at 10:09 am | Permalink

                Wow – that was precision quote mining in your quote of Jerry’s position of free will!

                If you look at it in context, Jerry is being facetious and discussing what incompatiblists are doing in clinging to the notion of free will.

                BTW here is my citation where you can hear that Dan Dennett does talk of society breaking down: http://youtu.be/7Ob4c_iLuTw

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted July 8, 2013 at 10:11 am | Permalink

                oops clumsy thumbsy – I meant compatibilist not incompatiblist.

              • Gary W
                Posted July 8, 2013 at 10:31 am | Permalink

                If you look at it in context, Jerry is being facetious

                I don’t see anything facetious about it. The post is entirely serious.

                BTW here is my citation where you can hear that Dan Dennett does talk of society breaking down: http://youtu.be/7Ob4c_iLuTw

                I don’t intend to sit thru a 90-minute video waiting for something that may not even be there. Please give me the timestamp where you claim Dennett says that if we told people they did not have free will, they would lose all control and society would break down into violence and chaos.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted July 8, 2013 at 10:46 am | Permalink

                That’s fair, I’ll provide you the time stamp and a small quotation though you will see more available in the section I’ll mention. Go to ~15:46-17:29. It starts with Dan saying this, if you go around saying free will doesn’t exist; free will is an illusion, you’re actually undercutting the very glue of civilization and that’s the reason people should be upset about it

                And you did quote mine Jerry – maybe it wasn’t facetiousness but the context was that he was explaining the compatibilist perspective, not his own!

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted July 8, 2013 at 10:35 am | Permalink

                If you don’t have access to the text, I have to type it in from the book.

                To summarize the story, in “A Truly Nefarious Neurosurgeon”, Dennet tells the tale of a neurosurgeon who tells a patient (falsely) that a device has been implanted that disables his conscious will. He then has a behavioral transformation like that of Phineas Gage, even though nothing has really changed in his brain.

                In the wrap up Dennet writes that the:

                false debriefing of her patient actually accomplished non-surgically much of what she claimed to accomplish surgically: she disabled him. But if she [the neurosurgeon] is responsible for this dire consequence, the neuroscientists currently filling the media with talk about how their science shows that free will is an illusion are risking mass production of the same harm to all the people who take them at their word [here he cites the questionable Vohs and Schooler (2008) experiment]. Neuroscientists, psychologists and philosophers need to take seriously their moral obligation to think through the presuppositions and implications of their public pronouncements on these issues with the same care that is demanded of people who hold forth on global warming or asteroid strikes.

                That is directly quoted from his latest book.

                The premise of the story is absurd, and completely goes against Dennet’s (correct) claim that humans have the kind of autonomy and control worth having. This subject is a mindless suggestible puppet. Any normal person would be doubting whether the phony “device” was working properly before even leaving the office, because of the way they could control their arms and legs at will, and go where they want.

                Then Dennet uses this story for exactly the kind of paternalistic worry-wort concern I claimed. Apparently he thinks that if scientists reveal the truth about determinism to the public, it could cause a panic on the scale of a projected asteroid strike! He is directly saying, as I read this, that scientists need to edit themselves, and not suggest that we don’t have free will, because it risks “mass production” of the same harm.

                This pretty much confirms everything I’ve ever suspected about the motives for the incredible logical contortions compatibilism goes through in order to be able to claim two words: “free will”, a claim that is really pretty shallow when you look at the history of the term.

                Sure we have automony, control, competence, we make intelligent decisions in our own interest. There is just no scientific reason to say these behaviors are predicated on “free will”. There is only a reason based on tradition and social convention, and that is also questionable. You may as well pretend also that we still have a soul in order to comfort and placate people.

                But Dennet’s motive is clear. He is afraid, based on his personal ideological beliefs, to directly release scientific findings about determinism without first toning it down with feel-good compatibilist reassurances.

              • Posted July 8, 2013 at 10:45 am | Permalink

                Guys, Gary is a troll. He doesn’t give a flying fuck about evidence; he just gets his jollies by making people jump through hoops.

                First he constructs a strawman. Then, when you blow his strawman over with a belabored sigh, he demands evidence. When you present evidence, he’s at first likely to pretend that you didn’t and keep demanding that you present evidence. Eventually, he’ll acknowledge that you tried to present evidence, but that it wasn’t good enough. After enough iterations of that nonsense, he might eventually quote something back to you out of context and then paraphrase it to mean the exact opposite of the plain language. And, if you stick with it past that point, he’ll soon press the reset button and start with fresh demands for evidence.

                Best to just ignore him.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted July 8, 2013 at 10:48 am | Permalink

                Yeah, you’re probably right Ben. I put my evidence here for posterity if anything else. :)

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted July 8, 2013 at 10:57 am | Permalink

                @Gary,
                I went to the link you posted where Jerry says: “If we didn’t, of course, society would break down”.

                You are citing this dishonestly, because if you read the whole context it is clear that Jerry is paraphrasing what many philosophers say about free will and morality. That was not Jerry stating his own opinion.

                He goes on to say that such beliefs are based on philosophers reasoning thusly: “we decide what conclusion we want to reach a priori, and then twist the facts, and our arguments, so they lead to that result.”

                Jerry has repeatedly said he thinks because of lack of free will we aren’t morally responsible, but that there are rational grounds for holding people responsible derived from the need to deter future violations and the need to protect the public from danger.

                You are way off base here.

                I guess Ben is right, as usual.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted July 8, 2013 at 11:25 am | Permalink

                Yes – I pointed this out to Gary W twice re: quote mining Jerry about his position on free will.

              • gbjames
                Posted July 8, 2013 at 11:52 am | Permalink

                Ben is correct about the troll matter. As a consequence of previous interactions I discovered that I am subject to a no-interaction policy for people on my very own list of disingenuous commenters. This list is short, having only ever had but one name on it.

              • Gary W
                Posted July 8, 2013 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

                Jeff Johnson,

                So, as I suspected, nowhere in your actual quote does Dennett say anything like “if we told people they did not have free will, they would lose all control and society would break down into violence and chaos.” That is just your absurdly exaggerated spin on Dennett’s reasonable point, which he supports with a citation to the scientific literature, that if someone becomes convinced that he has no control over his actions it may have adverse effects on his behavior. The “society would break down into violence and chaos” nonsense is entirely your own invention.

                Diana,

                You’re also absurdly caricaturing what Dennett actually says. “Undercutting the glue of civilization” does not mean “society would break down into violence and chaos.” And Dennett goes on to illustrate his point by describing an experiment in which subjects who were taught that free will is an illusion were more likely to cheat on a money-making puzzle.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted July 8, 2013 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

                Gary W: I think undercutting the glue of society is pretty much chaos. I didn’t quote Dennett when I said that and it is pretty rich for you to accuse me of doing so after you quote mind Jerry and twisted his words to fit your argument.

              • Gary W
                Posted July 8, 2013 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

                You are citing this dishonestly, because if you read the whole context it is clear that Jerry is paraphrasing what many philosophers say about free will and morality.

                Nonsense. It’s stated as Jerry’s own view: “But to me those other ways seem contrived, and avoid the ultimate question: could we really have done otherwise? It seems to be a philosophical shell game, conducted so that we can conclude that we’re morally responsible agents. If we didn’t, of course, society would break down …”

              • Gary W
                Posted July 8, 2013 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

                I think undercutting the glue of society is pretty much chaos. I didn’t quote Dennett when I said that and it is pretty rich for you to accuse me of doing so after you quote mind Jerry and twisted his words to fit your argument.

                Yes, you couldn’t quote him saying “society would break down into violence and chaos” because he didn’t say that or anything like it.

                Attempting to discredit people through absurdly exaggerated paraphrasing of what they actually say, to try and make their position sound extreme and unreasonable, is a classic debating trick.

                In How The Mind Works Steven Pinker makes the same point that Dennett is making about the importance of the concept of free will for understanding human beings as moral agents:

                “Either we dispense with all morality as an unscientific superstition, or we find a way to reconcile causation (genetic or otherwise) with responsibility and free will. […] Like many philosophers, I believe that science and ethics are two self-contained systems played out among the same entities in the world, just as poker and bridge are different games played with the same fifty-two-card deck. The science game treats people as material objects, and its rules are the physical processes that cause behavior through natural selection and neurophysiology. The ethics game treats people as equivalent, sentient, rational, free-willed agents, and its rules are the calculus that assigns moral value to behavior through the behavior’s inherent nature or its consequences.”

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted July 8, 2013 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

                I’m not grossly exaggerating in an effort to discredit someone. I will not be engaging you further on this as I’m going to take Ben’s wise advice.

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted July 8, 2013 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

                Yes,
                Ben is clearly correct.

                Either Gary has a reading comprehension problem, or his eyes firmly closed to anything he has decided in advance he doesn’t want to learn or know, or he is a bot following a simple and annoying algorithm.

              • Gary W
                Posted July 8, 2013 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

                I’m not grossly exaggerating in an effort to discredit someone.

                No, of course you’re not. “Undercutting the glue of society” clearly has exactly the same meaning as “society would break down into violence and chaos.”

                And neither you nor Jeff Johnson has offered any rebuttal to Dennett’s actual point, which he supports with a citation to experimental evidence, that promoting the idea that free will is an illusion may have adverse effects on people’s behavior.

        • Gary W
          Posted July 8, 2013 at 12:21 am | Permalink

          Nothing in Dennett’s position contradicts science. He’s not “placing ideology over truth.” He explicitly acknowledges that all actions are physically determined. His argument is about the meaning of the concept of free will. Myers’ rejection of the science of evolutionary psychology has nothing to do with Dennett’s position that free will and determinism are compatible (a position shared, as I said, by Pinker and numerous others.)

          • Jeff Johnson
            Posted July 8, 2013 at 3:44 am | Permalink

            Nobody said that Myers position on EP had anything to do with Dennet’s position on free will.

            It was only stated that these two different positions both appear to be motivated by ideology more than scientific truth. I think if Dennet didn’t feel ideologically that people need to believe they have free will, he could simply admit that we don’t have it, rather than inventing a modified form of free will. He spells this opinion out pretty clearly in his “Truly Nefarious Neurologist” chapter in his latest book.

            • Gary W
              Posted July 8, 2013 at 9:06 am | Permalink

              Nobody said that Myers position on EP had anything to do with Dennet’s position on free will.

              Huh? JJH explicitly drew an equivalence between them in his original comment.

              It was only stated that these two different positions both appear to be motivated by ideology more than scientific truth.

              A claim that with respect to Dennett is simply nonsense. Nowhere does he deny or attempt to hide “scientific truth.”

  28. rose
    Posted July 7, 2013 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

    You were in San Francisco what a day before the plane crash? I live in the s.f. area what a horrible sight luckily only two people died.Could of been so much worse.

  29. Posted July 8, 2013 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on West Coast Atheist and commented:
    Why a sci-fi convention would have a panel on evolutionary psychology and not have anyone on the panel knowledgable in the field is beyond me. Here is Jerry Coyne and Steve Pinker’s response to PZ Myers’ Pharyngula post about the panel he sat on with Stephanie Zvan, Greg Laden and Indre Viskontas. (A panel with Greg Laden, no matter what the topic, ought to be up for scrutiny).

  30. Posted July 8, 2013 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    Jerry Coyne suggests we look at the following (via a Jaime C. Confer et al link).

    (One example of a falsified theory is the old “kin selection” argument for the prevalence of homosexuality: the idea that homosexuals, though not reproducing themselves, stayed home and perpetuated their genes by taking care of their relatives.)

    The explanation of why this should be false is argued thus.

    “The kin altruism hypothesis of male homosexuality, for example, contends that homosexuality is an adaptation that involves a shift among those whose heterosexual mating prospects are not promising from direct mating effort to investing in kin, such as the children of one’s brothers and sisters (E. O. Wilson, 1978). In a direct test of this hypothesis, Bobrow and Bailey (2001) used samples of hetero- sexual and homosexual men matched for age, education, and ethnicity. They assayed generosity toward family members; financial and emotional investment; avuncular tendencies, such as willingness to give gifts or cash to support nieces or nephews; and general feelings of closeness toward genetic relatives. The results proved conclusive—they found no evidence for any of the key predictions made by the kin altruism hypothesis of male merous domain-specific adaptations.”

    One argument not considered above is that the gay man, if left to guard the women and children, could be relied upon not to impregnate the women under his charge. There is thus a benefit in having gay men in any tribe and in that his kin would be the better protected, perhaps the reasoning does not stir up the muddy waters of kin selection.

    A further argument explaining male homosexuality was given by John Maynard Smith under the somewhat saucy title “Sneaky fuckers” (just Google it) and is also to be found on YouTube with Richard Dawkins.

    • Posted July 8, 2013 at 11:00 am | Permalink

      Sorry, I should have said “stirred up the muddy waters of group theory”.

  31. Lyndon
    Posted July 8, 2013 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    For a better rebuttal of Pinker I recommend Jesse Prinz’s book Beyond Human Nature.

    My short take on why the slate is blank, why the brain/mind is blank, and also how this relates more generally to EP and to Pinker pointedly. Possible behavior and possible conceptualization is infinite, those things that any individual brain/mind will think and do. If what we mean, and perhaps what John Locke meant, by the Blank Slate was something like any human with enough training or environmental molding could have any mental capacity or mental functioning, then that is of course not true. And with the rise of calculators, for instance, it became clear that we could not train our brains to have any kind of mental property, addition seems like a mental function that we are limited to certain speeds and quantities in. In other words, that idea of Blank Slate is an unimaginable straw person argument.

    If our possible thoughts and possible behaviors are infinitely malleable (and in wide ranging ways), then I am inclined to say that we are a blank slate, that our brain/mind and behaviors are blank slates. On infinity, e.g., think of the difference between the infinity of whole numbers versus the infinity of real numbers. What EP and Pinker fail to account for is massive alteration to the social world and environment that any one set of genes can encounter. Thus the descriptions are not explaining in precise terms why any being is the way that they are or what exactly our genes are structuring. We also have to accept that *we* can change and create massively different environments for any one individual that will thus lead to an infinite and wide ranging array of thoughts, behavior, conceptions, desires, and even attitudes within that individual.

    One of my examples on this. Imagine a closed island society artificially created so it includes only one sex, let’s say the male, including any animals, and whose language and concepts have been stripped of any knowledge of the female sex (we can imagine some way of bringing babies, etc.). Imagine a being that is raised within this society. What does it do to their thoughts about sexuality and gender expression? I have the idea that they would still be complex viable beings who have strong sexual urges and complex desires. But these males, even if they have genetic structures that would encourage them towards heterosexuality, if such exists, which the point of this thought experiment is that the genes do not literally point to the desiring of “female,” as we conceptualize such a category; the thoughts and desires of these “heterosexual” males have been massively changed, the beings created out of these genes are almost incomparable to the social beings that would have been created as 21st century-Western-males, the kinds of being that EP is using to try to make claims on genetic structuring.

    • Lyndon
      Posted July 8, 2013 at 11:51 am | Permalink

      One more thought on moving out of description and into prescription, I offer these two lines.

      If you teach a child under 15 a second language, they will know a second language.
      If you teach a child under 5 a first language, they will know a first language.

      The reason any 15 year old is not fluent in a second language is because of the environment that their society/parents sets up around them. There is not good reason to believe that the genes of this individual prevents them from knowing a second language (usually the mark of a “good education,” say) by the age of 15, as many individuals achieve. In other words, 15 year old selves are undoubtedly capable of a high degree of knowledge and skills and the reason they will not achieve such is because of the environment. Pinker comes close to arguing for this in the Blank Slate, but he, like many EP, seems reluctant to ask significant questions about the environmental structures we set up around any individual.

      Almost all pop-EP, including Pinker, are at least partially trading in these kinds of prescriptivist thoughts about what is socially possible . . . which is my beef with all of this. I think one of the reasons it becomes difficult for EP to make the above claim is because they slide the type of society (thus the environment we allow to be set up around any individual) into something that was evolutionarily structured for, something they are unwilling to reflect upon and think about how we can change. I would say they are trying to stay descriptive about the kind of societies we set up around our selves and why we do such, but those explanations, again, are too complex to give any kind of adequate grounding for. The claims about whether a 15 year old is genetically capable of knowing a second language seem far more approachable than the claims (say from some evolutionary point of view) about the kind of society we have, with the kind of disparity in education that we somehow adhere to. I know that strays away from EP to an extent, but it is also closely tied to it and was my response to Pinker’s claim in the Blank Slate about how the differences we see in school success was not in the genes of students, which I thought then turned nowhere or back into a non-reflective stance after making the claim.

      Anyways, claims about evolutionary and genetic structures of behavior are important, but evolutionary psychology far too often does not satisfy or stand at all.

    • gbjames
      Posted July 8, 2013 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

      Possible behavior and possible conceptualization is infinite

      Really? Maybe I’ll be able to hang by a prehensile tail someday! Can I maybe build a nest in the tree across the street and capture small birds like a Coopers Hawk?

      Such infinite flexibility!

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted July 8, 2013 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

        OMG I hope so! I’ve always wanted a prehensile tail!

      • Lyndon
        Posted July 8, 2013 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

        See the point above about whole numbers (1,2,3,4,5) and real numbers (1,2, 3.1, 3.11111 . . . , 4.253293, 3.12 etc.).

        The idea that there are rules and structures does not seem to preclude infinite possibility.

        Think of both language and games. The rules of a game or the naming of objects seem to be infinite, and thus such would press upon behavior and the thoughts an individual has. If you are born to a culture with a word for “I am hungry” that takes 1 second to say versus a culture where the same thought can only be expressed in 4 seconds, it would change “your” behaviors and thoughts. Also, the rules of a game dictate our behavior, our strategy, our pleasure while playing. It seems we could go inventing different games to the end of time. Again, there are limitations, your naked brain cannot calculate quickly huge dividends and so maybe you cannot play games that would require such, but still the possibility of games seems infinitely endless. And the culture/family you are born into is going to dictate to you which games you possibly even think about playing or even creating.

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted July 8, 2013 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

          Perhaps you should take note of the finite size of the brain.

          Also, if you’ve ever seen a baby learn language, you can’t possibly believe in a blank slate.

          Yes, we have a great deal of plasticity and flexibility, and great learning abilities (courtesy of the fact that we don’t have a blank slate), but that is an extension to a whole set of genetically determined tools, and it is clearly finite.

          • Lyndon
            Posted July 8, 2013 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

            Jeff, I am fine with saying that the blank slate is a bad metaphor or at least should be set aside, but if we get technical we can start putting structures on a “blank slate,” say you can only write in yellow chalk or that the chalk cannot lift up from the chalkboard, and yet even though there are now structures it still seems like we would call it blank given the openness of what we can put on it.

            What I claim is infinite is the possibility to represent the world (outside the brain) and then the resulting possible behaviors are infinite. We can behave according to an infinite possibility of different games and languages or any other cultural or environmental artifacts. I am not sure the finite capacity of the brain is that relevant here given that we are talking about a responsive representational system.

            A baby learning language points us in the direction of infinite behavior and thoughts, given that we can imagine an infinite complexity of representations of objects and endless language systems. For instance, we can “see” an iPhone (as opposed to an infinite possibility of cultural artifacts) and then name that object in various ways, “iPhone” or “the electronic phone from Apple,” and thus the infinite possible behaviors that result from speaking of such. Do we have genetic structures that control many of the processes of learning language? Sure. But this does not prevent us from having infinite (really large) possibility of different representations, behaviors, and so on. Language makes that readily apparent. I cannot predict the #1 hit song 20 years from now, but it will be unique and the words and message it conveys will be different from anything you can imagine (at least slightly).

            • gbjames
              Posted July 8, 2013 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

              I think your particular form of “infinite behavior” is sort of a deepity. It is trivially true. I can swing my arm from left to right and in a sense (because this is a continuous motion) one can say it covers an infinite number of positions. But what weighty understanding does this provide us? Very little. It is a statement about our measuring systems and tells us nothing about the uses of arms, of the evolutionary development of limbs, or really anything very interesting.

              • Lyndon
                Posted July 8, 2013 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

                I do not understand your example, but to stay practical, what matters is that we can imagine the genes of “gbjames” being raised in the culture/environment of 10th century Arabia versus 20th century America versus 398th century Saturnia, and thus the behaviors and thoughts and self of “gbjames” would probably not be recognized as anything close to the same thing.

                We can imagine some environmental structure where “gbjames” becomes a celibate, solitary, radically religious monk, and so on. When we radically alter the environment around selves we get radical alterations to those selves. And, as I claim, that approaches infinite possibilities of the behaviors of that self as we continue to radicalize the environment.

              • gbjames
                Posted July 8, 2013 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

                Your point seems to be that environment matters.

                News flash….

                Nobody thinks otherwise. If that is your point, then you are crashing through an open door.

                On the other hand… If your point is that biology doesn’t really matter much because imaginary identical twin brother raised a few centuries back would not be me, well… again… trivially true. But that guy would share some characteristics with me that would influence his life in ways that would perhaps echo mine. We might both, for example, have a tendency to appreciate music but not be all that good at producing it.

                So perhaps I’m just confused by your assertions. If they are intended to offer some serious argument against Pinker’s Blank Slate I’m not finding them convincing.

            • Jeff Johnson
              Posted July 9, 2013 at 8:22 am | Permalink

              I think I’m getting a better sense of what you are talking about.

              You are trying to say that each human brain can be thought of as a selection from an infinite space of possibilities, so in principle the brain has infinite possible behaviors, which you are calling a “Blank Slate” in the sense that there is infinite possibility.

              But I think you are not taking into account the biochemical limitations on brain plasticity, and also the major limiting factor in any computation problem, which is time.

              You are marveling at the extraordinary productivity of combinatorial power, which is theoretically real and generates extraordinary productivity. Using recursion we can create an infinite number of grammatical sentences in English. But the number of meaningful and usable sentences is finite.

              There are also an infinite number of ways evolution could combine cells to construct organisms, but reality impinges in the form of natural selection and finite resources so there are far fewer than infinite organisms on earth.

              So in a sense you are only looking at one part of the matter, which is theoretical mathematical limits. Actual limits are more stringent.

              The empiricist idea of tabula rasa that Pinker uses in his book is focusing on how specifics of knowledge and character are formed, and the idea of Tabula Rasa is that everything is empirically derived from sense experience, and nothing is innate. It doesn’t really deal with the question of theoretical combinatorial limits, as you are.

              The important point Pinker makes is that much is innate, and that a brain with nothing innate would be useless. Your concerns are only peripherally connected to this issue, which is to establish that the brain potentially has a very broad playing field to work in. But there are enormous constraints of reality you seem to be ignoring.

          • Lyndon
            Posted July 8, 2013 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

            By the way, Stanislas Dehaene has a good book called Reading in the Brain that lays out reading and language very well, though I think he falls into some of Pinker’s problem when talking about the blank slate and even directly talks about infinite behaviors, which he is wrong on.

        • gbjames
          Posted July 8, 2013 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

          This:

          Again, there are limitations

          and this:

          Possible behavior and possible conceptualization is infinite

          don’t really work together, do they?

          You know, the fact that numbers are infinite really doesn’t bear much on the blank slate debate.

          • Lyndon
            Posted July 8, 2013 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

            The numbers example is about getting to an understanding of “infinite,” specifically that whole numbers go on infinitely yet have a strict structure and *limitation* to them, at least seemingly. If I asked you to pick a whole number, would you say that choice is blank? You can say no, which I think is fine, but I think you do have to maintain that you get to pick from an infinite possibility of numbers.

            Behaviors, similarly, can be structured by our genes (which they surely are) and yet any set of genes can have an infinite possibility of different behaviors given an infinite possibility of different environments or cultures. I do not see the argument against such. Lastly, whether you want to call that infinite possibility of behaviors “blank” matters less, but I think it is at least plausible to do so.

        • jimroberts
          Posted July 8, 2013 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

          The examples of “real numbers” that you give are in fact all rational numbers. There are no more rational numbers than there are natural numbers, so what is the point of introducing them?

          You say: “If you teach a child under 15 a second language, they will know a second language.
          If you teach a child under 5 a first language, they will know a first language.”

          If you teach a child of 15 a second language, it will have imperfect knowledge of a second language. If you expose a child under 5 to a second language, it will have two first languages. This is surely a strong argument against the blank slate, since the slate of the older child, as far as language learning is concerned, is blanker than that of the younger child.

          • Lyndon
            Posted July 8, 2013 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

            Jim, I was using the language example to tease out the belief that all non-brain-damaged “sets of genes” have the genetic capacity to learn a second language by the age of 15 given a certain socialization/education/environment. Thus when a 15 year old cannot speak a second language it comes from the environment that we as society place around that individual, period, and not from genetic limitations and not from the “will” of that individual.

            I defer to you on the numbers concept, I only use that to tease out the intuition that we are finding brain and genetic limitations yet still can claim our behaviors and conceptual systems as infinitely open. I admit I do not understand or agree with the way set theorists, e.g., claim to get around the paradox of infinite sets, it still makes intuitive enough sense to me.

    • windy
      Posted July 8, 2013 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

      But these males, even if they have genetic structures that would encourage them towards heterosexuality, if such exists, which the point of this thought experiment is that the genes do not literally point to the desiring of “female,”

      And? This is not news to biologists nor something that is limited to humans. Rock pigeons evolved to nest on natural cliffs but that is not literally specified in their genome- a human-made building will do just as well.

    • darrelle
      Posted July 8, 2013 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

      Your all male island society example is not convincing. I am not sure how it could be used as a convincing example of anything because trying to guess what the typical sexual behavior of people in such a society would be, would be just that, a guess. It only stands to reason that if you put a creature that evolved within a certain range of environments into a radically different environment that there are going to be changes in its behavior compared to others of its kind. I don’t see how this category of supposition supports your position.

      It also seems as if you are unsure if you object to Pinker’s ideas regarding “The Blank Slate,” or object to his conception of what the term “The Blank Slate” means.

      Do you think that other animal’s mind’s are also blank slates? Some, or all? If not why do you suppose that we, and or some other animals, are different?

      • Lyndon
        Posted July 8, 2013 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

        The claim is that a given set of genes if raised instead of in our society with our concepts of gender and sexuality and constant interactions between the sexes, but instead they are raised on this created island with no conception of dual sexes (etc.), the resulting behaviors, thoughts and desires of this set-of-genes probably could still be one of a robust language user and of a complex social actor. I also think it is intuitive to claim that they would still have strong sexual urges, though more than likely “homosexual” ones, but we could also probably think of different socially encouraged practices. The thing that the thought experiment is rejecting is some kind of matching between evolutionary/genetic structures with the complex conceptions and desires that arise in society and in selves as they are given, the ones that evolutionary psychology are making some claims on. We conceptualize and represent things in very complex ways and this flows into and gets rechanneled by our emotional systems and into structures of desire, into family and social relationships, etc. I also see much of EP as a very powerful tool that is telling us about that dance between nature/nurture, even if I think in the end the focus is poor or leads to bad conclusions, or to non-reflection of the social world we happen to find and reproduce.

      • Lyndon
        Posted July 8, 2013 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

        I am fine with getting rid of the blank slate conception, but I do think behavior is infinite (or very great, say) and that does probably include animals. There is necessarily baseline limitations . . . our genes require first all that we take in so much food . . . if we are fed by tube but live in otherwise in a completely denuded environment we are probably worthless blobs (as is the case with most animals).

        Through the power of language and concepts humans gain a capacity for robust behavior that makes our capacity for different behaviors and representations go to a greatly different scale than animals. But, as animals show they can adapt to our technological and social creations (say migratory gulls who instead occupy landfills, or whatever) and that this would probably be an infinite adaptation to the environment they happen to find, especially the ones we create. In some sense they too represent or respond to information from the environment they find, it wires their brain to cull that information and to respond appropriately (or unappropriately), and as their behavior and representational reservoirs are seemingly open, I think we can claim it blank.

  32. stevenjohnson
    Posted July 8, 2013 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    M: Fundamental assumptions of evo psych: That you can infer an adaptive history from the distribution of current traits — that they are adaptations at all is an assumption usually not founded in evidence…

    This was the key part of Myers’ opening. As it plainly says, the charge is that the assumption is unsupported. Pinker didn’t address the issue, instead first seizing on a couple of adjectives in the parenthetical remark. (Incidentally, the aside is meant to explicitly avow the so-called fundamental principle announced in the last paragraph of the post.)

    P: What about carefully selected attributes, and minimal assumptions about phylogeny with a focus on function, as we do for other organs?

    A rhetorical question is not a valid rebuttal, particularly when Pinker tries to load the question with a false parallel to the spleen.

    The true answer of course is that the “focus on function” means the unsupported assumption that the trait is adaptive, which was the criticism Pinker didn’t answer. All efforts to claim that nonadaptive traits in the present originated in evolutionary history demand extensive speculation on phylogeny. Since EP professes that the explanation of such currently nonadaptive traits is a cardinal discovery of the field, the pretense that EP isn’t reliant on speculative adaptive history is empty rhetoric.

    Also, whatever careful criteria exist is unknown to the lay population. Perhaps these criteria are hidden in professional journals?
    Since this is a popular forum, a little popularization would be called for I think.

    M:….again with rare exceptions, you can’t simply assign a behavioral role to a specific spot in the brain, just as you can’t assign a behavior to a gene….

    P:…The only assumption is that there are functional circuits, in the same way that a program can be fragmented across your hard drive….

    A neural circuit doesn’t have a small, sharply localized “spot” but it does have a somewhat larger, more diffuse area than a simple spot. This is a quibble over the meaning of “spot,” not a serious rebuttal.

    M: . . . That the human brain is adapted to a particular environment, specifically the African savannah, and that we can ignore as negligible any evolutionary events in the last 10,000 years, that we can ignore the complexity of an environment most of the evo psych people have never seriously studied, and that that environment can dictate one narrow range of outcomes rather than permit millions of different possibilities.

    P: The savannah is a red herring – that’s just a convenient dichotomization of the relevant continuum, which is evolutionary history. A minimal commitment to “pre-modern” gives you the same conclusions. By saying that the brain could not have been biologically adapted to stable government, police, literacy, medicine, science, reliable statistics, prevalence of high-calorie food, etc., you don’t need to go back to the savannah; you just need to say that these were all relevantly recent in most people’s evolutionary history. The savannah is just a synechdoche.

    I suppose Pinker means to say that the savannah is a misleading metaphor, and only misuses red herring to imply malice on Myers’ part. However, if it is a misleading metaphor, it is not convenient. It could only be convenient if it wasn’t too false to the facts. How can a person say something so self-contradictory?

    It would have been much clearer to describe the alleged continuum, but I don’t think that EP actually investigates the EEEA. The confession that “pre-modern” gives the same conclusion is unnerving, because the term is so vacuous.

    The assumption that the brain needs to be biologically adapted to reliable statistics is just weird on the face of it. The other assumption, that there hasn’t been any evolution for the last ten thousand years, seems to blatantly contradict genetics.

    M: I’d also add that most evo psych studies assume a one-to-one mapping of hypothetical genes to behaviors and never actually look at genes and for that matter, ignore most human diversity to focus on a naive typological simplicity that allows them to use undergraduate psych majors at Western universities as proxies for all of humanity”

    Pinker splits this up for rhetorical purposes. His rebuttal amounts to a blanket denial that Myers’ is factually correct. So, who are you going to believe? The guy who thinks the difference between a spot and a neural circuit is conclusive?
    Steven Jay Gould somehow makes an appearance here, which seems to me to be redbaiting.

    M: Developmental plasticity vitiates most of the claims of evo psych. Without denying that some behaviors certainly have a strong biological basis, the differences in human behaviors are more likely to be a product of plasticity than of genetic differences. . .

    P: Plasticity is just learning at the neural level, and learning is not an alternative to innate motives and learning mechanisms….

    This means innate motives and learning mechanisms are the hypothetical causes of learning and therefore plasticity is not an alternative. Well, yes, that’s literally true, but that doesn’t answer the criticism. Myers doesn’t think EP has provided evidence that its purported field, the evolutionary origin of different human behaviors as adaptations.

    M: . . . I think good evo psych would focus on human universals (much more likely to be driven by genetic properties!) than all this stuff seeking justifications for cultural differences between the sexes or the races or arbitrary subgroups.

    Pinker did not respond, which is curious.

    A very poor performance by Pinker. Isn’t that because he hasn’t any real evidence to support him?

    • Gary W
      Posted July 8, 2013 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

      This was the key part of Myers’ opening. As it plainly says, the charge is that the assumption is unsupported. Pinker didn’t address the issue

      Pinker doesn’t need to address it because Myers offers no evidence that adaptationist theories in EP are “an assumption usually not founded in evidence.” Myers is simply making things up out of thin air.

      The true answer of course is that the “focus on function” means the unsupported assumption that the trait is adaptive

      No, the focus on function means, as Pinker clearly states, that certain “carefully selected attributes” of psychology and behavior may be functional, just as many physical traits are.

      A neural circuit doesn’t have a small, sharply localized “spot” but it does have a somewhat larger, more diffuse area than a simple spot. This is a quibble over the meaning of “spot,” not a serious rebuttal.

      It’s a serious rebuttal to Myers’ false implication that EP “assigns behavioral roles to specific spots in the brain.” This is yet another illustration of Myers’ cartoonish misunderstanding of the field.

      I suppose Pinker means to say that the savannah is a misleading metaphor, and only misuses red herring to imply malice on Myers’ part. However, if it is a misleading metaphor, it is not convenient.

      The “savannah” is a synecdoche for the human ancestral environment more broadly, as Pinker clearly states.

      Pinker splits this up for rhetorical purposes. His rebuttal amounts to a blanket denial that Myers’ is factually correct. So, who are you going to believe?

      As with his claim about adaptations, Myers offers no evidence that “most evo psych studies assume a one-to-one mapping of hypothetical genes to behaviors.” If you’re seriously trying to defend this claim, please present your evidence.

      This means innate motives and learning mechanisms are the hypothetical causes of learning and therefore plasticity is not an alternative. Well, yes, that’s literally true, but that doesn’t answer the criticism.

      Yet again, Myers offers absolutely no evidence to support his claim that “the differences in human behaviors are more likely to be a product of plasticity than of genetic differences.” In the comment Jerry quotes, Myers goes even further off the plasticity deep end, declaring that “developmental plasticity is all” and that “the fundamental premises of evo psych are false.” Again, no evidence whatsoever is presented to support these astonishing claims.

    • Gary W
      Posted July 8, 2013 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

      Pinker did not respond, which is curious.

      Perhaps because Myers is presenting a false dichotomy. Donald Brown’s list of human universals includes the following differences between the sexes. As Myers himself concedes, universals are “much more likely to be driven by genetic properties.”

      – Females do more direct childcare
      – Male and female and adult and child seen as having different natures
      – Males dominate public/political realm
      – Males engage in more coalitional violence
      – Males more aggressive
      – Males more prone to lethal violence
      – Males more prone to theft
      – Males, on average, travel greater distances over lifetime
      – Husband older than wife on average
      – Division of labor by sex
      – Sex differences in spatial cognition and behavior
      – Sex (gender) terminology is fundamentally binary

    • gillt
      Posted July 8, 2013 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

      This was the key part of Myers’ opening. As it plainly says, the charge is that the assumption is unsupported. Pinker didn’t address the issue, instead first seizing on a couple of adjectives in the parenthetical remark. (Incidentally, the aside is meant to explicitly avow the so-called fundamental principle announced in the last paragraph of the post.)

      In a way Pinker addressed this by comparing EP to a well-established field, physiology, which is also “focused on function” and so isn’t Myers’s criticism equally relevant to much of evolutionary biology’s (over)emphasis on adaptationism?

  33. Jeff Johnson
    Posted July 8, 2013 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    LOL. A perfect example of a self refuting quote from Gary W.

    I wrote:

    You are citing this dishonestly, because if you read the whole context it is clear that Jerry is paraphrasing what many philosophers say about free will and morality.

    Gary wrote:

    Nonsense. It’s stated as Jerry’s own view: “But to me those other ways seem contrived, and avoid the ultimate question: could we really have done otherwise? It seems to be a philosophical shell game, conducted so that we can conclude that we’re morally responsible agents. If we didn’t, of course, society would break down …”

    I think it’s quite possible Gary W is a bot that looks for literal agreement only, or else it invents a bogus dispute. Plainly this bot doesn’t understand the meaning of this sentence:

    It seems to be a philosophical shell game, conducted so that we can conclude that we’re morally responsible agents.

    The obvious intent is to indicate the motives of the players of the philosophical shell game, which Jerry doesn’t include himself in. The next sentence is clearly indirect discourse of what these philosophers would say: “If we didn’t, of course, society would break down…”.

    This is why one shouldn’t debate with a bot. They don’t understand English, and they can’t pass the Turing test. It does an excellent job at simulating deliberate obtuseness though.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted July 8, 2013 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

      Yes Jeff, I think you’re right. I’ve disengaged the bot myself.

    • Gary W
      Posted July 8, 2013 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

      The obvious intent is to … The next sentence is clearly indirect discourse …

      Spin and twist, spin and twist.

  34. T.
    Posted July 9, 2013 at 4:01 am | Permalink

    I read Pinker’s “The Better Angel of Our Nature”. I was in the best possible situation to accept his reasoning, bias-wise. He was saying things I, too, believed.

    The whole point however fell down when he started to claim things I knew were false and speaking of them as they weren’t.
    I am an International Economists and an International Political Scientist. To read his blithely dimiss of the whole WWII as simply deriving from Hitler’s belief floored me (ot the whole Comunist Revolution in China as only derived from Mao’s believes).

    His thoughts on the whole male/female “thing” was so semplificated to be ridicolous when seen in modern lenses, and very Eurocentric by someone who when it was good for him he was very likely to go around the World. Yet he spoke nothing about cultures that includes 3 or 4 genders in their vocabulary.

    Ops.

    As far as I can see, he is quite unscientific in his behavior and superficial in his analysis.
    Which is a pity.

    • gillt
      Posted July 9, 2013 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

      T.,

      For those of us who haven’t read the book, could you use specific quotes to what you’re criticizing? Just a few passages about his treatment of gender issues and WWII history, for instance. Does he quote Kanazawa favorably?

      • T.
        Posted July 10, 2013 at 3:06 am | Permalink

        Will do as soon as soon as I have them with me, I have to search all the book, which is very massive, but I’ll try in a couple of day.

        Just to be clear: I agree that our evolution shaped our brain as well as everything else in us, from our hands to our ears. What I DON’T agree is Pinker’s “brand” of evolutionary psychology, which claims that we should aproximate to a peculiar species of apes in central Africa, the one that accidentally is more in agreement with his theories. The idea that people who follow the cultural norms of a peculiar culture breeds more and as such those norms end up being more evolutrionary coded is completely beyond Pinker’s radar.

        To explain: there is an interesting hypothesis that in the ancient time we have selectively breed for obbedience to authority and the ability to whistand pain in light of a future rewerd via come-of-age rites. The young males who accepted the painful rites, thus obeying their elders and showing they were able to whistand pain in order to gain something in the future were accepted into the society breeders. Those who fled, either for defiance of fear of pain, didn’t breed (give me some days, I can come up with the references for this, too).
        There are pages and pages about obedience to authority. And this doesn’t come out once.

        Another possibility that should interest Pinker given his background is the hypothesis that Jews are better at “speaking” due to their peculiar come-of-age rite. Now you can’t fail a Bar-Mitzvah, but once you could, and if you DID fail it, you weren’t likely to marry well and have many offsprings. Several generations of this, and you have that people of Jew backgrounds are better speakers -on avarage- than non-jew.

        In Europe and Europe-descendant, gender identity *seems* to be coded at birth (see “As Nature Made Him”, a very interesting book). In other populations though males are grow up as females if there are not enough born-female to fill the approved social roles, and those people considers themselves women.
        So? Is gender-sex coded or not? Or is it coded in European and not elsewhere?

        Perhaps the Yanoami (the fierce people he so love quoting) are so fierce even because fierceness is culturally praised? It is a spiral, of course. Or a chicken-egg situation.

        Evolution can act quite fast if there is necessity (and very slow if there is none or little).

        But all of this is completely out of Pinker’s mind. Everything that interested him happened between 2 million and 15000 years ago (and the approssimation of 15000 years ago he thinks some tribes are). He seems one of those “paleo-people” that tries to eat like our mythical ancestors.

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted July 10, 2013 at 4:18 am | Permalink

          I don’t know if you realize this, but using the noun “Jew” as an adjective or a verb is pretty common among anti-Semites.

          So “Jewish background” sounds much better than the somewhat offensive “Jew background”.

          Beside that, to say that Pinker can’t even conceive of the idea that cultural evolution can create selection mechanisms that feed back into biological evolution is absurd. This isn’t such a hard concept to grasp.

          But biological evolution is obviously much slower than cultural evolution, and it is not so easy to untangle the influence of culture from biology. Your Bar Mitzvah speculation, for example, has some tempting logic to it, but it seems terribly wrong because the tradition of calling up to read the Torah was not practiced at all until around 600 years ago, and it has not always been practiced consistently in all Jewish communities since that time. The tradition of scholarship and intellectual acheivement by the Jewish people probably has deeper and more complex origins, and the Bar Mitzvah ceremony is probably just a cultural artifact of that history.

          Here is a review of the book “The Chosen Few”, which offers a more plausible historical account of why the world’s Jewish population shows such an admirably high rate of outstanding academic and professional accomplishment.

          • Stephen Barnard
            Posted July 10, 2013 at 4:52 am | Permalink

            I agree that “Jew background” is a jarring phrase (although certainly an innocent error by the commenter). But I also think it’s unfortunate that the connotation of the word “Jew” has been partially hijacked by antisemites. “Christian background” or “Muslim background” don’t have the same effect. The term “Jewish” seems odd — we don’t say “Christianish.” I wonder if it’s a neologism intended to avoid the antisemitic connotation.

            • Jeff Johnson
              Posted July 10, 2013 at 5:21 am | Permalink

              Well, “Christian” and “Muslim” just happen to function as both noun and adjective. There is no other adjective for “Christian” or “Muslim”. “Jew” is only a noun. To me it just really jumps out as suspect when “Jew” is used as an adjective. I don’t really know why, other than that the usage seems common when disrespect or slander is intended.

              I wonder if somehow it is connected to the way Rush Limbaugh uses “Democrat” as an adjective rather than the correct “Democratic”. Maybe there is just a deeply rooted sense of disrespect in our language processing when a noun is used as an adjective.

              • Stephen Barnard
                Posted July 10, 2013 at 6:06 am | Permalink

                I think there’s more to it than the noun/adjective distinction. For example, if I were ask someone about their ethnicity, I’d say “Are you Jewish?” and not “Are you a Jew?” The latter sounds impolite at best and antisemitic at worst. I see no good reason for this other than avoiding a negative connotation imposed by antisemites.

                It’s interesting that some Jews use “Jew” in a defiant way, much like some African Americans use the n-word and some gays use “queer”. I’m a fan of the Mark Maron WTF podcast. He does this a lot.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted July 10, 2013 at 7:05 am | Permalink

                Maybe you just have a strong aversion to bad grammar. ;)

              • Stephen Barnard
                Posted July 10, 2013 at 7:14 am | Permalink

                I have an aversion to antisemites hijacking the connotation of “Jew”.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted July 10, 2013 at 7:43 am | Permalink

                It’s actually interesting. I was playing scrabble over the interwebs with a friend of mine and I told her there was a swear word I just couldn’t play (forget what it was but it must’ve been bad for even ME not to play it) and she told me she felt bad putting the word, “Jew”. What is funny is she is JEWISH! I said we need to explore this further. :)

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted July 10, 2013 at 8:33 am | Permalink

                @Diana,
                Sometimes it seems there is a correlation between bigotry and bad grammer, but it’s a fallacy upon reflection.

                I guess I’m just a grammar snob, which is it’s own form of bigotry. ;)

  35. Dan L.
    Posted July 10, 2013 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    Human beings have the capacity to echolocate. This is obviously a mental capacity.

    The question is whether or not this capacity is an adaptation. If this capacity did not evolve as a result of selection pressure then it is almost certainly a result of neuroplasticity. And considering the obvious (though currently circumstantial) arguments against having evolved the capacity for echolocation, I think this demonstrates that the potential variability in human behavior resulting from neuroplasticity is profound.

    I think that the human capacity for echolocation forces us to ask what human behaviors can’t be accounted for by neuroplasticity and cultural conditioning rather than genetics and also suggests that the list should be rather short.

    As far as the “boys are little devils/girls are little angels” stuff from further up in the thread, essentially all that stuff begs the question. Even a child’s earliest behaviors don’t emerge in a perceptual vacuum.

    Finally, people who want evo psych to be taken seriously as a science should welcome adversarial critiques. Honest and rigorous attempts at falsification are what make science scientific, right? (PZ did have a thread asking evo psych advocates for their most rigorous and defensible results. I’m sure he’d welcome more suggestions along those lines if anyone would want to convince him his skepticism is unwarranted. Although, to repeat, skepticism is actually good for science.)

    • Diane G.
      Posted July 10, 2013 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

      “. . . And considering the obvious (though currently circumstantial) arguments against having evolved the capacity for echolocation,”

      Which are?

      • Dan L.
        Posted July 10, 2013 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

        1. Only blind human beings have a compelling reason to develop the capacity for echolocation.
        2. There are no large populations of congenitally blind human beings.

        Therefore:

        There is no reason to believe there has ever been any significant selection pressure for human echolocation.

        • Dan L.
          Posted July 10, 2013 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

          My second premise should include the caveat “outside of H. G. Wells short stories.”

        • Diane G.
          Posted July 10, 2013 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

          Counter:

          1.In darkness, any ability to avoid running into objects (or predators) would be more advantageous than not being able to do so.

          2. Humans find themselves in darkness approximately half the day.

          Therefore: echolocation is adaptive.

          And would seem not that difficult to achieve given the acoustics already evolved in ears.

          • Dan L.
            Posted July 11, 2013 at 6:50 am | Permalink

            Can you echolocate? Why not if it is so adaptive?

            Our hearing is not nearly so good as a lot of animals which likewise don’t echolocate. The sound one need make to echolocate doesn’t necessarily come naturally to the shape of the human mouth.

            I think the much more plausible explanation for the capacity to echolocate is that it is a learned rather than an evolved behavior. As evidence I offer the fact that it must be learned.

            I could point out similarly that literacy could not possibly be an adaptation but is a skill that can be learned. Furthermore, there are parts of the brain apparently devoted to literacy which suggests to me that literacy is the result of neuroplasticity rather than congenital ability brought about through adaptation.

        • Posted July 10, 2013 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

          Eh, humans have racked up thousands of trillions of man-hours in caves — though, granted, most of those hours have been spent sleeping.

          And this is emphatically a situation where “half an ear” is far superior to none at all. In an environment without antibiotics, being well enough aware of your surroundings in the middle of the night to not stub your toe as you get up to relieve yourself is definitely going to have an evolutionary advantage.

          It doesn’t take making pinging sounds to do it, either; just the shuffling of your feet and other ambient noises are enough to give you a clue about your surroundings.

          I’d pick some other example, were I you.

          Cheers,

          b&

          • Dan L.
            Posted July 11, 2013 at 6:58 am | Permalink

            And this is emphatically a situation where “half an ear” is far superior to none at all. In an environment without antibiotics, being well enough aware of your surroundings in the middle of the night to not stub your toe as you get up to relieve yourself is definitely going to have an evolutionary advantage.

            I’m guessing you personally cannot echolocate. Learning to do so requires a great deal of time and energy — time and energy that might be more fruitfully spent by a sighted person in seeking out food or mates. Furthermore, it does not seem to occur to sighted human beings to even try to learn, although some congenitally blind children spontaneously do start making the clicking noises that create better echoes. Further, there is apparently no part of the brain devoted to echolocation before one goes through the effort of learning it (but I would conjecture that part of the visual lobe is devoted to echolocation after one has learned.

            It doesn’t take making pinging sounds to do it, either; just the shuffling of your feet and other ambient noises are enough to give you a clue about your surroundings.

            Sure, but if you read the link it’s about a blind guy who could avoid obstacles by mountain biking. That’s a little more extreme than a “clue”. Might I also point out that animals with much better hearing than human beings don’t seem to echolocate despite the fact they seem to have “evolved” superior capacity for it. Certainly any dog or wolf with ears that can be positioned independently would be better than us. Should we assume that they evolved this capacity or is it perhaps more plausible that echolocation in this sense is a spandrel following on the already demonstrably adaptive capacity to simply hear?

            I’d pick some other example, were I you.

            That’s pretty condescending. I don’t see any need for that.

            • Posted July 11, 2013 at 8:42 am | Permalink

              I’m guessing you personally cannot echolocate.

              That depends on what you mean by the term.

              Can I navigate an obstacle course blindfolded from atop a unicycle? Of course not.

              But can I get a not-bad idea of my surroundings with my eyes closed? As in the size of the room, indoors / outdoors, rough proximity of large walls?

              Of course. Almost any human can, and does.

              That some have developed that universal ability with great precision is impressive, sure, but no more remarkable than that some humans can throw a ball with precision at over a hundred miles an hour?

              You’re holding up MLB pitchers and Randy Johnson in particular as “proof” that throwing balls is a learned phenomenon, and ignoring that toddlers naturally and spontaneously throw things, just not with much force or precision.

              Cheers,

              b&

              • Dan L.
                Posted July 11, 2013 at 9:21 am | Permalink

                But can I get a not-bad idea of my surroundings with my eyes closed? As in the size of the room, indoors / outdoors, rough proximity of large walls?

                I am actually skeptical of how well you can do this.

                That some have developed that universal ability with great precision is impressive, sure, but no more remarkable than that some humans can throw a ball with precision at over a hundred miles an hour?

                Somewhat more remarkable, I think. While infants can and do throw things most of them do not avoid obstacles at 20 mph by making clicking sounds at them.

                But this sniping back and forth is missing the point of the argument. Let me be more explicit.

                “Tying one’s shoelaces” is obviously not an adaptation although clearly we have the capacity to do it. The shape and motility of the human thumb is almost certainly an adaptation but the specific ability to tie one’s shoes is a learned skill. No one is born with the ability to tie shoelaces and no one automatically tries to tie shoelaces unprompted (as opposed to the way in which infants seem to try to learn to speak unprompted).

                So when one is faced with particular behaviors like “tying one’s shoelaces”, “making clicking sounds to navigate by echo,” or “responding to loss of social status with aggressive behavior” one may quite fairly ask whether these behaviors are congenital adaptations or instead learned behaviors predicated on the flexibility of the underlying physiology and mental capacity of the organism. I think it is only fair to point out that any assertion that a particular behavior is an adaptation can be answered with skepticism: perhaps it is learned rather than evolved.

                If a particular bit of evo psych research can’t stand up to this absolutely justified criticism then what good is that research? Seems to me studies should be designed so as to investigate alternative hypotheses.

              • Posted July 11, 2013 at 9:51 am | Permalink

                I am actually skeptical of how well you can do this.

                Imagine you’re blindfolded and led on a journey. It starts with you being led out of your house and into a car. After a bit of driving, you get out on a busy street. You’re led through doors into a lobby, down a wide corridor, and into a large lecture hall, into a small hallway, and finally told to turn around and sit in the chair behind you. The door closes and you’re left alone in a small closet.

                Don’t you rather suspect that you’d have a pretty good idea of what type of space you were in at all times? Not that you’d be able to navigate any of it by yourself, but you should at least be able to describe the journey in about the same level of detail as I just did.

                And I think it’s quite safe to say that a child’s frustration-fueled temper tantrum is not at all a learned behavior. Many similar adult behaviors are also pretty self-evidently not learned — though, of course, some have learned to act in such ways to manipulate others in desired ways.

                The question isn’t whether or not we have hard-wired behavioral responses. The question is which is which and their evolutionary origins and how they’ve interacted with each other over the generations..

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Dan L.
                Posted July 11, 2013 at 10:06 am | Permalink

                Don’t you rather suspect that you’d have a pretty good idea of what type of space you were in at all times?

                Not necessarily. I haven’t gone through the specific experiment you suggest but I’ve tried to move around in the dark enough that I know my toes and nose are much more precise indicators of the proximity of obstacles than is my hearing. But again, irrelevant to the actual argument.

                And I think it’s quite safe to say that a child’s frustration-fueled temper tantrum is not at all a learned behavior.

                I’m not so sure. People — even infants! — respond to stressors in many different ways and it’s not clear to me that these differences are the result of genetic variation rather than variation in the conditions under which they’ve been exposed to stressors in the past. In other words, I see plenty of reason to believe that responses to environmental stress are at least partially learned behaviors rather than innate ones.

                Many similar adult behaviors are also pretty self-evidently not learned — though, of course, some have learned to act in such ways to manipulate others in desired ways.

                One can quite reasonably argue that all such behaviors are learned for the purpose of manipulating others in desires ways. What’s the point of a child’s temper tantrum if not to try to manipulate others into helping the child deal with whatever source of stress prompted the tantrum? Of course, it’s also quite reasonable to argue that there are stereotyped means of attracting attention (say, crying) that are in some way innate. Which is why I agree completely with this:

                The question isn’t whether or not we have hard-wired behavioral responses. The question is which is which and their evolutionary origins and how they’ve interacted with each other over the generations..

                I’m not arguing that evo psych is completely bollocks and the premise that the mind is evolved should be abandoned. I’m saying arguments predicated on particular models of human nature that can’t help but be informed by cultural biases should be studied with skepticism — as should any scientific hypothesis. That’s what makes science scientific after all.

                Coyne’s argument is that skepticism of evo psych arguments is largely politically motivated. I’m arguing that criticism of evo psych arguments is often principled, justified, and in fact necessary for progress of the field in the first place.

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted July 10, 2013 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

          Right of the top of my head, I’d say this is probably just an epiphenomenal consequence of the fact that we have two ears, and that the brain knows how to use the spatial separation to hear directionally, which is an obvious big win for human survival.

          Knowing which direction your enemy or a predator is coming from is pretty important. Certainly neuroplasticity plays a role in improving and enhancing such an ability once somebody needs to rely on it, and frequently exercises it, just as it plays a big role in learning to play the piano or learning calculus.

          But I suspect that when, in the case of say heavy damage to the region of the brain where auditory processing is done, and another region is enlisted to replace it, that the plasticity is only able to rewire the new region because a substantial portion of the auditory apparatus is intact and still firing. So it’s a matter of nerve endings finding each other again and bridging gaps between frequently firing neurons. It’s more like the ends of a broken clavicle growing together than it is the entire regeneration of a new bone.

          • Dan L.
            Posted July 11, 2013 at 6:59 am | Permalink

            Yes, I agree. And taken as a whole this argument does undermine the assumption that all mental abilities are necessarily adaptations — an assumption on which many evo psych arguments depend.

            • Jeff Johnson
              Posted July 11, 2013 at 9:12 am | Permalink

              Well certainly plasticisty itself, and learning, are adaptations.

              I don’t think evo psych argues that all mental abilities are adaptations. For example religious faith is explained in terms of other more primitive adaptations (such as hyperactive agency detection, among others) that have religion as an accidental consequence of adaptations that exist for entirely different reasons.

              Echolocation for humans that are blind falls into the category of religion for humans, something enabled by our stereophonic directional hearing plus extraordinary brain plasticity and learning, both of which are adaptations. Echolocation won’t be passed on genetically, obviously, so it is a cultural phenomenon. But the abilities required to learn echolocation will be passed on genetically.

              It doesn’t undermine the point that echolocation as a highly practiced skill acquired as a cultural phenomenon is founded upon adaptations, and the point the evo psych says every mental ability is an adaptation is just wrong.

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted July 11, 2013 at 9:20 am | Permalink

                By the way, if lots of humans found that learning echolocation was a worthwhile investment of time and energy, and it became ubiquitous throughout human culture, it could feed back into biological evolution eventually: humans that are better at echolocation would be selected for whatever gene combinations accelerate and ease the process of learning it. Given enough time and enough generations, it could become to some degree innate, so that babys might pick it up the way they do language now.

                This may be an outline for how human language evolved in tandem with biologically inherited foundational linguistic abilities. Language clearly has way more value to humans than echolocation.

                I think this is one of the important tasks in evo psych: untangling how cultural evolution and biological evolution interact.

              • Dan L.
                Posted July 11, 2013 at 9:24 am | Permalink

                the point the evo psych says every mental ability is an adaptation is just wrong.

                Is it? I find just about every evo psych hypothesis I hear about is subject to this criticism.

                The rest of your post is obvious enough that I don’t feel much need to comment on it. Yes, brains are evolved. Some behaviors are evolved. The question is which ones.

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted July 11, 2013 at 9:33 am | Permalink

                Right, which ones, and I think this is obvious enough that the field of evo psych couldn’t possibly be populated with people stupid enough to fail to understand this.

                Does evo psych have a consensus that religion is an adaptation? No, I think not. In fact I think the consensus is that religion is not an adaptation. So that pretty much means you are over simplifying and not being fair to evo psych when you make the claim that the field insists all mental abilities or traits are adaptations.

              • Dan L.
                Posted July 11, 2013 at 9:43 am | Permalink

                No, I think not. In fact I think the consensus is that religion is not an adaptation. So that pretty much means you are over simplifying and not being fair to evo psych when you make the claim that the field insists all mental abilities or traits are adaptations.

                Of course, I never said that in the first place. I specifically said “many”. So perhaps you are the one “over simplifying” and “not being fair”?

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted July 11, 2013 at 11:15 am | Permalink

                Right. I misread that, or misremembered. My bad.

                You wrote:

                And taken as a whole this argument does undermine the assumption that all mental abilities are necessarily adaptations — an assumption on which many evo psych arguments depend.

                So we are totally in agreement that not all human mental abilities are adaptations. This seems really obvious.

                Yet you say that many arguments of EP depend on assuming that ALL mental abilities are adaptations. Is this really true? It’s hard to believe so many working in EP can’t get something as basic as this.

              • Dan L.
                Posted July 11, 2013 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

                Yet you say that many arguments of EP depend on assuming that ALL mental abilities are adaptations.

                Perhaps I worded something badly. EP hypotheses usually pertain to particular aspects or facets of mental or social life and many such arguments are subject to the criticism I’m trying to articulate.

                For particular examples:
                -arguments for why depression might be adaptive in particular circumstances without first demonstrating that depression is an adaptation in the first place
                -studies about gender preferences that seem predicated on cultural mores particular to western industrial society (note that I don’t oppose studying gender differences in human beings, I just think we need to be careful hypotheses about this since our views on this are almost certainly heavily colored by cultural biases)
                -one that through me for a loop in particular: a study using only WEIRD participants engaging in the ultimatum game suggested that people are innately predisposed to punishing people for behavior perceived as less than fair. Subsequent retesting in populations with gift-based economies (as opposed to market or bartering economies) failed to reproduce these results suggesting that the retaliatory behaviors may very well be culturally derived rather than innate

                For the last example I had taken the results of the experiment rather seriously and it was eye-opening to me to read about the follow-up cross cultural study. This is a big reason I advocate serious skepticism with respect to EP hypotheses.

  36. Stephen Barnard
    Posted July 11, 2013 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    I think it’s likely that the evolutionary paradigm extends to neural phenomena. Biological evolution is the one process we know of that produces complex, highly organized, adaptive structures. (Cultural evolution is another, it could be argued.) It’s not unreasonable (following Edelman’s Neural Darwinism conjectures) to suppose that an analogous process works to organize the brain.

    If you accept that, and if neural plasticity is a biological adaptation, as has been reasonably suggested here, it’s actually a meta-adaptation: an adaptation that favors adaptation at a more abstract level, the neural level.

    There is a recursiveness to evolution: biological, neurological, cultural.

  37. peltonrandy
    Posted July 15, 2013 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    sub


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