Friday, June 25, 2010

Evolutionary Psychology as Maladapted Psychology

I just bought Evolutionary Psychology as Maladapted Psychology by Robert C. Richardson ($13 CDN). I couldn't resist after reading the blurb.
Human beings, like other organisms, are the products of evolution. Like other organisms, we exhibit traits that are the product of natural selection. Our psychological capacities are evolved traits as much as are our gait and posture. This much few would dispute. Evolutionary psychology goes further than this, claiming that our psychological traits—including a wide variety of traits, from mate preference and jealousy to language and reason—can be understood as specific adaptations to ancestral Pleistocene conditions. In Evolutionary Psychology as Maladapted Psychology, Robert Richardson takes a critical look at evolutionary psychology by subjecting its ambitious and controversial claims to the same sorts of methodological and evidential constraints that are broadly accepted within evolutionary biology.

The claims of evolutionary psychology may pass muster as psychology; but what are their evolutionary credentials? Richardson considers three ways adaptive hypotheses can be evaluated, using examples from the biological literature to illustrate what sorts of evidence and methodology would be necessary to establish specific evolutionary and adaptive explanations of human psychological traits. He shows that existing explanations within evolutionary psychology fall woefully short of accepted biological standards. The theories offered by evolutionary psychologists may identify traits that are, or were, beneficial to humans. But gauged by biological standards, there is inadequate evidence: evolutionary psychologists are largely silent on the evolutionary evidence relevant to assessing their claims, including such matters as variation in ancestral populations, heritability, and the advantage offered to our ancestors. As evolutionary claims they are unsubstantiated. Evolutionary psychology, Richardson concludes, may offer a program of research, but it lacks the kind of evidence that is generally expected within evolutionary biology. It is speculation rather than sound science—and we should treat its claims with skepticism.
Thanks to Denyse O'Leary for finding this book [Evolutionary psychology racket alert: Serious news, not just more embarrassment for science]. This is one issue that we agree on.


14 comments :

  1. "This is one issue that we agree on."

    I rather suspect you agree for different reasons. In your case it is because EP is mostly bad science. If that was the case with O'Leary she would obviously not be an ID supporter. I suspect O'Leary doesn't like EP because it questions her putative view of how "special" we are in the Universe.

    But do you not agree that even though the practice of EP may be suspect, the questions it is trying to answer are at least legitimate - i.e., why are we the way we are, and how did that come to be?

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  2. I was going to say word for word the exact same thing as anonymous here.

    Larry, do you not agree that while the evidence is mostly not there, the idea that our psychology is influenced by our evolutionary past makes sense?

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  3. Don't tell me your a Psychological Creationist Larry. :)

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  4. This endorsement of the book is seriously disingenuous on O'Leary's part. The book argues that evolutionary psychology falls short of the standards that evolutionary biologists use in testing adaptive hypotheses for the evolution of various traits. Denyse, who dismisses evolutionary psychology not because of these methodological/evidential problems, but because of its seeming obviously silly and ridiculous to her (she never lays out an actual argument), would also dismiss adaptive scenarios based on the legitimate ways of testing them as just-so-story-telling. But I suppose she can't bring herself to care about such trivialities as argument structure when the conclusion is her favored one.

    Please keep us updated about your thoughts as you read the book. I had the author as a professor once and I was thinking about reading his book but never really got to it.

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  5. Bjørn Østman asks,

    Larry, do you not agree that while the evidence is mostly not there, the idea that our psychology is influenced by our evolutionary past makes sense?

    Yes. I agree.

    Culture is also a very important influence.

    I'm skeptical of the idea that most of our behavior is due to the presence of specific alleles that were selected for in the recent past.

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  6. "existing explanations within evolutionary psychology fall woefully short of accepted biological standards." - blurb

    One question to ask is why psychology should be held accountable to 'biological standards'. Are all disciplines soviereign in their own realms to choose whatever language best realizes their disciplinary discovery of reality?

    Psychologists are notoriously bad with studying 'culture.' Likewise, biologists have spoken about 'culture' in ways that are unhelpful and that ignore the vast amount of work that has been done in 'cultural sciences.'

    E.g. T. Dobzhansky's claims of 'cultural evolution,' and R. Dawkins' term 'memes'. These are two examples of biologists speaking outside of their respective realms of knowledge.

    Perhaps we can thus forgive psychologists for treading on biologists' territory and allowing their 'social science' standards priority over 'biological standards'?

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  7. "existing explanations within evolutionary psychology fall woefully short of accepted biological standards." - blurb

    One question to ask is why psychology should be held accountable to 'biological standards'. Are all disciplines soviereign in their own realms to choose whatever language best realizes their disciplinary discovery of reality?

    Psychologists are notoriously bad with studying 'culture.' Likewise, biologists have spoken about 'culture' in ways that are unhelpful and that ignore the vast amount of work that has been done in 'cultural sciences.'

    E.g. T. Dobzhansky's claims of 'cultural evolution,' and R. Dawkins' term 'memes'. These are two examples of biologists speaking outside of their respective realms of knowledge.

    Perhaps we can thus forgive psychologists for treading on biologists' territory and allowing their 'social science' standards priority over 'biological standards'?

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  8. Anon: the standards that are appropriate to hold evolutionary psychology to depend on the ambitions of the field. If they were doing nothing but psychology (i.e. elucidating cognitive mechanisms by experiment and theorizing) than biological standards wouldn't be totally inappropriate to hold the field to. But the aims of EP are broader than this, and therefore their different specific activities have to be held to the relevant standards, some of which are biological.

    The standards of behavioral genetics have to be met to connect human behavioral phenotypes to genotypes, and the standards of evolutionary biology have to be met to determine whether these phenotypes are adaptations). Sticking to strictly psychological standards isn't plausible, since these two components aren't separable from the field. Who would care very much about EP if it weren't about explaining human behavior in terms of genetics and in telling adaptive stories about said behavior?

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  9. correction: *then* biological standards *would* be totally inappropriate

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  10. O'Leary has another blog and she's touting the whole tired Darwinism = Eugenics canard:

    http://www.examiner.com/x-33853-Toronto-Intelligent-Design-Examiner~y2010m6d26-New-book-announcement-The-truth-about-the-ruthless-Darwinian-eugenics-campaign-in-Canada

    But Larry gets a special mention:

    "Now, I want to exempt at least one person from all this: So far as I can see, Larry Moran of the University of Toronto agrees with me about the "evolutionary psychology" nonsense. "

    Larry, I expect you must feel deeply honored that Her Highness, has granted you an exemption.

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  11. Anonymous says,

    Larry, I expect you must feel deeply honored that Her Highness, has granted you an exemption.

    I do.

    That's real progress. Denyse now admits that there is at least one evolutionist who accept evolution but rejects most of evolutionary psychology. That means she can no longer make the claim that Darwinism is false because of the silliness of evolutionary psychologists.

    The next step is to convince her that thousands of other scientist agree with me. In fact, a *majority* of evolutionists agree with Denyse and me.

    That blows one of her main arguments right out of the water.

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  12. Re: The anonymous comment about how maybe it is okay with EP to hold it to the lower standards of psychology rather than the higher standards of evolutionary biology...

    There is a grain of truth in your point, but what really gets me is when I hear some EP hypothesis that is not just speculation, but does not even make sense given an appropriate understanding of natural selection. The most common trope is the ol' "good of the species" thing. Argh.

    In other words, for me -- and I'm sure Larry takes a harder line on this, but this is just for me -- I am fairly comfortable with speculative claims from EP that are plausible within a Darwinian framework, even without evidence that it actually happened that way. As long as the appropriate caveats are offered, I think that kind of speculation could be productive, especially within a less rigorous field. But unfortunately, so many EPs go far past this, engaging in speculations that don't even make sense. That I just can't stand... And it's palpably counter-productive, because (given the fondness of the MSM for EP stories) it propagates a false understanding of Darwinism to the general public. Blech.

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  13. It is as if EP's were trying to explain the fall of the Roman Empire by the emergence of a genetic mutation or something. And I'm sure there are some out there calling themselves EP who would propose just that.

    If one objects to EP in principle, there's no much point pretending to care about its standards. The book couldn't make the discipline more rigorous and filter the rubbish.

    This is not the case here: Larry thinks that it makes sense, and says that "culture is also a very important influence". But -I'm sorry to say- this sounds awfully as if culture wasn't the product of the species evolutionary past, as if it was a mystical substance outside the natural world and outside the grasp of natural science.

    The animosity against EP among biologists clearly has as much to do with the popularity of EP among the "vulgar" or at least among the illiterate in arts, as with special domain cognitive bias: "serious science is in the gritty details" etc. Population biologists, biochemists, paleontologists, taxonomists, developmental biologists, all different academic tribes.

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  14. Sorry... I can't remember my stupid Google password!

    Of course the questions that people who try to push EP are trying to answer are legitimate, but it could just as easily be said that people trying to push creationism are attempting to answer legitimate questions too. The issue is *how* the questions are answered, and whether or not these answers have anything to do with facts, logic, empirical evidence, the scientific method, etc., etc., etc. What makes the final result even worse in the case of EP is that claims are being made for all of these techniques being used.

    Stephen Jay Gould already did the best job of summing up the fatal flaws with EP that anybody is ever likely to do, and the high points are really all covered in *More Things In Heaven and Earth.* Briefly, though, the most basic problem of all is that according to EP, certain vague, not-very-well-defined, supposedly universal and wholesale categories of human behavior must have arisen in response to specific ancestral environments human beings experienced during evolutionary history. But without reams of extremely specific evidence about the exact nature of the environment of evolutionary adaptation (and that's just for a start), stories about how traits and behavior supposedly arose as responses to environmental conditions are nothing but speculation. They might make for good fiction, but that's it.Per Gould,"the chief strategy proposed by evolutionary psychologists for identifying adaptation is untestable and therefore unscientific."

    In time (and not a lot of time, IMHO), it's going to be just as hard to believe that anybody ever took this nonsense seriously as it is now to believe the widespread popular acceptance of Freudian silliness fifty or sixty years ago.

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