Thursday, December 06, 2012

The Best of Evolutionary Psychology

There seems to be general agreement that many of the papers in evolutionary psychology are less than stellar examples of the best that science has to offer [see Evolutionary Psychology as Maladapted Psychology ]. One way to decide on the overall value of a discipline is to look at its best works rather than its worst. In the past I've often asked for examples of the very best papers in evolutionary psychology. Such requests are usually met with embarrassing silence but Gad Saad once took up the challenge: The Great, Profound, and Valuable Works of Evolutionary Psychology.

It's not a very impressive list. Since the discussion about evolutionary psychology is heating up again, it's time to send out another request. What are the very best papers in the field—the ones you are proud to point to whenever any criticizes evolutionary psychology? PZ Myers also wants to know [αEP: Shut up and sing!. John Wilkins would also like some examples since he's just launched a series of posts defending evolutionary psychology [Evopsychopathy 1. Conditions for sociobiology].

BTW, John Wilkins makes a big deal out of the supposed link between criticism of evolutionary psychology and a political agenda; namely, opposition to genetic determinism. While it's true that some people oppose bad science AND take comfort in the fact that it confirms their philosophical position, the fact that it's bad science shouldn't be ignored. My position is the same as Stephen Jay Gould's in The Internal Brand of the Scarlet W.

He said,
We are not questioning whether genes influence behavior; of course they do. We are not arguing that genetic explanations should be resisted because they have negative political, social, or ethical connotations - a charge that must be rejected for two primary reasons. First, nature's facts stand neutral before our ethical usages. We have, to be sure, often made dubious, even tragic, decisions based on false genetic claims. But, in other contexts, valid arguments about the innate and hereditary basis of human attributes can be profoundly liberating.

... Second, we will never get very far, either in our moral deliberations or our scientific inquiries, if we disregard genuine facts because we dislike their implications. In the most obvious case, I cannot think of a more unpleasant fact than the inevitable physical death of each human body, but a society built on the premise that King Prospero will reign in his personal flesh forever will not flourish for long.


  1. I think, just like Kaminski in that thread, that John Wilkins could start by making clear if he is talking about Evolutionary Psychology sensu strictu or if he is talking about Sociobiology sensu lato, Gene-Culture Co-Evolution etc. These are not the same thing neither do they have necesseraly the same aproach, and need to be taken as such.

  2. By the way, Moran and all others, what is your opinion on Richardson's book? I'm thinking of buying it.

  3. Yeah, Pedro is right. There is a distinction between "party line" EP and other fields that study human behavior from an evolutionary perspective. This is perhaps best outlined in a paper by Eric Alden Smith et al. (2001). Controversies in the evolutionary social sciences: A guide for the perplexed. TREE 16: 128-135. The authors consider themselves 'human behavioral ecologists' and are largely trained as biologists/zoologists, not psychologists.

    David Buller's devastating book "Adapting Minds" is one of the best critiques of party-line EP out there.

    As to some of the best papers, I'd throw in these...

    Debra Lieberman, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides (2012) Does morality have a biological basis? An empirical test of the factors governing moral sentiments relating to incest. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 270: 819-826

    Debra Lieberman, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides (2007) The architecture of human kin detection. Nature 445: 727-731


  4. May be here's another one for the list

    Women can judge sexual unfaithfulness from unfamiliar men's faces
    Gillian Rhodes, Grace Morley and Leigh W. Simmons

    We conclude that impressions of sexual faithfulness from faces have a kernel of truth, at least for women, and that they may help people assess the quality of potential mates about whom they have minimal behavioural information