Sci Am dislikes evolutionary psych, too

David Buller at Scientific American weighed in on the burgeoning field of evolutionary psychology, claiming it “misguided”:

It may be a cold, hard fact that there are many things about the evolution of the human mind that we will never know and about which we can only idly speculate. Of course, some speculations are worse than others. Those of Pop EP [evolutionary psychology] are deeply flawed. We are unlikely ever to learn much about our evolutionary past by slicing our Pleistocene history into discrete adaptive problems, supposing the mind to be partitioned into discrete solutions to those problems, and then supporting those suppositions with pencil-and-paper data. The field of evolutionary psychology will have to do better.

I don’t have anything original to say about the article that Feministe, Pandagon, and 3 Quarks Daily haven’t already said, other than to point out that this comes at an opportune time, considering that the only outspoken opposition to evolutionary psychology that I’m aware of comes from the aforementioned radical liberal extremists writing to their picayune blogs. Hopefully Scientific American carries more cachet than we do.

Buller outlines four fallacies often committed by evolutionary psychologists:

1) Believing that an “analysis of Pleistocene adaptive problems yields clues to the mind’s design.” We have little to no evidence of the psychological behaviour of Pleistocene hominids, and we have no basis for inferring how those behaviours were adaptive to environmental or social problems in the lives of these hominids; as a result, all inferences made about their psychological adaptations are purely speculative, hardly better than guesses.

2) The belief that “we know, or can discover, why distinctively human traits evolved.” Comparing different species that share a common ancestor is a common and useful way of determining how the adaptations of those species is contingent on unique environmental factors. Unfortunately, humans have no living counterparts that can be used in such a comparison, since our nearest relatives apparently have none of the higher cognitive functions that EP hopes to explain (language, etc.).

3) The belief that “our modern skulls house a Stone Age mind.” This belief depends on a narrow view of the influences on human psychology; Buller suggests that not only may many of our adaptive psychological traits be held over from pre-human evolution, but it has also been shown that the interaction of genes with rapidly changing modern environments produces behaviours that would be drastically divergent from those of Stone Age hominids.

4) The belief that “the psychological data provide clear evidence for pop EP.” “Pencil-and-paper” data provides weak evidence for drawing conclusions about universal human nature or behaviour. This is the fallacy that gets to the heart of the liberal extremist radical bloggers’ complaints; Buller states that “the appearance that the evidence is compelling is created less by the data themselves than by the failure to consider and adequately test viable alternative explanations.” Coupled with the speculative inferences made by way of fallacy number one, evolutionary psychology serves as a ripe breeding ground for justifying preconceptions about human nature under the guise of scientific “proof”; since much of evolutionary psychology is inexplicably obsessed with competition for “mates,” a great deal of conclusions are drawn about gender differences that reinforce researchers’ preconceptions about normative gender roles. Holly at Feministe, referring to Echidne, characterizes EP methodology thusly: “a small amount of data is used to confabulate a hypothesis that just happens to provide moral support for traditional gender roles.”

I would add to Buller’s list a reliance on sketchy statistical methods, including, famously, tiny sample sizes and forced-choice questionnaires that are old hat in the pollster’s quiver of data-skewing tools. I hope that this article is the start of a trend that gives evolutionary psychology a reputation for bad science, which will either drive it out of existence or force it to adopt some more rigorous standards. And then, hopefully, the science journalists will lay off making things even worse for everybody by exaggerating and misrepresenting the already shoddy research.

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5 responses to “Sci Am dislikes evolutionary psych, too

  1. EP often makes explicitly clear that evolved emotional or cognitive propensities carry no moral element — in fact, we are better able to overcome biases when we understand their provenance.

  2. “I don’t have anything original to say about the article that Feministe, Pandagon, and 3 Quarks Daily haven’t already said, other than to point out that this comes at an opportune time, considering that the only outspoken opposition to evolutionary psychology that I’m aware of comes from the aforementioned radical liberal extremists writing to their picayune blogs. Hopefully Scientific American carries more cachet than we do.”

    Really? On the contrary, so far as I can see, Evo P is getting kicked pretty regularly nowadays. Ben Goldacre does so often. The phrase “just so story” seems to be on the lips of pretty much anyone who doesn’t like some aspect of Evo P.

    Actually I think Evo P is one of these things that no-one outside the specialists really understands. Journalists and popularizers put forward a kind of cartoonish, highly selective version of Evo P which critics then attack. Whereas the real strengths & weaknesses of Evo P get little attention, in my view.

  3. mackereleconomics

    “On the contrary, so far as I can see, Evo P is getting kicked pretty regularly nowadays.”

    I’ve actually spoken to a couple of people since I posted this, including a psychologist, and I’m starting to see that this is the case. I haven’t been reading Ben Goldacre, but I will.

  4. mackereleconomics

    And Nando, I would agree if I was willing to concede that EP is helping us understand the provenances of bias, but I’m not. EP would have to be free from bias itself before it could do that, no?

  5. Buller’s critique has itself been the subject of extensive critique. For instance, see: http://www.pitt.edu/~machery/papers/MAchery_Barrett_%202006_Buller.pdf

    I don’t understand your point about bias. We are biased (humans). Psychology (of various kinds) seems to show this. We still manage to get things right occasionally.

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