Coyne: “No evolutionary psychology hypothesis can be disconfirmed”Published 24 January, 2011
I don’t want to continue this discussion of the Bering post and the aftermath too much – Bering has himself followed up on Slate and I’ll move on after this post – but I was really quite struck by Coyne’s claim in his more recent post that “there’s no evolutionary psychology hypothesis that can be disconfirmed by data.”
This is obviously a very, very strong claim. If true, the field carries no value as science, given a commitment to falsification.
I thought I’d just talk a little bit about how this view sets Coyne in firm and direct conflict not only with evolutionary psychologists, but some other people as well.
Take, for example, David Buller, about whom I’ve blogged a few times. In his book, Adapting Minds, he challenged Stephen Jay Gould’s concerns about evolutionary psychology, laying out the logic of adaptationism, arguing that he (Gould) “misses the fact that adaptive hypotheses can be supported by the confirmed predictions they make about human psychological mechanisms” (p. 91). (Reminder: That was David Buller I just quoted there.)
Who else…? How about Jerry Fodor? Also a well-known and prominent critic of evolutionary psychology, especially in the context of his arguments surrounding Cosmides and Tooby’s work on detecting cheaters. While Fodor (2008) resists Cosmides and Tooby’s ideas about logical reasoning, he is clear in one of his recent pieces on one thing: what empirical steps would be required to test the theory. (Fodor suggests that the evidence they need is to show there is “no effect of logical form on inferential processes when content is controlled” p. 140. Cosmides and Tooby already ran the tests Fodor demanded, but that’s really not the point) From Coyne’s point of view, Fodor must be very, very deeply confused, since he (Fodor) believes that these evolutionary psychology hypotheses can indeed be falsified. He might think they are, in fact, false, but of course that’s a separate issue.
Speaking of Fodor, responding to his book, What Darwin Got Wrong (with Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini) one biologist recently wrote that “Fodor completely ignores all the examples given by critics (including me) showing that selectionist explanations are not ad hoc and post hoc rationalizations, but can be tested…” (italics original). In that linked article, this biologist argues for the logic of adaptationism, writing that “evolutionary biologists have grappled for decades with the question of how to decide which evolving features of species experience natural selection and which do not. And they’ve devised observational, experimental and statistical ways to make this distinction.” He even makes a functional claim about a human trait, writing: “Individuals who can tan in the sun (and thus prevent melanomas) have an advantage over those whose pigmentation is fixed.” Note the claim that we can infer the function – preventing melanomas – from observations of the trait. No need for fossil evidence, no need to do any genetics. This author even defends evolutionary psychology. Far from believing that “there’s no evolutionary psychology hypothesis that can be disconfirmed,” he writes “much of evolutionary psychology is interesting, worthwhile science.” (He also, I must note, says that the field includes “a speculative fringe…that proposes fanciful stories.”)
You can imagine that I would love to suggest that Coyne read this article, but I won’t. That’s because it would be silly to do so, since – and you probably guessed – Coyne wrote it.
Why would Coyne defend the field – much of it is science – and attack it with his claim here, that none of it is science?
I don’t really know, but my point is not that Coyne isn’t consistent. I mean, who is…? The question is, I think, why there is such animosity to the idea that the theory of evolution by natural selection can improve research in the social sciences. Evolutionary biologists and evolutionary psychologists use the same principles to achieve similar ends, differing only in terms of the species under study. It’s clear from his other writing that he can’t be endorsing, say, creationist psychology.
So it seems to me we are natural allies, but there seems to be enmity instead of amity. And I even think that the field would welcome “policing” in the sense of constructive suggestions for improvement. Using a blog to declare the entire field unscientific seems less like policing and more like bullying to me. Yes, sure, there is poor work in the discipline. Absolutely. There’s poor work in every field. Are these sorts of public statements helping matters, or just giving an audience an excuse to hold aside the human mind as an organ whose features can’t be studied using the principles of evolutionary biology?
Ok. On to other matters…
Fodor, J. A., 2008, “Comment on Cosmides and Tooby”, in W. Sinnott-Armstrong (ed.), Moral Psychology: The Evolution of Morality: Adaptations and Innateness, (Moral Psychology, volume 1), Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 137–141.