Coyne on Evolutionary Psychology: It’s All Our FaultPublished 17 January, 2011
Jerry Coyne, who I recently blogged about, has had a few more things to say about evolutionary psychology in a post that addressed two articles that came out recently, one by David Brooks in The New Yorker and the other by Jesse Bering at Slate.
On this occasion, Coyne blasts the discipline because people in the press aren’t reporting on it properly. Writing about the Brooks piece, he says: “I worry that one-off results were being presented as solid findings of evolutionary psychology—uncontestable results of science.”
Not only that, but this, apparently, is our fault.
Every time I write a piece like this, one that’s critical of evolutionary psychology, I get emails from its practitioners, chewing me out for being so hard on their field. And my response is always the same: I’ll stop being so hard on your field when you guys start being more critical yourselves. If you policed your own discipline better, I wouldn’t have to.
I’m not sure how to read that other than somehow we’re supposed to be “policing” the use and portrayal of our discipline by journalists. He’s saying it’s our fault that Brooks is making strong claims based on research in evolutionary psychology.
With respect, that’s just absurd; we can’t control what Brooks, or any other journalist, writes. Not only that, but Brooks wasn’t even writing about findings in evolutionary psychology. I went back to the paper Coyne is worried about in Brooks’ piece. It’s about some research showing that if you gather sweat from people watching a horror movie or a comedy, people can tell, above chance, which is which. Not only do the authors of the article make no functional claims at all, their conclusion is pretty darn conservative: “We do not claim that our subjects identified the specific Happy and Fearful emotions…Our study is, however, the first to indicate that human body odors may change with the emotional states of the odor donors and that such changes can be identified olfactorily.” Their claim is purely one about the data, not about function. And certainly the authors don’t self-identify as evolutionary psychologists. What, exactly, have we done wrong here? Our field is responsible for a journalist reporting on a paper published in Perceptual and Motor Skills by researchers who study olfaction?
In any case, the bulk of Coyne’s post is about Bering’s blog entry about the possibility that women have anti-rape adaptations.
Again, his critique is focused on the strength of the arguments. He worries that Bering has presented the data without sufficient reservations. He seems to be saying that when you write in these sorts of venues, you ought to be appropriately cautious about the research and claims.
I agree; you should be careful about presenting others’ work. But there is a certain irony here. In this piece, Coyne says that Thornihill and Palmer in their book, A Natural History of Rape, claim that “the human brain contains an evolved “rape module”: a neuronal circuit that impels men to subdue and copulate with women when they can get away with it.” In the book, while they discuss evidence regarding the hypothesis that there might be adaptations for rape, they take exquisite care to distance themselves from a “rape module” assertion, writing that “whether rape is an adaption or byproduct cannot yet be definitively answered” (p. 84). (As an aside, the word “module” appears only once in the book, in the context of a piece by Mike Gazzaniga.)
But this isn’t the first time Coyne has addressed this issue. He wrote a review of Thornhill and Palmer’s book in The New Republic. I don’t think I can do better than Tooby and Cosmides did in their reply to this review, which I very strongly recommend. It contains helpful advice to Coyne, such as the idea that he “needs to reacquaint himself with such scientific basics as a commitment to be factually accurate rather than to originate falsehoods.”
In any case, it seems odd that Coyne would take evolutionary psychology to task for not “policing” the mainstream press and the blogosphere. Given the press coverage of the recent findings regarding arsenic, should we condemn the field of biology? Why is evolutionary psychology to blame when Brooks writes a piece drawing on work by people who aren’t even evolutionary psychologists who don’t even make any claims recognizable as evolutionary psychology? I find that very peculiar.
Coyne does make one substantive criticism of the discipline. He says that there is an “ascertainment bias,” saying that “If you find a result that comports with the idea that a trait is “adaptive,” it gets published. If you don’t, it doesn’t. That leads to the literature being filled with positive results, and gives the public a false idea of the strength of scientific data supporting the evolutionary roots of human behavior.” Given that Coyne is so concerned with strong unsubstantiated claims in blogs, I was shocked — shocked! — to find that this very bold assertion about what does and doesn’t get published was offered without even a whiff of a hint of evidence in support. (I hold aside here the confusion that the agenda has to do with showing that traits are “adaptive.”)
Anyway, it’s hard to know why Coyne dislikes evolutionary psychology so much, to the point of faulting the field for a journalists’ portrayal of research on smell. In wondering about this issue, Tooby and Cosmides, in their reply to his review, wrote: “Whatever the sources of hostility to evolutionary psychology, an evenhanded concern with falsifiability and research quality isn’t it.”
So, as for the true source of his hostility, as always, I remain mystified but very curious.