Robert Kurzban

The Evolutionary Psychology Blog

By Robert Kurzban

Robert Kurzban is an Associate Professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Why Everyone (Else) Is A Hypocrite. Follow him on Twitter: @rkurzban

Myers’ Critique of EP: Strong Language But Weak Tea

Published 18 January, 2011

A reader asked me to reply to PZ Myers’ post about Bering’s post, so I thought I would do that. (I apologize for the length of this one. Replying to posts is like grading papers. The very good ones take little time and require few comments, but…)

Ok, on to it… Myers’ first worry is about the samples and materials in the four studies Bering cites. Myers writes: “All of the studies involve small numbers, typically of college students at American universities (and even more narrowly, of psychology students), and all involve responses to highly subjective stimuli.” Sure, all studies would benefit from larger sample size, and of course generalizability from a sample is always an issue. While I’m happy to say that inferences must be cautious from any given sample, how is this a critique of evolutionary psychology? That is, does the use of such samples make any field (social psychology, perception, etc.) “awesomely trivial drivel?” Or did this only become a reprehensible scientific practice when evolutionary psychologists started doing it? I mean, people were using college sophomores to do social science before evolutionary psychology existed. (Zimbardo’s prison experiment: 24 American undergraduates…) Why don’t we see apoplectic blog posts every time someone reports on a study about stereotyping with college students? Why doesn’t research in other areas make bloggers moan that they “cannot bear the entire field of social psychology or personality psychology?” as Myers writes about evolutionary psychology. It’s very interesting that this dog doesn’t bark. If you want to test a hypothesis that has no functional model behind it, any method you choose is just fine. If your hypothesis derives from an idea about function, suddenly this method becomes intolerable.

In any case, of course these are convenience samples, and yes, that’s a reasonable worry and yes, one can have a sensible conversation about generalizing from any given study. That doesn’t make the field “tainted” or not rigorous. In fact, there’s a sense in which they’ve got it backwards. If you look at a journal such as Evolution and Human Behavior, many people who contribute are gathering data from field sites that other social scientists studying the same phenomena don’t. This is why you see such a greater fraction of anthropologists contributing to evolutionary psychology journals than to social psychology journals. (Anyone want to guess what fraction of papers in EHB compared to JPSP included an anthropologist in 2010?) If the issue is subject population, it seems to me that critics such as Myers should be applauding evolutionary psychologists in this respect.

As to the issue of using “highly subjective stimuli,” I’m not sure what a “subjective stimulus” is, but it seems to me that if one is going to study rape, you’re going to need stimuli of some sort, and I suppose they’ll be “subjective.”

Second, he writes about the studies Bering reviews that “[n]one test anything to do with inheritance, none try (or even can) look at the genetic basis of the behaviors they are studying. Yet somehow evolutionary psychologists conclude that ‘women may have been selected during human evolution to behave in ways that reduce the likelihood of conception as a consequence of rape.’” In a previous post, I talked about Coyne’s discussion of observations of bee behavior – which had nothing to do with genetics or inheritance – and his inference that the bees were designed to kill hornets by roasting them. Why didn’t Myers get steamed about this inference, condemning behavioral ecology as lacking in rigor? There’s no genes or inheritance there, right? Similarly, how did Harvey conclude that the heart is for pumping blood without looking at the genetic basis of the heart? Darwin didn’t know anything about genetics, yet was able to make plenty of inferences about function. How did he manage? Why should the logic of inferring function from form end with human social behavior? I know I say this a lot on this blog, but the logic of adaptationism is that one can make inferences about function from form. Bee behavior allows the inference of design to kill hornets. Sure, one can have a debate about this logic, but if so, then the worry applies just as much to Coyne’s claim about hornet-killing as to any similar claim about humans. Surely the argument isn’t that the inference from form/behavior to function is licensed only if one doesn’t style oneself an evolutionary psychologist. Right?

Next, Myers writes, “Another way to look at it is that they are hypothesizing that women are more likely to behave in ways that invite physical attack and brutal abuse when they aren’t ovulating. That is a remarkable assertion.” Superficially, that is a strange assertion. (I’m just going to address this claim. The material he quotes is actually about reducing the probability of conception conditional on being raped,  not the probability of taking risks conditional on ovulating.) Let’s look at this in terms of risk sensitive foraging. Organisms will take fewer risks (going foraging, which risks predation) when they’re not in need of calories. Does that mean they are more likely to behave in ways that invite attack – more precisely, entail risk of attack – when they’re hungry? Yes, of course. The point is that there are always tradeoffs. Organisms have to make tradeoffs, which means taking risks in some cases but not others, depending on the offsetting probabilistic benefits. (Now, whether they are correct or not is a separate issue. I don’t really know what the tradeoff might be in this case, but I suppose there could be one. In any case, one wants some explanation for the pattern of data (N=232), and  I’m sure Petralia and Gallup would welcome ideas for distinguishing their hypothesis from alternatives.) And yes, sure, maybe it’s a spurious result. That’s always a possibility. But the point here is that it’s not illogical to use the notion of tradeoffs to frame hypotheses.

Myers also has a comment about “culturally conditioned behaviors,” but I confess I don’t know what he means, so I just want to be explicit that I didn’t miss this, I just don’t know what he means. I think he draws the usual learned/innate and cultural/evolved distinction that most of us have abandoned, but it’s hard for me to tell.

Here he seems to shift from criticism of the primary literature to criticism of the post. He writes, “Then many of the studies that are described with such enthusiastic certainty as having definitive results turn out to be subjective, pointless messes.” I don’t quite see what he means. He quotes Bering here, and in the quoted material all Bering does is relate the results, not a hypothesis about function. I invite readers to look at the quoted material; does it do more than summarize the findings? I agree what one can infer from them is open to interpretation, but the data are the data.

At the top of his post, Myers writes that the field is “poor science propped up by a conviction that plausibility is sufficient support for certainty.” His objections are based on the use of undergrads (and “small” samples, in these cases in the hundreds), the confusion about the inference from behavior to design (in human social behavior, anyway), and the confusion about tradeoffs. But I think a more important point is this accusation about certainty. Again, I went back to the papers Bering discusses. Remember that Myers’ concern here seems to be (and maybe I’m wrong) that the field is “poor science propped up by a conviction that plausibility is sufficient support for certainty.” To take the first study Bering cites, about handgrip strength, the authors make a consistency claim, along with the modal “may” in there: “These results are consistent with other evidence that women may have been selected during human evolution to behave in ways that reduce the likelihood of conception as a consequence of rape” (my italics) and they even add, explicitly this line: “Our findings, however, must be interpreted with caution.” What more do you want in terms of being tentative in one’s conclusions? Similarly, Garver-Apgar and colleagues write, “women may possess specially designed  perceptual counter-strategies that guard against male sexual coercion.” That modal “may” seems to be pretty distant from the certainty claim. Where is the “conviction” or the “certainty” that Myers hangs on evolutionary psychologists?

Now, it could be that he’s really saying that Bering is “too certain” in his blog post. Bering writes: “I’m riveted, and convinced, by much of the logic in this anti-rape area. And researchers are just getting started. Above is a set of astonishing truths.” He’s saying that he’s convinced, which I think Bering is entitled to be. Maybe he shouldn’t be; that’s fine. But in any case he’s clear that he thinks that the research is just getting started, rather than being all done. (You can tell by when he writes, “And researchers are just getting started.”) So maybe it’s the “astonishing truths.” Are those two words why he’s so upset? If so, then that’s fine. Bering is writing for Slate, not the primary literature, and I think a little enthusiasm is quite understandable. If Myers would have preferred a different flourish to punctuate Bering’s post, he’s certainly entitled to his opinion. I hardly think this is cause for his remarkably strong language about the field as a whole. I mean, the fact that these studies persuaded Bering doesn’t speak to the status of the discipline as a science.

And, since this post is so long anyway, another digression. Do you think the enthusiasts who commented on Coyne’s and Myers’ posts looked at the four papers in question, or even one of them, and then decided that, yes, these particular papers are representative of the discipline of evolutionary psychology as a whole?  Did they then did they study the papers and determine that they were, in fact, poorly executed, thus licensing the strong claims Myers makes about the field? For that matter, if the paper by Navarette et al had used exactly the same method, but had no functional grounding at all, would the paper be better? And, speaking of that paper, what alternative framework predicts cycle effects?

Ok. I guess I’ll just leave it there, and apologize again for the length of this post.

(But just one ps, just as a bit of an aside. Myers touts Elisabeth Lloyd’s book on the female orgasm as “a wonderful example of solid, rigorous, scientific thinking.” I find that interesting in so many ways, but I’ll restrict myself to an observation or two. First,  Lloyd’s thesis is the same one that Don Symons articulated a quarter century earlier in his book The Evolution of Human Sexuality. I find this particularly amusing in the context of Myers’ claim that “Too often investigators start with the assumption that a feature absolutely must have been selected for” since Symons exactly did not do this; he, and Lloyd, make a byproduct claim. I would argue that this is, in fact, typical of evolutionary psychology, which treats adaptation as the “onerous concept” Williams advised it should be. In any case, for a very different take on the book, I strongly recommend David Barash’s review here in Evolutionary Psychology, which includes classic lines such as this one: “Elisabeth A. Lloyd has taken a really terrific topic and written a really terrible book.”)

  • Michael Meadon

    I sympathize with your position overall, but I think you downplay the significance of the narrow sample too much. It’s a REALLY big problem that psychology relies on subjects that are WEIRD. (Sorry for the self-promotion, but it’s relevant, I promise).

    Saying in effect, “but Myers & Coyne are biased because, look!, other psychologists do it too!”, may be true, but that doesn’t mean the flaws they point out don’t exist. Besides, as Williams pointed out and you concede, to claim “X is an EPM” requires far more evidence than one you typically find in non-EP psych (“humans have a bias towards X” / “people do X”). So a EP study with 20 American subjects is ceterus paribus worse than a non-EP study with only 20 such subjects just because it will likely make claims requiring better evidence before they can be taken seriously.

    And, you must also agree, there are a lot of really really bad EP studies. This paper, for example is utter, utter, utter trash.

    • Marco DG

      “And, you must also agree, there are a lot of really really bad [...] studies”. Strangely enough, the sentence remains true if I fill in the blank with “medicine”, “psychiatry”, “physics”, “genetics”, “economics”… Would you say that EP studies happen to be bad significantly more often than those in other field? I doubt that, but that’s an open empirical question.

      • Michael Meadon

        You’re right, most published research findings are wrong. My feeling is that there are more bad EP studies in mainstream EP journals than there are bad medicine studies in mainstream medicine journals. But I have no data, so, yes, only a feeling.

        But the point Coyne et. al. are making is that evolutionary psychologists should be doing a better job of policing their field. There are a lot of doctors dedicated to critiquing bad medical studies (Novella, Orac, etc.); there aren’t many (or any?) evolutionary psychologists doing the same for evolutionary psychology.

        • Tybo

          Ioannidas himself states that cases like multiple-stage clinical trials are less likely to be false by his work because they are multiply replicated in working from basic science, up through trials to human subjects, thus the prior probability of the hypothesis is higher from the start. So your intuition is definitely supported by Ioannidas’ paper.

    • Robert Kurzban

      Brief replies: 1. I actually don’t downplay the subject issue. I argue that the inference from the fact that these studies use undergraduates to the conclusion that entire field is drivel is not licensed. I further argue that our field is more, not less, aware of this issue than other social sciences. (Aside: Two Nobel prizes have been awarded for human experimental social science research. They used undergrads. Were the Smith/Kahneman research programs “drivel?”) 2. I contest your characterization of the field. It might help if you can quote the material in the four papers in question that make the “X is an EPM” claim. 3. Yes, there are bad EP studies. Ironic, all this talk about what strong conclusions are and are not licensed from samples from a population… As for the Hagen/Bryant paper, I haven’t read it, but I don’t find your critique particularly compelling.

      • Michael Meadon

        I’m a bit confused. You disagree with my characterization of the field? EP – to be EP at all – has to make claims along the lines of “X is an EPM” (or at a minimum “X is an evolved trait” – so as to be agnostic about modules). And the claim that X is an adaptation requires quite a bit of evidence, much more than just saying “humans sometimes do X”. (As I explain in the 4th paragraph of this post). So… to be credible, EP studies often require more evidence than non-EP studies just because they make EP claims.

        I’m wondering, what do you make of “Saying in effect, “but Myers & Coyne are biased because, look!, other psychologists do it too!”, may be true, but that doesn’t mean the flaws they point out don’t exist.”? That was in some ways the crux of my comment.

  • Marco DG

    Coyne’s and Myers’ attacks on evolutionary psychology are part of a larger trend. The standard (and tired) arguments against EP are recycled, from time to time, in a number of other influential blogs (many of which written by biologists). Examples are Larry Moran’s “Sandwalk”, Massimo Pigliucci’s “Rationally Speaking”, and Ben Goldacre’s “Bad Science.” All of these depict EP as a pseudoscience made up of empty claims and just-so-stories (sounds familiar?). The authors rarely engage with specific studies or arguments, and when they do they often comment on news reports or blog entries (sounds familiar?); criticism is sweeping (“the whole field is…”) and presented as almost self-evident.

    Unsurprisingly, these authors lean strongly to the left and tend to have a reputation of skepticism. Clearly, the Gould-&-Lewontin caricature of EP they criticize is the ideal target if you want to simultaneously display (1) your political values, (2) your intelligence and skepticism, and (3) your moral virtue. No need to actually read the literature when you are using EP as a convenient shibboleth.

    By the way: PZ Myers lost all my respect when he described Cochran & Harpending’s work on Ashkenazi intelligence as “crank pseudoscience” and Greg Cochran as “a crank and a non-scientist”:
    Whatever one may think of the scientifiic merits of Cochran and Harpending’s hypothesis, this is bigotry and character assassination, not scientific criticism. Here’s Steve Pinker on the same paper:

    • Todd I. Stark

      @Marco: Just a small quibble on one aspect of your interesting and reasonable response. I am less familiar with some of your other examples, but I wouldn’t characterize Pigliucci in quite that way. I say that because in my opinion he is very explicit about not drawing a demarcation line in the sand in the way that a lot of other writers do when they are being critical on a scientific topic. Although he is critical of some aspects of it, he seems to put evolutionary psychology as a whole relatively high on a maturity spectrum of more or less robust sciences, whereas a lot of critics put sciences on one side of a line and horoscopes on the other.

      I’m attempting to make this point in response because I think his approach, as I understand it, makes sense. EP is not as mature and robust as some other sciences, but it is significantly more mature and robust than some. It may not be the way people want to look at research programs, but I think the maturity model is more realistic than the “good science/bad science” model and takes into account more of the progress we’ve made understanding the philosophy of science.

      kind regards,


      • Marco DG

        @Todd: I agree that Pigliucci offers measured criticism of EP in his academic publications. For example, his 2007 book “making sense of evolution” has a section on EP where the criticism centers on the paucity of explicit phylogenetic analyses/evidence. This standard criticism may not be as compelling as implied in the book, but at least it is offered in a respectful and scientifically sound way.

        Blog entries tell a different story, though. Check out this one about “evolutionary psychology, a discipline of which I’m about as fond as psychoanalysis, and for similar reasons” (spoiler: he’s not fond of psychoanalysis, and he implies that both are unfalsifiable):

        What do you think?

        • figleaf

          To be fair though, insisting that EP produce phylogenetic evidence is a bit of a red herring. Height is unquestionably highly heritable even though we have no clue what genes or combinations thereof are responsible.

          What I usually balk at the idea that selective pressure would have been high enough, for long enough, for the often highly-nuanced and variable behaviors to have been ground into the genome for the purposes researchers claim they must have been selected for. Especially for behaviors that exhibit themselves only under fairly limited and sometimes relatively novel conditions. (For instance alleged human female adherence to monogamy seems to be highly contingent on economic and social independence. That’s some kind of sophisticated gene expression, which requires a similarly sophisticated set of selective pressure.) And of course sexually dimorphic selection is even more problematic in the sense that somehow these genes must be preferentially expressed in women but not their sons. That’s even greater complexity, which in turn requires even greater pressure to differentiate. And I’m just not sure where, whether, or why that pressure would manifest. Not for most of the behaviors described as “must be selected for.”

          Point being that it’s unfair for critics to demand that specific genes be unearthed before they’ll believe EP can be true. On the other hand it’s unfair to critics that they not be provided with adaptation-driving mechanisms adequate to explain the complexity of alleged heritable traits.


          • Marco DG

            figleaf, with all due respect, phylogenetic evidence is not the same as the genetic evidence of the kind you discuss. Perhaps your limited familiarity with evolutionary biology may explain your puzzlement about conditional gene expression and sexual dimorphism?

  • John H

    Great post. Myers repeatedly puts his politics before science and I think his criticisms of EP are a result of this. Pinker has a great interview on Point of Inquiry regarding EP that I would encourage anyone to check out.

    I am with you Marco. Comments like that and many others showed me long ago that Myers is more interested in slander than science or rationalism.

  • Andrew

    Myer’s posts and the comments on them are so unhelpful and immature I unsubscribed a long time ago. I don’t see him contributing much to the conversation that more “enlightened” people haven’t covered elsewhere. He has a large, sycophantic following of people who also get dopamine rushes from being better than others. He’s really the only blogger in this field who consistently gets bad reviews for his conduct. I choose to ignore him in favor of people who are more interested in human solidarity.

    • Mad Rocket Scientist

      Sadly, I stopped reading him for the same reason.

  • Gil

    I find it ironic that such attacks on ev psych include bold statemens that do not allow any nuances in interpretations. Isn’t that exactly one of the main claim against ev psych, that you come up with strong conclusions that are not supported by the data? how is it so easy to make such sweeping claims on entire fields?

    Regarding the undergraduate students, I actually think that while some of the criticism is correct, when researching sexuality or sexual strategies women in their peak fertility might be one of the most important groups to study.

  • Jakob

    I have in the past scrutinized a couple of papers by the infamous Satoshi Kanazawa, because the claims were so outrageous and juicy (intelligence is related to fidelity – stuff the tabloids love to put on their front page). And boy is there a problem in the field if stuff like that is making it past peer review. The just-so-story problem weren’t so great if it were actually plausibility that was the driving factor for arriving at hypotheses. For someone a bit versed in cultural studies it becomes all too obvious that instead the confirmation bias borders on desperately affirming the stereo types of the western male researchers. It’s like Hume’s is-ought problem has become an is-must-be-evolutionary-justified problem.

    So while I grant you that obviously no discipline is free from error and that the small, WEIRD samples in psychology plague every other study, the attractiveness of confirming one’s stereo types combined with the hipness of applying layman darwinian explanations to cultural phenomena makes for a toxic research environment. There really is too much bogus going on in EP. Pointing the finger at other problems does no good here. Applying even more scrutiny to methodology does.

    • Robert Kurzban

      Thanks for your comment, but allow me to clarify a point. If you think that Kanazawa’s research getting by peer review suggests a problem with the discipline that publishes the work, then given that 12 out of 13 of his peer-reviewed papers in the last two years (dated 2009 onward) are in non-evolutionary journals (the exception), I take it that your claim is that social psychology, personality, judgment & decision making, and biology are all “bogus” and are in need of methodological scrutiny? (By the way, I don’t grant your premise. I haven’t studied these papers. My point is only the inference from your argument.)

      • Michael Meadon

        Rob, one of the points Myers, Coyne et. al. make is that evolutionary psychologists don’t police their own discipline properly. You’re right that you guys can’t control what journalists do, or who gets to call herself an evolutionary psychologist, but you can criticize bad practice and bad studies. And Myers et. al. think evolutionary psychologists don’t do nearly enough of this – and I strongly agree.

        Satoshi Kanazawa, for example, is batshit insane, often face-palmingly wrong and is deeply statistically incompetent. If people like yourself would take on Kanazawa’s silliness publicly, it would do evolutionary psychology’s reputation some good.

  • David P.

    The only thing Bering is guilty of is an overconfident tone. He should have included some more caveats and hedging of statements, and the bit on the design of the penis was gratuitous and unfounded. Using the phrases “hidden truths” and “astonishing truths” probably wasn’t a good idea either – truth is a heavy word that shouldn’t be tossed around casually. I would expect that kind of melodrama from a journalist, but a scientist should know better, particularly when the topic is so touchy. That said, the deafening outcry from PZ myers in response was hugely disproportionate to the mistakes made in the article. While Coyne at least hedged his post with statements of support of EP in general, PZ’s post was pure rant. I don’t know where to come down on this. Perhaps EP has a larger share of overconfidence than other fields (maybe because it is more exciting), or perhaps it has the same overconfidence and people just notice it more when it’s EP. Regardless, even though PZ overreacted (and perhaps Coyne did too though less so), I think people should take pause to seriously consider whether articles like the one Bering wrote are causing damage to the image EP. Even if the backlash was disproportionate, more sensitivity and caution can only help the field.

    • Clara B. Jones

      For what it is worth, I think that Kurzban does a good job in defending his field. However, I would like to make the following observations based upon “subjective stimuli”.
      1. Most mammals have generalized phenotypes which often make it difficult to infer function from form; although, I suppose it might be possible to speculate about a range of possibilities given knowledge of a population’s niche within a community.
      2. In his references to function and form, Kurzban refers to form as behavior; however, isn’t EP primarily interested in brain structures as putative modules evolved in an EEA? How might one infer function from a knowledge of one of these brain modules without fMRI, genetic studies, etc. What are the brain modules of which EP speaks?
      3. Kurzban discusses foraging decisions, asserting that, even in a high-risk situation, hungry individuals are expected to forage anyway if the benefits of doing so are high. Well, the benefits will be weighed against the costs of foraging and against the other options available to the organism in the situation. Very high costs (to inclusive fitness) might favor alternative strategies, for example, cannibalism (if cannibalism is genetically correlated) and these genes might spread in the population. Yes, this is a Just So Story, but one that might be expressed as a testable and falsifiable hypothesis and that might be tested with math models and empirically. The same approach can be taken with the topic of rape. As an aside, chimpanzees demonstrate coercive mating; however, forced copulations are, unless I am mistaken, relatively rare among non-human organisms except among particular taxa. These would be interesting to study for insights into the human case. I also wonder how frequent rape actually is in humans–not to suggest that it is not immoral or a violation of females. In mantled howler monkeys, the primate species with which I am most familiar, rape, effectively does not occur though males attempt forced copulations. Females have a highly stereotyped facial expression that stops a male in his tracks. Very few components of human behavioral phenotypes are stereotyped (the stereotyped “eye flash” would be one exception) since human phenotypes depend heavily upon the outcomes of learning throughout development and beyond.
      4. Kurzban criticizes EP’s critics as “skeptics”; however, isn’t that what scientists are expected to do? A litany to graduate students @Cornell was: “Never ‘fall in love’ with your ideas or your data.” Perhaps, to some observers of the field, practitioners of EP are too enthusiastic, not sufficiently skeptical about their ideas and their data. I think that EPers should recall that, however good a scientist’s work is, there is always another set of scientists with equally good or better ideas and data “climbing up their backs”. EP, indeed, all of Psychology, will be challenged to hold its own over the long term in this competitive mix, especially with the competition from evolutionary biologists, including behavioral ecologists.

  • Gil

    Another thing that also seems to be underlying his reponse is that it is not even a legitimate question to ask what the evolutionary basis of rape. I find this disconcerting coming from a scientist of such esteem like he is (at least Coyne thinks otherwise).

  • Jakob

    Yes. Judging from the work I have read from him, I think every paper that publishes Kanazawa has a tremendous quality control issue. There is bogus in biology too, no doubt.

    But again, the whole peer review system is far from perfect. EP is among the main perpetrators none the less, precisely because it is so popular (not least to the public, craving for scientific insights they can relate to in their daily lives) and as an interdisciplinary field can be published in a broad spectrum of journals.

    Life is tough. The pot might call the kettle black. Instead of whining about how unfair it is to be judged by different standards why don’t the qualified professionals among EP get their butt in gear and raise the bar? Accept shortcomings and move on. And for crying out loud, stop making excuses for colleagues who are just plain sub par. Imagine working in advertising, where the ridiculous inflation of cash going round attracts and supports a whole different kind of bogus.

    • Marco DG

      “EP is among the main perpetrators none the less”
      “why don’t the qualified professionals among EP get their butt in gear and raise the bar?”
      Are you making factual claims here? Do you really believe that “professionals” in EP are not striving to do and publish the best research they can? Do you really believe they are not taking criticism into account and perfecting their methods from year to year?

      When I see posts like yours, I can’t help thinking that some people selectively read only the “bad” EP stuff, perhaps because it gets more publicized/cricitized on blogs. In my mind, the process goes like this:

      1) I read some popularization of EP and some (possibly good) introductory papers;
      2) I develop an interest in EP and follow some EP-related blogs;
      3) I am immediately drawn to the widely criticized papers, which I check out for myself, and end up reading lots of bad and/or highly contentious stuff;
      4) After a while, I’ve read many bad papers and few if any good papers. Of course, the latter are often more boring and hard to follow than the former, and don’t get publicized at all by people like Coyne and Myers;
      5) I form an impression that EP is plagued by bad research and superficial theorizing.

      Don’t get me wrong, I don’t know if this is really your case – still, I think something like this may be going on quite often.

      • Jakob

        I have a friend (not an acquaintance, a friend) who is conducting studies on hormone levels, scent and implications for human social behavior under a EP-paradigm. I have helped her get access to papers in the past, where her lab did not have a subscription. So I can’t say I have a full overview on the field and can make up my mind about every researcher, but I can safely say: While there are great minds working in EP, it also attracts people who are plain and simple disingenuous. Or stupid. Or stupid hacks who under the umbrella of science are really only pursuing an ideological agenda.

        So your reasoning does ring true and allthough I did not follow the English speaking blogosphere until recently, I might now be biased towards scrutinizing EP harder than I would do it to other professions. My reasoning still stands. Some of the papers were so mind boggingly nonsensical that I find it hard to take a field serious that does not weed out the bad apples lest it enter the realm of pseudoscience. And I don’t mean in blog posts. I mean getting top journals to not publish shit like that again.

        EP as a topic is popular with the layman’s view of evolution. It gets press, which in turn helps funding and so on, you know how it works. But as a science some of its hypotheses are extremely far reaching – all the more reason to make sure they are not far fetched. All the more reason to make hypotheses testable. And all the more reason to make sure not to follow down that path of public popularity – because reinforcing stereotypes really is alluring and thus a tempting starting hypothesis.

        So yes, I am very afraid that perhaps the solid workers are fed up with putting up with blame all the time and that they do not take the criticism serious enough, because they feel they are unfairly treated. And from the perspective of someone who does have a background in social science as well as cultural studies I can tell you that very many of the papers I read are seriously lacking in taking the literature of the very fields into account they are encroaching upon with their claims about culture and social interaction.

        Seriously, even the definition of culture that I came across was so grossly misshaped at times that it was the quality of stupidity rather than the quantity of bad papers that really made me wonder where this field is heading.

  • Helian

    EP is not and cannot ever be just another science because of its moral, political, and ideological implications. For that reason, attacks like this, the double standard Robert refers to, etc., have been going on for decades, and won’t go away any time soon. You can’t really grasp what’s going on here unless you understand the history behind EP. That’s a major problem with the EP textbooks. Take the bit about the Ethology Movement in David Buss’ text, for example. It’s a childish distortion of Konrad Lorenz contribution (apparently all he did was discover “imprinting”), it enumerates “problems of ethology” that are laughable concoctions to anyone familiar with the literature of those days, and it completely ignores the role of Robert Ardrey, the 20th century’s most significant opponent of the Blank Slate by far, but one who the “respectable” scientists of today are afraid to acknowledge because he was, after all, a mere playwright. This, apparently, is the perfectly respectable, neutered treacle that is being fed to a new generation of students. One can only hope that a few of them will have the initiative to read some of the source literature.

  • Clara B. Jones

    N.B. rape: The existence of some taxa in which forced copulations are effectively absent, is very strong support for the idea that forced copulations are ancestral (though, no doubt, one among other alternative sexual tactics and strategies) and that the relative absence of forced copulations in a taxon is derived. It would be very interesting to look @these questions very carefully in bonobos compared to chimpanzees. The relative costs of forced copulations might, for example, have favored the evolution of female dominance (bonobos). If a worthy hypothesis, what might the selective scenario(s) be? It follows, obviously, that comparative studies might, also, be of interest (e.g., female dominance is not uncommon among lemurs).

  • figleaf

    First of all if its any consolation I’m inclined to mock most poorly-controlled studies with very low, very homogeneous sample sizes and high degrees of subjective responses in the broad field of social sciences, particularly when they’re used to support extraordinary claims and even more so when the stakes for having those claims accepted are very, very high. Particularly when those studies occur in (and conclusions are drawn in the face of) a context that’s already very well explored, documented, experimented on, theorized and hypothesized about, and (often) directly experienced by large numbers of people.

    Which brings me to one of my biggest quibbles with the direction EP and it’s predecessors have tended to take, as represented by the following:

    “As to the issue of using ‘highly subjective stimuli, I’m not sure what a ‘subjective stimulus’ is, but it seems to me that if one is going to study rape, you’re going to need stimuli of some sort, and I suppose they’ll be ‘subjective.’”

    Since, as you very accurately say, attitudes, experiences, and (most problematically) definitions of rape are highly subjective, why on earth would any credible scientist in a still highly-emergent field think rape would be an ideal subject for gleaning universal truths about evolved human behavior in the first place, let alone a subject for experiments conducted on extremely small and homogeneous samples in the first place?

    Before he felt comfortable advancing his theory of evolution Charles Darwin famously spent twenty years (twenty years!) meticulously cataloging variations on mollusks, orchids, and earthworms.

    And I’m sure you’d agree that his job of finding acceptance would have been much, much, much, much harder the afternoon after the lightbulb went off for him he’d immediately started writing about how it sure looked like humans had evolved from monkeys relying only on comparative anatomy and the one or two homonid fossils then known.

    And, since in fact humans didn’t evolve from monkeys at all (though we do have common ancestors) a negative reception wouldn’t have been just culturally inevitable but rejection would have been scientifically appropriate as well.

    It wouldn’t have meant that Darwin was wrong — evolution really does happen! It would just have meant that he would have been a real moron for trying to launch his inquiry on the most controversial and least-empirically-justified cases he could think of.

    And that, my dear, is the problem a lot of us see with the direction Evolutionary Psychology seems positively fetishistic about taking. Because, seriously? Of all the possible realms of human behavior to study with limited resources, still-new methodology, and a real but rectifiable paucity of prior research somebody thinks he’s going to just dig right into crap like breast or penis preferences, promiscuity vs. monogamy, or intelligence? Seriously?

    If it were me, and if I was really serious, I’d kind of save that stuff for last, after I’d spent maybe 20 years deriving what I could about how selective pressure shaped (as it almost surely has) the way strangers respond to novel greetings. I’d spend it trying to derive the basis for differences in how groups of five or fewer on the one hand, or groups of five or more on the other, agree on which decision-making process to use to solve problems. I’d spend it trying to derive the evolutionary benefit of the tendency for children between ages 1 and 2 to very meticulously distribute uniformly across the floor everything they can lay their hands on. Or maybe on what can be derived from the ways people stack objects for carrying vs. stacking them for storage. Or on the way people with no language in common pantomime requests… or, more simply, what parts of signaling behavior exhibited in the game of charades are culturally acquired and which might be innate. In other words there are thousands or tens of thousands of domains of human behavior that could be studied that are as longitudinally and latitudinally data rich, as probative, and as completely inincindiary as Darwin’s mollusks and orchids to study that I would choose over, oh, say, arguing that midwestern male college-student preference for hip width in bikini models “could well” be a product of direct selective pressure.

    And as long as we’re talking about Darwin here, another point seems really important. Darwin didn’t spend decades studying invertebrates just because he thought it would otherwise be tricky convincing everyone else that humans and apes descended from common ancestors. He instead did it because he wanted to really nail down evolutionary theory.

    I’m not sure why so many serious scientists have a hard time framing their objections this way but I’m pretty sure for most of them that’s the bottom line: we’d all like to see lots more nuts and bolts work on aspects of behavioral psychology that are less… multivariate than speculations about Crystal Harris’s bustline.


    • Marco DG

      figleaf’s comments are a perfect illustration of the point I made above. I quote:

      “just dig right into crap like breast or penis preferences, promiscuity vs. monogamy, or intelligence? Seriously?”

      I’ll leave aside the debatable assertion that promiscuity vs. monogamy and intelligence are “crap” topics, the many inaccuracies throughout (le.g., that research on WHR has only been done with midwestern college students), or the fact that mating is possibly the topic offering the best oportunities for phylogenetic, comparative, and neurobiological research.

      But: how many studies have ever been done on “breast or penis preferences”? How many EPs actually work on intelligence (too few, IMHO)? This is not the picture of EP one would get from reading the primary literature, or even the handbooks. This is what you get by skipping the hard work, reading sensationalistic stuff on the net, and forming your opinion based on that.

      • figleaf

        Oops. My apologies. Off the top of my head only Desmond Morris, David Barash, Frank Marlowe, and Satoshi Kanazawa have cited breasts in the context of evolved behavior. And, I take it, you consider none of them to be evolutionary psychologists.

        How about I limit my annoyance to EP’s peculiar obsession with ovulation… and it’s much more proper relationship to the tips strippers get, the way women’s butts move when the walk, or, in the cases Coyne, Meyers, and others have been taking exception to, activation of alleged rape-avoidance “modules” in women’s brains?

        My point being that surely dimorphic human sexual behavior isn’t the only product of natural selection. Or the easiest to resolve as selected for.


        • Marco DG

          This is precisely my point: what comes off the top of your head is a skewed representation of the main research topics in EP. What about aggression, cooperation and reciprocity, coalition formation, language and communication, sexual attraction to personality traits, family relations, parenting, emotion and emotion signaling, foraging, and so on? The amount of research devoted to each of these topics is not even comparable to the few articles on breasts and penises (of course I’m not implying that the latter is not fascinating stuff).
          On the same score, ovulation-related research appears in about six pages of David Buss’ introductory EP text (2004 edition). That’s some serious obsession!

  • Geoffrey Miller

    Rob, nice job setting Myers straight about EP research.
    He overlooks the catch-22 that biased critiques such as his create: any research on rape (or offensive behavior X) provokes such a venom-monsoon from reviewers, bloggers, and academic hiring committees that most sensible young research learn to avoid researching such topics. Which perpetuates the dearth of good original work or replications on that topic. Which makes research on the topic look even weaker after a few years go by, compared to the cumulative progress on more socially acceptable research topics. Which in turn makes the topic an easy target for yet another generation of critics, who will frighten off yet another generation of young researchers from making real contributions.

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  • Clara B. Jones

    1. I interpret “subjective stimuli” as thoughts without observational (empirical) support.
    2. I don’t think that students of non-human primates are discouraged from studying “forced copulations”? Certainly this topic has been studied extensively in many orders.

  • Todd I. Stark

    Robert, thanks for maintaining such a high standard of evidence and especially of discourse. It’s a refreshing and reassuring change from the usual fare around evolutionary psychology.

  • Clara B. Jones

    Not to belabor points of view; however, I am concerned that Miller’s comments might discourage young scholars from studying “offensive” topics in graduate school. One example that such topics are legitimate would be the many young researchers studying every mode of sexual behavior in bonobos and other primates. As for humans, there are graduate schools (e.g., Rutgers [Barry Kamisaruk]) where human sexual behavior is studied directly and explicitly under controlled conditions. I consider these studies of particular note because Barry and his colleagues take questions unresolved in the human research directly to the lab with rats (e.g., his famous work testing the Vagus nerve as an alternate pathway to the brain for female orgasm).

  • Thaddeus Gregory Blanchette

    Sure, all studies would benefit from larger sample size, and of course generalizability from a sample is always an issue.

    No, it’s not “an issue”. When someone extrapolates data obtained from a very small, very select (to not say self-selected or cherry-picked) pool of respondents to the entire human race, across all time and all space, that’s simply piss-poor science, not “an issue”.

    Or did this only become a reprehensible scientific practice when evolutionary psychologists started doing it? I mean, people were using college sophomores to do social science before evolutionary psychology existed. (Zimbardo’s prison experiment: 24 American undergraduates…)

    Quite. And yet Zimbardo Zimbardo has also been AMPLY criticized for producing a study that

    While I’m happy to say that inferences must be cautious from any given sample, how is this a critique of evolutionary psychology?

    It is not a DIRECT critique of ev -psych, but given that ev psych seems to have a penchant for repeatedly making sweeping claims based on very limited statistical data, one can say that such an error is typical of ed psych. You yourself are an associate university professor who (presumably) teaches ed psych and you think that this sort of methodological error (which would be the kiss of death in any other type of determinitive study based on statistics) is a simple “issue” which can apparently be hand-waved.

    Given your reaction, I’d say PZ has a point in tying this sort of error to ed psych in general, though perhaps he overstates the case for the purposes of hyperbole.

    Or did this only become a reprehensible scientific practice when evolutionary psychologists started doing it? I mean, people were using college sophomores to do social science before evolutionary psychology existed. (Zimbardo’s prison experiment: 24 American undergraduates…)

    Quite. And Phil Zimbardo has been AMPLY criticized as non-reproducible and non-generalizable. While it may give us certain insights into certain forms of behavior in certain environments, it can hardly be said to have uncovered the root of said behaviors. Zimbardo himself has been quite open about this.

    Bering seems to believe that the very flawed research he reports is pointing the way to the deterministic roots of rape.

    Why don’t we see apoplectic blog posts every time someone reports on a study about stereotyping with college students?

    You obviously don’t read much social science critique. Statistical of sudies of small, selected populations which purport to have uncovered universal human truths are ROUTINELY met with criticism in thew social sciences, much of it apoplectic.

    I’m not sure what a “subjective stimulus” is, but it seems to me that if one is going to study rape, you’re going to need stimuli of some sort, and I suppose they’ll be “subjective.”

    Again, quite. Which is why extrapolating objective conclusions from these stimuli is dangerous. Because a small group of white, middle-class, very probably sheltered girls from middle America react more strongly to racist stereotypes when they are ovulating, this does not tell us anything at all about human women in general. In fact, if I were given accessd to the Michigan researcher’s methodologies, I’d lay you dollars to donuts that I’d find that they themselves were chock-full of unexamined prejudices and stereotypes. Just for starters, the researchers claim that “that people of different skin colors came into contact with one another only in recent times, evolutionarily speaking”, which is a very broad assumption based on a scientific weasel word: “recent”. In any case, the quite significant measureable changes in racist attitudes in the U.S. within the last 60 years indicates that biological evolution must be working hellishly fast in that country if race somehow determines sexual repulsion. As a Brazilian anthropologist, these very U.S.-centered views of race and its meanings would becharmingly naive to me if they weren’t so often simply presumed to be nature’s own truth.

    • Marco DG

      Another example of criticism displaying little familiarity with the primary literature. Some of the largest cross-cultural studies of human behavior have been done in an evolutionary perspective. Moreover, it is common practice in EP to discuss one’s hypotheses and results in the context of cross-cultural findings from evolutionary anthroplogy. Like Robert, I find EP to be much more attentive to cross-cultural evidence than mainstream psychology. But of course you will not notice this unless you actually read the papers, or at least a good handbook.

      “When someone extrapolates data obtained from a very small, very select (to not say self-selected or cherry-picked) pool of respondents to the entire human race, across all time and all space, that’s simply piss-poor science”.
      I guess human neuroscience will have to go!

      • Marco DG

        Sorry – one of the linked papers is a demographic study of contemporary Dutch.

      • figleaf

        Hi Marco,

        Sounds like you’re willing to guarantee that using the methodology Carlos Navarrete used at Michigan State Thaddeus Blanchette would get exactly the same results with his research population of Brazilian street workers. Same with Christine Garver-Apgar’s work. Same with Gordon Gallup. Sounds like you’re willing to guarantee that cultural, class, and language differences, differences in attitudes towards “promiscuity,” differences in cultural experience or acceptance of coercion, social and familial valuation of pregnancies, differences on the impact of pregnancy, or other environmental factors would introduce absolutely zero confounding influences.

        If so then that’s good. Because that’s level of confidence you’d need to have to support an assertion that the reported behaviors are direct products of natural selection.

        Let alone the assertion that those aren’t merely evolved behaviors but behaviors specifically selected to help women avoid involuntary fertilization by men that are sufficiently aggressive, robust, and otherwise fit as to successfully impose themselves sexually. Which, based on studies… ok, or maybe just speculation… from earlier sociobiologists like David Barash, is just the sort of qualities females of many species are said often select for in their own male offspring. Which says to me that the nuanced aversions detailed in those studies would have to be pretty sophisticated, and therefore the product of long, deep, and complex rather than simple or superficial selective pressure. Which means at the very least those behaviors should be easily, consistently and unmistakably reproduced among, say, both the indigenous and immigrant runaways and street prostitutes frequented by the sex tourists Blanchette studies in Brazil. Or a sample of any other modern human population the world around.


        • Marco DG

          This is my last comment on this thread, as my point has been confirmed over and over and there’s no need to go on with the conversation.

          “Sounds like you’re willing to guarantee that cultural, class, and language differences, differences in attitudes towards “promiscuity,” differences in cultural experience or acceptance of coercion, social and familial valuation of pregnancies, differences on the impact of pregnancy, or other environmental factors would introduce absolutely zero confounding influences.”

          Of course this is the exact opposite of what I said, and has nothing to do with the assumptions of EP. If one bothered to click on the links I provided below (I know, that’s so boring!), one would find plenty of cross-cultural data showing how socioecological factors do affect psychology and behavior in meaningful (and powerful) ways.

          “If so then that’s good. Because that’s level of confidence you’d need to have to support an assertion that the reported behaviors are direct products of natural selection”

          Two basic fallacies in one: 1) of course, adaptations are not defined by 100% invariance and complete insensitivity to environmental factors. Instead, many behavioral adaptations are finely sensitive to the local environment and rely on (at teast some amount of) learning; 2) behaviors are not the “direct products” of natural selection. Selection acts on the neural and bodily substrates of behavior (and, at a certain level of abstraction, on the organism’s “mind”); these, in turn, result in the organism behaving adaptively. This is clearly explained in any introductory EP text, so I guess this is another demonstration that critics of EP are often deeply unacquainted with the field. Some are equally unacquainted with evolutionary biology itself, as in this case.

      • Marco DG

        Sorry, I can’t resist. This is from a comment by Thaddeus on Myers’ post (#182):

        “Ev psyche allows reductionist determinists to recover some fragment of the scientific credibility they lost when racsim was proven to be a non-starter.”

        Talk about impartial, scientifically motivated criticism…

    • Marco DG
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  • Larry Fiddick

    Here’s my favorite line from the Myers’ blog:

    How likely is it that a close-knit tribe of 30 hunter-gatherers has a serious problem with rape?

    Nap never accepted female grad students because he was concerned that they’d be raped if they did fieldwork in Yanomamo-land.

  • GKAguirre

    Hi Rob, it’s your Penn colleague Geoff here.

    Thanks for the interesting discussion. I certainly can’t know the minds of all evo psych critics here, but I think I have a sense of what motivates some criticism. As you say, the data are the data, but it’s the interpretation that can seem frustratingly I’ll-grounded and capriciously provocative. Consider this quote you provide:

    “These results are consistent with other evidence that women may have been selected during human evolution to behave in ways that reduce the likelihood of conception as a consequence of rape”

    What justifies this explanatory linkage over all the other stories that could be told? Why couldn’t increased grip strength during ovulation (e.g.) be selected for better hunting / gathering at a time of increased metabolic demand? Or the better to hold on to a desirable mate during copulation? Or part of a general physiologic response to increase neuro-muscular junction tone to facilitate vagina contractions?

    As I am not familiar with the field, it may be the case that these and many other alternative accounts have been tested and rejected, and that the rape link is scientifically the best. Generally, however, I think critics object to the use of “may” as an inferential get-out-of-jail free card. It seems lazy and grandstanding to hitch a provocative interpretation to data, and then deflect criticism by pointing to the caution.

    • Marco DG

      I won’t comment on the grip strength paper, which I haven’t read. However, your post highlights an important general issue about the epistemlogical status of EP.

      You seem to write as if evolutionary psychologists routinely came up with clever interpretations of “data” after the fact. It is almost as if the data were collected by someone else, and not in order to test a theory-driven hypothesis. This, however, is not what usually happens. In most cases, evolutionary “narratives” are not dreamed up after the fact – rather, experiments and studies are designed in order to test the predictions derived from an evolutionary-informed hypothesis. The implications are very, very different.

      I’ll offer an example based on my own research. In a recently published article (Del Giudice et al., 2010. The evolution of autistic-like and schizotypal traits: A sexual selection hypothesis. Frontiers in Psychology, 1, 41) I advanced a novel hypothesis about the evolution of autistic-like traits (ALTs). On the basis of this hypothesis, I formulated the counter-intuitive prediction that people high in ALTs would report higher investment in romantic partners and long-term mating orientation. I subsequently collected data from a sample and (phew!) confirmed the prediction.

      I hope you see the parallel here: I did not move from a puzzling correlation between ALTs and mating variables, inventing a plausible “story” that fit the data. It worked the other way round. Now, there are certainly several alternative (post-hoc!) explanations that can account for my data. New empirical studies will need to be designed in order to exclude these explanations, and the process may take years. But proper consideration must be given to the fact that, lacking that evolutionary hypothesis, nobody had ever correlated ALTs with mating-related variables, let alone explained the correlation. Similar stories can be told about many other findings, including cheater detection in the Wason task, sex differences in jaelousy, and many ovulation-related effects on perception and behavior.

      Did I get my point across?

    • Robert Kurzban

      Thanks for your remarks, Geoff.

      I the we probably agree that there are always alternative explanations for observations, whether those observations were made in the service of putting at risk a hypothesis derived from a functional explanation or not. (I think the ones you offer are unlikely to explain the data–the one about holding on to a mate is particularly unlikely, given a lack of connection to any function–but they could be tested if they make differential predictions about the design features required to execute the putative function). In short, the logic of adaptationism allows a principled answer to your question, “What justifies this explanatory linkage over all the other stories that could be told?” This answer has to do with the relationship between structure and the putative function; good sources on this are Williams’ book Adaptation and Natural Selection, but I also recommend this article. In this case, the research in question puts at risk a prediction that derives from the functional hypothesis. That is not to say that other models don’t make the same prediction. Of course, alternative explanations can and should be addressed using the usual criteria. (You might be interested in Brian Scholl’s remarks about how the logic of adaptationism is endorsed in vision research to such an extent that the people engaged in it don’t even bother making it explicit.)

      On the issue of the word “may,” recall that my remarks about it was specifically responding to the charge that evolutionary psychologists have a conviction that “plausibility is sufficient support for certainly.” I don’t know how to respond to the charge that evolutionary psychologists make claims of certainty other than to provide evidence that evolutionary psychologists don’t make claims of certainty.

      Scientists frequently use such modals when presenting some evidence that was gathered to investigate a hypothesis; I think it is neither lazy nor grandstanding to make claims such as this one: “The authors propose that this region, which includes the fusiform face area (FFA), the lateral occipital cortex (LOC), and medially adjacent regions, is activated automatically by beauty and may serve as a neural trigger for pervasive effects of attractiveness in social interactions.” (emphasis mine)

      But maybe you disagree.

    • GKAguirre

      Rob and Marco — Thanks for taking the time and for providing the helpful links.

      Let me apologize at the outset for offering a critique from one with such a shallow knowledge of the field. The discussion was just so good, however, that I couldn’t resist! I’ll start by listing some areas where I suspect we agree:

      1) Human behavior has been shaped by evolution
      2) The functional accounts that evolutionary psychology can provide are important, scientifically falsifiable hypotheses, with the same potential epistemic status as any other scientific discipline

      but then crucially:

      3) Some evolutionary psychology studies are better than others

      In my earlier comments I was pointing out an objection raised in critiques of Bering’s piece, but which I did not see addressed in your rebuttal. Namely, that in some studies the link between the experimental manipulation and the inference seems rather strained. In my (asynchronous) extra comment, I likened this to the problem of “cognitive subtraction” in neuroimaging studies, in which (hypothetically) a “rape response” brain region is identified by comparing neural activity during sexual assault and neutral stories, and assuming that comparison isolates the mental operation of experiencing rape.

      Marco’s point is well taken: it is one thing to post-hoc create this account and another to hypothesize it; the Ketelaar & Ellis article that Rob supplied is great, and makes this point more formally.

      But surely there are some functional accounts (even predicted) that are better supported by data than others! I can’t believe you would want to defend every EP study with equal vigor. Honestly, some of the studies cited in Bering’s article just don’t seem worth the spirited defense. If ovulating women had shown the same increased hand-grip strength to reading an account of Lilly Ledbetter, then the rape link would be falsified. The functional accounts that would provide that result don’t seem (to me at least) any less likely a priori than fending off rapists.

      I sympathize with Marco’s observation that the entire enterprise of EP gets tarred whenever an article gets written about provocative studies. Neuroimaging has had the same problems, and I think it’s helped the field to draw critical attention to studies that claim big but deliver small.

      Perhaps it’s worth asking: why do critics get so rilled up about some EP claims they see in the lay-press? My guess is that people feel that, to earn the right to make claims about a topic as incendiary as rape, the studies and data better be damn good. In this case, do you think they are?

      Finally, on the topic of “may”. I suppose a study earns the Bayesian posterior of its “may”. Is it really a defense for a study to make a provocative claim that is weakly supported by the experiment and then say “but I only said ‘may’!”? [And I must confess I winced when I saw the “may” of mine you found. Of all the modals I’ve used in the last few years, that one is the weakest / laziest. (Anjan made me do it!).]

      • Robert Kurzban

        Again, thanks for your thoughtful remarks. I agree with you here in nearly all the particulars. I like the way you laid out the Three Points, and I am very happy to agree to all of them. I think that if interlocutors would work this way, identifying points of agreement – such as these – that would be helpful.

        I absolutely and unequivocally agree with Point 3. In my remarks to this point I have tried to keep sharply distinct the issue of the value of the enterprise of evolutionary psychology in general and its epistemic basis from the distinct issue of the quality of individual papers in particular. Having read a lot of work in my field carefully, I am comfortable saying that some of it is very bad. (I also think some is excellent.) Along with that, some functional accounts are (much) better than others. So, you’re right, I don’t want to defend the studies per se, but rather the powerful logic of adaptationism. My worry is throwing out the value of the theoretical perspective on the basis of worries – founded or not – about individual studies. (By the way, in prior posts I criticize the work of various people in the field, including Jesse Bering.)

        While I don’t think I would agree that the standards of evidence ought to change depending on the political implications of the research – I might be persuadable about this – I do agree that the question you pose about people getting riled up is interesting and important. Some evidence that it’s not about the topic is the emotion surrounding the work on, for instance, logical reasoning, by Tooby and Cosmides. If there were a more bloodless topic, I don’t know what it is, but it aroused very heavy emotions. This and other examples points to a different source of the emotion than the topic area, but I remain puzzled about this issue.

        So I think I agree with nearly all of this, and I also think these remarks were very helpful. And I definitely believe you about Anjan. Figures. *smiley*

      • Marco DG

        I agree, and largely share your views. Of course, there are bad studies and good studies out there. I’m not going to defend “every EP study” regardless of its value – that would be religion. For example, I sternly defended the paper by Navarrete et al. at Coyne’s blog, but the hypothesis advanced in the “sexy walk” paper (discussed in the same venue) looks considerably weaker. Also, in my opinion, neither study is among the best in the field. But then, so what? Every scientific discipline consists of a majority of “average” studies and a minority of really good stuff (I don’t remember who said that “90% of what’s published in physics journals is false”). Requiring that each and every study ranked with the best would set the bar way too high, and probably spell the death of any discipline (incidentally, that’s what I believe some critics are trying to do).

        My problem is with two claims:
        1) that EP is worthless as a field, and
        2) that evolutionary psychologists as a group publish a significantly higher proportion of bad studies compared with other scientists.
        I think both are false. A lot of people, however, feel justified in making claim 2 without a trace of empirical evidence. Now this is sloppy thinking!

  • GKAguirre

    Darn iPhone correction:

    I’ll = ill
    vagina = vaginal


  • GKAguirre

    Sorry, a final note. My criticism here is quite similar to what I find problematic about numerous neuroimaging studies. Just because you compared a “sexual assault story” to a “happy story” does not mean you’ve isolated the mental state and circumstances of sexual assault. It’s cognitive subtraction, now applied to grip strength. Any interaction of fear / emotion / interest with the dependent measure (strength) gives you the result, without it having to be about rape per se.

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