Post 2.0 On Science 2.0Published 21 December, 2011
Hank Campbell, whose posts I recently discussed, is not the only Science 2.0 blogger with a dim view of evolutionary psychology. In certain respects, Campbell’s enmity for the field (or, I should say, his enmity for his mistaken views of what the field is) is actually somewhat mild compared to those of his Science 2.0 co-blogger Gerhard Adam. In a post from this past summer, Adam discusses evolutionary psychology and what he believes is wrong with the field, focusing on the primer by John Tooby and Leda Cosmides. Below is a sample of quotations regarding Tooby, Cosmides, and evolutionary psychology. All the pronouns in the quotations below refer – sometimes a bit opaquely – to the Tooby and Cosmides piece, in one way or another:
“This kind of statement is simply embarrassing.”
“This statement is simply stupid…”
“This kind of misunderstanding is simply ridiculous.”
“…simply not true.”
“… a uniform failure to understand…”
“… this kind of basic misunderstanding…
“…a fundamental failure to understand evolution and natural selection.”
“…simply idle speculation and nonsense.”
“…certainly can’t be considered scientific.”
Note that Adam does not beg to differ. He doesn’t take a slightly different point of view. And he doesn’t think Tooby and Cosmides might be mistaken to some extent. To read these quotes, you would think that he is criticizing people who are in no way worthy of measured discourse; his interlocutors, to him, are basically abjectly stupid. Morons. Intellectual munchkins. Nincompoops. Science 2.0 bloggers.
And you’d think that Tooby and Cosmides don’t know the first thing about evolution by natural selection, let alone science more generally.
Now, it could be that Adam has correctly identified Tooby and Cosmides as being essentially stupid and ignorant of all things biological. I mean, it could be that their massive scientific success does no more than show that Adam has risen to an intellectual zenith far above the rest of us and is just waaaay smarter than the scientific community that has cited them 20,000 times or so.
I think that there’s another possibility. It could be that Adam is so confused about the facts and the arguments that he perceives Tooby and Cosmides to be stupid – simply stupid, to use one of his favorite modifiers – because he is not in a position to appreciate the material he is trying to understand, a sort of Dunning-Kruger effect. So, it’s worth looking at his critiques to try to figure out if his own confusion about the relevant issues might be responsible for his dim view of the field.
Ok. Well, I’ll just take a few examples. Let’s have a look at his understanding of natural selection, which he claims Tooby and Cosmides fail to understand. He writes that natural selection “ensures that an organism has the necessary traits to survive in the environment in which it exists.”
So, this might be one clue he doesn’t understand natural selection, which he claims Tooby and Cosmides “fundamentally fail to understand.” Natural selection does not ensure that organisms survive, as evidenced by the fact that so many products of natural selection don’t, well, survive. Natural selection is a process having to do with the differential replication of genes, which is why the emphasis is on reproduction, not survival, and on differential replication, not the notion of necessity. (Gerhard, reading Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene or Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea will help you out on this. Both books are written for a broad audience and are quite accessible.)
Continuing on the natural selection line, let me quote one paragraph in its entirety:
In this case, the problem occurs with words like “designed”, because that already indicates a fundamental failure to understand evolution and natural selection. In the first place, why presume that the brain evolved to “solve problems”? There are organisms that don’t even have nervous systems that are capable of that function. More importantly, what problems are so unique to humans that they should be the only species to have “evolved” such a brain? Considering the simple reality that there are no particularly unique problems that humans solve, then we must conclude that this is an insufficient reason to explain the existence of the human brain. It is a classic error in assuming that modern day biological structures are necessarily adaptive. After all, it is equally plausible to assume that brain development diverged due to a random mutation, and that it’s [sic] subsequent benefits moved humans down a different evolutionary path.
Readers of this blog will find much of this laughable without further comment, but I thought I’d highlight a few points. Critiquing this passage is difficult because the writing is so unclear – what, for instance, does the pronoun on “that function” refer to? I think what Adam (incorrectly) believes is that Tooby and Cosmides are using the term “solve problems” in the same way that the term is used in lay language, like “We don’t have any bloggers who know any biology; how are we going to solve that problem?” Of course, they have a quite different meaning in mind, as they indicate in the primer.
More broadly, Adam seems to think that Tooby and Cosmides are trying to explain why humans have brains at all, rather than brains that work the particular ways that they do. I think I’ll hold aside the bold claim that humans solve no unique problems, and I would love to engage the idea in last sentence in the paragraph if I could unpack anything meaningful in it. (Brain development diverged? From what? What’s subsequent benefits? The brain’s? A different path from what?)
I could go on, but I urge readers to have a look at the piece in its entirety. During this happy time of year, the holiday season, it’s all about joy, and there are a lot of laughs and giggles in there. I do want to engage one more confusion, which has to do with another key ingredient of evolutionary psychology, the computational theory of mind.
Responding to Tooby and Cosmides’ endorsement of the computational theory of mind, Adam writes:
The big problem here is in reducing the brain to a computer, which it isn’t. While it might be a useful analogy within a very narrow context, it is simply foolish to define biology in terms of recent human technological developments (i.e. computers, machines, etc.). This is simply unacceptable, in the same way that electrons are not like billiard balls, neither is the brain a computer. In truth, there is nothing in the operation of a computer that could find an accurate comparison to the brain’s neurobiology (unless one is content to make the comparison simply because signals may be sent electrically). However, by that logic, a television, telephone, and radio are all computers too.
As this quote illustrates, though again it’s hard to tell, he seems to be taking the commitment to the computational theory of mind to be a commitment to the details of a PC. Even more interesting is the dialog in the comments section of the blog in which a reader writes, “but my brain has neural networks with neurons having hugely complex dendritic trees and axon arbors and all they do is: compute!” In reply, Adam writes: “That is trivially obvious. It explains nothing”
So, on the one hand, the computational theory of mind is “simply unacceptable,” and on the other, it’s “trivially obvious.” (By the way, the fact that what the brain does is compute might seem obvious now, but it certainly wasn’t obvious (or trivial) before Turing and the other greats who ushered in the cognitive revolution.)
My guess is that the basic problem here is that Adam simply – again, to use his favorite term – doesn’t understand the computational theory of mind. (Gerhard: Pinker’s How the Mind Works is a good place to start. The book, though long, is made easier to work through by the Calvin and Hobbes cartoons sprinkled throughout. Fun!)
There are a number of other errors, and, again, readers of the blog will find much of the text amusing. I pause briefly to reflect on his closing remarks. He writes:
Without some insight that is nothing short of miraculous, there is no such thing as evolutionary psychology. So for those that want to insist otherwise, here’s the criteria that must be met:
1. Demonstrate that the behavior is neurologically specific enough to be predicted.
2. Demonstrate that such behavior is heritable (Note: Learning, by itself, is not sufficient).
3. Demonstrate that such heritability actually is adaptive.
First, he doesn’t say what meeting these criteria is for – the list seems to be something about “the behavior,” but he was just talking about evolutionary psychology broadly – so it’s hard to evaluate the claim. (He writes, just below these three, that “These requirements are difficult to meet for many aspects of biology, especially establishing that a trait is adaptive.” That “especially” bit in there implies that these criteria are not only for establishing this, but are for something else.) One interpretation of this is that Adam is trying to articulate criteria to establish that a trait is an adaptation. However, heritability, as many have discussed – including biology textbooks – is not a necessary criterion for showing adaptation; the eye is the usual example. (Gerhard: You might try to work through Williams’ Adaptation and Natural Selection. I’ve discussed this issue a number of times, including in a post, which refers to Futuyama’s textbook’s discussion of this issue.) (As a postscript, in a recent comment, Adam writes: ” I can’t imagine how something can be selected for and “evolutionary” and yet not be heritable.” This very basic error is quite revealing, given it’s widely known that selection tends to reduce or eliminate fitness-relevant heritable variation, yet in the same comment he writes “It’s little wonder that evolutionary psychologists don’t understand anything about evolution.” Ridley put it this way in his textbook: “Directional selection unambiguously should continue to alter a character until its heritability is zero” p. 250.)
Before closing, I want to address another criticism which has been surfacing occasionally, and it came up again in the context of my previous post about Campbell’s remarks. Geoffrey Miller made a comment on that post, to which Campbell replied in part that “regardless of what you [Miller] want to believe it [evolutionary psychology] should be[,] the people doing it are pretty terrible.” So, you know, we’re terrible. Campbell also specifically addressed my remarks in a comment, allowing that I made some “decent enough points,” but he also claimed that “instead of acknowledging what everyone else can see as flaws and working to fix it, he [meaning me, RK] simply circles the wagons…” Obviously, I dispute that “everyone can see” the supposed flaws, and I certainly don’t know what his evidence is that I’m making no efforts to improve the field; perhaps he thinks that I should be reviewing papers, editing the field’s journals, writing blog entries about issues in the discipline, or something along those lines. I’m confident he wouldn’t have just claimed that I’m doing nothing to improve the field without any evidence.
In any case, this remark is an instance of a puzzling trope that goes like this: While evolutionary psychologists, for some strange reason, get all bent out of shape when bloggers call them “terrible,” “stupid,” “ridiculous,” and so on in public forums, and defend themselves, evolutionary psychologist do not, in contrast, “police themselves,” though this phrase seems curiously never to be carefully defined. The rhetorical strategy is to paint the discipline as self-congratulatory rather than self-critical.
From my perspective, I find this surpassingly odd – and by “odd” I mostly just mean dishonest – because there is substantial debate within the discipline. To take a just a few examples – and there are many to choose from – consider the debate between Sperber and colleagues and Cosmides and colleagues on the cheater detection work; the various debates surrounding the function of friendship and morality, in which I myself have taken part; and West and colleagues’ (2011) recent sweeping critique of work on the evolution of cooperation in humans. Indeed, many papers I read or review take issue with one or more idea proposed by other evolutionary psychologists. And of course substantial debate occurs during the peer review process. My experience of the field is not that people are unwilling to engage and challenge their colleagues’ ideas. One particular arc of this narrative has it that Kanazawa’s work was critiqued only by people outside the discipline; this line of fiction might be useful to those with an axe to grind, but does a disservice to the substantial number of evolution-minded scholars who indeed engaged the work. Tom Dickins and Rebecca Sear are two such scholars, and there are a couple of dozen such papers.
Set against the backdrop of the tired and predictable (and false) accusations that evolutionary psychologists present no evidence for their claims, I find it interesting that, as far as I know, there are no data showing that the evolutionary psychology community is any less self-critical than any other scientific community. Absent such evidence, I take such accusations to be purely propaganda gambits made by people who are in fact insincere about the degree to which they care about claims requiring evidence to support them, interested only in disparaging a field they little understand, and (therefore?) seem to approach with emotion — “stupid,” “ridiculous,” “terrible” — rather than reason.
Ok, well, that was a bit saltier and lengthier than my usual remarks, and I’ll leave off here. Best wishes to all for the holiday and new year season. If you’re trying to figure out what to get Gerhard, please consider sending him one of the books I mentioned above. It would be, if I may, a blessing.
Dawkins, R. (1976). The selfish gene.Oxford:OxfordUniversity Press.
Dennett, D. (1995). Darwin‘s dangerous Idea: Evolution and the meanings of life. Allen Lane Press.
Pinker, S. (1997). How the mind works.New York: W. W. Norton.
Williams, G. C. (1966). Adaptation and natural selection. Princeton:PrincetonUniversity Press.