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

Is Debating Creationists of the Mind Worthwhile?

Published 29 July, 2013

Readers occasionally ask me why I don’t write about creationism, as some prominent evolution-minded bloggers do. To me, the benefits of discussing creationism is limited because my sense is that on this issue, there is little room for persuasion and therefore little value to continued discussion. People who adopt supernatural beliefs, it seems to me, tend to adopt them for reasons other than their evaluation of the relevant evidence and logic, so presenting evidence and logic has limited persuasive value. This debate really ended a century ago, when the Enlightenment teed up supernaturalism and Darwin spiked it. The discussion is, to my mind, over, and dissenters are simply history’s stragglers less interested in discovering truth than defending a worldview. Why bother fighting?

I suppose that things aren’t, really, as absolute as I’ve presented it here. Occasionally students tell me that taking my evolutionary psychology class changed their minds – or at least made them think about changing their minds – about their prior religious commitments. Still, my sense is that readers of this blog are unlikely to be creationists to begin with, further limiting the value of sharing any thoughts I might have about the topic. So I don’t.

Recently, I discussed some remarks by PZ Myers, who might be called – though I’m sure he would object – a creationist of the mind. (This term isn’t original with me. Anyone know who coined it?) By this I refer to the view that the theory of evolution by natural selection ought to be used to inform the study of the traits and behaviors of every living thing on the planet except the bits of the human mind that cause behavior, especially social behavior. Again, I’m not saying he’s literally a creationist; I’m saying that there are some who are very comfortable insisting that evolutionary ideas inform biology in all other domains except the human mind. This view is not unprecedented. Ed Clint directed my attention to this quotation from Alfred Wallace:

Because man’s physical structure has been developed from an animal form by natural selection, it does not necessarily follow that his mental nature, even though developed pari passu with it, has been developed by the same causes only.

So, Myers and people like him are in distinguished company. In any case, on the heels of my prior post, the question was raised: why do I bother?

Fair  enough. I concede there is some justice to this view. Is pointing out Myers’ errors any more useful than trying to persuade creationists? The rest of my remarks here are some thoughts on this question.

First, the con side. Like creationists full stop, creationists of the mind take their positions for reasons other than looking at the relevant evidence. This is clear from the emotion that pervades their remarks about the discipline and, more convincingly, from the way they characterize the discipline. As I’ve shown elsewhere, critics’ errors about the field show that they haven’t understood the most basic assumptions that underlie the field. For instance, the complaint that PZ Myers recently voiced, that evolutionary psychologists assume a one-to-one mapping between genes and behavior, sinks to the level of “pants-on-fire” along the veracity scale, and such moves are in essence parallel to the old canard, “if we evolved from apes, why are there still apes?” from certain creationist quarters. This misrepresentation, so at odds with reality, betokens a willful disregard of the facts of the matter, illustrating that resistance to the field comes from a source other than the ideas of the field itself. Genuine critics – Fodor I think provides such an example – engage the logic that underlies the discipline and the relevant empirical evidence. Given that creationists of the mind’s opposition comes from a source other than their evaluation of the field, there would seem to be little value in trying to persuade.

So goes the con side, and I take the point. If creationists of the mind cannot be convinced that there is value to using ideas from evolutionary biology in formulating hypotheses about human psychology, then why engage them when there are other ideas to write about?

Having thought about this from time to time, I came down on the pro side, but I’m willing to be convinced otherwise.

First, there is counter-evidence to the claim that critics cannot be persuaded: Jerry Coyne’s conversion I think serves as a powerful example. His journey from staunch critic to defender of the discipline illustrates that smart people who know a lot about biology can be persuaded. Some of the field’s critics might be induced to read the primary literature, as Coyne did. More deeply, Coyne’s public change of heart, I think, will make it easier for others to say they were wrong. Indeed, my sense of the comments on his blog illustrate the point. I haven’t studied the comments systematically, but I have the impression that his critiques of evolutionary psychology elicited enthusiastic cheering and agreement from his readers, but these readers don’t seem to be posting objections to his new view, indicating, perhaps, either that they too have changed their minds, or that they are less willing to voice their dissent.

Related, there is already evidence that Myers is very sympathetic to evolutionary analyses of human behavior, even though he’s very bad at it when he tries. He applied an evolutionary sort of analysis to try to explain people’s positions on abortions, reasoning this way:

…it is in the man’s reproductive interests to have his genes propagated in any one pregnancy, while it is in the woman’s reproductive interests to bail out and try again if conditions aren’t optimal for any one pregnancy. This conflict is also played out in culture, as well as genetics — pro-choice is a pro-woman strategy, anti-abortion is a pro-man position. Sometimes, politics is a reflection of an evolutionary struggle, too.

From this, it is clear that Myers is clearly open to using fitness interests to explain policy positions – “Sometimes, politics is a reflections of an evolutionary struggle” –  though he gets it wrong in the empirical sense that there’s basically no sex difference on this issue, and the best explanation around suggests that it’s more complex.

Second, I think punting on people like Myers underestimates modern readers and their ability to draw their own conclusions. Blogs are not hidden behind paywalls, and part of their raison d’être has to do with their being a forum for discussion among readers. Public blog dialogs are not private missives; they are a place for public discussions to start. So if Myers cannot be induced to engage with the field, this is not to say that his readers cannot be. “Shepherd of Internet trolls” he might be, but while many of his readers are likely to adopt his position and cheer his willfully ignorant bashing of the discipline, he has many readers, including dissenting commenters, many of whom link to information that undermines Myers’ claims. Some readers will follow these links, and look at the relevant source material for themselves. It seems to me that it’s a mistake to think of the blogosphere as a Clash of the Titans – Myers versus Coyne – with readers as spectators. A principal virtue of the blogosphere is that it’s a game everyone can play. If Myers cannot be persuaded to read in the discipline as Coyne did, that is not to say that some members of his audience cannot be.

Related, the creationists of the mind are not, to my way of thinking, like the garden variety creationist community. The fact that people read Myers’ blog, for instance, indicates an interest in science and the natural world. Similarly, the people from the community that brands itself “skeptics” are, I should think, curious, and interested in knowledge. Members of such communities are worth persuading, if for no other reason than they might eventually be in a position to contribute in one way or another.

Finally, it seems to me that in the modern scholarly climate, engaging creationists of the mind is sort of part of the job. If being a scientist entails a commitment to try to build and spread true ideas, then maybe there is also an obligation to try to defend against the spread of false ideas. Today, blogs are a major idea conduit, arguably more substantial than scientific journals in their ability to propagate ideas, good and bad. It feels like abdication to say that because such and such a community is stubborn, I will pretend not to notice them. My good friend and colleague Angela Duckworth has been persuading me of the importance of grit, the ability to persevere in effortful pursuits. If that means playing a never-ending game of Whack-a-Mole with the bad ideas of creationists of the mind, well, it seems to me that we have to be determined to get a little gritty.

  • discoveredjoys

    Interesting… it seems to me that debating with creationists of the mind has at least one positive value – it provides exposure to critical thought. Now whether this criticism is valid or not it is beneficial to bear it in mind when forming hypotheses, designing experiments, or analysing data. It helps produce ‘better’ science.

    Reporting of Evolutionary psychology is another matter.

  • http://popsych.org/ Jesse Marczyk

    I get the sense persuasion happens, at least sometimes, else all the hours people spend arguing with one another would seem like a rather strange investment of time. Figuring out precisely what might persuade one person or another, though; that’s a different task.

  • Willem Frankenhuis

    Outstanding blog.
    Thank you.

  • memills

    I’ll take the credit for coining the term “psychological creationist.”
    Not sure if it is the first time I used the term, but I wrote in a Psychology
    Today post “How to Really “Get” Evolutionary Psychology:”

    “Many social constructionists believe in evolution, but only in terms of the body, or “below the neck” evolution. Above the neck (the brain), they are similar to creationists — the brain “just is” and needs no explanation of why it evolved to be as it is. They are what might be termed ‘psychological creationists.’ ”

    http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-how-and-why-sex-differences/201303/how-really-get-evolutionary-psychology

    Do I get a prize? :-)

    • rkurzban

      Ah, thanks for letting me know… no prize, but my thanks…

  • MosesZD

    I really liked your article. I linked it to Why Evolution is True and told Jerry he got a favorable mention.
    It’s certainly an interesting counter-point to the ‘don’t bother to debate’ position taken by Barbara Drescher, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and a number of others in the skeptic movement who’ve been routinely mis-represented and/or burned by the bearded demagogue.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1026609730 Jim Balter

    What you’re really saying is that you’re an intellectually dishonest dickhead: http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2013/07/29/a-classic-example-of-an-evolutionary-psychologist-unable-to-read/

    • eccles11

      The pharyngulites have arrived.

  • bluharmony

    I’m not sure that Coyne did a complete flip. I think that he finally saw where the denial of Evolutionary Psychology leads to, and was shocked. Feminist critique of a male-dominated field can sometimes be useful, but science denialism is not.

  • Laurence

    This seems like one gigantic strawman to me. Most people who are critics of evolutionary psychology disagree with the methodologies of the experiments and think that the conclusions reached by some evolutionary psychologists are overreacting the data compiled. This does not mean that they do not think the mind is a product of evolution.

    • Asura

      It is indeed one giant strawman. Critics see the mind as having evolved to be extremely plastic, and that current evopsych does not have tools to perform good science – which isn’t helped by the fact that performing good science would lead to ethical monstrosities when it comes to humans.

      • cbjones06

        …is “neural plasticity” the same as “the mind as having evolved to be extremely plastic”…

    • http://www.skepticink.com/incredulous Edward Clint

      Your comment is so broad, sweeping, and nebulous that it is not coherent enough to be relevant criticism here.

      “Most people who are critics”
      I’m not persuaded by ad populum arguments. Most people who are critics of evolution think the world is 10,000 years old. So what? A better question is what do the thoughtful, knowledgeable critics think?

      “the methodologies of the experiments”
      The methodologies? So, just all of them, in general? Even the ones imported directly from Biology, like the cross-species comparative analysis I used in my last published work? Animal models, mathematical models, surveys, compilations of criminal statistics, analysis of word use in natural language, tests of memory and visual perception, … all of these and hundreds more created and used by people from many disciplinary backgrounds applying them to a wide range of topics from infant cognition to life history theory to epigenetic canalization… they are faulty, and your mysterious “most people” critics know enough about each of them to declare them faulty? That’s strange because I am a researcher and I would never declare anyone’s method’s faulty without reading their papers first. By the way, you know who doesn’t find the methods so questionable? Respected science journals who routinely publish EP research in their pages.

      “conclusions reached by some evolutionary psychologists”

      This is a completely vacuous statement, even if the rest of your sentence made grammatical sense, but it doesn’t because “overreact” is an intransitive verb. The accusation “some x’s reach bad conclusions” applies equally well to physicists, geneticists or any other science.

      • cbjones06

        …exactly the point…”What do the thoughtful, knowledgeable critics [of EP] think?”!

  • Hugo Mercier

    Thanks for the post Rob!

    I’d like to think for a second, though, about whether it’s a good idea to call people like PZ Myers “creationists of the mind.” As you said, it’s unlikely to represent their stated view, which exposes you to easy critiques (such as the one linked to by a previous commenter). More importantly, for people who are on the fence, the fact that we’d attempt the rhetorical trick of lumping together people like PZ Myers and real creationists isn’t going to help us, as anybody who has read them even a little bit can see how loudly they claim to be evolutionists, even of the mind.

    The only positive role of such a turn of phrase might be in galvanizing already persuaded people, but even then I’m not sure it’s the right type of motivation: motivation to dismiss the other’s views outright rather than engage them in arguments (arguments which, by the way, do work, even more than Jesse suggests, as Dan Sperber and I, reviewing the work of many others, have shown).

    Maybe it would be more effective to call them “bad evolutionary psychologists.” As they say again and again, they have nothing against applying evolution to the mind. So they are evolutionary psychologists. They’re just very bad ones — or rather, useless ones, since they’re not even trying to suggest any substantive positive program (as far as I can tell, I’d be happy to be proven wrong).

    Anyway, you’ve got much more experience than I in this fight, so you probably have a good reason for this move, I’m just not entirely sure it’s wise.

    • Hugo Mercier

      Laurence’s comment illustrates exactly the dangers of the “creationists of the mind” move.

    • rkurzban

      Hugo, you’re right it’s a dangerous move, and I’m open to other ways to refer to people who endorse the theory as a general matter but dislike its application to human social behavior. (I think your notion in the other comment isn’t much better though.) Other thoughts? You’re right the label is probably a bit too much, but I like that it highlights the position that the theory ought to be applied to the mind. But, again, I’m open to counter-proposals.

      • discoveredjoys

        Human exceptionalists? People who accept the Theory of Evolution, wouldn’t hesitate to describe animal behaviour as an adaptation to environmental conditions, but think that human thought and behaviours are too special (too exceptional) to be explained by cumulative blind natural processes.

        • Asura

          NOBODY outside religious wackos thinks that. This comment just illustrates how Kurzban is giving people completely false impressions.

      • Hugo Mercier

        “Fake evolutionary psychologists”? “Sham evolutionary psychologists”? Or do you not accept that they can also be called “evolutionary psychologists” at all? (And I still think “bad evolutionary psychologists” would be preferable).

        If the goal is to make EP acceptable to broad audiences, then it might not be a bad move to try and turn these debates, which from the outside look like it’s EP against whoever (biologists, etc.), to something that looks like an internal debate among people who all accept evolutionary psychology.

        We’ve got to be realistic: most people will never be attuned to what looks (to them) like fine grained differences in scientific programs (yes, for a complete outside, especially one who might not be too persuaded by, or at least knowledgeable about, evolutionary theory in general, a debate between you and PZ Myers would probably look rather academic). If we can make it so that EP loses the negative connotation it still has for many people, I think we’ll have done a lot of good. Then persuading those in the know would be (comparatively) easier I guess.

        • rkurzban

          I fear “bad evolutionary psychologists” will be given a normative reading. Discoveredjoys’ suggestion is interesting. But I like your point about highlighting the “internal” elements of the debate. (Actually, my next post will allude to this a bit.) “Unreconstructed evolutionary psychologists”? “Domain general evolutionary psychologists”?

          • Hugo Mercier

            Blank slate evolutionary psychologists? (not quite an oxymoron, but getting close)

          • Asura

            It’s not interesting. It’s using different words to call them the same thing – it’s a blatant strawman because it doesn’t reflect reality in any way.
            Evopsych methodology scrutinizes/critics/deniers/insertakinwordhere would at least be more accurate, though not exactly pleasant to write.

      • http://www.facebook.com/wonderist Thaumas Themelios

        Dr. Kurzban,

        I think the ‘blank slate’ metaphor has a lot going for it, and may be preferable factually and rhetorically, though it too has some limitations/flaws.

        However, that aside, I just posted a comment on the Psych0drama blog which I think will help you understand *just how closely* Myers’ position *does* come to ‘creationism of the mind’ in the sense that it is a disingenuous critique borne out of ideological loyalty rather than critical/scientific thinking. Rather than copy-pasting the comment, I’ll post this link instead: http://psych0drama.blogspot.com/2013/07/some-thoughts-on-pz-vs-pinker.html?showComment=1375159974589#c615994569395898793

        Cheers!

  • gfish3000

    While there’s certainly bound to be merit in evolutionary psychology as a field, it’s hard to deny how many just-so stories in academic paper format have emerged from the lab into the popular press, and there is a number of evolutionary biologists who seem obsessed with tracing every single trait we have back to some genetic basis or some population of pre-human primates. I’m not saying they dominate the field, but they do exist.

    However, Myers’ problem with the field seem to be not only those just-so stories — which would arguably drive any scientist up a wall — his distaste is that so many of them find roots in gender differences to the distribution of labor between men and women in ancient societies. Ignoring that tribes isolated form all of human history generally send men to hunt and forage while women keep the household, watch after the children, and cook, and that this in no way makes these societies any less matriarchal (if the tradition calls for it) or demean the woman’s role in them, he’s against it because it violated the brand of feminism that Rebecca Watson and her fans support. It’s politics over science.

    • Asura

      The problem is they find their roots in gender BIASES, while typically ignoring culture and history (how many beauty studies have you seen that fail to mention how what is deemed attractive has shifted in this millennium alone?).

      • gfish3000

        How is that different from what I said? They believe that studies which mention women in a more household role propagate gender stereotypes of women and a bias against them in the workplace just by saying that in a lot of societies, this is how labor was distributed and there are biological echoes of that.

        Where Myers & Co. seem to fail is in recognizing that this in way means that it’s valid to use this not to hire a woman in a competitive field or shame her for not being “domestic” enough and abusing the science this way is a political issue, not a scientific one.

        • Asura

          Jeebus, are you so convoluted with your preconceptions you can’t see the difference? Really? You’re doing exactly what evopsych does so terribly: you assume there to be biological echoes of cultural aspects (despite contrary cultures existing among the more generalized norm –
          apparently they evolved super quickly in a different direction OMG!) and think just-so adaptive stories should fit them without even proper investigation if those biological echoes are actually legitimate, or hell, if they exist at all (I’m not sure if you actually failed to notice, but most jobs can be done with the same performance rates by both men and women).

          And no, “Myers and Co.” don’t fail to recognize that – it’s the fucking naturalistic fallacy. If you actually read Myers and Co., you might realize the complaints lie in an entirely different sector, and that’s in HOW the science is done.

          • Alex

            Every evolutionary psychologist recognizes that what is attractive has shifted, but that doesn’t mean that there are no underlying regularities that guide people’s judgements. For example, in the case of female attractiveness no serious evolutionary psychologist would posit that thinness is such an underlying regularity because we know of countless cultures (including our own Western cultures not too long ago) where this is not the standard of beauty. However, one fairly universal regularity across cultures is that men tend to be attracted to a certain waist-to-hip ratios and they have formed some hypotheses about why this might be the case.

            Also… we arn’t sure why there are height differences? I guess we also don’t know for a fact that men have more upper body strength than women either–that after all could be “culturally constructed”–and we have no explanation for this.

      • http://www.skepticink.com/incredulous Edward Clint

        You have no idea what you are speaking about. I think that every paper I have ever read about beauty has some discussion of culture and/or stated reasons why a trait might be expected not to vary with culture.

        Furthermore, it is the evolution-minded social scientists that are usually the ones who go out and do the cross-cultural research to try to figure out what is or is not culture (I am part of a project right now seeking to test for cultural variability using data from 20+ countries including hunter-gatherers).

    • Laurence

      Myers laid out his reasons for his distaste of evolutionary psychology quite clearly, and they were scientific reasons, not political ones. His scientific reasons may or may not be bad, but they are definitely not political. To claim that they are political or “creationism of the mind” is disingenuous at best whether his reasons are good or not. It is a strawman argument and dangerously close to poisoning the well.

  • PhysicsGradStu

    Hi

    My first time here ! I think you should be a little careful calling people like Myers creationists of the mind. There have been lot of creationist like papers in Evo psych like the “Girls like pink coz of berries” , racist papers where some predetermined conclusion was arrived at via dubious evolutionary mechanisms, etc. Due to all this, it is not surprising that some people don’t take evo psych seriously. Rather than alienate them by calling them names, trying to expound and explain good papers will be a more constructive use of one’s time .

    If you have done something like this, i.e talk about exceptionally good papers, I would love links to that post.

    • rkurzban

      Thanks for your comment, and welcome. To answer your question, yes I discuss individual papers from time to time. As I say, it’s always hard to judge what techniques will be effective and persuasive… I have not found that people evaluate the filed based on the published work, making that strategy of only limited effectiveness… IN any case, for one recent post about a recently published paper, there’s this one about dictator games: http://bit.ly/11bhuMz. Other evolutionary psychologists also talk about good papers from time to time on their blogs. I maintain a blogroll on the left side of the page, though I admit it’s a bit anemic.

      • Asura

        Myers, not too long ago, asked for people to send him their perceived best evypsych publications so he could see the legitimacy of the field. Apparently that failed. I would recommend sending 5-10 of your favorites in to him, perhaps he may read them.
        I have a hard time believing you would have to think about it for more than a minute to come up with at least 5 that you think are well-done…

        • cbjones06

          …maybe you will choose to read David Queller’s reply to Pinker’s “group selection” article…

  • Daniel Conroy-Beam

    I’m glad you posted this. You didn’t mention potential non-persuasive pros. These are perhaps more speculative but stand out to me as sufficient to make responding worthwhile. The first is probably less salient to someone in your stage than to someone in mine, but I find responding to obstinate critics of the Myers et al. flavor can be a great way of clarifying your own thoughts. When you aren’t allowed to take the foundations for granted in a discussion, you quickly learn your weak spots and what you need to do to fix them. This (hopefully) translates into improvements in your real work. Secondly, because responses have to be so explicit and comprehensive, they can be educational even to persuaded audiences. I know I got/get tons of mileage out of Tooby and Cosmides’s responses to Gould (I’m thinking this in particular: http://cogweb.ucla.edu/Debate/CEP_Gould.html). So much of the Extended Phenotype was Dawkins just responding to this or that silly criticism. Even long after many of these criticisms have been forgotten these response sections are valuable in their own right because Dawkins was forced to clearly explain the underlying theory. Responses may never convince Myers, Moran, etc., but they might still advance the field from within.

  • mark

    You apparently misunderstood P.Z.’s criticisms of evolutionary psychology. He is not a “creationist of the mind.” Rather, he has pointed out that evolutionary psychology is a field plagued by a simplistic understanding of evolution. There is more to evolution than natural selection, and it does not follow that all traits necessarily emerged from selection, whether you are talking about the mind or not. Autism exists. It does not follow that it is “adaptive” in some way, although some evolutionary psychologists do not hesitate to humiliate themselves by speculating along those lines. All you need is an environment that is selectively lax enough to allow variation, and you will see some maladaptive traits.

    • Lee_Kirkpatrick

      This is just one of many charges that Myers, and countless other uninformed critics, regularly level at evolutionary psychologists, and like most of his other criticisms it simply is not true. If evolutionary psychologists really did believe that all behaviors and traits reflect adaptations designed to produce them, because of the fitness advantages they confer, they would certainly deserve a good tongue-lashing. But they don’t.

      • Alex

        Lee, it is bad to ever suggest that something is an adaptation and form hypotheses and attempt to falsify them. Science does not work by making hypotheses and falsifying them stupid. It is much better to assume that every trait is the result of domain general learning and plasticity (don’t worry if you can’t figure out how to program that, people intuitively believe that learning is an answer not a question of how) or genetic drift.

        We have to wait till scholars randomly stumble onto evidence that proves something is an adaptation because if you say something is an adaptation, you are claiming it is present at birth, immutable, and morally righteous. I know that evolutionary hypotheses can be very helpful for guiding investigations, but we just can’t risk it. It is too dangerous to make any scientific hypothesis about adaptation unless you have all of the evidence ahead of time.

        • mark

          Great parody. Too bad it is a straw man of what I and others are saying. I am not characterizing the entire field of evolutionary psychology as a pseudoscience or saying that hypotheses about adaptation are invalid. But this is a field that has a lot of bozos who don’t understand the basics of evolutionary theory and draw conclusions from data where alternative explanations are plentiful. As with any field of research, there are limitations that evolutionary psychology faces, but too many ignore them and get defensive when this is pointed out. As long as researchers are aware of the limitations of their studies when drawing conclusions, great. But too many have demonstrated that they are not. Some of them get feisty and defensive. And this article is an example of someone evading legitimate criticism of the field.

          • Alex

            Is it a problem to draw a conclusion when alternatives are possible? That again seems like what scientists should do and then other scientists falsify those claims or don’t. If we knew the answer before having to investigate it wouldn’t really be science it would be dogmatism–something you might be more comfortable with.

            Further, science without a guiding hypothesis is generally pretty inefficient. Having hypotheses, even wrong wrong ones, about how the mind works and using evolutionary principles to guide these hypotheses is certainly better than asserting that” “Culture”, “learning”, “plasticity”, “God”? explains things. Because hypotheses can be easily falsified and so even wrong ones can bring progress based on falsification. Those things in quotes don’t allow for that.

          • mark

            I wouldn’t use the word “problem,” but yes, it is a limitation to draw conclusions when alternative explanations are probable. That is why we have controlled experiments– to rule out alternative explanations for the results. If you don’t understand that you need to go take a class in basic research methods. I don’t appreciate your insult that I would be more comfortable with dogmatism. You don’t know me, so don’t make assumptions. I am a neuroscientist with a healthy publication record.
            As for your second paragraph, I agree that hypotheses are an essential part of science. Nobody is arguing that. But there are good and bad hypotheses. Good ones are derived from theories. Bad ones tend to ignore important parts of theories. Hypotheses in evolutionary psychology are often of the latter type. They sometimes ignore what we already know about evolution or discount what we know about psychology. “Culture,” “learning,” and “plasticity” can provide explanations alongside evolution. It is interesting that you say those hypotheses don’t allow for falsification when that is one of the premier criticisms of evo psych research. I will agree that these fields have struggled with limitations just as evo psych is now. But those fields of inquiry have generally acknowledged their limitations when drawing conclusions. The most dangerous thing in science is a scientist who is not skeptical of his/her own theory.

          • Alex

            That was a stunning bit of hypocrisy, chastising me for making assumptions about you in a sentence after you do precisely the same thing–trust me I know my way around control conditions.

            Obviously you run control conditions, the point was that no paper can rule out all possibilities. So after you have some work, you posit an account for your data. Newton did this before Einstein, knowing his theory was incomplete and Einstein did the same, knowing his theory was incomplete. Almost all hypotheses are wrong to some extent and if scientists were unwilling to draw conclusions and form hypotheses about their data, knowing that they could be wrong, then science would not proceed very well.

            As for the learning, culture, and plasticity thing you’ve again missed the point. Those are not answers, those are questions: what types or learning mechanism?

          • mark

            I am done talking to you after this post because you are being rude and getting too personal with this. I was not making assumptions about your beliefs as you were with me. I was interpreting what you actually said. You said, “Is it a problem to draw a conclusion when alternatives are possible?” You did not say “form a hypothesis;” you said “draw a conclusion.” First year graduate students generally know better than that.
            You are right that no single study can rule out all alternative explanations. But good studies take this seriously and acknowledge their limitations, and they are careful to draw conclusions which are mindful of them. Why are you arguing with me about this? This is the norm among good researchers; I can’t imagine why you would dispute it. I was not saying that they should be “unwilling to draw conclusions,” only that they should be careful and consider alternative explanations.
            From what you are saying, it sounds to me like you think scientists should draw their own conclusions and leave it to other scientists to test them. I disagree. Good researchers give fair consideration of alternative explanations for their data. And they draw conclusions within those boundaries. It is sloppy science to ignore alternative explanations.
            I can hardly make sense of your statement, “Those are not answers, those are questions: what types of learning mechanism?” Long-term potentiation is a good example of a learning/plasticity mechanism at the cellular level. It involves several cellular mechanisms by which synapses are strengthened. It is well-established experimentally. How can you say that all of learning theory is “not answers” just “questions?” You are discounting fields of research that are much more established that evo psych.

          • Alex

            Randy Gallistel would disagree with the notion that anything interesting about memory or learning can be explained by long-term potentiation. Again, there are interesting debates about how even the simplest mechanisms are operating. Again, that does not mean that either those researchers or Randy are wrong to draw conclusions from the data, just that intelligent scientists can be wrong about the particular conclusions they draw from their data.

            As for whether or not I think one needs to collect data, I have said repeatedly above that hypotheses are interesting because they guide experimental investigation. There should be a constant interplay between hypotheses and data. You were suggesting above that somehow an evolutionary hypothesis must be treated differently than any other hypotheses. Whether my hypothesis about how the mind works was generated by evolutionary theory or by psychic cat, it is still just a hypothesis about how the mind works and can be falsified based on evidence.

            Also, I do not mind criticism of my field, but I’m tired of hearing the same old criticisms that do not reflect how the field operates by people who have never read anything by an evolutionary psychologist and instead piece together their knowledge of the field from pop psychology about ev psych and critiques of ev psych. These critiques are either completely wrong (e.g. ev psychers think it’s all nature) or apply to all of psychology (too much emphasis on undergrads from Western cultures).

          • mark

            Thank you for your polite response. Yes, there are debates about these mechanisms, and I think that any conclusions we draw about them should be within the limitations of the studies examining them. I don’t hold a different standard for evolutionary psychology. If I implied that evolutionary hypotheses should be treated differently then I communicated poorly. To clarify, I think these hypotheses should be consistent with what we already know, just like any other hypotheses. It does not make any sense to hypothesize that neurons communicate with each other between brains because there is not the observational evidence to substantiate it. This is an extreme example. Similarly, I think evolutionary psychologists sometimes propose hypotheses which are inconsistent with aspects of evolution or with well-established theories in cognitive science. That does not necessarily mean that the hypotheses are wrong. It is just a poor way to advance a science. We should examine the fringes of what we know, not stab around in the dark. If we do that, we may find something, but we aren’t likely to know what it is or be very confident that it is really there. This is a basic tenant of empiricism, that hypotheses should be based on observational evidence. Even though the hypothesis about psychic cats may be testable, it is probably a) a waste of time, b) difficult to test because the claim is slippery, and c) a great way to hurt your academic reputation.
            I agree that it can be frustrating to have others criticize your field, particularly when they are not publishing in it. I freely admit that you certainly are better read in the evolutionary psychology literature. As an outside observer I have noticed that problems which trouble most fields of inquiry appear to be more common in this field. I am sure you have noticed that evolutionary psychology is roundly criticized not only in skeptical circles but in the scientific literature as well. Mostly, I think this is because it is a new field that faces particular challenges because it is cross-disciplinary. It is tough to be an expert in multiple fields and do quality research. At the same time, I will admit that this is a legitimate field of inquiry and that I think more evolutionary psychology is a good thing. I just think we need more of the good stuff and less of the crap.

          • Alex

            I didn’t think I was being rude before, but glad you found the last post more congenial, I meant no offense.

            It seems like we mostly agree on the standards, we just disagree whether or not most evolutionary psychologists do good work or bad work. Just like all fields of psychology, I think there are people who call themselves evolutionary psychologists who suck, but no more in our field than in any other. Indeed, our field might actually have less sucky people because most lazy people do not want to do the leg work to learn some Antro, Econ, Bio, and Animal behavior.

            I think it is best to think of evolutionary psychology as a very reliable and useful psychic cat. It generates hypotheses about how the mind works in the same way as the psychic cat (I borrow the psychic cat from one of Rob’s papers) or your own intuitions, it just happens to be particularly good at it (probably better then ones own “Hmmm I wonder”). Functional (adaptationist) hypotheses are useful when they tell us something about how the mind works. The people you have a gripe with are not evolutionary psychologists if their goal is to simply come up with a way that a behavior could be “adaptive”. No, what real evolutionary psychologists do is carefully think through the data and come up with a functional hypothesis that is consistent with the best data we have available and, most importantly, make falsifiable predictions about how the mind works. The goal of evolutionary psychology is to figure out how the mind works, using an evolutionary approach is just a tool for achieving this purpose.

          • cbjones06

            …one of several problems w the way[s] in which [the ubiquitous] “function” is employed in EP is that the “field” does not account for pleiotropy and epistasis…

          • cbjones06

            …selection acts on phenotypic traits…the phenotype is not located in the proverbial “mind” but on the external surfaces of the whole organism…”EP” is a branch of “cognitive psychology”…EP is not “evolutionary”…

          • cbjones06

            …I know of no EP study that demonstrates pathways between “cognitive” states and phenotypic states…

          • cbjones06

            …we don’t want to forget that there is a Discussion or comparable section of any publication…limitations need to be presented/weighed there…

    • rkurzban

      Mark, thanks for taking the time to comment. I’m very interested in your suggestion here, and I’d like to understand it a little better. My reading of the evolutionary psychology literature is different from yours, that scholars have been quite careful to point out that not all aspects of organisms are adaptations, and that there are byproducts, noise, etc. (For brevity, I omit sources here but I can email you the ones I have in mind if you would like.) So, I’m interested in where we disagree, and how you came to have the impression that people in the field have suggested, for example, that autism is an adaptation. Can you indicate some examples, or email me some that you have in mind? A separate issue in your second comment is whether Myers’ critique is “legitimate.” For the record, I dispute that it is because he mischaracterizes field, as the Pinker/Coyne dialog illustrates. In any case, on this point, if you can send/post examples, I’d appreciate it.

      • mark

        I will agree that it is not the entire field of evolutionary psychology that is doing bad science, just pockets of it. Some researchers in the field have been doing great work, and this needs to be acknowledged. But there is also a lot of crap, and that needs to be said, too. I am not an evolutionary psychologist, so your knowledge of the literature is certainly much better than mine. Here are a few articles which demonstrate some of the points I made, including the hypothesis that autism is an adaptation:

        Reser (2011). Conceptualizing the autism spectrum in terms of natural selection and behavioral ecology: The solitary forager hypothesis. Evolutionary Psychology, 9.
        Hulbert & Ling (2007). Biological components of sex differences in color preferences. Current Biology, 17.

        David Buller also has a decent critique in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 2005.

        I will agree that Myers’ critique is not appropriate for certain parts of the field. But it is dead-on with respect to others. Evolutionary psychology is not a bad idea; it is a young field, and it is cross-disciplinary. This makes it especially challenging for researchers to do robust work. To complicate matters further, the more sensational studies, which are often the bad ones, are often publicized. My opinion is that researchers in this field need to take any valid criticisms that are offered seriously so that the field can improve its reputation.

        • rkurzban

          Thanks for your comment. For what it’s worth, I read the
          Reser piece – an earlier version, not the final one – and my evaluation of it was very negative. I was surprised it was published, and I agree with you that it should not have been. I haven’t read the Current Biology piece by the Neuroscientists. I’m less impressed with Buller, who I’ve written about from time to time. Some replies to his work are here: http://www.cep.ucsb.edu/buller.htm. In any case, yes, the quality of the work is uneven, and some poor work has been published. JPSP published a paper on parapsychology. Should the entire field of social psychology be derided and forced to endure lecture after lecture on materialism? Anyway, the Reser point is well taken, and I agree that not all the work in the field is of the highest caliber. As for what gets publicized, we have little control over that.

          • mark

            I am assuming that you are referring to Bem’s paper. There were several harsh critiques of Bem’s studies which followed soon after its publication, one of which was published in JPSP. That said, social psychology has its own set of problems. A lot of the embodied consciousness literature is garbage, and I think the problems there are actually worse than what is going on in the evolutionary psychology literature. As I have said in previous posts, the problems I mentioned exist in all fields of science. The important thing is that researchers in each field police and gatekeep their literature. As for what is publicized, one way of dealing with this would be to have prominent leaders make themselves available to provide a counterpoint when bad research is publicized. Thanks for your response to Buller’s critiques.

      • cbjones06

        …doesn’t Nesse argue that disease is adaptive…

  • Mankel

    principle is not principal

  • ianw19

    Fun Fact (at least, according to the Robert Wright): Darwin responded to Wallace’s suggestion that the human mind may not have evolved by natural selection by saying, “I hope you have not murdered too completely your own and my child.”

  • ianw19

    How ironic is it that the people who most emphatically stress the plasticity of the human mind are people whose minds can’t be changed?!

  • Martin

    These people remind me of vegans. Some vegans have a big layer of rational/objective arguments on top of the real reasons why they oppose the use of animals as food. They know they can’t use the real subjective reasons to try to convince others so they have to resort to say things like meat gives you colon cancer, animal fat gives you heart disease, etc.

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