This One Goes to Eleven, PZ Myers, and Other Punch LinesPublished 11 July, 2013
There’s a great scene in the film This is Spinal Tap which gave rise to an expression that has so penetrated popular culture that it gets its own Wikipedia entry: “up to eleven.”
The film is a satire, following the fictitious band, Spinal Tap, documenting their travels and, to be sure, idiocies. In the scene, a member of the band is discussing an amplifier which is “very special” because the dials go to eleven, rather than the more traditional ten. “You’re on ten, all the way, up…” Nigel Tufnel explains, “Where can you go from there?… If we need that extra push, we go to eleven…” Marty (played by Rob Reiner) asks the obvious question: why not simply label the top-most setting ten? Nigel is clearly stumped, and can only weakly repeat that, well, this amp goes to eleven. (The scene, of course, can be found on YouTube, and you can watch it if you’re willing to endure the brief but inevitable advertisement.)
Wikipedia tells me that this expression, going to eleven, “has come to refer to anything being exploited to its utmost abilities, or apparently exceeding them.” This is not, I should say, my experience of how the expression is used. I find that people use the expression to refer to a case in which an interlocutor seems manifestly, obtusely, even obstinately unable to see the logic of a relatively clear and unarguable point.
Which brings me to the question: why have Jerry Coyne’s views about evolutionary psychology changed so drastically while PZ Myers’ views have ossified?
I’ve been reading what Coyne has to say about evolutionary psychology for some time. Two and a half years ago, I wrote about how Coyne criticized the field as being not only wrong, but not even science. I found his hostility to the field – chastising us for not “policing” ourselves properly for instance – particularly puzzling given that his approach to non-humans is the same as the field’s approach to humans.
Coyne’s views have, if I may, evolved. In June of 2011, he maintained his hostility to the field broadly, but he did rise to the defense of Darwinian Medicine:
While I now think that Darwinian medicine is a useful and intriguing discipline, its practitioners must be careful not to fall into the same trap that’s snared many evolutionary psychologists: uncritical and untestable storytelling.
What a difference a couple of years makes. This past December, Coyne changed his tune, writing:
…those who dismiss evolutionary psychology on the grounds that it’s mere “storytelling” are not aware of how the field operates these days.
And, much more recently, just a few days ago, Coyne penned a blog post entitled “A defense of evolutionary psychology (mostly by Steve Pinker)” in which he defends the field — mostly, as he remarks parenthetically, by quoting an email from Pinker – against an as-yet unreformed foe of the discipline, PZ Myers.
Myers’ remarks derive from a post he wrote stemming from his appearance on a panel at something called “Convergence Day,” which seems to be a science-fiction and fantasy convention. I confess I find it surpassingly strange that there was a panel on evolutionary psychology at a science fiction conference, and quite a bit stranger that Myers would have been a participant on such a panel, given that he is, as his remarks indicate, innocent of any knowledge of the field.
Coyne sent Pinker some of Myers’ remarks that he made both in the post and the comments section, and Pinker provided some replies. What caught my attention was – to return to the business of going to eleven – the wholesale confusion Myers shows about the field. As I’ve remarked in the past, critics of the field, when they err, are not slightly missing the mark. Their confusion is deep and profound. It’s not like they are marksman who can’t quite hit the center of the target; they’re holding the gun backwards. (See comments #9 and #10 on Myers’ post for remarks about what he takes the assumptions of the field to be.)
For instance, Myers gets the notion of modularity thoroughly wrong, taking it to be a spatial, rather than functional concept: “That behavioral features that have been selected for in our history are represented by modular components in the brain – again with rare exceptions, you can’t simply assign a behavioral role to a specific spot in the brain…” Consider this view he hangs on the field: “I’d also add that most evo psych studies assume a one-to-one mapping of hypothetical genes to behaviors. . .” And, thirdly, he writes: “Developmental plasticity vitiates most of the claims of evo psych.” As Coyne puts it, “’developmental plasticity’ does not stand as a dichotomous alternative to “evolved features.” Our developmental plasticity is to a large extent the product of evolution…” To readers with knowledge of the field, these claims about the field are easily seen to be just silly.
Given how many times each of these arguments – modularity, development, etc. – have been made in print, blogs, and talks, Myers’ continued confusion about them strikes me as goes-to-eleven baffling. Also baffling is how an organizer of a panel could invite him to participate given he demonstrates that he’s unaware of the most basic theoretical commitments of the field. (I don’t read Myers’ blog, but my completely naïve sense from reading the comments was that there was less piling on by his readers than I had seen in the past, and, in fact, one commenter linked to Coyne’s post. What comments there were on the topic of evolutionary psychology seemed to focus mostly on the gene/culture dichotomy. Interesting.)
Part of the reason that this struck me was that a couple of days before Coyne’s post appeared, a very short piece by Frans de Waal ran on big think. Entitled, “We Don’t Need an Evolutionary Explanation for Everything,” de Waal criticizes Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer’s book, A Natural History of Rape, writing that the book “suggested that since men occasionally rape – but of course it’s not all men but a minority of them – it must be a natural phenomenon and it must have adaptive significance.” His complaint: “My problem with that kind of view is not everything that humans do needs to have an adaptive story.”
It’s hard to know precisely what de Waal means by having “adaptive significance,” but it sounds to me that his worry is that that it’s a mistake to assume that rape (or other traits) is an adaptation, and he understands Thornhill and Palmer to have done so. As I and others have repeatedly pointed out, they left this an open question, writing: “Although the question whether rape is an adaptation or a by-product cannot yet be definitively answered… ” (p. 84) and one section of their book was called, “Human Rape: Adaptation or Byproduct?”
The broader point is de Waal’s implication that there is some community of scholars out there – evolutionary psychologists, I presume, judging from his remarks in his closing paragraph – that assume that every trait is an adaptation. Again, given the countless times that various authors have clarified this point, the recurrence of this charge in general and the Thornhhill/Palmer charge in particular strike me again as incredibly puzzling.
As I indicated above, what strikes me about the sorts of errors that Myers makes about the field is that they demonstrate so little interest in trying to engage with it at even a cursory level, trying to understand the basic assumptions and key distinctions in the field. My sense is that Coyne’s change of mind came in no small part because of his decision to read something in the primary literature, in particular a paper by Confer et al. Now, Myers claims to have read in the primary literature, but the sorts of fundamental mistakes that Coyne identifies clearly belie this claim.
Which is why Myers’ remarks about the field always have, and always will, go to eleven.