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

What Does PZ Myers Despise?

Published 31 July, 2013

A quick followup to my remarks in the previous post… PZ Myers despises something. It turns out that the panel discussion I recently mentioned has been transcribed, and according to the transcript (from which I take all quotations), Myers says:

I’m interested in evolutionary problems, and that’s how evolutionary psychology came to my attention. I’ll just say ahead of time: My bias is, I despise it.

Despise…He doesn’t disagree with it, or take issue with its findings. His objection is visceral. Reading the transcript and his remarks elsewhere, however, it’s fairly clear he does not, really, hate evolutionary psychology. He hates what he thinks evolutionary psychology is. Actually, there’s evidence he likes the field. Take, for instance, his view of Sara Hrdy’s work. Hrdy has played an active role as an officer in the Human Behavior and Evolution Society (HBES) and was recently awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by this group, which is arguably the world’s leading collection of evolutionary psychologists. Wikipedia calls Hrdy “an American anthropologist and primatologist who has made several major contributions to evolutionary psychology and sociobiology.” (That’s Wikipedia, not me, placing her in these categories.) Indeed, here she is in this picture taken at the recent HBES conference – organized by Deb Lieberman and Mike McCullough – smiling next to Doug Kenrick, Leda Cosmides, and Steven Pinker, among others. If she’s not at the epicenter of evolutionary psychology, it’s hard to know who is. Of Hrdy, Myers gushes:

… people like Sarah Blaffer Hrdy who does a lot of cultural anthropology. I think it’s phenomenal stuff.

(Greg Laden, also on the panel, similarly holds up a central member of the community as an example of good work in the field, Dan Fessler, former co-editor-in-chief of Evolution and Human Behavior. Laden says: “There’s actually some good studies, some good evolutionary psychology studies that people who claim it help [inaudible] have done. Just go to the UCLA department of anthropology and look at Dan Fessler and Boyd and so on…”)

So if Myers loves Hrdy, who does he despise? In the transcript, Myers explicitly discusses an example. He is, I’m fairly certain, referring to this paper by Morton et al. in PLoS Computaional Biology (“Mate Choice and the Origin of Menopause”) when he says:

This is a common theme in many of these popular evolutionary psychology articles too, is that women are the passive recipients of the male genetic heritage. There was this recent thing. Maybe you’ve heard about the menopause study?

This paper wasn’t, however, written by evolutionary psychologists or anthropologists, but rather the good guys in Myers’ world view: biologists (at McMaster, in this case). The paper did not appear in one of the field’s journals, but rather in PLoS. I don’t have a particular view about the work, and I suppose by some stretch it could count as evolutionary psychology, but only by a stretch, and the work seems far more distant from the center of the discipline than, say, Hrdy’s work.

Myers, then, is a bit like the Dave Chapelle character Clayton Bigsby, the Black White Supremacist. In this (salty, NSFW) sketch (note, some might find this sketch offensive), Bigsby plays a blind black man who, not knowing he’s black, becomes a leader of the White Supremacist movement. Like Myers, he’s filled with a lot of rage, but doesn’t really know who or what he hates. Myers thinks he hates evolutionary psychology, but when he gets specific, he loves people at the center of the field, and hates papers that lie outside of it.

You can see this as well by his other remarks. As Pinker mentioned in his replies to Myers’ comments, Myers seems to despise spatial modularity. Myers (incorrectly) thinks that evolutionary psychology is committed to the idea that different functions of the mind are spatially localized. He thinks this is what we mean by “modularity.” (I’m partial to this paper on modularity, for obvious reasons.) Myers says:

I read one paper by an evolutionary psychologist that was trying to pin down this idea of the modules in the brain. Okay, they were going to show us that there actually are these modules in the brain. And the one they found was the amygdala.

According to the transcript, this was followed by [audience laughter] and then:

Okay, now maybe you don’t know, but the amygdala is everywhere. Fish have an amygdala. So how can you justify saying that this is a site for a specific adaptation for human beings when it’s something so universal.

From this, it’s clear that Myers doesn’t understand the way the term “modularity” is used in evolutionary psychology. The fact that he thinks that the fact that “the amygdala is everywhere” is relevant to this discussion is startling. (I should say for the record I have no idea what “paper by an evolutionary psychologist” he’s talking about. If anyone knows, I will be pleased to add a note here and link to it. For the record, I’m guessing that the paper in question was not, in fact, written by someone who self-identifies as an evolutionary psychologist and that the paper did not, in fact, appear in one of the field’s journals.) The point is that by referring to “a site for a specific adaptation” he reveals, again, that whatever it is that he despises, it’s not evolutionary psychology. (He also says: “You know, there is not a coloring-in-the-lines module in the brain. There is not a module that says you like broccoli, right? It’s much more complicated.” I concede these statements are all true – especially that it’s complicated – but of course these are non-sequiturs, given that no one has made any such claims.) Another panelist, cognitive neuroscientist Indre Viskontas said: “if you’re trying to say that the brain is modular and this region does that. Well, it totally depends!” reinforcing the idea that the confusion regarding modularity was not limited to Myers on the panel.

Another thing the panel apparently doesn’t like about evolutionary psychology is the EEA concept – the environment of evolutionary adaptedness – which I’ve discussed before. Greg Laden, another panelist, breaking tradition, identified a source for a claim about the field, writing:

…in the original Adapted Mind, the book that put out the first papers on evolutionary psychology, there is actually an article explicitly stating the EEA concept as being the savannah of the Serengeti. It says this is the environment in which people like the bushmen would have been living for two million years. And the paper explored our interest in bonsai trees and certain other landscaping things.

From the last sentence, it’s clear he’s referring to the chapter by Orians and Heerwagen, “Evolved Responses to Landscapes.” While it’s true that they wrote: “The savannas of tropical Africa, the presumed site of human origins…” but, and I can’t stress this enough, the “presumed site of human origins” is not the same as the EEA concept. Like modularity, the EEA concept is a technical term, and has been laid out in such exquisite detail – including in the Psychological Foundations of Culture chapter in the book Laden refers to —  it really is striking that critics of the field still manage to get this wrong. Indeed, the abbreviation EEA doesn’t appear in the Orians and Heerwagen chapter (according to my Amazon and Google searches inside the book). (I tried to help Laden out on this issue back in December of last year.)

Myers also objects to what he takes the field to be because he seems to think that the discipline endorses genetic determinism. From his remarks, it’s clear that Myers is stuck in the old dichotomies, especially genetic as opposed to flexible. He says: “It’s got to be plastic. I don’t think it’s genetic.” Because he takes the field to be saying that behavior is fixed/genetic/inflexible, he thinks the field is wrong because the brain is plastic/flexible. Related, he also said: “There isn’t a one-to-one mapping of genes to behaviors, but they assume it is. They always argue that it is.” Since we always argue this, Myers should be able to document this claim easily, but of course he can’t, because it’s just not true.

While most of what Myers takes evolutionary psychology to be is wrong, partially explaining his hostility, I concede that there could be points of genuine disagreement. First, Myers said: “if you’re doing evolutionary biology, I expect you to look at the genes, okay?” This is a genuine difference. Because evolutionary psychologists focus on hypotheses regarding function, the evidence is typically design evidence, following the logic laid out by George Williams. Indeed, many of us think that there was plenty of good evolutionary biology being done before anyone knew that genes existed. Charles Darwin, for instance, managed pretty well. Myers’ insistence on genes when studying behavior, however, doesn’t really set him up against evolutionary psychology so much as animal behavior and behavioral ecology more broadly. As I and others have pointed out, inferring function from form – morphology or behavior – is business as usual in animal behavior. Insisting on genetic evidence, then, isn’t a complaint specific to evolutionary psychology. (This difference in views might help to explain the expanding Coyne/Myers debate.) Denying that one can infer a trait’s function from its form puts one out of step with the mainstream biological community, as I’ve discussed before, using Futuyama’s textbook as evidence.

And, just for completeness, I should say I have no real idea what to make of these remarks:

…when you actually find evolutionary psychologists who are willing to talk about the real data and get down to the basics, they can’t point to anything that’s unique to humans in the last 10,000 years. They have to go to things like the amygdala or breastfeeding. You know, that’s a mammalian characteristic. We’ve got 80 million years of that to discuss. It means that the stuff they’re talking about, the very specific stuff that they’re testing on college students, they don’t have genetic or biological evidence for any kind of difference.

By the way, of the several hundred people at HBES who were “willing to talk about the real data,” exactly one mentioned the word amygdala, and two mentioned breastfeeding. Anyway, Amanda Marcotte, who I’ve discussed before was also on the panel. She said:

I often, very frequently, get requests to debate an evolutionary psychologist in a public forum, and I always decline and offer to refer them to a biologist who is willing to debate them. And they always take a pass. And I think that’s very telling–that they want to debate a journalist, somebody with no PhD, no science background, who likes science but doesn’t really understand it to the same extent that the rest of the people on this panel do.

I’m a bit surprised that she has “very frequently” been asked to debate evolutionary psychologists. This forum would have been a perfect opportunity, yet the organizers chose not to invite a single evolutionary psychologist. Out of curiosity, readers, have any of you, ever, “taken a pass” at debating a biologist?

Anyway, to return to Myers, he closes with this:

There is a sound basis, a material, biological basis to how the brain works, and I agree 100% with that. And I will say that even I am doing research on genes and behavior in my lab, but I do it on fish, where you can do real experiments. Come on.

Aw, just, just come on… Anyway, to pick up on Hugo Mercier’s comments in my prior post, it’s probably true that there are better labels than the one I chose to use. Are there good terms to use to refer to people who are evolutionary psychologists in at least some sense but (think that they bitterly) disagree with parts of the enterprise?

 

  • Andy Delton

    Interesting couple of posts, Rob. I wonder how many critiques of evolutionary psychology actual turn out to be critiques of much larger research enterprises. You highlight some by Myers. Foder’s criticisms turn out to be ultimately critiques of cognitive science or evolutionary biology, not EP specifically. Concerns that EP is based entirely on research with college students seems to hit much closer to home for traditional social or cognitive psychology. The idea that culture operates on a separate causal plane from psychology seems inconsistent with pretty much any form of modern cognitive science. Etc., etc.

    • rkurzban

      Good points, Andy, and I agree. At the end of this post, I allude to the idea that his critique regarding genes is really a critique of behavioral ecology. But, yes, I agree with your point here. That leaves the question of why a sub-discipline is singled out given that the critiques apply more broadly. (Or maybe it’s not?) At least in Fodor’s case, he realized his worries were not limited to the field, and went after all of evolutionary biology in WDGW. (See Clark Barrett’s great review, by the way, in E&HB: http://bit.ly/166o59G)

  • Steve Johnson

    …when you actually find evolutionary psychologists who are willing to talk about the real data and get down to the basics, they can’t point to anything that’s unique to humans in the last 10,000 years.

    Doesn’t that portion answer your question?

    PZ Myers doesn’t like the implications of evolution not having stopped 10,000 years ago. That’s it.

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

      I know of no evolutionary psychologists who believe that it did, and I have specifically raised the matter for discussion a number of times.

      Referring to these numbers without contextual information is meaningless. It is well known in biology that for some species millions of years go by with very little change. For others, speciation can happen in decades or centuries. The question is, what seems to be the case for us? What does the evidence suggest? When did important human-type faculties appear? Well, it probably wasn’t 60 million years ago when the first primates emerged, as they were shrew-like creatures not much like humans or even apes. It wasn’t 10,000 years ago either because we can compare modern populations whose ancestors were geographically isolated 10,000 years ago (say, New Guineans and native South Americans), It can’t be the case that many isolated populations continued to evolve in exactly the same way.

      So that leaves us with the time in between (and for some considerations, the EEA is much earlier; See Neil Shubin’s “Your Inner Fish”).

      The idea of the Pleistocene’s importance to human evolution was just a hypothesis. It might have been wrong. It has turned out to be incredibly useful. It has helped us to make sense of ancient mysteries about human nature for the first time ever.

      The sniff of indifference to a powerful idea which is, without question, expanding our understanding of what it means to be human is, frankly, grotesque.

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

        Minor quibble, please don’t use the phrase “ancient mysteries” in conjunction with actual science. It evokes too much woo-woo sentiment and is likely to trigger false ‘bullshit alarms’ from skeptics who are used to dealing with ‘ancient astronaut’ theories and the like. Puzzles, conundrums, questions, anything but ‘ancient mysteries’! ;-)

  • Noah Carl

    Another well-argued post. I think you ought to offer to debate Myers on the merits of evolutionary psychology.

    • rkurzban

      I think a debate is unlikely. A commenter on Myers’ blog mentioned my post to Myers [http://bit.ly/13pNPQ6], and Myers’ scholarly reply [http://bit.ly/135ieiX] was: “Nah, I ignore Kurzban. He’s kind of a twit.”

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

        I would take that as high praise!

  • Trophy

    Thanks for the great article. These kind of articles are very useful for laypeople such as me even though I understand that debating or responding to PZ might feel useless as he never deeply engages with the arguments. For example, his “find the genes!” claim has been answered multiple times by several people all mentioning that there are many legitimate scientific disciplines that do not do that but still arrive at sound and well-evidenced conclusions. And to this date, PZ has not answered that rebuttal or stopped using his line.

    And based on the above, it is very obvious to me that your use of “Black white supremacist” example is going to be a big mistake here since if PZ ever chooses to respond, he will only ridicule you for “comparing him with a black racist” and ignore everything else that you have said.

    • rkurzban

      Thanks for your comment. For the record, the “Black white supremacist” passage in no way is comparing him to a racist. The idea there is to compare him to a case in which someone hates what he little understands. I want to say as clearly as I can I do NOT think that PZ Myers is a racist. I hope that will deflect your worry here. But thanks for the remark. Much appreciated.

      • Trophy

        I think you are too optimistic. I know you are not comparing him to a racist but that may not stop him from going forward and declaring it a comparison. He did exactly that in a recent blog post and since the majority of the readers do not click on the links to read the sources you will have little success battling the misinformation. In other words, the Dave Chappelle example is a tactical mistake that can get you quote-mined easily.

        So the recent blog post is this: http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2013/07/30/hello-timothy_stanley-im-tweeting-at-you/

        I recommend you go ahead and read it but the short version is that some guy named Timothy Stanley wrote an article (a terrible one actually) to use the recent twitter discussion as an opportunity to bash atheists by callling Richard Dawkins’s tweets a form of abuse. Before doing so however, he mentioned that “Don’t get me wrong: this is in no way comparable to the terrible sexual abuse that has recently gained headlines.” and then he went ahead and called “aggressive online atheism” a form of abuse and focused entirely on the criticism of religion by atheists, without bring up the sexual and verbal abuse suffered by women online again. So it is clear for any reasonable reader that he is just using this as an opportunity to plug his own point of view and to claim that criticism of religion is also abuse but “no way a comparable level of abuse” suffered by some women online. He is of course wrong about his main point and one can reasonably disagree with him without reaching for the flamethrower but of course PZ does not do that (To his credit PZ cites his above remarks) and instead offers the following:

        “But that’s not going to stop you from comparing them, Tim!”


        “Those women you are comparing yourself to are asking for safety and
        respect for their existence as human beings; you are asking that we
        privilege your idiotic delusions and exempt them from critical thought.
        You want us to regard your belief in saints and angels and deities as
        just as much a human right as women’s right to not be raped.

        There is no comparison.”

        So don’t be surprised if PZ’s next article is titled “Robert Kurzban compares me to a white-supremacist because I don’t like bad evidence”.

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

          “I think you are too optimistic. I know you are not comparing him to a
          racist but that may not stop him from going forward and declaring it a
          comparison.”

          In that case, I would suggest using that against Myers. Show up his hyperbole for what it is: a failure to engage with critical/scientific thinking.

  • Robert King

    If Myers is anything like Gould–and he certainly appears to be–he is not opposed to evolutionary psychology. He is opposed to all psychology–all systematic study of human behaviour that appears to deny certain folk psychology concepts such as freewill and mind/body separation.

  • http://popsych.org/ Jesse Marczyk

    On top of that, I would add there have been some evolutionary psychologists criticizing that very menopause paper for being silly (in fact, I do it here: http://popsych.org/mathematical-modeling-of-menopause)

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

      You’re in big trouble Jesse, just wait till the other evolutionary psychologists find out that you’ve gone rogue and failed to toe the line. Your misogyny privileges will be suspended for at least a month.

  • David Buss

    Eloquent and cogent piece, Rob. If he actually read some EP, he might [or might not] correct his continued misunderstandings. Here’s a link to a paper from my lab that tries to dispel some of the more common misconceptions about EP:

    http://homepage.psy.utexas.edu/homepage/group/busslab/pdffiles/evolutionary_psychology_AP_2010.pdf

    • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10546265581296919974 Rob

      As a curious lay reader with scarcely any formal educational background outside the humanities, I’ve been astonished by the criticisms of EP made by folks in natural sciences — like Myers, (until recently) Coyne, and even (recently) De Waal — that are handily and clearly dispelled within the first 20 pages or so of your outstanding text book, which perhaps Myers and his fan base would do well to read.

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

        Old pre-conceptions die hard. It’s a credit to those who have enough self-skepticism to overcome prior biases (e.g. Coyne).

    • cbjones06

      I tried to read this paper when it came out and couldn’t understand it.

    • Jay Nomer

      Great paper! I’m not a hardcore EPer but I have my moments.

      With regards to the spatial memory as an adaption for gathering, have you been through these?:
      http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S104160800700009X
      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21459502
      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17950509
      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21134708

  • Brendan Zietsch

    Nice response, Rob.

    I’d also make the point that, although it’s ludicrous to suggest
    that every evolutionary study needs to deal with ‘the genes’, there is plenty of
    evolutionary psychology that does use genetic analysis. E.g. (some of mine)

    Darwinian paradox of homosexuality
    http://www2.psy.uq.edu.au/~zietsch/Zietsch_et_al_2008_Evolution_of_homosexuality.pdf

    Understanding evolutionary basis of heritable personality variation
    http://www2.psy.uq.edu.au/~zietsch/Verweij%20et%20al%20&%20Zietsch%202012%20Testing%20evolutionary%20models%20of%20personality.pdf

    Role of genes, parental influence, sexual imprinting, and assortative mating on human mate pairings
    http://www2.psy.uq.edu.au/~zietsch/Zietsch_et_al_2011_Variation_in_human_mate_choice.pdf

    Genetics and mate preferences
    http://www2.psy.uq.edu.au/~zietsch/Zietsch%20et%20al%202012%20Heritability%20of%20preferences%20for%20multiple%20cues%20of%20mate%20quality%20in%20humans.pdf

    Testing byproduct theory of female orgasm
    http://www2.psy.uq.edu.au/~zietsch/Zietsch&Santtila2011%20Genetic%20analysis%20of%20orgasmic%20function%20in%20twins%20and%20siblings%20does%20not%20support%20the%20by-product%20theory%20of%20female%20orgasm.pdf

    (This last one was met with a mostly nonsensical reply by Lloyd and Wallen along with
    one PZ Myers – I don’t have the pdf – which we rebutted here: http://www2.psy.uq.edu.au/~zietsch/Zietsch&Santtila2012%20Confusion%20in%20the%20science%20of%20evolution%20and%20orgasm.pdf )

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

    It may not be strange that evolutionary psychologists declined Marcotte’s alleged offer, but the unsaid details matter. If such a person read Marcotte’s outrageous slander of their science, subsequently issued a debate challenge and were then told “No thanks, but will you debate this other person who hasn’t made the absurd claims I have instead?” I think such a person would reasonably be inclined to say no.

    Her admission is also damning of her character: she is willing to make strong, uncited pronouncements deriding a large scientific enterprise, but when challenged is suddenly a hapless amateur who can’t be expected to engage. Just so that readers know the sort of claim I am referring to, Marcotte tweeted “Skepticism of evo psych isn’t “anti-science” anymore than skepticism of phrenology is. Meh.”

  • Hugo Mercier

    A couple more thoughts on this general topic (sorry for coming late to the post). I think there’s a real danger to pay to much attention to people who criticize evolutionary psychology compared to people who just don’t care about it. Maybe 20 years ago, when most psychologists who knew something about evolutionary approaches to the human mind had a negative view of them, then it was a worthwhile fight. By and large, I think this fight has been won: there aren’t that many strong haters anymore. Now what matters most is that most people in psychology (and the social sciences at large) simply do not use evolutionary approaches — not so much because they have a negative a priori, but because they do not know how it could help them.

    Thinking in terms of opportunity costs, it’s possible that the best strategy for evolutionary psychologists is to focus on doing solid work, ideally work that is relevant to other branches of psychology and of the social sciences (and to display this relevance). We should be able to dismiss critics by sending them to references of good, recognized papers. That’s what anyone in a successful science can do. Rather than trying to show the weakness in their position, we should mostly show the strength of ours — which we can do most efficiently not only by argument but also by demonstrations. (As a side note, I think it’s also important to admit that a lot of work in evolutionary psychology is not very good — that might be true, as far as I can tell, of all the human sciences, but that shouldn’t stop us from acknowledging this weakness in this very specific case.)

    • rkurzban

      Hugo, I appreciate your remarks, and thanks for adding to the discussion. I have heard this before, that if we just put out good work, we’ll bring people around. I thought the research presented at HBES this year, for instance, was excellent, and continues a trend of good scholarship. I think there are plenty of other indications of the quality of the fields. My sense is that certain critics are not persuaded by the work, mostly because they won’t read it. As I indicate below in reply to another comment, Myers has said, “I ignore Kurzban. He’s kind of a twit.” Demonstrations of the merits of the approach have limited value when critics feel licensed to ignore anything or anyone that conflicts with their preconceived notions. And, as you say, there is poor work in the field; that’s true. But broadly, I’m just not sure that demonstrations of good work can be the full scope of the effort but, as I’ve said, I could very well be wrong. After all, you’re the expert on arguing…

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

        As I mentioned in that previous comment on the Psych0drama blog: You’re not facing scientific opposition, you’re facing ideological opposition. When you know thine enemy, it makes the strategy going forward much clearer. Like publicly taking on creationism has boosted public understanding of evolution (via the Internet, mainly, I’d say), publicly taking on ideologues opposed to EP will boost public understanding of EP (again, via blogs like these, YouTube videos, Wikipedia articles, etc.). To let the ideological opposition ‘take a pass’ without opposition will only let it fester and grow into a bigger problem as the years go by. IMO.

        Even if you’ve won the scientific fight, creationism has shown that that’s not enough. Most people aren’t scientists, but it’s still important not to leave them to fend for themselves when surrounded by ideologies. People need to understand science at some basic level even if they aren’t scientists. Who else to educate them than scientists? Einstein, Feynman, Sagan, even Dawkins, have done their part, and many more besides.

        Personally, I think this blog post is a great example of taking things seriously enough to try to reach out to the broader public and make the case for reason and science to them. “Hey folks, here’s what we’re facing from the opposition. Here’s is why it’s misleading and doesn’t make sense. Here’s why the science actually *does* make sense.” Step by step. People *are* interested. People *do* learn. It *is* worth it. IMO.

      • Hugo Mercier

        I guess my point wasn’t so much that this strategy might convince people like PZ Myers, but rather than convincing them doesn’t matter. They’re on the wrong side of history and we should just forge ahead without being too much bothered. Those who don’t have a strong opinion to start with are those who matter the most, and they will be most easily persuaded (I think) by seeing good and relevant work coming from our quarters.

        I know how hard it is to leave arguments unaddressed, but at this point we should see this type of critics as trolls and ignore them.

        (Just to make sure I’m coherent: I’m not saying it would be impossible to persuade them, I’m just saying it’s not the most effective thing to do now to promote EP.)

        • Daniel Engblom

          Arguing and going through criticism point by point, and convincing PZ Myers, reminds me of the discussion among Atheists about convincing people like Ray Comfort, John Haught or other debaters.
          There, the answer from many who are active and voice their objections to believers and engage in public debate have made the point that they don’t think they’ll convert the person they’re arguing with, but they do know that people watching and listening in are being stimulated and begin to question – Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, A.C Grayling, Matt Dillahunty and others have frequently talked about people who write to them telling how seeing them interact with apologists made them skeptical and thank even the strident writings for getting them to think and eventually stop believing things on faith.
          You don’t need to hope that you’ll convince the person you are facing in the debate like PZ Myers, you are bringing the debate into public so that more people will be able to evaluate on their own. Sometimes some believers have written back to their critics after some period of time, from months to years usually of reflection and further inquiry, thanking them as the starting point which inspired them to think for themselves.

          So Robert Kurzban, I hope you’ll continue with thoughtful analysis of supposed objections and airing your rebuttals widely, this will bring progress, though you’ll also discover more objections at the same time.

    • cbjones06

      if EP is “evolutionary”, then it should be “relevant to” the mainstream of Evolutionary Biology and Evolutionary Ecology…”to display this relevance”…

  • Biohazard

    Does anyone else see possible links between the EP denial of some left wing feminists and the denial of Darwinian evolution/Mendelian genetics by some Marxist/Communists of the past (Lysenko)?

    • http://www.facebook.com/wonderist Thaumas Themelios
    • ianw19

      Absolutely! And, in good fun, perhaps it’s worth observing that the people who most emphatically stress the plasticity of the human mind are people whose minds can’t be changed?!

    • Emil Kirkegaard

      It’s a general trend. Evolutionary psychologists are in the same camp as psychometricians. Their data just won’t fit the blank slate…

      • Jay Nomer

        My wife got bombarded with everything from racist slurs (she’s Japanese) to death threats for speaking against some core “feminist doctrines” at a conference that I don’t wish to name.

        These people are pathetic.

    • MosesZD

      Give this man a cookie! Because many of the roots of third-wave Feminism come from Marxism.

  • xvart

    Sorry but myers has issues I suspect due to the FTB and A+ crowd he runs with, they have deep seated fears of anything deterministic in motivation and cognition.

  • Pingback: A week of links - Evolving Economics

  • cbjones06

    1. …I link below a recent paper discussing modularity and evolvability…
    2. …IMHO, I think that EPers could do a much better job of linking their ideas & interests to mainstream evolutionary biology…e.g., we v much need studies of humans linking genetic effects with traits as per Hopi Hoekstra’s recent work w voles [Nature...though, in her case, specific gene ontologies have not yet been defined]…
    3. …Hoekstra’s work is, also, a great example from the mainstream of evolutionary biology whereby “function” is studied in association with mechanism…
    4. …on an unrelated matter, I interpreted Kurzban’s clever use of Dave Chappele’s hilarious skit to imply that Meyers is ill-informed and misguided, and I consider it highly unlikely that Kurzban was unaware of the many uses to which his analogy might be put…

    http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/280/1755/20122863.abstract?sid=7437eb1b-3998-4274-a267-7029e69f6615

    Twitter: http://twitter.com/cbjones1943
    Blog: http://vertebratesocialbehavior.blogspot.com

  • ianw19

    In the ev psych spirit, perhaps we should name various critiques of evolutionary psychology after their *functions” rather than their structures. As some commenters have hinted below, the function of Myers’ critique is to defend progressive ideological dogma.

    (Steve Pinker brilliantly explicated the various political influences on the debate over ev psych in his book, The Blank Slate, and that’s what made the book so persuasive: He addressed the elephant in the room. Jonathan Haidt has been pretty candid about the role of liberal bias in the opposition to ev psych as well.)

    So maybe we can start calling Myers’ position something like “progressive paranoia,” since it was designed to defend progressivism from an imaginary threat.

    The key here is to stress the “imaginary” part. We certainly don’t want to speak as if evolutionary psychology is *actually* a threat to civil rights, fairness in the economy, and so on. But I think we need to get real about the nature of the problem: The problem isn’t that Myers can’t understand the massive modularity hypothesis (he’s a smart guy); or that he thinks natural selection – compared other evolutionary processes such as “drift” – played only a trivial role in the evolution of the human mind (that’s ludicrous!); it’s that he thinks ev psych is interfering with sacred efforts to fight racism, sexism, homophobia, and corrupt business practices.

    • Greg Laden

      What you have said here is, of course, ideological dogma! :)

      But anyway, I would not describe PZ’s critique that way at all. PZ tends towards questioning the adaptationist paradigm. Re examine his comments in that perspective and you’ll better understand what he is saying.

      • ianw19

        You’d have to explain to me how what I said is ideological dogma, or at least identify which ideology’s dogma you have in mind.

        And you yourself just mentioned that ideas, “which are social and political, may well play out in the academic discussion of Evolutionary Psychology or Behavioral Biology. An enormous amount of energy has been spent in this fight..” So, then, is it hard for you to believe that Myers’ commitment to a progressive agenda – which he is very transparent about – is influencing his perspective on ev psych???

        Re-examining Myers’ comments from the perspective of “questioning the adaptationist paradigm” doesn’t help me to understand what he’s saying: It certainly doesn’t help me understand how, for instance, our amazing ability to read science fiction novels casts doubt on the notion that naturally selected genetic programs play important roles in the brain’s development.

        Looking again, I still see a guy at a progressive conference, on a panel along side an extremely divisive feminist ideologue (i.e. Marcotte), telling people who care more about politics than science exactly what they want to hear: “Plasticity everywhere.” That’s literally what he said at one point. “Plasticity everywhere.”

        • Greg Laden

          On what grounds do you deny the importance of plasticity?

          • ianw19

            I don’t deny the importance of plasticity. I just think it’s pretty silly to say it’s “everywhere.” Is there plasticity in sexual orientation? Can gay people be turned straight (or vice versa)? Even major Christian groups that have invested millions of dollars in such efforts are ready to conclude that it just ain’t happenin’.

            How plastic are food preferences? Could we solve the obesity epidemic by training people to hate the taste of sugar? Personally, I doubt it.

            Myers is not speaking as a scientist when he blurts out nonsense like “Plasticity everywhere.” He’s just telling progressives what they want to hear. That’s why I brought that quote up.

          • Greg Laden

            You know, I really don’t want to have this conversation with you given the anti-science stance you’ve demonstrated elsewhere, but for those looking on I’ll make a brief comment. You ask if gay people can be turned straight. I assume you believe the answer to that is no, and therefor, sexual orientation is not “plastic.”

            What are the categories across cultures that are used to define sexual orientation? Are you sure that the categories you happen to be using are the ones provided by a non-plastic biology? Are you sure that a particular adult sexual orientation is strictly determined by genes with no variation that occurs along the way, in utero or later? If so, can you name the genes?

            Are you certain that when someone speaking in generalities (PZ in this case) says something is “everywhere” that it is valid for you to pick a few places where it might not be and that anyone would find that interesting or useful? When I look out the window in January after a night of precip in Minnesota, I can say “snow is everywhere” and be absolutely correct even though it is not in fact under my car, under my porch, or in Australia.

            Oh, and anthropogenic global warming is for real, and it is not true that it has leveled off for recent years.

            And this will be the end of the conversation with you, thank you very much.

          • ianw19

            I gave a direct answer to your question. You haven’t answered any of mine. You’ve baselessly accused me of saying ideological dogma. And now you’re sneering at me for having said elsewhere that AGW has not been as bad as many people have suggested. (My descriptions of global surface temperature are based on non-controversial data like those presented on the “non-partisan” website climate4you.com, and even James Hansen has acknowledged that it has been “flat” for 10 years. Get over it.)

            People like you are the reason I can’t stand academia.

          • Dave Allen

            Greg: “When I look out the window in January after a night of precip in Minnesota, I can say “snow is everywhere” and be absolutely correct even though it is not in fact under my car, under my porch, or in Australia.”
            I don’t think you can be “absolutely correct” but you might make an appeal along the lines of “given the circumstance such phrasing is colloquially normal”.
            Which is why it’s so annoying to see PZ use the phrase “plasticity everywhere” given that the context is one of discussing exceptions or qualifiers to such a statement in line with the (purported) topic of discussion.
            If people are going to present themselves as educators and authorities on a given subject then it behoves them to be less lazy. I don’t personally care whether or not you describe a heavy snowfall as “snow everywhere” *unless* you claim to be mounting a serious challenge to those who think there are exceptions or degrees of salience to such a suggestion.
            In that case you better be ready to back such claims up.

  • Greg Laden

    Interesting critique, and I agree with much of it. There are problems with the conversation that is happening here (among the various blog comments and posts) that I think end up being counter-productive that I’d like to point out.

    First, is the shifting or unclear definition of what is “evolutionary psychology” and whether or not a particular person is an “evolutionary psychologist.” I think there are a lot of people (including you, me, Sarah, Indre, Tooby and Cosmides, etc. etc.) who have similar intent: To understand the evolution of the human brain vis-a-vis human behavior.

    Second, in my view, evolutionary psychology suffers (at some philosophical level) from being a paradigm with assumptions that really should be research goals. Prior to this panel I re-read Confer, Easton et al 2010 to review what a fairly current definition of the field consisted of (with respect to modularity, eea, etc.) to see if it had changed when I wasn’t looking, and confirmed that EP today (well, in 2010 according to those authors) is defined in a similar way now as it always has been. For all the important work in the field, I think the way the field defines itself is in part putting the cart before the horse. That is a problem that probably affects most of the actual research very little but impinges noticeably on conversations like this one. What various individuals think about these assumptions vs. hypotheses seems to determine in part where we stand in relation to each other.

    Third, we run across a spectrum of what we *suspect* the relative role of context and culture vs. evolved mechanisms (genes coding for things) apply to human behavior, and that question has become in some circles a driving force in the diversification of our ways of thinking. That is a little unfortunate because it distracts from the basic research.

    A fourth problem is the way that research results generally, including anything having to do with human behavioral biology (a term I take to include EP), gets reported in popular literature. That is the main reason there was even a panel at SkepchickCON. The Skepchick mission is to disrupt the flow of misinformation about science and enhance understanding of science of the sort that is important to the average person, so we see panels on things like alternative medicine, anti-vax, climate change science denialism, etc.

    As pointed out by Andy Delton, yes, I agree that a lot of critiques of evolutionary psychology are critiques of a larger research program. I think that is where you might find Amanda. Also, there are critiques of the adaptationist program within biology. This is where you’ll find Myers and me disagreeing (last year we had a debate at the same convention of the adaptive nature of human sexuality …. he says no adaptation, I say of course there are adaptations). So, yes, the fifth problem is what Andy points out.

    The sixth problem is the social context in which this is all happening which may or may not be visible to everyone on this thread or in the broader conversation. There are differences and fights happening within what could be loosely called the “skeptics” community that are playing out here. For instance, Stephanie Zvan (who moderated the panel) and Ed Clint (who comments here) are representatives of two very distinctly different factions of that community that formed as part of what Jason Thibault named “The Great Sorting” over issues of feminism, rape, Mens Rights, etc. These differences, which are social and political, may well play out in the academic discussion of Evolutionary Psychology or Behavioral Biology. And enormous amount of energy has been spent in this fight, and it is the main reasons I’ve personally walked away from the skeptics community other than to participate (like I did before I ever even knew the word “skeptic” as it is generally used these days) as a person with an interest in science, science education, science policy and public understanding of science.

    • http://popsych.org/ Jesse Marczyk

      PZ appears to be critiquing something he calls evolutionary psychology that bears little or no resemblance to the actual thing. My comments on his posts can found here: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/pop-psych/201307/response-pz-myers

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

      I do not represent any faction such as you describe. I have no interest in the real or imagined “sorting”, nor do I consider it relevant to the merits or shortfalls of evolutionary psychology. Anyone can check my blog and see that I have never once participated in the “fight” and virtually never even mentioned the people you refer to.

      I may reply to those who speak about the subject in order to address it as, like yourself, a person with an interest in science and the public understanding of science.

    • Dave Allen

      “That is the main reason there was even a panel at SkepchickCON. The Skepchick mission is to disrupt the flow of misinformation about science and enhance understanding of science of the sort that is important to the average person, so we see panels on things like alternative medicine, anti-vax, climate change science denialism, etc.”

      And yet a number of things you and other members of the panel said during the discussion are demonstrably wrong and virtually nothing said during the panel was particularly pertinent to the topic of discussion.

      I was left with the impression that you seemed to be lumping all “social science that makes an appeal to natural history” under the banner of evolutionary psychology.
      Some examples of your own misleading remarks (for sake of time I restrict myself purely to the topic of mental modules):

      Both you and Amanda claimed that research Tooby and Cosmides had done on the cheater detection module was performed wholly on students. This is wrong. Even their earlier papers on the subject referred to replications of the experiment on members of varied cultures, and the experiment has been replicated even further since.

      Misleading.

      You also made it seem as if the only test they performed was one comparing the abstract problem with the barman spotting an underage drinker. To make clear, this is just one of the tests designed to demonstrate the phenomena.

      No mention of this from you – misleading.

      About modularity you reckoned that “90% of those modules emerge because of our experiential background, and 10% of genetic imperative or something, whereas the evolutionary psychologists would argue the opposite”.

      Misleading – I think most would give a conservative estimate as to which modules were wholly innate, and admit that sociocultural factors impact more or less on the majority.

      You claimed that the sort of modularity proposed by EP was at odds to “a brain that can learn things”.

      Misleading, to the point of nonsense I’d say.

      So these are just some of the misleading remarks you made about modularity, I mean off the top of my head I think I could spot 4 or 5 more misleading remarks, and that’s before we get on to any other theme or subject of the talk.
      I also think it’s important to note what you didn’t say. For example no panel member pointed out to PZ or Indre – who talked at length about the limitations of talking about modularity in neuroscience – that the modules talked of in EP tend to be functional concepts, not spatial ones.

      To be fair – you were one of the more informed members of the panel and more given to concession than PZ, Stephanie or Amanda (though this is faint praise). Had this panel consisted of you and Indre sat opposite a couple of people who were (too much to ask?) sympathetic to the field and (too much to ask?) actually versed in psychology (or even – gasp! – versed in EP) then it could have been a worthy exercise.

      As it was though, it was an hour of near-unmitigated balderdash. A poorly performed hatchet job.

      Transcript of panel here for those who want to check for themselves:

      http://skepchick.org/2013/07/video-evo-psych-panel-at-skepchickcon-2013/

  • Michael Palmquist

    Myers isn’t worth the debate…but good article, anyway

  • Jay Nomer

    Great article.

    Myers is just the P.C type. He’s a bit of a joke, actually. He spends most of his in the nonsensical notions of ideological feminism and social constructivism, the former of which is particularly laughable. It seems he’s largely looking for attention, which makes it even more hilarious.

Copyright 2013 Robert Kurzban, all rights reserved.

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Evolutionary Psychology - An open access peer-reviewed journal - ISSN 1474-7049 © Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young; individual articles © the author(s)
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