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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Evolutionary psychology: Why Clan of the Cave Bear makes more sense as a novel than as a science

Regular readers of this space will know that I consider evolutionary psychology (the attempt to derive human psychology from the qualities that may or may not have been adaptive, passed on in our genes) as something of a joke. Speculations on the dishonesty module or the infidelity gene are fun for the pop science media, of course, and no harm is done if they are left there.

Recently, I wrote about the quite serious proposal by an evolutionary psychologist to bid the uncomprehending and unsympathetic Western world goodbye and try exporting evolutionary psychology to the purportedly more welcoming world of Asia. Several commenters have noted at Uncommon Descent that when the evolutionary psychology missionaries arrive among their heathen, they will find monotheism (especially Christianity) - to which they were very anxious to bid farewell - pretty firmly established in many places that were not formerly Christian. So they should not assume that Islam is their only competition.

In a comment at Uncommon Descent, I also noted,
One of the difficulties with evolutionary psychology is that the traits identified need NOT have survival value, but only be associated with traits that do.
That's part of the general incoherence. To see what this means, consider the following:

If producing fertile offspring confers survival value (a logical idea), then homosexuality should be counterproductive. However, in the era of gay rights, the evolutionary psychologist cannot quite make that argument, so he pulls the ever-obliging rabbit out of the hat: The homosexual confers survival value by helping siblings raise children. So, it turns out that both having children and not having them confer survival value.

Notice that we have gone from something obvious (if you are not a successful parent, your line will come to an end) to something speculative (how homosexuals - assumed for the purposes of our discussion to be non-parents* - might help parents).

The only thing we can really be sure of is that we have a current population of over six billion humans who come from a very small number of common ancestors.

Were those common ancestors doing something unusually correct? Given the small numbers, it is hard to know what, in particular, without specific historical information.**

That's why I think Jean Auel's Clan of the Cave Bear, admittedly fiction, makes way more sense than evolutionary psychology, which is actually fiction but not admittedly so.

*The whole evo psycho enterprise is riddled with mere "assumptions du jour". In traditional cultures, people attracted to persons of their own sex married and had children simply because the culture required them to. Whatever else they did was a different matter, judged according to the culture. Thus people who were homosexually inclined did pass on their genes in large numbers - and probably needed about the same amount of help from their sibs as they gave, overall.

**If there were a large number of ancestors, you might be able to make some reasonable guesses as to the relationship between behavior choices and survival of offspring. But not necessarily so for a small number of ancestors.

For example, if you knew that 400 men out of 500 had survived a battle, you might assume that their group contained a larger number of capable warriors than the fallen, treated as a group. But if only one single man survived the engagement, that may be because he is a great hero, or because he hid or ran away, made a deal with the enemy, was left for dead but somehow survived, or was too drunk to get up on the morning of the battle, or was in the stockade for stealing from his fellows. In other words, even assuming that his behaviour is passed on in his genes, what behavior is passed on? And what inferences can we make about its relation to his survival generally?

Here is an interesting resource on the problem with evolutionary psychology, from a "common sense" philosopher, and here's another one.

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