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Sunday, June 07, 2009

You are your genes? Oh, maybe not

I happened to be rereading Jonathan Wells's The Politically Incorrect Guide™ to Darwinism and Intelligent Design, and thought I'd share this summary re genetics and behaviour:
Except for some rare pathological conditions, it has been impossible to tie human behavior to specific genes. (The “gay gene” that was much hyped a few years ago turned out to be a mirage.) If human behavior cannot be reduced to genetics, then according to neo-Darwinism it cannot be biologically inherited; if it cannot be biologically inherited, then it cannot evolve in a Darwinian sense. Still another problem with sociobiology is that it has been invoked to explain just about every human behavior from selfishness to self-sacrifice, from promiscuity to celibacy.

A theory that explains something and its opposite equally well explains nothing. It’s no wonder that sociobiology and its latest manifestation, “evolutionary psychology” (called “evo-psycho” by some wags), are held in low regard even by some evolutionary biologists.

Stephen Jay Gould once called sociobiology a collection of “just-so stories” in which “virtuosity in invention replaces testability as the criterion for acceptance.” And in 2000 evolutionary biologist Jerry A. Coyne compared it to discredited Freudian psychology: “By judicious manipulation, every possible observation of human behavior could be (and was) fitted into the Freudian framework.*
Truth squad notes: I am one of the wags who calls it "evo psycho."

Evo psycho first attracted my attention when I noticed that it always offered explanations in terms of current popular culture, which is entirely contrary to the way real science works.

When, a couple of weeks ago, I asked the scientists at the Solar Neutrino Observatory in Sudbury, Canada, how they did their work and what they discovered from it, popular culture played no role in the discussion. But if I asked an evolutionary psychologist about marriage in prehistoric times, he would tell me some popular culture lore dressed up in "let's play cave people" animal skins.

Whereas the SNO scientists actually know something about solar neutrinos, the evolutionary psychologist really knows nothing whatever about how prehistoric humans managed their domestic relationships.

Yes, we know a bit about marriage in the ancient world because of recovered marriage contracts, et cetera, and we also know a bit about marriage among modern humans who use only ancient technologies because anthropologists have observed them. But the rest is pure speculation.

So what do we know? Our genes play a role in our lives, and so do our experiences and our culture.

What we can really know abut ancient relatinships?: While we are here anyway: If you happen to recall the story in the Book of Genesis in the Bible about how Sarah got her husband Abraham to have a son with the servant girl Hagar, you will be interested to know that Abraham and Sarah had grown up in the Babylonian culture - and that culture specifically allowed an infertile wife this option. Memory of the custom was preserved in that story through many later centuries when it apparently was not an option any longer. So sometimes we do know, more or less what happened.

But just as dressing in animal skins would not make us Cro-Magnons, telling stories based on "evolutionary psychology" does not give us any special insights.

More evo psycho stories:

Evolutionary psychology: Moral judgement based on "rather primitive emotion"

Evolutionary psychology: Why do evolutionary psychologists exist?

Evolutionary psychology: So they really DON'T believe all that rot?

Evolutionary psychology: Gossip can be good for you

A Google Alert for evolutionary psychology pretty much tells you what you need to know about it

Evolutionary psychology: The scam getting nailed at last?

Lessons from the heroes of Mumbai

Evolutionary psychology: Police just as good as church in promoting socially helpful behavior -researchers

Evolutionary psychology: Do people see faces in cars?

Evolutionary psychology: Misunderstanding superstition

Evolutionary psychology: Why evolutionary explanations of religion don't work

Mind: Current science less and less precise as it approaches the mind?\

Evolutionary psychology: British physicist targets theory-of-the-month on "how religion got started"

Evolutionary psychology: Women prefer men with stubble? Oh, no wait - beards - but we can explain that too ...

Evolutionary psychology: The selfish gene in the art world

Evolutionary psychology: Key concept of "memes" trashed as "one of the bigger crocks hatched in recent decades"

*Reffs? You want reffs? Okay ... :

10. Stephen Jay Gould, “Sociobiology: the Art of Storytelling,” New Scientist, November 16, 1978, 530–33. [Not, apparently, on line, but a bunch of fussy criticisms are.] Jerry A. Coyne, “Of Vice and Men: The Fairy Tales of Evolutionary Psychology,” a review of Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer’s A Natural History of Rape, in New Republic, April 3, 2000. [Also not on line, but note this is.] There is also Tom Bethell, “Against Sociobiology,” First Things 109, January 2001: 18–24. That is on line, but, fair warning, like me, he isn't fronting the nonsense.


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