Saturday, June 07, 2008

Evolutionary psychology: Speculation rather than sound science, says new MIT Press book

Robert C. Richardson, a philosophy prof at the University of Cincinnati, has written a long-overdue critique of evolutionary psychology.

Regular readers of this space will know that I do not doubt evolution, still less that some factors in human psychology are best understood in the light of our evolution. But - like a growing number of people - I have limited patience with the nonsense fronted under the label of "evolutionary psychology" - much of which would be better presented (and perhaps more profitable for its authors) as "Clan of the Cave Bear" fiction.

In Evolutionary Psychology as Maladapted Psychology, Richardson's thesis is,
The claims of evolutionary psychology may pass muster as psychology; but what are their evolutionary credentials? Richardson considers three ways adaptive hypotheses can be evaluated, using examples from the biological literature to illustrate what sorts of evidence and methodology would be necessary to establish specific evolutionary and adaptive explanations of human psychological traits. He shows that existing explanations within evolutionary psychology fall woefully short of accepted biological standards. The theories offered by evolutionary psychologists may identify traits that are, or were, beneficial to humans. But gauged by biological standards, there is inadequate evidence: evolutionary psychologists are largely silent on the evolutionary evidence relevant to assessing their claims, including such matters as variation in ancestral populations, heritability, and the advantage offered to our ancestors. As evolutionary claims they are unsubstantiated. Evolutionary psychology, Richardson concludes, may offer a program of research, but it lacks the kind of evidence that is generally expected within evolutionary biology. It is speculation rather than sound science--and we should treat its claims with skepticism.

Johan J. Bolhuis, reviewing the book in Science ("Piling On the Selection Pressure" Science 320, 6 June 2008: 1293 [PAYWALL]), says,
The study of evolution is concerned with a historical reconstruction of traits. It does not, and cannot, address the mechanisms that are involved in the human brain. Those fall within the domains of neuroscience and cognitive psychology. In that sense, evolutionary psychology will never succeed, because it attempts to explain mechanisms by appealing to the history of these mechanisms. To use the author's words, "We might as well explain the structure of orchids in terms of their beauty." In this excellent book, Richardson shows very clearly that attempts at reconstruction of our cognitive history amount to little more than "speculation disguised as results." The book's title implies that the field is itself subject to selection pressure. Richardson is certainly piling it on.

Piling it on? Actually, I think Richardson better hire a dump truck. A wheelbarrow would be way too slow.

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