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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World's ten worst books?: Read them so you don't end up living them

Among the ten books that, according to commentator Ben Wiker, screwed up the world (and five others that didn't help), I find some widely damned works such as Hitler's Mein Kampf and Marx's, and some lesser known sources of destructive ideas, including some of my own least favourites:

In an interview with Tothesource, Wiker expands on his theme:
Many books that still define us are no longer read, or read only in college survey courses and soon forgotten. But see if the following sounds familiar. Rousseau argued that our natural state, or original state, is entirely asocial and amoral. Or to put it another way, that the love between a man and a woman, the love between parents and children, the family itself-all of these are unnatural. In fact, they are the cause of all human misery because they create entanglements that destroy our original freedom to do exactly what we want to do, without any obligations to anyone else. Rousseau's picture of our original, happy condition is a man who merely follows his pleasures all day, eating when he's hungry, sleeping when he's tired, and having no-strings-attached sex with whatever woman happens to wander by. Sound familiar?

TTS: Sounds a lot like all too many men today!

Wiker: Exactly! We have a lot of Rousseauean men out there who have never read Rousseau. They don't have to. Rousseau's ideas spread all over Europe in the latter 18th century, and filtered down into popular philosophy, literature, and public discourse ...

Yes, precisely.

Usually, it's not that anyone argues directly that people are naturally asocial and amoral. That is simply an unexamined background assumption that lays the groundwork for bad social policy.

That's why it "feels" so right when we hear someone say "I have to do what's right for ME!" (as if what's right for the individual will be right for very long if it harms the society he depends on). Or better still, think how many times a policy is proposed that begins with the words, "let's not get into the morality of this ..." (as if the morality of a policy were somehow separable from what is proposed).

Indeed, if anyone argued for such propositions, they would be drowned out by masses of contrary evidence. Human beings are naturally social - the worst punishment in prisons is solitary confinement. We also naturally form and follow moral codes - people who do not follow them are labelled sociopaths, and most often they are shunned, locked up, or killed.

Wiker highlights other bad books, and he thinks they are bad for much the same reasons: They propose a simple explanation for human behaviour that filters through society, avoiding obvious facts, defining deviancy down, and often leading people to fail or suffer harm.

But ... Wiker makes a critical point, especially as Canadian writers and editors face censorship by "human rights" commissions: Wiker is not saying, don't read these books, still less that they should be banned:
I argue that these books need to be read because the ideas contained in them have so influenced the modern mind, yet so few people have read the books in which these destructive ideas originated. Ignorance is not bliss! If we don’t understand the destructive ideas that form our contemporary culture, then we are really slaves to someone else’s bad ideas. We are Freudian without understanding Freud, or Hobbesian without ever having read Hobbes.

One of the best ways to free ourselves from bad ideas that have become our cultural inheritance, is go back to the sources. Go back to the books where they were first set forth in clearest form. That’s a liberating experience. It allows us to see the argument for what it is, and we can then judge it accordingly.

Yes, precisely. Let's look at them critically, and see where they lead us. I could say the same of the "human rights" commissions, our Canadian experiment in social engineering, but editor/publisher Ezra Levant has said it better, in front of the recent annual meeting of the Canadian Association of Journalists (of which I am a member).

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