Friday, January 23, 2009

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

In "On Second Thought ... Scientists are supposed to change their minds when evidence undercuts their views. Dream on" (January 3, 2009), Newsweek's Sharon Begley, co-author of The Mind and the Brain, spills the beans (as if we hadn't seen them spilled all over the floor a long time ago - but never mind):

The most fascinating backpedaling is by scientists who have long pushed
evolutionary psychology. This field holds that we all carry genes that led to reproductive success in the Stone Age, and that as a result men are genetically driven to be promiscuous and women to be coy, that men have a biological disposition to rape and to kill mates who cheat on them, and that every human behavior is "adaptive"—that is, helpful to reproduction. But as Harvard biologist Marc Hauser now concedes, evidence is "sorely missing" that language, morals and many other human behaviors exist because they help us mate and reproduce. And Steven
, one of evo-psych's most prominent popularizers, now admits that many human genes are changing more quickly than anyone imagined. If genes that affect brain function and therefore behavior are also evolving quickly, then we do not have the Stone Age brains that evo-psych supposes, and the field "may have to reconsider the simplifying assumption that biological evolution was pretty much over" 50,000 years ago, Pinker says. How has the view that reproduction is all, and that humans are just cavemen with better haircuts, hung on so long? "Even in science," says neuroscientist Roger Bingham of the University of California, San Diego, "a seductive story will sometimes … outpace the data." And withstand it, too.

Well, it's reassuring that some people are beginning to rethink this idiocy. As I have often pointed out, it's all part of what we know that ain't so. To the extent that anyone takes it seriously, it can do serious harm.

Look, let me be clear about this: There is stuff in brain science that really is so.

A blood clot could indeed kill or paralyse you. You could develop a tumour that is difficult to excise. Alzheimer is a late life illness you can fight off only by the most stringent measures, and even then you may lose the battle. But that is what's true, and no one can deny it.

The evolutionary pyschologists's "cave men with better haircuts" is just a time-waster in a world where serious neuroscience issues must be addressed.

Hat tip: Brains on Purpose.