Friday, May 01, 2009

Evolutionary psychology: Why do evolutionary psychologists exist?

A reader wrote to me to say,
I greatly enjoy your writing and I would like to ask your opinion about something I really find puzzling.
Well, once someone has decided to praise my writing, how can I resist responding? Anyway, this person goes on to say,
My question concerns the so-called "agent detection device" and the affirmation that it disproves God’s existence beyond any reasonable doubt.
Sounds like a scam to me, but then I have shut the door on the feet of so many people selling winter home heating plans that I may have an innate door-shutting mechanism that "evolutionary psychology" can explain ... (Like, it would never have anything at all to do with suspicion that the new plan would end up sticking me with more expenses than the present one - or anything else that suggests that the human mind is real, right?)
According to many experimental studies, human beings seem to have an innate mechanism enabling them to identify the presence of an agent under some circumstances. ( if one is in a deep wood, the shuffling of trees and bushes and a sudden silence would lead one to believe some creature is present).
Well, all I can say is, when that happens to me in the deep woods, I institute my wilderness survival plan immediately.

Admittedly, the last time that happened to me, wandering down a trail in Muskoka, the creature I nearly collided with was a fox that had apparently missed his rabbit. So the fox ran off. But what if it had been a bear who had missed his deer? ...

Anyway, my correspondent went on to explain,
However, this mechanism can easily fool us. What if we are, for instance, alone in an old house and hear some noise. We may be inclined to assume, too easily, that someone or something must be there, even if other explanations (like wind) would be much more likely.
Okay, not me. I've never had any trouble detecting the difference between, say, a fox and a ghost.

Not that I believe in ghosts. I figure, either a spirit is a holy soul or it is not. If it is a holy soul, I need not worry. And if it is not a holy soul, it would never approach a baptized and confirmed Christian like me.

True, during high summer, the floorboards of old houses can start to creak. It can sound like someone is walking there, due to the wood's adjustment to the temperature difference between day and night. I learned that as a small child.

(This was especially useful information for us girls because we were often yakking far into the night when we should have been asleep. ... So it was important for us to know whether an adult was sneaking in to check on us, as opposed to natural night noise that we could ignore.)

My correspondent advises me that evolutionary psychologists think that this "agent detection" mechanism is hyperactive and therefore completely unreliable.

That doesn't sound right to me. (Admittedly, not much about "evolutionary psychology" - a discipline without a subject - sounds right to me. But this "agent detection" stuff sounds especially unright.)

I wrote back and said, essentially,
I am nearly 60 years old, and have often faced real danger - and have never found the mechanism unreliable at all.

In every situation in which I suspected real danger, I was right to be concerned.

Yes, false alarms are common, but people learn to ignore them after a while.

If the mechanism is so unreliable, why am I still here? Why are you? Why is anyone?

Re God: I never thought God existed on those terms! I assumed it was because of the majesty and fine tuning of the universe and the moral law, and reason and revelation.

However, I have never uncovered a really good reason for why evolutionary psychologists exist, apart from taxpayer-funded universities. But if someone comes up with one, please let me know.