These are some rough thoughts I had whilst listening to the first thirty minutes of the panel on evolutionary psychology at CONvergence. I find the sound quality makes it hard to understand 100% of what was said, so I won’t attempt a full transcription. I hope this is an accurate paraphrase of the content of the talk. Apologies in advance if anything is misconstrued.
Thoughts on the second half of the panel can be found here.
Introductions and Credentials
The first thing the members of the panel do is state who they are and provide their reasons for being there.
The moderator is Stephanie Zvan.
Indre Viskontas is a neuroscientist. She mentions that she has researched into memory.
PZ Myers also has qualifications in neuroscience, but is better known for evolutionary biology. Poor sound here – but he seems to state that he is opposed to evolutionary psychology.
Greg Laden is an anthropologist. He tells an anecdote about being taught by Leda Cosmides who is one of the key figures in the development of evolutionary psychology as a recognizable field.
Amanda Marcotte is a journalist and she states that she is there to be critical of the impact evolutionary psychology has in inspiring problematic narratives in the media.
Some commentators have noted that there isn’t an evolutionary psychologist on the panel – whilst I think that’s a shame it ought to be ceded that neuroscientists, evolutionary biologists and anthropologists certainly can have important things to say on the subject. My feeling at this point – however – is that no one on the panel is sympathetic to the field, and two of them already seem to have announced their antipathy.
The panel are then asked to give a definition of what evolutionary psychology is. Seems like a worthy exercise to start with. I’ll pause the recording here to think up my own:
Psychology is the study of human behaviour, and evolutionary psychology asserts that the process of evolution has been a primary factor in the shaping of that behaviour and discusses supporting evidence.
That’d be my attempt at a brief definition. I wonder if the panel will say anything like that?
Greg starts off. He says “the phrase means anything to do with evolutionary biology that has to do with human behaviour to a lot of people”. Good, a lot of people seem to be thinking on the right track.
However Greg does not think this is the case, he seems keen to promote the notion that Evolutionary Psychology entails acceptance of two things, modularity (which he describes as distinct parts of the brain which are genetically coded for that do certain things) and the notion that the human psyche popped into existence on the African Serengeti.
Greg’s definition of modularity is slightly problematic and furthermore it seems to be jumping the gun to suggest that it is part of a definition of evolutionary psychology. You can read books such as The Selfish Gene or David Buss’ Evolutionary Psychology that make scant reference to modularity as he describes it.
Frustratingly the sound quality makes him semi-audible at a point where he seems to say the notion of modularity conflicts with the idea that we can learn things. This is pure nonsense - much of what is thought about our capacity to learn is massively in line with the idea of modules (Chomsky and Fodor being extreme examples) - but to be fair he may have qualified this in a bit I can’t make out.
I will talk more about why this panel seem to be giving a misleading picture of mental modularity in the next section.
I know of no evolutionary psychologist who does not allow for the fact that our minds are products of eras of evolution, and that things like emotions and instincts might well have as venerable a history as things like circulatory systems and eyes.
The popular contention that the minds of modern humans are effectively the same as those who lived during the Pleistocene is held according to the available evidence. It would not be fatal to EP as a field to discover that changes in the mind had occurred in the interim.
The way I understand it is to ask myself if modern humans have the same innate psychological capacities as those who lived a hundred years ago. I think so. Five hundred years ago? I think so. When does the evidence begin to mount to suggest that people generally did have different innate psychological capacities? At some point in the Pleistocene seems to be the general contention, and it’s held tentatively.
He finishes by claiming that Evolutionary Psychology hasn’t moved on in any significant way since Tooby and Cosmides, which I find ignorant. No doubt everyone working in the field owes them a great debt, but they aren’t mired in the territory initially mapped out. My favorite book on the subject is David Buss’ Evolutionary Psychology - a dense 400 page treatise – and it makes scant reference to the stuff Greg claims is definitive and goes beyond what he seems to think the field is limited to.
Are Brains Organised?
At this point Stephanie asks Indre to comment on the notion that brains are organised. Given Greg’s dismissive attitude in regard to modularity it’s nice to see this reaction from Stephanie and a relief to learn that Indre is pretty emphatic about the fact that the brain is organised and that modularity is a fair way to think about the brain at certain levels of abstraction.
However, there is a misleading element here in that Evolutionary Psychology’s primary focus is on behaviour (what the mind does) rather than anatomy (what the brain is). The impact of anatomy on behaviour is obvious, but it is the behaviour itself that is the primary focus.
Indre claims that Evolutionary Psychology “glosses over important details” by only examining things at a certain level, the brain is a system and has to be understood in terms of interlocking subsystems and parts.
So I think the modules she is talking about as a neuroscientist are likely to distinct areas of the brain and how they interact and what they do. Whereas the modularity discussed by evolutionary psychologists is behavioural – the mind does particular processes under certain circumstances and whilst there must be physical things behind the process we don’t necessarily know what bits of the brain are involved - “mental module” is the phrase used to sum that up.
So whilst Indre is right to assert that EP doesn’t say an awful lot about the development and history of physical structures in the brain, she misses that its focus is behaviour. For example when she says:
“So you can look at the brain as these different layers and there are certainly some parts that are more modular than others particularly if you look at the architecture of the brain…”
She is referring to modularity in a different way to how Evolutionary Psychologists look at it. Presumably some mental modules are keyed into particular parts of the brain’s anatomy, but many may use a number of different parts of the brain’s anatomy and any given part of the brain’s anatomy might function in a number of different mental modules.
“So you have to put it back into the context that the brain works as one thing and there are certainly multiple systems involved … if you try to nail down a particular function either at a particular region or a particular level eventually you are going to have a problem because brain doesn’t act in a vacuum and is highly interconnected.”
The context she herself fails to mention is that we aren’t talking of physical regions or levels or anatomy. There is nothing about mental modularity that conflicts with an appreciation that the brain is a complex and interconnected system working on many levels.
As far as I see it mental modules have more in common with things like cognitive shortcuts, schema and heuristics, rather than bits of grey matter.
The Dreaded Media
Stephanie then asks Amanda to comment on how EP tends to be portrayed in the media.
I wonder if she will lay the blame for how EP tends to be portrayed in the media on the media, or on Evolutionary Psychology? Let’s see.
Her opening remark is:
“Well a big problem with evolutionary psychology, particularly in the media, is that humans have a whole social and other kinds of behaviour but they focus on sex and gender (inaudible) that is a little bit offensive. Often Evolutionary Psychology tends to promote and perpetuate these rigid gender roles where women are undersexed, submissive, vain and frivolous and men are aggressive and violent, oversexed and status seeking,”
That's a bit like saying Newton was promoting defenestrations when he came up with all that gravity malarkey.
That the average man in typical circumstances is more aggressive than the average woman is something understood by all psychological perspectives and which has mountains of evidentiary support.
When social psychologists approach this fact with an eye to understanding the impact of culture and society on patterns of violence they very rarely get accused of seeking to promote the status quo.
Yet to look at that same phenomena with an eye to understanding how that pattern might have formed as a consequence of our natural history, and to contrast it to patterns we see elsewhere in nature – that is to promote it?
“(Evolutionary Psychology) does not claim that human behaviours are inevitable and unchangeable and makes no moral pronouncements” – Evolutionary Psychology: A Graphic Guide.
As to the claim that evolutionary psychologists have studied comparative frivolity, I don’t deny this but I am sceptical – anyone got any links?
She complains about media motives and standards in reporting science – no argument from me, I just think it should be clear that this is a phenomena that has more to do with the attitudes of media producers and consumers than it does with scientists.
Criteria Needed to show Behaviour (??)
Stephanie asks PZ a question – it’s not clearly audible but the gist is that she wants to know what he thinks the criteria should be in order to show a behaviour, presumably within an evolutionary context.
I can only make out every other word – Indre needs to give the others a lesson in audibility I think.
He claims all evolutionary psychologists do is look at the evidence of behaviour and infer what the evolutionary basis of it is.
To what standards is the inference done? He does not indicate.
He claims we don’t know the genes for behaviour. As far as I know most behaviours that have been associated with genes give us the impression that behaviour is largely polygenic. This does not get mentioned. He does not provide a reason why, in the absence of solid information about genetic components, we should not examine other available evidence.
Does he advocate that we teach nothing about the development of life on earth prior to the oldest DNA we can find? We simply can’t assume that ancient taxa have any relevance because we don’t have genes? Abiogenesis is bunk because we don’t have the actual replicating chemicals from that time?
No, obviously knowing what genes contribute which influences to what behaviours would be lovely. I imagine in the future such information will help clarify a lot. We don’t. There’s other evidence to weigh up in the interim.
He returns to Indre’s points about specific bits of the brain doing specific things and mental modules. He says something like “there is not a colouring in between the lines module in the brain, or a module that says do you like broccoli”.
I don’t know of anyone in the field who suggests such things. Jokes are all well and good – but why not tackle one of the actual mental modules that have been proposed and explain why it doesn’t jazz with evolutionary biology?
Moreover he seems to repeat Indre’s mistake in that he entails the mental module stuff with a bit of the brain rather than a cognitive shortcut.
“They assume there is a one-to-one mapping of genes to behaviours.”
No they don’t. They admit that they don’t know much about what genes influence what behaviours (yet) and that in all likelihood innate behavioural tendencies are a polygenic thing.
“If you talk about the evolution of genes you’ve got to start with genes.”
Well, no you don’t and that’s not what they do: they examine evolutionary explanations for behaviour.
Greg takes over – again not easy to hear his bit. I think he says that anthropologists cede that there are systems of behaviour but that the variety of outputs undermines the notion of a universal system. I’m annoyed that I can’t make this out – because it doesn’t seem too misleading.
We obviously know that no two human populations have shared the exact same environment. Given the tremendous number of variables involved in the course of human life, it shouldn’t be a surprise that populations in similar environments nevertheless differ culturally.
That is not a challenge to evolutionary psychology. Generally evolutionary psychology looks at the similarities between human populations (and those of other species too) and gives more weight to behaviours that are common or universal to human populations.
He criticises the Tooby cheater detection module exercise on account of it contrasting an abstract logical problem (cards with a certain letter on one side should have a certain number on the other side) with a more dramatically illustrated one that is pertinent to everyday life (drinkers of a certain age may only order certain drinks).
Tooby claimed that the fact that people are much better at the second task than the first task – despite the logic behind the tasks being the same – was evidence that detecting a cheat within a social situation is encapsulated within a module providing us with a shortcut to the same logical problem that we find relatively difficult in the abstract.
Greg pooh-poohs this by pointing out that people will have had more experience of the sort of social problem illustrated by the example of underage drinkers.
That would be a valid criticism were it not for the fact that he misses that this particular experiment was the start of an investigation and a resulting body of work, and that varying scenarios, including unusual and nonsensical ones, still yield the same sort of pattern of results.
The reason that the comparison between the letters and numbers problem and the underage drinkers gets used in textbooks and introductions is because it is the starkest example of the phenomena.
This does not mean that the whole theory relies on it, there are other experiments that compliment this notion.
So it’s a bit like someone saying “those studies Darwin carried out on fancy pigeons hardly say much about natural history, and therefore evolution is weak sauce”.
Amanda exacerbates the same misunderstanding by saying that the experiment was done with college students and they are obsessed with going into bars (what was that you said earlier about the media and stereotypes Amanda?).
Greg assures her that the subjects were indeed all college students.
They are demonstrably wrong.
This is now a very famous psychology experiment and versions of it have been performed with all sorts of participants, including the Shiwiar, a foraging tribe from Ecuador. The performance of the Shiwiar was 86%, well within the range of 75% to 92% recorded by students at Harvard.
I think Indre then goes on to talk about the plasticity of the brain and changes during development. This is not something that mounts any sort of challenge to EP. In regard to the cheater module – what would it be about the notion that we have tend to have a schema that makes us alert to cheats which would undermine the notion that the brain is a versatile organ that responds in all kinds of ways to various inputs?
PZ then goes on to talk about the tendency of evolutionary psychologists to propose that modern humans are psychologically equivalent to those of 10,000 years ago.
See my earlier to objection to Greg raising this point – though at least PZ cedes that aspects of our psychology may well be older than the Pleistocene.
He says they treat the notions that psychological traits might have developed subsequently as negligible. Yes – but he does not mention that this is a tentative position many hold because of the paucity of contrary evidence.
He claims reading and writing stand as contrary evidence.
They do not. They are not innate. People from cultures with no history of literature can be taught to read and write and people from literate cultures are nevertheless illiterate until taught how to read and write. The contention then is that a human of 10,000 years ago, whilst almost certainly functionally illiterate given their culture, could probably have been taught to read and write.
He claims that ancient humans had “primitive hunter gather brains” according to “their inference not mine” (he means evolutionary psychologists here I presume, though this seems ironic seeing as he actually IS suggesting they had more primitive brains given that they couldn’t read or write).
Anyway he’s wrong. Once again - the tentative contention is that their brains were no more “primitive” than ours. They were - in terms of psychological capacity – equivalent. So they didn’t have reading and writing but they were *probably* ready for such a thing.
He claims that the ability of the brain to adapt is kind of plastic rather than genetic – seems like lunacy to me to suggest that the two things are mutually exclusive.
Amanda introduces the notion of evolutionary drivers other than natural selection or sexual selection by referring to the Russian Fox experiments.
The notion that evolutionary psychology relies too heavily on natural and sexual selection is oft repeated. As far as I am aware most evolutionary psychologists are cognizant of …
1) Natural selection.
2) Sexual selection.
3) Genetic Drift.
4) Belyaevian “piggybacking” of an unselected trait on the back of a selected one.
… as all playing a role in evolution. So I’m not sure how this is an objection. Given that if certain behaviours evolved then they, you know, evolved. So whichever mechanisms of evolution played a role in the development of the behaviour – it remains a behaviour with an evolutionary legacy.
Natural and sexual selection do tend to get most of the attention and this is because they tend to possess more explanatory power.
PZ says evolutionary psychologists downplay the genetic diversity of the present. It would be interesting to know where they do so and why. Examples seem pretty thin on the ground.
Greg again – can’t hear him well, but he seems to suggest that the understanding of adaptation professed by Evolutionary Psychologists comes from a shonky definition someone gave at a conference somewhere. I very much doubt that.
He talks about some studies done into human preferences for certain landscapes. He seems to be doing the same thing he did in regards to the cheater detection module, in that he is pulling a few examples out and saying how ludicrous they are (so he mentions that the notion that “we like bonsai trees” is pertinent to notions of us preferring savannah landscapes to some hilarity in the course of this section). He does not talk about the wider understanding of this line of enquiry, the extent of variety of the supporting evidence, the number of participants, quality of experiments and so on.
He seems to suggest that Evolutionary Psychologists claim that the Serengeti represents an optimal environment (they don’t, they claim that life in Africa probably left behavioural propensities) and that this is challenged by the fact that the Serengeti is currently inhospitable (not pertinent).
PZ then goes on to complain that Evolutionary Psychologists tend to regard Palaeolithic humans as a monoculture and derive too much from a cartoon image of ancient humans.
No – the opposite is true. Many of them tentatively contend we are of the same innate psychological capacity as people living in the Pleistocene. People today are capable of cultural diversity, so therefore if people in the Pleistocene were psychologically equivalent they would be able to enjoy cultural diversity.
PZ then says that evolutionary psychologists somehow miss the point that the universals they propose adaptations to (predation and so on) have always been true for our ancestors and for other forms of life.
Seems an odd objection – do evolutionary psychologists state that humans are the only species to feel fear of predators, for example? No. It would be totally consistent with evolutionary psychology to assume that our ancestors experienced fear long before they were human.
Indre claims she will be a devil’s advocate and points out that it is during the time period being discussed that the brain assumed its typical shape.
She is right here but she is missing the point that it is more as a result of looking back (gathering evidence as to when certain behaviours can no longer be found in the archaeological record) as opposed to “when did the brain assume it’s current shape” (which is no doubt important, but not the whole story) which leads to the contention.
The panel then seem to derive some amusement from the fact that the Pleistocene is a big long period of history. I wonder why? If it was a great big period, and it only finished 12,000 years ago, it seems to make the proposition that a great deal relating to the innate content of our minds occurred therein all the more modest.
Half an hour in, so I am going to stop there for now.