This is part two of my comments on the CONvergence panel on Evolutionary Psychology. Starting again from the 30 minute mark.
Stephanie (I think) mentions that the panel have just been looking at the “good” EP so far, and have yet to get to the bad. This causes some laughter, which I can understand seeing as aside from a couple of concessions from Indre no one has had a good word to say about it.
I’ll just stop here to list a couple of the major sections of evolutionary psychology books I have read, including the course text set by the Open University.
Theory of Mind – Prominently featured in the university text
and a number of pop-science books and introductory guides I looked at on the
subject. Theory of mind refers to our ability to judge what others might be
thinking. Clearly a highly adaptive trait and one that does seem to carry
heritable components. A lot of work has been carried out comparing the ability
of chimps and other great apes to perform skills associated with theory of
Mentions by the panel: Zero.
Reciprocal Altruism - Prominently featured in the university
text and a number of pop-science books and introductory guides I looked at on
the subject. Essentially the notion explored in The Selfish Gene and similar
books that basic morality may have arisen evolutionarily.
Mentions by the panel: Zero.
Common or Universal Emotional Responses and Phobias – Again,
mentioned in every book I’ve read on the subject.
Mentions by the panel: Zero.
Mental Modules – Mentioned by some of the texts I have on
Mentions by the panel: Assumed to be the core of evolutionary
psychology, and mischaracterised as parts of the brain rather than processes
and cognitive shortcuts.
"Pleistocene Brain" – Mentioned by some of the texts I have on
the subject, often in quite tentative terms.
Mentions by the panel: Assumed as a core of evolutionary
psychology, and mischaracterised as a matter of closed debate (it isn’t).
An audience member asks a question about sex differences. I
think it’s Stephanie who answers. She says that sex differences are largely
cultural and not biological.
I doubt she’d receive any argument from most evolutionary
psychologists, who would be happy to cede that the vast majority of observed differences
between the sexes are sociocultural, and that changing culture affects even
those differences which are thought to have a hereditary component.
Indre mentions that an example of behaviours changing over
time would be the attitudes boys and girls have towards education. This is not a notion that has been challenged by evolutionary
psychologists as far as I know. Generally it is attitudes towards violence, communication
style, childcare and reproduction that are thought to be demonstrable
cross-culturally in line with evolutionary psychology.
Indre mentions that the studies into men’s and women’s brains show
less divergence on average than between given individuals of the same sex. I’m
not sure if this means she admits to there being ways in which the average male
brain differs from the average female brain, but it’s still rather by the by because
evolutionary psychology focuses on behaviour, not the brain.
PZ tells an anecdote about having been involved in similar comparative
studies, and he seems to say that they did find statistical differences between
the brains of men and women. He puts this down to sociocultural impacts, which
is convenient. Even if you find this line of argument convincing it’s still
rather by the by because evolutionary psychology focuses on behaviour, not the
Stephanie (I think) provides a hypothesis that patterns of women’s achievement
in education may be economically driven. In itself a fair point, but by the by
for the aforementioned reasons. The only psychologists who don’t admit to
overwhelming cultural impact are bonkers psychologists.
Greg talks for a while, he reinforces the same point about
variations and the overwhelming impact of sociocultural input. Again, I know of
no evolutionary psychologist who would disagree.
He cedes that there is a particular sex difference that he
recognises – that women outperform men in regards to certain types of
communication. This is something evolutionary psychologists recognise and provide
some insight on. Does he mention that? No.
Indre now talks about how hormones produce sex differences.
Right she is. Does she talk about how this relates to evolution, or psychology,
or evolutionary psychology? No.
The panel discuss why society is so fixated on gender
issues. They think it’s because of the degree of investments people have in
such things. No doubt this is true. Could any of these investments result from
our natural history? They don’t say. Do they provide the perspective of
evolutionary psychologists on the matter? No.
PZ brings up Evolutionary Psychology again, maybe he will
discuss their attitudes to such matters. He just says that they are overly keen
on trying to find an answer to things. I presume he means in the metaphysical
sense, but I don’t know why being keen to find an answer is unbefitting a scientific approach.
Amanda reckons evolutionary psychologists are ignorant of
the fact that marketers have had a major role to play in the notion that the
colour pink is fit for a girl and blue for a boy, and that they have come
up for reasons for why genes and hormones make boys prefer blue and girls
I know of one study, carried out by Professor Anya Hurlbert
and Dr Yazhu Ling of Newcastle University that speculates loosely along such lines. Neither of them identify as evolutionary psychologists. Professor
Hurlbert’s field is neuroscience. They cede that the only certain factor in
colour preference is sociocultural, but speculate as to other factors including
evolution. As far as I know their work has not made much positive impact on
evolutionary psychologists. Whilst changes in tastes for fashion are clearly
sociocultural they aren’t exclusive to notions of innate preference.
Indre talks about identity theory and how people like to
categorise groups and that we tend to set these groups against one another. Is
this something she thinks is innate or learned? She does not say. Might
evolutionary psychologists have a perspective on notions of identity such as those demonstrated in Tajfel's minimal group studies? She does not say,
she just reckons they are guilty of falling for the tendency in the pursuit of
their own ideas.
I find this rather ironic, if there’s an in-group here it’s
the panel, and the out-group being treated with undue dismissiveness are
I’m not sure what she says but Indre seems to mention that
evolutionary psychologists are guilty of making pronouncements about different
Now, do you remember that Pleistocene brain stuff that the
panel seemed to find so amusing earlier?
That notion actually undermines a lot of racist opinions on
the psychology of certain races, because if we have the same sort of psychological capacities
as people in the late Pleistocene (“we” moderns as a group and “they” ancients as a group) then
racist notions of how certain races made cognitive leaps in the interim are
unsupported by evolutionary psychology (on the whole).
Now I don’t want to make too much of this, because the
Pleistocene brain thing is held tentatively, and there could be notions of
exception, and I know of a couple of practitioners who propose notions that I
deem to be more or less racist.
But the field as a whole isn’t, and the reason for this is
partly down to the (albeit tentative) notion that human minds have enjoyed
their current capacities for A Long Time.
Bit of a mumble here – they mention studies into race and
IQ. They don’t mention what role the field of evolutionary psychology plays in
it. To repeat, on the whole it plays no role in it, and furthermore
representative EP undermines it.
“Plasticity everywhere” pronounces PZ, he reckons that that is the take
home message that is fatal to EP.
The take home
message for PZ is clearly articulated in Steven Pinker’s discussion about PZ’s
attitude to EP on Jerry Coyne’s blog.
Plasticity is just learning at
the neural level, and learning is not an alternative to innate motives and
learning mechanisms. Plasticity became an all-purpose fudge factor in the 1990s
(just like “epigenetics” is today). But the idea that the brain is a piece of
plastic molded by the environment is bad neuroscience. I reviewed neural
plasticity in the chapter “The Slate’s Last Stand” in The Blank Slate, with the
help of many colleagues in neuroscience, and noted that the plasticity that
allows feedback during development and learning during ontogeny is superimposed
on an innate matrix of neural organization. For example if you silence *all*
synaptic activity in the brain of a developing mouse with knock-outs, the brain
is pretty much normal.
Someone mentions that there
are “quite a lot of evolutionary psychologists” who promote racism. No names
are mentioned aside from the non-psychologist Andrew Sullivan. Talk then turns
to the attitudes of the 19th century, about which I’m not sure evolutionary
psychologists can fairly be blamed.
I don’t want to be flippant –
I know there are racist ideas associated with the field. Even though I think that's an unfair association I don’t want to
downplay how irritating it is or what sort of jeopardy it could present unchecked, and it is good
to remain vigilant on that front. However, I don’t feel that such attitudes are
prevalent or representative. Again - tentative notions of Pleistocene brains
undermine a lot of racist theory.
Greg mentions Robert Picard as
another of these people advancing racist notions. Is he an evolutionary psychologist?
No. His field is journalism.
More on IQ
follows – findings based on IQ are not something that evolutionary
psychologists devote a lot of time to as far as I know. My experience may be atypical, but I was led
to believe during my schooling in psychology that the field of psychometrics
(of which IQ is the most famous) ought to be regarded as advancing
an anecdote about all studies into IQ between races going back to a particular study,
and replicating its fatal flaws. I think that’s doubtful and
besides, what has that to do with EP?
I think someone
asks what the panel like about evolutionary psychologists.
PZ: That’s a
really hard question.
think): I like the jokes actual biologists tell about them behind their backs.
they tell good stories that might lead onto testable hypotheses. OK. Who comes
up with the hypotheses and the tests? Is it evolutionary psychologists, or do
they just tell stories? She does not say.
says evolutionary psychologists’ theories contradict one another, but does not give examples.
Amanda admits they have popularised the notion that evolution has had an impact
on our psyches. Greg also cedes some “good stuff” but it’s such a begrudging
mumble I can’t make much of it out. He seems to like the fact that they do
studies with anthropologists from time to time.
PZ says he
can categorically state that there are no good evolutionary psychologists
because the premises so taint the field that it needs to be discarded.
I hope anyone who reads this will agree that PZ demonstrates scant knowledge of their actual premises.
she is often approached by evolutionary psychologists for a “debate”, and that
she refuses but offers to forward them on to a biologist instead. She says they always
back out at that point. No actual names are mentioned. If they are so easy to browbeat why didn't you invite one or two onto the panel?
PZ says he
reckons evolutionary psychologists just aim stuff at the tabloid press. He also claims he has been convinced that women possess
no maternal instinct, which strikes me as bizarre. Really - None?
then some more jokes.
last words Indre concedes that there will be more links found between genes and
behaviour in years to come. Greg also seems a little more concessionary than earlier, but can’t hear him well enough to know what he's talking about in detail.
Thank you for
coming and big round of applause - Huzzah!