Thursday, 5 December 2013

Script for upcoming vid on talk by PZ and pals

If you have read my previous post on the CONvergeance EP panel you may wish to give this post a miss as it contains much the same information.

My intention to is to try and produce a video explaining why the panel grossly misrepresents EP.

This is a first draft of the script. If you spot any mistakes or errors of omission I would greatly appreciate your feedback.

Green text is my intended narration, orange text taken from what I believe is a fairly edited version of the panel discussion.

This is a video response to a talk given on the subject of evolutionary psychology at Convergence 2013, a Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention. The convention schedule promised a talk that would enlighten its audience as to the good and bad of the field, as well as warning them of the negative impact evolutionary psychology studies might have on readers of the popular press.

I feel that the talk is an example of a bad education on the subject. The speakers generally avoid citing any strengths of the field, some of them deny that the field has any pertinence at all, they misrepresent virtually every theory and finding that they mention, attribute notions to the field that it doesn't support, deny that it supports notions it actually sheds light on, they also grossly exaggerate the field's faults (of which almost all are a matter of their warped perception), and in order to make their case about the field's impact on the popular press they seem happy to cite example studies from fields such as biology, political science, anthropology and journalism - and then conveniently credit them to evolutionary psychology with no justification as to why.

Stephanie Zvan: All right. We’re going to go ahead and get started. Hopefully, you’re here for the evolutionary psychology panel. If you’re not, you’re in the wrong room. I am not the expert on this panel on any of the things we’re talking about. My name is Stephanie Zvan, and I am here to mostly moderate. I’m going to ask everyone to introduce themselves. Indre, do you want to start?

In my view the misleading has started already, as none of the panellists posses any right to be deemed an expert on the subject.

So we are looking from, left to right, Amanda Marcotte, a journalist, Greg Laden, a biological anthropologist, Stephanie Zvan, who is here less as a moderator than a commentator it seems to me but hey-ho, PZ Myers, who is grounded in neuroscience, evolutionary biology and evo devo, and Indre Viskontas, who also has a background in neuroscience.

Now I do not deny that neuroscientists, anthropologists and journalists can't have pertinent things to say about EP - the potential crossover between evolutionary psychology, neuroscience and anthropology is substantial for those who have made a serious attempt at understanding the subjects, and I will even go so far as to admit that there are such things as journalists who inform themselves properly about an issue before making copy.

However, such people are notable by their absence on this panel. With the exception of a couple of small concessions to things Greg and Indre mention they seem nothing but blundering amateurs when it comes to discussing the purported subject of the talk.

Intro over the talk really begins when Greg is asked to clarify for people what evolutionary psychology actually is:

GL: Sure. Actually, these days, when you use the term “evolutionary psychology”– I just did some Google searches and so on just a couple days ago in preparation for this, and it turns out the phrase means anything about evolutionary biology having to do with human behaviour to a lot of people. But that’s not what it is.

What Greg is going to go on to do here is to confuse the field's remit with some of it's major findings. Now he goes on to compound his error, and I'll explain why in a short while, but I'll say here that the definition he has just called wrong is actually - as a colloquial summary - an entirely fair definition. In fact it is pretty much a paraphrase of the definition given on the first page of The Adapted Mind, a landmark publication in the field.

"Evolutionary psychology is simply psychology informed by the additional knowledge that evolutionary biology has to offer, in the expectation that understanding the process that designed the human mind will advance the discovery of its architecture."

Greg seems keen to deny this, instead insisting that the definition of evolutionary psychology be inextricably tied to some of its major findings:

GL: It still is the idea, not that our brains or our behaviours are somehow affected or shaped by our biology or evolution – and then beyond that you can do interesting things – but rather that our brains have domain-specific mechanisms that are relatively specified as to their neural connections – that are largely coded for by genetic programming but develop in the context of the environment they grow up in to do certain things well, which means that we’re probably also not good at doing certain other things.

Greg seems to be referring to a notion usually termed "Mental Modularity". Mental Modularity is a major finding about which evolutionary psychologists are generally confident, some mental modules seem frankly undeniable and I will get to that later. It is not definitive of the field, as aspects of the field are not contingent on modularity (though neither do they conflict with the notion).

Greg is wrong in suggesting that mental modules are spatial notions "specified as to their neural connections". They are behavioural propensities, things people do that cannot be satisfactorily explained by alternative ideas at present. There might be implications in terms of the physical object of the brain when it comes to mental modules - but Greg's description of them as being specified connections is misleading.

GL: And that’s different than just having a brain that’s shaped by biology or evolution or that can learn things. Our brains are not a general learning mechanism in this field these days.

I'm not sure what he means by this - but if his insinuation is that evolutionary psychologists deny the body of understanding that exists in regard to the phenomena of learning he is dead wrong. More accurate to say "our brains are not MERELY general learning tools in this field".

And even that might be misleading, implying that other avenues of psychology propose alternative mechanisms fatal to the notion of some degree of mental modularity. In fact something like mental modularity was first proposed by academics who had made particular study of the psychology of the learning process.

But I digress... Greg not only cites mental modules as definitive, he also thinks evolutionary psychology be necessarily inextricably tied to another major finding, which he also fails to represent accurately:

GL: Our brains are shaped by evolution and programmed more or less genetically, again, with developmental factors, to be good at doing certain things that are the things that our ancestors living on a Serengeti-like ecosystem in Africa for two million years were faced with. That is what evolutionary psychology is pretty much defined as. And that’s how it was defined in the beginning, and those definitions haven’t really changed.

Here Greg broaches the subject of more important concepts of evolutionary psychology. These are the concept of the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (or EEA) and a related but looser notion often termed the Savannah Hypothesis.

The EEA is often confused with the Savannah Hypothesis, but they aren't the same thing. The EEA is a reminder that aspects of psychology may well have arisen eons ago, and furthermore may well have altered to account for subsequent environmental pressures. Rather than supporting the notion that human psychology is tied to a single place and time, it is instead the idea that aspects of human psychology may well relate in different degrees of magnitude to multifarious places and times.

The Savannah Hypothesis is the notion that the last place and time that was of significant pertinence to the evolution of human psychology was the African savannah of the Pleistocene, and the assertion that - in terms of innate psychological capacity and propensity - modern humans are equivalent to those who lived about 40,000 years ago.

I hope you can see the difference and where Greg went wrong. Evolutionary Psychologists do not think human psychology evolved all at once during the Pleistocene, they think aspects of our psychology are far older and the Pleistocene savannah represents the latest place and period within which a psychological adaptation altered or appeared.

SZ: So, Indre, that makes some particular claims about how our brains are organized. Are they?

IV: They’re certainly organized. And there are certainly a lot of different layers of organization in our brain. So, for any given person to understand how a particular function, for example, is represented in the brain, you really have to look at all these different layers. And I think that one of the ways in which evolutionary psychology sometimes glosses over some of the important details is by choosing a level, say, the level of a set of neurons firing in a circuit, and forgetting that every time that neuron fires, depending on which neuron is firing with which neuron, the way that it fires the second time is going to be changed, right, depending on how those neurons change with experience.

I'm going to cut Indre short here because she really indulges in a big long red herring at Stephanie's behest. The whole concept of mental modularity is only tangentially related to organisation of the brain. Provided that humans showed behavioural propensities the notion of mental modularity would be the same whether the physical object of the brain were best described as a lump of homogeneous pink blamanche, or constructed from multi-coloured blocks of lego-like gristle.

The fact that the brain is somewhat modular as a physical object certainly coincides well with the sort of modularity discussed by evolutionary psychologists - but it isn't the same thing. Some mental modules may well be tied to a certain area of the brain, but many may use many areas and many might make full or partial use of the same area. We know there are certain areas of the brain dedicated to perception of colour, or organisation of spoken syntax, or perception of right vs left and so on.

We also know that some very specific behaviour arise unbidden in infants cross culturally, such as imitating facial expressions, or preventing themselves from crawling over precipices, or preferring sweet tastes to bitter tastes.

So we know that some behaviours are inextricably linked to parts of the brain, and that some behaviours seem innate despite our not fully understanding what parts of the brain may be involved.

What then is controversial about the general idea of modularity? Sure we can debate about its extent - but the fact that a whole host of particular behaviours arise independently of experience seems to me to be clearly evident.

SZ: Amanda, you’re probably best suited to talk about the kinds of behaviour that evolutionary psychologists are really saying are selected for.

AM: Well, one of the things that is interesting to me, and is a big problem with evolutionary psychology, particularly the way it plays out in the media, is that humans have a whole host of social and other kinds of behaviour.

To interject - it is often assumed that the theories of evolutionary psychology are somehow in conflict with the notion that sociocultural variations exist, or that they explain much about human behaviour.

The opposite is true. In many cases sociocultural variations are better understood in light of an appreciation of our natural history - indeed, for there to be anything predictable about sociocultural changes they must be acting upon innate behavioural propensities.

I will give a quick, easy and uncontroversial example:

People in cold climates tend to wear more clothing than people in hot climates. On many levels we can view this as a matter of sociocultural difference. The fact that we can admit this in no way conflicts with the notion that a primary contributing factor to this difference are innate notions of what makes for a comfortable temperature.

AM: They focus on sex and gender to an extent that is a little bit obsessive. And often evolutionary psychology tends to sort of promote and perpetuate these rigid gender roles where women are undersexed, are submissive, are kind of vain and frivolous, and men are naturally violent, aggressive, oversexed, and status-seeking, I would say.

All psychological perspectives seek to grapple with notions of what defines and distinguishes sex and gender. In this regard I would argue that evolutionary psychology has been less presumptuous and errant than many competing notions, and no more prescriptive than any competing notion. Even highly fluid notions of sociocultural influence on sex and gender recognise propensities, they just place weight on different factors and causes.

Beyond that I would state that I have never seen an evolutionary psychologist make any pronouncement on so nebulous a concept as vanity or frivolity, or that they pin such things on women in particular when they do so. I'd suggest that any such impression is the result of overly cynical analysis or outright ignorance of the field.

Differences in attitudes towards sexual activity, status seeking and willingness to engage in injurious violence are examined by the field (as they are by other fields) - but the findings are not presented in terms of "promoting rigid gender roles". Most sexual dimorphism is understood to be statistical and small, and nothing in evolutionary psychology conflicts with the notion that an individual might well be a talented paragon in a field eschewed by other members of their sex.

And I suppose if you think scientists necessarily promote what they study then you believe those studying cures for cancer promote an epidemic, or that nuclear physicists promote annihilation.

AM: And I don’t know that they generally have the evidence that they say they have, that these sorts of behaviours are ingrained and not taught to us, socialized. And I think that these kinds of behaviours, these kinds of stereotypes of men and women are something the media loves to cling to, because inherently, I think our media systems are kind of conservative. And we like to be told Just So stories about why we are the way we are, because it’s easier to do that than to listen to people who are demanding radical change.

Well I suppose it's to be expected that a journalist will insinuate that the blame for this be placed on scientists rather than were it really belongs - which is the habits of media consumers and the expedience with which media producers seek to appeal to those habits.

SZ: PZ, they’re telling us that these behaviours have been selected for, that they’re adaptive. What kinds of criteria would they have to meet to show that behaviour is selected for, and are they really doing that?

Not "adaptive", but "adapted". In fact some findings of evolutionary psychology go to show that we would be better off without certain appetites or drives which were adap-TED for certain circumstances but are no longer adap-TIVE. Think of having a sweet tooth in an age when unhealthy amounts of sugar are easily obtained, or of an acutely arachnophobic individual finding it traumatic to encounter a harmless species of spider.

PZM: Unfortunately, what’s kind of happened is that the way evolutionary psychology is structured now, all they look at is the behaviour, and then they infer the biological basis for it, the genetic basis for it, that they don’t actually do the work of going in – If you’re doing any kind of population genetics, if you’re doing evolutionary biology, I expect you to look at the genes, okay? Evolutionary psychologists don’t look at the genes. They assume the genes, and what that often means is that when you look at their assumptions, they’re na├»ve and simplistic.

The vast majority of investigations into any sort of evolutionary change is done in the absence of genes. I mean as far as I understand it we would have to junk pretty much all of palaeontology if we cannot take the existence of apparent adaptive design as a useful clue as to evolutionary adaptation.

It's also misleading to suggest that evolutionary psychology never looks at genes. The genetic factors influencing neurological pathology are either known or being narrowed down in many cases. Presumably we can say with some confidence that those who suffer from congenital prosopagnosia, for example, lack an ability to easily distinguish between faces. An ability that is clearly innate to most and which would have contributed to survivability, mate acquisition and the raising of offspring throughout much of our evolutionary past.

Inference, of course, exists in all scientific fields, including genetics. Why PZ thinks it's a particular problem for EP isn't justified.

So often what you see is an imaginary line, a dotted line going directly from a hypothetical gene to a behaviour. And that’s not the way it’s going to work.

It's a matter of open acknowledgement in the field that the factors influencing behaviours are overwhelming polygenic. There is no more talk of "a gene for a given mental process" than there is talk of "a gene for the human arm".

As Indre was saying, when we look at the actual brain itself, it’s all interconnected. It’s a spaghetti tangle firing. It’s all linked together, and it’s hard to say that this piece does one specific thing.

Much of the investigation may well be hard - it's also apparently hard to pick up a book about the subject - read it - and attempt a genuine understanding of the field. Just because something is hard, does that mean we should avoid doing it, Paul?

You know, there is not a colouring-in-the-lines module in the brain. There is not a module that says you like broccoli, right?

I'm unaware of anyone who suggests such a thing.

I am aware of how innate faculties for the recognition of different hues, or the detection of edges, might influence people's attitudes to the task of colouring-in, or how appetites for sweet, fatty or spicy foods might feed into a general lack of enthusiasm for certain vegetables.

But they would be phenomena that the field actually grapples with, rather than strawman garbage like a "do I like broccoli module".

SZ: So, Greg, do you think they needed to start with the genes? I’ll ask the anthropologist.

GL: Well, I think PZ’s right. I don’t think they actually, though, infer it. I think they just assume, even, the connection.

Have they ruled anything on these assumptions without some sot of proofing?

I mean look, here's a challenge for anyone who remains impressed by this sort of argument. Within minutes of birth a baby will imitate the facial expressions of adults with which it interacts and this is shown cross-culturally. The infants of other primates also show this ability to varying degrees. Unless you are willing to retreat into mysticism what possible line of enquiry as to the existence of the phenomena do you suggest other than investigation into an innate faculty written into our DNA and serving a clearly adaptive purpose in that it facilitates bonding between infants and adults?

Now Greg spends some time on a discussion about hunting which I will skip because I just cannot see how it relates to the subject. He gets back on topic by saying:

The actual genetic, hormonal, developmental, and neurological parts that end up with a certain behaviour may be very distinctly different in different individuals.

Yes - though this isn't the case with others. Also I think if you really understood what the sort of mental modules evolutionary psychologists propose actually are you would realise that the parts of the brain involved in the process could well vary in degrees between individuals.

GL: And one good example of that, which is actually evidenced, is reading and writing and how humans deal with other linguistic things that are in a more technological domain. And it’s harder to prove these things are going to be related to male indiscriminate behaviour and female choosiness or something like that, which is the classic idea.

The "Classic Idea"? What a load of nonsense. Steven Pinker is probably the most celebrated practitioner of evolutionary psychology in the world, and most of his work has been in the study of those psychological processes that go into the acquisition of language, many of which are evidently innate, either firing off irrespective of environmental input, or in reaction to certain environmental inputs. His bestselling book, The Language Instinct, goes into this subject. he is far from alone, many linguists inform their work with the help of evolutionary psychologists and vice versa.

I'm not exactly sure what Greg means by indiscriminate males and choosy females. Presumably he refers to the idea that in a number of regards the sexual appetite of a typical male is somewhat more apparent than the typical female. Again he confuses a particular finding with the field in gestalt. Were the notion of sex differences in regard to apparent appetite for sex to be overturned it would mean nothing for the vast majority of studies and notions involved in EP.

Anyway, back to linguistics...

GL: I think that that would be interesting to study, much more interesting than having a normative system of behaviours that you then assume have basic modules underneath. 

Understanding linguistics and understanding mental modularity does not lead to the conclusion that they are mutually exclusive domains. Of course, Greg doesn't understand mental modularity, so they probably seem mutually exclusive to him. I suggest that in order to combat this he try a bit harder to wrap his head around modularity, a concept that isn't basic and speaks as much to eccentricity as it does normalcy. We possess certain propensities to seek out novelty as well.

GL: I guess I will make my second point really quick. For several years, every year, I did a study for John Tooby. I did a favour for him in which I did an experiment with several students. The experiment involved giving them a series of two tests. In one test, they were given a certain logical problem they had to solve. In the other test, they were given the same exact logical problem they had to solve. But in one test, it was a problem involving how to figure out how a temp had fucked up your files. You’re a file clerk, and you have to figure out how the temp that came in messed it up. In the other one, you’re a bartender, and you have to figure out who at the table is lying to you about their age. The students pretty much got 85-90% correct answers as the bartender, but they couldn’t handle the file clerk thing.

OK, so far this is a fair paraphrase into an experiment John Tooby ran in order to gather evidence for the existence of an innate propensity for greater performance in certain logical problems when the independent variable was the fact that you felt someone might be trying to cheat you. This is known as the "Cheater Detection Module".

So well done Greg, so far this is actually fair.

GL: Tooby claims that this is because we evolved more like as bartenders on the Pleistocene savannah of Africa, which – [laughter] No, this is valid. It’s knowing who’s lying to you as a hunter-gatherer. You’ve got to know your social relationships, fine, so file clerking doesn’t matter.

This is less fair - the file clerk and bartender are effectively irrelevant beyond the need for a certain illustration of the problem. The investigation was into whether or not people somehow benefitted from a boost to their alertness in a situation within which they might be dealing with an untrustworthy person.

(Given the motives for making this video - this is something I feel I know about.)

GL: What I would argue is that we’ve actually grown up in our own world in which who lies to you matters – your friends, your parents, your siblings – and not as file clerks. If we lived in a society in which file-clerking was actually something you did as a child, as play, and you grew up doing this, if this was behaviour you normally encountered –

This might be a valid objection had John Tooby not recognised that any comparison between a particular pair of tasks would include a number of potential confounding variables, and that in order to better make his case he produced a number of variations on the experiment including unfamiliar and even nonsensical alternatives to the file clerk and bartender scenarios, and that it was only when these alternatives showed similar patterns of results that he felt confident to publish work in regard to the phenomena.

The file clerk and bartender scenarios are the ones most often cited - this is because they are the easiest to understand by way of introduction to the concept. They are not the only evidence for the existence of the module.

After a brief tangent that I've no opinion on Greg says:

GL: So I think, yes, there are modules in our brains that are there that can be good at certain things, but I simply would argue that, for the most part, 90% of those modules emerge because of our experiential background, and 10% of genetic imperative or something, whereas the evolutionary psychologists would argue the opposite.

No they wouldn't - they would argue that the perceived exclusivity between innate factors and environmental inputs would amount to a bogus dichotomy in the vast majority of cases. I refer you to my earlier example of people in cold climates wearing more than people in hot climates as an easy example of how a sociocultural difference in hugely informed by innate preferences.

AM: I want to pop in and point out one other thing that jumps out to me about that example. He did this on college students?

GL: Yeah.

Maybe he did in the experiments Greg was involved in, but by the time he published his first paper on the subject the study had been replicated with participants from a number of different backgrounds. Studies involving members of Ecuadorian hunter-gatherers showed a similar pattern of results to those produced by Harvard graduates.

AM: Well, college students are obsessed with trying to get into bars without [laughter]

Just like a Journo to indulge in lazy stereotypes, eh?

AM: This is a problem they think a lot about. I mean maybe that goes to the problem a lot of people don’t understand, like the reader in an audience reading the article a journalist has written about a paper that’s been published. They often have no idea who these studies were even done on.

Well one would hope journalists would do some research from time to time, Amanda. Is it really such a drag to - before you comment on something - learn a bit about it?

IV: I just want to jump in. Greg’s really come up to something that’s very critical to our understanding of the brain, which is that the brain is very plastic.

I'm going to cut Indre short again because once more she indulges in a lengthy red herring in which she presumes that because the brain can alter throughout life the notion that innate propensities inform much of our psychology is somehow challenged.

A quick example of why this line of critique does not work: an arachnophobe can learn to tolerate, even enjoy, the presence of spiders - ergo plasticity. This does absolutely nothing to confound our understanding of a level of aversion to spiders occurring as a cross-cultural propensity and which is likely to be tied to a sometimes useful adaptation for recognising and avoiding categories of creatures which include lethally poisonous members. Nor does it undermine the notion that those psychological mechanisms employed in order to teach someone to tolerate spiders (such as those that lie behind our responses to behaviourist conditioning, for example) are typical of and innate to the human species.

PZM: Greg also brought up an interesting contradiction within the field of evolutionary psychology. One peculiarity, and I really think it’s a peculiarity because it’s not a necessary conclusion at all but you find it in the literature is that they argue that all the relevant evolutionary changes happened 10,000 years ago or more.

Yeah - as a rough sort of summary I suppose this is fair enough.

PZM: They basically say you have to explain everything in terms of Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers as if anything that’s happened since is negligible in its consequences on our biology.

Well, not quite - they surmise based on the available evidence that this was the latest period of pertinence when it comes to the innate components, capacities and propensities of human psychology.

PZM: As Greg mentioned, reading, writing, things that we – this group in particular, we do this all the time, right? This is what we’re focused on in our lives. And this apparently is not of any significance at all in evolutionary psychology, which you know can’t be true.

Oh good grief this is such utter piffle!

People born into backgrounds with traditions of literacy nevertheless require teaching in order to read and write.

People born into backgrounds with little to no literacy nevertheless can be taught to read and write.

Therefore what is there to say that a typical human from the late Pleistocene could not be taught to read and write?

To claim that our minds require evolutionary change during the Holocene in order to account for reading and writing is as stupid as claiming that a chimp taken into a laboratory and taught a lexicon of semiotic commands is undergoing biological evolution, rather than putting its innate psychological capacities toward a novel application.

Literacy did not require the evolution of new innate psychological components or capacities, it just required that aspects of pre-existing psychology were utilized in a novel manner or to a previously unprecedented degree.

If you can't get this then presumably you think biological evolution occurs every time someone has a novel idea.

PZM: The fact that these primitive hunter-gatherer brains – again, that’s their inference, not mine, that it’s primitive –

No PZ - "their" inference is that we are psychologically equivalent to so-called "primitive hunter-gatherers". That's the very thing you claimed a few seconds ago to be taking issue with - therefore it is your inference that Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers must have been in some way primitive - because you think reading and writing stand as examples of evolutionary change during the Holocene.

It is evolutionary psychologists who insist that we are effectively psychologically indistinct from our ancestors of the late Pleistocene, that they had all they needed to have in order to write novels and scientific papers aside from circumstances.

You can't have your cake and eat it by complaining about this in one breath, and then complaining about entirely incompatible and untrue insinuations about so-called "primitive" brains in the next breath.

PZM: It’s got to be plastic. I don’t think it’s genetic. It’s a capability of the brain to adapt in particular ways.

Plasticity and genetics are not mutually exclusive.

Now, in response to an audience question about the role Pleiotropy might play in psychology PZ continues to mislead the audience:

PZM: I would actually say that there are a couple of important points in that study. One is that these are capabilities that are present in the silver fox population. It’s so quick that it didn’t require mutations. What it required was novel recombination of traits already present in the population. And I think that’s another thing that evolutionary psychologists downplay, is the genetic diversity that’s present.

Earlier on PZ denied that anything was known about the genes that produce the phenomena that evolutionary psychologists study. He has now changed his tune to the end that we not only know the genes, but we can appraise the extent of their variation, and that such things are downplayed by evolutionary psychologists.

The degree to which genetic evidence for a particular psychological phenomena exists varies from phenomena to phenomena.

PZM: The other important point of that study the significance of Pleiotropy, which I think ties into everything we’ve been saying here, is that all these things are interlinked in complicated ways. When you select for domesticity, what you end up doing as well is you end up selecting for traits like different pigmentation. The more domestic foxes had droopier ears, for instance, like a dog. They tended to have spotted coats rather than uniform coats. Lots of things like that happened. So everything is tied together genetically. You change one thing, and it may ripple through and cause all kinds of other consequences.

And in the case of the Russian silver fox study we know confidently that it was the tameness that was selected for - because the researchers made it their independent variable - and the piebald coats and floppy ears were unexpected consequences of proliferating genes for tameness throughout the experimental population.

So we can be supremely confident that it was the tameness that was selected for - because it was the trait of pertinent utility when it came to the next generation of silver foxes.

Obviously the more a given phenotype shows apparent design for an apparent purpose the more likely it is to have resulted from selective processes, and the less likely genetic interactivity or drift can be said to be responsible.

GL: I’ll expand a little bit on the EEA concept that was brought up, sort of define that. The idea is that, as PZ said, they want everything to relate to things that evolved, that happened 10,000 years ago or more. The concept is that the environment of evolutionary adaptiveness, which is difficult, because the word “adaptiveness” doesn’t exist, except in this term. 

Note that the A in EEA stands for "adaptedness", not "adaptiveness". And is it really difficult that scientists come up with particular jargon for particular concepts? Strikes me that it happens all the time.

GL: But anyway, in the original Adapted Mind, the book that put out the first papers on evolutionary psychology, there is actually an article explicitly stating the EEA concept as being the savannah of the Serengeti. It says this is the environment in which people like the bushmen would have been living for two million years. And the paper explored our interest in bonsai trees and certain other landscaping things. 

The chapter in question - Evolved Responses to Landscapes - makes absolutely no mention of the Serengeti and does not devote time to discussing bonsai trees. So not only is Greg wrong about the EEA but he is also apparently willing to make up stuff about how Evolutionary Psychologists go about investigating it.

What the chapter does do is talk about various different studies into what people deem attractive in a landscape, usually through investigating their responses to photographs that are controlled as to content. Those aspects of the environment that people respond to positively are not exclusive to any one habitat, but it is noted that a savannah during the rainy season is the one environment that would likely include most of the desirable criteria.

PZM: Yeah. Another thing about this too is I think a lot of the things that evolutionary psychologists are make assumptions to simplify their lives and to give cartoonish versions of what they’re explaining. And one of the things you find is this idea of the Paleolithic hunter on the grassland, but as you know well, that’s not a situation in which you get one uniform type of culture emerging. 
Yeah. Another thing about this too is I think a lot of the things that evolutionary psychologists are make assumptions to simplify their lives and to give cartoonish versions of what they’re explaining. And one of the things you find is this idea of the Palaeolithic hunter on the grassland, but as you know well, that’s not a situation in which you get one uniform type of culture emerging.


And I'm unaware of any aspect of evolutionary psychology that supposes culture ancient or modern were or are uniform. Once again, it is assumed that modern humans are psychologically equivalent to those in the later millennia of the Pleistocene. We are culturally diverse, ergo they would also have been capable of cultural diversity.

PZM: Africa is extremely diverse, and they’re ignoring the fact that this one environment can generate thousands of different kinds of lives out of it. So how can you then take a particular pattern of behaviour and infer back to an environmental climate.

By contrasting that behaviour with everything we can find out about the lives humans led leading up to the time when we dispersed from Africa.

GL: And their counterargument is, “Ah, but you’re still being chased by predators. You still have to mate.” And they will have a list of things that are still true for everyone. And they are still true for everyone, but they’re also true for all mice and all houseflies and everything else. So at this point, we now have the EEA apply to life in general, and therefore, all organisms should have choosy females and promiscuous males.

All organisms? That's nonsense, but in relative terms that pattern of choosiness is observed in other mammals. People often cite bonobo's or hyenas as contrary examples to the trend, but even here the sexual activity indulged in by the females rarely outstrips the interest males show in sex. In fact, the sexual strategies engaged in by the females even rely on their being a reliable desire on the behalf of males for sexual satisfaction. In all mammal species it is the female that bears the cost of pregnancy and the risk of childbirth, factors which are particularly onerous in terms of the human species, and that females will tend to show more caution in the case of sex is a plausible upshot of this, an upshot that masses of evidence supports.

Yes, the EEA could apply to other forms of life - it certainly applies to those various species that make up the evolutionary line that has reached it's current state in the form of Homo sapiens.

Of course - just as a reminder - the EEA isn't anything like what Greg has described it as.

PZM: I read one paper by an evolutionary psychologist that was trying to pin down this idea of the modules in the brain. Okay, they were going to show us that there actually are these modules in the brain. And the one they found was the amygdala.

I call shenanigans on this.

First of all we know that people who really understand the concept of mental modularity know that it refers to behavioural propensities which need not be tied to any particular area of the brain.

What I think PZ may have caught on to is that evolutionary psychologists have found that people with damaged amygdalas perform poorly on tests designed to illustrate the cheater detection module mentioned earlier.

This does not imply that the amygdala IS the cheater detection module - it's just plausible that the amagdala is one of a number of parts of human neurology which plays a role in the process behind the behavioural propensity.

Perhaps he means something else - if so it'd be nice to see him clarify.

Okay, now maybe you don’t know, but the amygdala is everywhere. Fish have an amygdala. So how can you justify saying that this is a site for a specific adaptation for human beings when it’s something so universal.

Well PZ, you compound your error by giving your audience that the human amygdala is exactly the same thing as the fish amygdala. This is like saying we can't say anything about the evolution of human bones because fish have bones too. The human amygdala is not the same as the fish amygdala (I very much doubt that the amygdalas of different species of fish are the same, though I'm no expert on the matter). The processes which involve the human amygdala need not be the same processes which involve the fish amygdala.

IV: I want to just jump in and play devil’s advocate for a moment, is that the reason they pick this timeline is because there is some evidence that the ratio of the neocortex – which is our sort of the newest part of our brain, the part of our brain that seems to be the most different from other species – to the rest of our brain increased exponentially around that time. I mean there is a certain time in which we see these graphs of whether it’s skull size or – We can sort of trace back this big leap in terms of our brain size, brain ratio to body size, and it makes this big leap.

Thanks Indre - that is indeed one of the reasons why we are supposed as being psychologically equivalent to the people of the late Pleistocene. There are numerous other reasons and I will give two more that I think are as obvious and telling as the fact that our brains has assumed their extant size and shape by that time.

Archaeological investigations into the earliest musical instruments, cave paintings, sculptures, signs and objects with ritual or decorative functions tend to place the appearance of such items between 30,000 and 50,000 BC. It s therefore felt that we can say with some confidence that levels of creativity and imagination that might impress a modern human were on the go at that time, whereas evidence of it before that time is scant and circumstantial.

Human diasporas that went on to create populations which remained genetically isolated from one another until recent centuries had also begun by that time. Human populations in Australia, for example, date back to about 40,000 BC. Today the descendants of those populations are deemed by most psychologists to be indistinguishable from one another in psychological terms. Evidence for competing theories is, once again, scant and circumstantial.

So our brains reached their current size and shape by the late Pleistocene, we didn't seem to create deliberate works of art or imagination prior to the late Pleistocene, and no compelling evidence of psychological change within genetically distinct human populations since the late Pleistocene is apparent.

These findings, amongst others, explain why evolutionary psychologists assume the African landscape of the late Pleistocene was the last, or latest, period of pertinence to the evolutionary development of modern human psychology.

PZM: But the time period they point to is not a point, right? It’s two million years.

IV: Right. Well, I don’t know if it’s two million. Certainly tens of thousands.

PZM: Oh, I think it’s millions. No, I –

GL: It’s [garbled] two million years. In Tooby’s writing, it’s explicitly two million years. And it’s two million years of the Pleistocene, which is the most dynamic period and Homo erectus as a species. Homo erectus is the first species to be found in increasingly diverse environments and altitudes and habitats. So you’re right, it’s ridiculous to point to that.

Why would it be ridiculous to err on the side of caution when you can't be certain of something?

AM: I want to point out that I don’t think anybody on this panel, or any of the critics or skeptics of evolutionary psychology would deny things like human women carry and breastfeed their children and that’s just part of our species behavior. I don’t think we’d deny anything like that. It’s just what they start to extrapolate from that is what I think we’re calling into question.

Is this a tacit admission of what we surely all know by now, that the panel is deliberately constructed from those critical of the field?

IV: Yeah, and so I guess the point I was trying to get to eventually – sorry that was so long-winded– was that the part of our brain, then, that seems so different is certainly not the amygdala. It’s the frontal cortex and the neocortex and all these other regions. So if we’re going to look at anything, we should look there. And of course, that’s the most complicated part too.

Well ... no. The amygdala can get a look in as well, because it didn't stop evolving, or interacting with other parts of the evolving brain, when it appeared in fish. Clearly the story of the human amygdala did not end during the Devonian.

The so-called "older" parts of the human brain still do stuff don't they? It's not like human beings make no use of their amygdalas. They are not vestigial.

PZM: Yeah, but that’s what I was finding, was that when you actually find evolutionary psychologists who are willing to talk about the real data and get down to the basics, they can’t point to anything that’s unique to humans in the last 10,000 years.

Why the Hell would they? They broadly reckon we are effective equivalents with people who lived at least 40,000 years ago - ergo ... no observable change in the last 10,000 years. Earlier on PZ seemed to get this, though he complained about it. Now he's forgotten about it, and is complaining about the alternative. So he isn't just wrong, he's wrong on numerous mutually exclusive levels.

 PZM: They have to go to things like the amygdala or breastfeeding. You know, that’s a mammalian characteristic. We’ve got 80 million years of that to discuss.

Yes, hence the concept of the EEA, of which you clearly have nil understanding.

PZM: It means that the stuff they’re talking about, the very specific stuff that they’re testing on college students, they don’t have genetic or biological evidence for any kind of difference.

Well it's hard to answer this, because it's error on top of more error at this point, but to try and take PZ at what I assume his complaint is supposed to be, rather than the nonsense of its actual wording, I would ask what he thinks of the body of work that goes into illustrating theory of mind, the ability to infer what another individual may be aware of? In particular I wonder what he makes of the great deal of comparative analyses regarding the ability of other primates to perform in tests designed for, or similar to, those run on human children.

Furthermore I wonder what he makes of the fact that ASD, which is known to be heritable, correlates strongly with delayed, incomplete or largely absent theory of mind, and that this goes to provide some evidence of the fact that theory of mind is an innate behaviour constructed from something more than plasticity and environmental input.

I'm going to skip a fairly long section of the talk in which the panel discuss performance of boys and girls in school, and sexual dimorphism of the physical object of the brain, because nothing they say therein gets related to the field of evolutionary psychology. A lot of stuff gets said along the lines of:

PZM: Stress and things like alcohol affect your brain. So if we did your brain studies before this weekend and after, we could see effects.

or:

IV: And certainly sex hormones affect the brain, both during development and later on.

or:

SZ: If we’re trying to figure out what a society without gender roles would look like, it’s really hard for us.


But no discussion about how that does or does not speak to our natural history follows.

PZM: This is a criticism that’s been levied against evolutionary psychology for many, many years. There is this human trend to want to find explanations, even if you don’t have a good one. You know, you want there to be a reason why your Uncle Fred died, and it can be God or it can be genes or it can be whatever. But we’ve got to have some kind of explanation.

So it's now a criticism of a scientific field that it looks for explanations is it?

AM: Sometimes just when they’re completely random. Definitely, to speak to a completely random gender difference, the association of pink with girls and blue with boys. That evolved utterly randomly. It was just–marketers needed a colour to give to boys so they could sell boy clothes and girls so they could sell girl clothes, and they picked those colours at total random. And now you’re actually seeing evolutionary psychologists trying to come up with reasons that our brains are wired by our hormones and our genes for boys to prefer blue and girls to prefer pink.

Amanda may be referring to a neurological study performed at the University of Newcastle which investigated colour preferences according to gender and always seems to get pushed as an example of such a thing. If so there are a few things she fails to make clear:

* The researchers involved are not evolutionary psychologists, they are neuroscientists working in the field of vision.

* They find that a preference for blue exists across the board, though their female participants did seem drawn to reddish hues more often than the male participants.
* It was admitted that this phenomena may well be purely sociocultural, but some speculative analysis of how it might tie in with hunting and foraging behaviours was discussed.

What we do know is that far more men than women are likely to be Red/Green colour-blind, and that men in general show a greater sensitivity to the Blue/Yellow axis. As such it shouldn't necessarily come as a surprise that men are ever so slightly more enthused about blue and what we might be observing is innate preferences and cultural preferences feeding back into one another.

I supposed that if you wanted you could even draw on this fact for evidence of patriarchy - men have taken the most popular colour and made it all about them - I wouldn't support such a notion, but it strikes me as closer to the truth than suggesting the preference is purely arbitrary.

AM: But that gender differences was only invented by marketers who realized that they’d sell more clothes and toys if they gender-differentiated them.

Clothes were already distinguished primarily by design, as are toys. The existence of the "pink aisle" has done little to change this.

Sometimes marketers really do just invent trends out of chance and luck - but mostly the successful ones do pay attention to psychological findings, or are talented folk psychologists. Just because a psychological phenomenon is identified or driven by marketers it doesn't make that phenomenon invalid.

Now when you point this out to people they often say as this audience member does:

Audience question 4: Two things: One, a really interesting thing about the pink is for girls, blue is for boys things is that that actually changed. Pink was originally associated with boys because it was like blood, whereas blue is just the sky, and all girls can have the sky, and then it ended up switching for some reason.

But this a different thing:

The colour you chose to associate with a given gender is one phenomena.

The colour you prefer to other colours is another phenomena.

They may overlap. There may be good sociocultural reasons for why they overlap. But they are not the same thing.


SZ: Do we still have a question? No. Let’s take one here. Jason.

Audience question 5: I just want to say that there are evolutionary psychologists who are still making these racist cases [inaudible]

PZM: Satoshi Kanazawa, yes.

SZ: Who is an economist. I wasn’t kidding about economists doing “evolutionary psychology.”

He's an evolutionary psychologist who reads in management at the London School of Economics. I don't see why such things are mutually exclusive. I mean Indre is a neuroscientist AND opera singer, right?

He's also discredited and widely seen as an embarrassment to the field, though I see this does not get mentioned.


AM: It comes up periodically, like some conservative think tank will just cough up a writer who says, “We need to study the IQ differences between blacks and whites more.” And then Andrew Sullivan will always back him up. Then a bunch of scientists will come out and say, “Bullshit,” and then it will die.

I don't know what Andrew Sullivan has to do with the topic at hand - this is nothing to do with mainstream evolutionary psychology which supposes that all modern populations are equivalent in terms of psychological capacity and that that's the way things have been for thousands of years. Satoshi Kanazawa takes occasional issue with that, but as yet he has produced nothing of any validity to challenge it, and he has alienated himself from the evolutionary psychology mainstream in the process.

The panel discuss studies on race and IQ for a while following this bit. It's difficult to see how this relates to EP. The sort of arguments that rely on IQ to distinguish between races don't tend to impress psychologists in general, and certainly don't impress evolutionary psychologists. In fact, the psychological equivalence of different human populations is a cornerstone of much evolutionary psychology.

We re-join the discussion shortly after an audience member asks if there is any good evolutionary psychology.

GL: There’s actually some good studies, some good evolutionary psychology studies that people who claim it help [inaudible] have done. Just go to the UCLA department of anthropology and look at Dan Fessler and Boyd and so on, [inaudible]. There’s a handful of people there doing interesting work. Some of it basically has to do with proclivities and things, interesting tests where you can find out that humans react to certain environmental cues in certain ways consistently. The underlying theory that these are evolutionarily shaped sets of genes that inevitably lead to these outcomes is still in there, and this is still probably wrong.

I'd be interested to know what Greg's notion of a competing theory might look like. As far as UI see it if we have propensities for behaviour that react to environmental cues in predictable ways, there must be some underlying innate psychology behind it, and there must be genes behind that psychology.

Now Greg does go on to add context here, but it's based on the same misreading of the EEA that we talked about earlier. So to avoid repetition we will skip on.

PZM: Boy, I would categorically say that there aren’t any good evolutionary psychology studies. I know that’s really harsh of me, but I think it’s the case. What there are though are good people within the field who go back to basics and do good work. For instance, there are people like Sarah Blaffer Hrdy who does a lot of cultural anthropology. I think it’s phenomenal stuff. She’s actually looking at the evidence and not making ridiculous assumptions from it. Often when you read her papers, what you find is she’s testing some assertion made by evolutionary psychologists and finding it’s wrong. So I guess that’s our guideline. If they find something wrong with evolutionary psychology, they’re good people.

I'm not sure what papers he means, but my reading of Sarah Blaffer Hrdy's work is that it largely takes the findings of evolutionary psychology on board. Three quick examples of her basically saying the same sort of things the panel have found objectionable up to now.

Innate mechanisms:


Custom, language, and personal experiences shape the specifics, but the urge to share is hard-wired, and neurophysiologists are getting to the point where they can actually monitor, if still only crudely, the pleasure humans derive from being generous, helping, and sharing.
- Mothers and Others, page 25.


The pertinence of the Pleistocene:

We are told again and again that "the human ability to generate in-group amity often goes hand in hand with out-group enmity." Such generalisations are probably accurate enough for humans where groups are in competition with one another for resources, but how much sense would it have made for our Pleistocene ancestors eking out a living in the woodland and savannahs of tropical Africa to fight with neighbouring groups rather than just moving?
- Mothers and Others, page 19.

Sex differences:

The fact that humans are better equipped to cooperate than other apes does not mean that men do not compete with one another for status or for access to mates, or that women are not fiercely competitive in the domains that matter to them, striving for desirable mates, local clout and access to resources for themselves and their children.
- Mothers and Others, page 11.

Now she does take issue with the inventor of the EEA concept, John Bowlby, in her book Mothers and Others. However, she doesn't "find him wrong", rather she adds more detail to his ideas about attachment theory, an idea that isn't central to evolutionary psychology. On the other hand her work does cite approvingly people like Steven Pinker, David Buss, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby - whose ideas are central to evolutionary psychology.

To suggest that she's anything other than broadly supportive of EP as it currently stands is grossly misleading.

AM: You know, its one of the interesting things I kind of want to point out. I often, very frequently, get requests to debate an evolutionary psychologist in a public forum, and I always decline and offer to refer them to a biologist who is willing to debate them. And they always take a pass. And I think that’s very telling – that they want to debate a journalist, somebody with no PhD, no science background, who likes science but doesn’t really understand it to the same extent that the rest of the people on this panel do. That’s just something I want to put in your brains.

The way Amanda's own brain seems to work is that if she says something like "skepticism of evo psych isn't "anti-science" anymore than skepticism of phrenology is" then you shouldn't argue with her about that and she isn't obliged to defend it - instead you should argue with some mysterious biologist who may or may not share that particular opinion.

But here's footage of David Buss and Richard Dawkins discussing EP, and here's Stephen Pinker batting for it despite objects from a panel including biologist Steve Jones. It's not like such conversations are avoided by advocates of EP.

PZM: Good studies, like I mentioned Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, who’s got a whole book on, for instance, the maternal instinct and basically shows it’s a bunch of bunk, that women do not have any sort of maternal instinct – that didn’t make it into the press for some reason. Not a feel-good sort of story that fits into our notions of motherhood.

Sarah Blaffer Hrdy thinks maternal instincts are a bunch of bunk? Shenanigans!

What she does assert is that ancestral humans cooperated more in regards to rearing children than is popularly assumed. This does not imply a lack of maternal instincts in the mother, it implies previously underappreciated alloparental instincts in other members of the community.

Here are some quotes from her book that run counter to PZ's claim:


"The postpartum human mother who checks her baby every 15 minutes to be sure he is still breathing follows in this venerable tradition of compulsive concern."

"Since any nearby new-borns were likely to have issued from their own bodies, it was adaptive for mothers to perceive all neonates as attractive. Mothers who had just gone through the hormonal transformation of pregnancy were especially susceptible."

"This requirement for mothers to bond with babies, and babies with mothers, meant that mammals' brains were designed for the formation of relationships in ways that the brains of other animals are not. The need for mothers to anticipate the needs of offspring is integral to several of the hypotheses that have been proposed to explain the evolution of mind reading."

To me - this sort of stuff lies a long way from "the maternal instinct is bunk". I think it would be fair to say she recognises quite profound innate propensities for mothers to identify and care for their children. Her main contention in the book is that such feelings are shared to some degree by friends, family, neighbours and even strangers. So it's not that women lack behaviours that go into a maternal instinct, it's that the rest of us have them too to some degree.

Which could make for a nice feel-good story, if you were to understand it.