?

Log in

No account? Create an account
Proof That Evolutionary Psychology is Nonsense - Synchronicity swirls and other foolishness

> Recent Entries
> Archive
> Friends
> Profile
> my rpg writing site

June 24th, 2009


Previous Entry Share Next Entry
05:35 pm - Proof That Evolutionary Psychology is Nonsense
Here's an absolutely first-rate article about the problems with evolutionary psychology. It's 4 pages long, but exceptionally worth reading, in large part because it discusses various pieces of hard evidence that disprove a number of major claims prominent proponents of evo psych have made. Initially, the fact that so much of this discipline is made up of exceedingly bad science made it difficult to disprove, the article discusses why:
From its inception, evolutionary psychology had warned that behaviors that were evolutionarily advantageous 100,000 years ago (a sweet tooth, say) might be bad for survival today (causing obesity and thence infertility), so there was no point in measuring whether that trait makes people more evolutionarily fit today. Even if it doesn't, evolutionary psychologists argue, the trait might have been adaptive long ago and therefore still be our genetic legacy. An unfortunate one, perhaps, but still our legacy. Short of a time machine, the hypothesis was impossible to disprove. Game, set and match to evo psych.
However, careful (and more importantly) cross-cultural research has clearly shown that many of the claims made by evo psych proponents are not merely offensive they are also dead wrong.
That is what a new wave of studies has been discovering, slaying assertions about universals right and left. One evo-psych claim that captured the public's imagination—and a 1996 cover story in NEWSWEEK—is that men have a mental module that causes them to prefer women with a waist-to-hip ratio of 0.7 (a 36-25-36 figure, for instance). Reprising the rape debate, social scientists and policymakers who worried that this would send impressionable young women scurrying for a measuring tape and a how-to book on bulimia could only sputter about how pernicious this message was, but not that it was scientifically wrong. To the contrary, proponents of this idea had gobs of data in their favor. Using their favorite guinea pigs—American college students—they found that men, shown pictures of different female body types, picked Ms. 36-25-36 as their sexual ideal. The studies, however, failed to rule out the possibility that the preference was not innate—human nature—but, rather, the product of exposure to mass culture and the messages it sends about what's beautiful. Such basic flaws, notes Bingham, "led to complaints that many of these experiments seemed a little less than rigorous to be underpinning an entire new field."

Later studies, which got almost no attention, indeed found that in isolated populations in Peru and Tanzania, men consider hourglass women sickly looking. They prefer 0.9s—heavier women. And last December, anthropologist Elizabeth Cashdan of the University of Utah reported in the journal Current Anthropology that men now prefer this non-hourglass shape in countries where women tend to be economically independent (Britain and Denmark) and in some non-Western societies where women bear the responsibility for finding food. Only in countries where women are economically dependent on men (such as Japan, Greece and Portugal) do men have a strong preference for Barbie. (The United States is in the middle.) Cashdan puts it this way: which body type men prefer "should depend on [italics added] the degree to which they want their mates to be strong, tough, economically successful and politically competitive."

Depend on? The very phrase is anathema to the dogma of a universal human nature. But it is the essence of an emerging, competing field. Called behavioral ecology, it starts from the premise that social and environmental forces select for various behaviors that optimize people's fitness in a given environment. Different environment, different behaviors—and different human "natures." That's why men prefer Ms. 36-25-36 in some cultures (where women are, to exaggerate only a bit, decorative objects) but not others (where women bring home salaries or food they've gathered in the jungle).
As is often the case, we have a clear example not just of an evo psych claim, being based on the prejudices of the proponents, but that their profound ignorance of the rather impressive degree of diversity of human cultures makes disproof exceedingly easy This Newsweek article is only the latest of a series of discussions of evolutionary psychology that I've seen. jhkim recently wrote a pair of posts about this issue that are also well worth reading. Here's his first post and here's an excellent follow-up post. These posts are an excellent examination of some of the many problems with evolutionary psychology, in response to the utterly ludicrous claim by a prominent game designer that evolutionary psychology (rather than sexism among both male gamers and male game designers) explains the reason why more women don't play RPGs.

It's long been clear that evolutionary psychology is often motivated by various personal or political prejudices, but the Newsweek article also clearly shows how much of it is also exceptionally bad science.

The article also discusses an emerging alternative to evolutionary psychology – behavioral ecology, a field which makes a great deal of sense based on my knowledge of anthropology, and the fact that learning is exceedingly important to many animals.
Where, then, does the fall of evolutionary psychology leave the idea of human nature? Behavioral ecology replaces it with "it depends"—that is, the core of human nature is variability and flexibility, the capacity to mold behavior to the social and physical demands of the environment. As Buller says, human variation is not noise in the system; it is the system. To be sure, traits such as symbolic language, culture, tool use, emotions and emotional expression do indeed seem to be human universals…

Depend on? The very phrase is anathema to the dogma of a universal human nature. But it is the essence of an emerging, competing field. Called behavioral ecology, it starts from the premise that social and environmental forces select for various behaviors that optimize people's fitness in a given environment. Different environment, different behaviors—and different human "natures." That's why men prefer Ms. 36-25-36 in some cultures (where women are, to exaggerate only a bit, decorative objects) but not others (where women bring home salaries or food they've gathered in the jungle).
The links in this post provide more evidence that, at least among primates, learned behaviors are exceptionally important and in a very real sense, we should perhaps be talking about the cultures of various primate groups.
Current Mood: busybusy

(15 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


[User Picture]
From:maxomai
Date:June 25th, 2009 12:48 am (UTC)
(Link)
It's interesting to me that nobody is taking a hatchet to EvPsych's specious explanations for compassion and altruism.
[User Picture]
From:heron61
Date:June 25th, 2009 07:29 am (UTC)
(Link)
Those are based on the theory of kin-selection and recently, Dr. E.O. Wilson, the man who came up with the basic idea of biologically based altruism and compassion is attacking the validity of kin-selection, so actually Wilson is doing just that. I've read that Richard Dawkins and his cronies are rather annoyed by Wilson's new ideas.
[User Picture]
From:mindstalk
Date:June 25th, 2009 08:52 am (UTC)
(Link)
Wilson didn't start it. Kin selection goes back to Fisher in 1930, then Haldane, and most importantly Hamilton, more than 10 years before Wilson's Sociobiology. George Williams and John Maynard Smith, too.

As for the haplodiploid complexities Wilson brings up, this paper describes evidence supporting inclusive fitness theory.

Your use of "Dawkins and his cronies" reveals, I think, a deep bias and prejudice on your part; the actual pioneers of the ideas are among the greatest names in 20th century biology. As someone who isn't a biologist, aren't you rather quick to render judgement, and to seize on evidence in a field of ongoing research that supports your preferences?

http://www.boston.com/news/science/articles/2008/11/10/eo_wilson_shifts_his_position_on_altruism_in_nature?mode=PF
[User Picture]
From:heron61
Date:June 25th, 2009 09:07 am (UTC)
(Link)
Your use of "Dawkins and his cronies" reveals, I think, a deep bias and prejudice on your part; the actual pioneers of the ideas are among the greatest names in 20th century biology.

I've read most of Wilson's Sociobiology and while I disagree with much of it, I fully agree that he's both impressively brilliant, and as one commentator mentioned about him - he knows more about ants than any other human ever has. I've read several essays on biology (as well as others on atheism) by Dawkins, and I'm far less impressed. In everything the man writes, I see a mixture of ideas and ideology, and I think most of his ideology is utter junk and so I admit having a fair degree of bias against his ideas.

In any case, thanks muchly for the link - I haven't read Wilson's latest book and he's clearly reworking his theories even more than I'd previously read.

Edit: Also Wilson didn't start it.

True, but is the person who came up with the idea of altruism being biologically based, and this basis depends upon kin selection. Thus Wislon questioning kin-selection calls his ideas about altruism into question, since group selection does not produce the same pay-offs.

Edited at 2009-06-25 09:14 am (UTC)
[User Picture]
From:mindstalk
Date:June 25th, 2009 02:21 pm (UTC)
(Link)
"but is the person who came up with the idea of altruism being biologically based"

What? No. It goes back to Darwin, who toyed with group selection, and all those names I mentioned were using kin selection to explain altruism without group selection. (Not to mention reciprocal altruism, and the presumed evolved emotions underlying that.)

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/altruism-biological/

If Wilson is questioning his ideas, but not convincing other scientists, what does that tell you?

And I'm not sure what you mean by group selection not producing "the same payoffs". Plus last night I saw some statements that his version of group selection can be expressed in selfish gene terms, but I didn't read anything detailed.


I've never read Sociobiology, though I did read a book by him and Holldobler on the ants, or maybe social insects in general. Also Consilience, which was interesting, though with a profoundly anti-transhumanist chapter. I've read all of Dawkins' books and he's generally seemed excellent. I wonder what you think his 'ideology' actually is; I'm more familiar with misreadings and projections in arguments about him.
[User Picture]
From:heron61
Date:June 25th, 2009 08:47 pm (UTC)
(Link)
Ah, the perils of writing at too late an hour. What I meant to saw was that Wilson came up with the idea of kinship-based altruism, where saving several cousins is worth as much as saving yourself. If kin-selection is disproven, then that argument no longer works. In any case, I had definitely thought that Wilson came up with that idea. OTOH, I read Sociobiology as an undergraduate, which has been rather a long time ago.

I've never read any of Consilience, how was it anti-transhumanist?
[User Picture]
From:mindstalk
Date:June 25th, 2009 09:09 pm (UTC)
(Link)
Even Wilson isn't saying kin selection is totally disproven, just arguing (without having won, yet) that it doesn't apply as thought for the haplodiploid species, vs. ecological considerations.

And no, he didn't. Like I said, Hamilton's the big one. "I would die for two children, 4 grandichildren, or 8 cousins."

It's later on in the book, after he's talked about the future consilience of biology and evolutionary psychology (broadly speaking) and culture regarding studies of human nature, and backing Homo sapiens vs. a hypothetical Homo proteus able to bend or break the old rules. I don't think he used the word transhumanist, but it was that vision he was afraid of.
[User Picture]
From:mindstalk
Date:June 25th, 2009 12:59 am (UTC)
(Link)
Some of that article seemed like questionable science. The initial thing, on rape and the Ache, describes a fitness model, so the results depend on the quality of the assumptions. And it sounds like it's talking about intratribal rape, which plausibly seems like a bad idea. But what about intertribal and warfare, where the costs from relatives of the woman is less?

If the male mind were adapted to prefer the most fertile women, then AARP-eligible men should marry 23-year-olds, which—Anna Nicole Smith and J. Howard Marshall notwithstanding—they do not, instead preferring women well past their peak fertility

Can you see any flaws in that line?

Like, say, the AARP-men might well prefer 23 year olds, but be limited in most cases by the preferences of the 23-year-olds? "Trophy wives" are a common enough phenomenon among those who can pull it off. The article is itself guilty there of ignoring female agency.

Personally I'd never thought 'modules' were an essential part of evo psych, though I admit they've been given a prominent role in places. I kind of think of evo psych as a repackaging of Wilson's sociobiology, which I see as fundamentally about evolved psychology, however that manifests. And the article ends noting that our genes seem to have evolved more quickly than expected; this erodes the idea of a universal Palaeolithic human nature, but it also opens up the field to the possibility of lots of genetically based variation in psychology, at the race/ethnic/bloodline level. If genes evolve over centuries then they can couple to persistent cultures; if a culture favors aggression for long enough, aggressive genes (e.g. higher testosterone levels) could get selected.
[User Picture]
From:merovingian
Date:June 25th, 2009 01:26 am (UTC)
(Link)
Yeah, evolutionary psychology, huh? It can't really be tested with any kind of scientific rigor. All you can do is take existing theories and spin out hypotheses that seem to make "rational sense" to you.

It's like a big echo chamber where privileged white males can loudly magnify their own creepy biases.
From:monstersandmanuals.blogspot.com
Date:June 25th, 2009 06:53 am (UTC)
(Link)
The title to this post should more accurately be: "Proof that an isolated study from over 10 years ago, which made some ill-advised claims, was nonsense."

I find it interesting that the so-called "evidence" disproving a universal human nature is always so desparately peripheral. The preferred waist-hip ratio in the female body is not an important matter to anybody who isn't clutching at straws; where are the studies which show that in some cultures in the world people have no conception of hope, have no sense of humour, do not enjoy a good story, do not argue, do not have any concept of faith, do not dream, do not like pretty colours, do not love, do not experience grief, do not understand shame, or do not have a spoken language? That's the kind of study which would prove that there aren't any human universals - but you'd have to a study on each of those universals and many, many more.

The fact that there is a universal human nature should be so banal as to be beyond discussion. It's why, for example, I've been able to live in the UK, France, Israel, Kyrgyzstan and Japan and make friends, socialise, find work, and generally get along. And why millions more have that exact same experience. The evidence is right in front of one's face; you might as well point out that a tabby cat and a tortoiseshell have different markings, while missing the point that they both like to eat fish, say 'miaow' a lot, and laze about the house.
[User Picture]
From:heron61
Date:June 25th, 2009 07:26 am (UTC)
(Link)
I know essentially nothing about Kyrgyzstan, but all the rest of those nations are highly cosmopolitan nations where people share a great deal in common in terms of both their daily lives (TVs, cars, cellphones, modern cities, the nature of the common types of jobs...). I suspect that making friends among the Ya̧nomamö would be rather more difficult.

I'm also not denying that there are human universals, but the idea that modern (mostly US) attitudes and prejudices about gender, sex, friendship, and aggression are the same is ludicrous and it lies at the heart of the idiocy that is called evolutionary psychology. Then again, this is a field where professionals with PhDs publish moronic idiocy like this study proposing that gender preferences in toys are innate because monkeys share the same preferences in toys as humans. The sort of nonsensical claims that the Newsweek article debunks make most of what is published in evo psych by the people who are doing it. So, yes there are human universals and evo psych is never going to find them, because it's a fatally flawed discipline that reveals far more about the prejudices and biases of the people in it than it does about humanity as a whole.
[User Picture]
From:mindstalk
Date:June 25th, 2009 08:36 am (UTC)
(Link)
Facial expressions are supposedly the same across cultures, though some are more open with them. (Overlooked is the significance of tribesman who've never seen a photograph recognizing the people and faces in it.)

Why exactly are those monkey studies "moronic idiocy"?

Isn't a common hallmark of transgender being the identification with the "other" gender's clothing and toys at a young age, despite strong social pressure?

Anecdotally, I think a fair number of 'enlightened' parents have reported trying and failing to break the traditional toy molds with their children. And a vague mechanism is easy to imagine: not a "gene for trucks", that's silly, but different relative preferences for humanoid toys vs. toys that favor gross motor movements.

Then there's studies like http://scienceblogs.com/cognitivedaily/2009/06/six-month-olds_prefer_differen.php though this one is flawed (color/shape conflation). Comment 30 is interesting.
[User Picture]
From:heron61
Date:June 25th, 2009 09:34 am (UTC)
(Link)
Why exactly are those monkey studies "moronic idiocy"?

In addition to there being no solid evidence that the monkeys relate to these toys remotely like human children do, combined with a tiny sample size, and I'm willing to bet (as has been the case in many such studies) the controls the experiment (such as the actions and attitudes of observers visible to the monkeys) was very sloppy indeed (although the last is merely speculation, based on reading about the methodology of many other fatally flawed evo psych studies.

Anecdotally, I think a fair number of 'enlightened' parents have reported trying and failing to break the traditional toy molds with their children.

Multiple studies have proven consistent behavior differences in infants less than a week old, solely depending upon whether adults perceive them to be male or female. Socialization, including gender socialization starts moments after birth, and all of the stories I've heard about parents dealing with gendered behavior in their children are when the children are at least two - that's two years of socialization by the parents and everyone else the child deals with. Even in the study you link to, the children have had months of the sort of gender socialization that produces very rapid behavior changes.
[User Picture]
From:pw201
Date:June 25th, 2009 09:10 am (UTC)
(Link)
The comments cast some doubt on the article, I think: patbarclay and darwinkilledgod@gmail.com wrote convincing rebuttals. I'm naturally suspicious of popular journalists reporting that some theory in science has been completely overturned. Conflict with clear baddies and goodies sells papers, but I'm not sure that's what's going on among the scientists themselves.

(Which isn't to say the popular reporting of ev psych stuff isn't equally as bad, plus your linked articles complaining about LJ people making up just-so stories about D&D and so on are pretty funny. But are those LJ people professionals in ev psych who're making the claim as a result of research? If not, what's the relevance the fact that people on LJ say stupid stuff to the theory itself?)
[User Picture]
From:heron61
Date:June 25th, 2009 09:31 am (UTC)
(Link)
I agree that the comments on lj are nothing more than pointing out obvious bias, but lack any real rigor. However, I highly recommend this article that I linked to above. Also, for discussion of genetics and environment and of biology and gender, you can't go wrong reading almost anything by Anne Fausto Sterling.

Also, while I haven't read it, I've heard interesting and positive things about E.O. Wilson's latest book, where he effectively re-evaluated and repudiates many of his former claims (at least where insects are concerned).

> Go to Top
LiveJournal.com