May 09, 2012

The "violent ape": #Pinker, #PopEvPsych refuted again

John Horgan does an excellent job of refuting the idea that humans are somehow "naturally violent," which in turn undercuts the thesis of Steve Pinker's new book in a new way. (Pinker is right that private violence has fallen in much of the world, but anybody who looks at modern war knows that his thesis of modern-time drops in violence in general is more tenuous.)


The real problem, somewhat even with non-pop evolutionary psychology, but much more with Pop Ev Psych, is the weight the discipline puts on the environment of evolutionary adaptedness, or EEA. This has four main problems.

First is trying to fix a "starting point" for starting the clock on this; second is getting details of that starting point wrong, which is where Horgan comes. Third is general lack of information. Fourth is a philosophical issue.

Some of this I've blogged before, but some is new.

On the starting point issue, the "tree" of hominid evolution, compared to what we knew 20 years ago, seems to have, well, multiple trunks. Where do we find "one starting point"? Related to that, evolutionary biologists tell us about ancestors of humans and chimpanzees interbreeding after their "split."

The second point? Pop Ev Psychers want to make early members of genus Homo into almost stereotypical burly male hunter-gatherers. The reality? We were, to all appearances, not-so-burly scavenger-gatherers many millennia before. And, for Pop Ev Psychers, this sleight of hand appears to be politically driven, related to wanting to see a high level of nature-driven gender difference today, with many of them being libertarian/conservative. (I specifically noted this in blogging about Pinker's "The Blank Slate." Beyond that are bigger issues yet.

That's point three, the lack of knowledge.

First of all, ancient DNA doesn't generally fossilize. So, we have little information about what drove many evolutionary changes, just that they happened.

Second of all, genes aren't destiny. To the point, in making cross-species comparisons today, we know little about human epigenetics and about bupkis about chimp epigenetics. Relatd to that, did famed "botttleneck" points in human (or chimp) evolution have major epigenetic as well as genetic effects?

Finally, point four — philosophy. Pop Ev Psych appears to ignore Hume's famous is/ought dictum. That often seems to relate to the politics under point two.

On the lack of knowledge/information, I'm just touching lightly.

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