December 04, 2012

Two wrongs definitely don't make a right for Pop Ev Psych (updated)

Far be it from me to agree with Rebecca Watson (and I simply don't agree with her cheap "cribbing" of her ideas), but she's right indeed that Pop Ev Psych isn't all it cracks itself up to be.

(Note: This post have been extensively updated since my original posting.)

And, a blog post by Ed Clint at Skeptic Ink that indulges in over-the-top defense of not just the 25 percent or so of evolutionary psychology study that's legit, but the whole field, Pop Ev Psych and all, doesn't make itself right by totally unsubstantiated claims.

First, the idea of a single Environment of Evolutionary Adaptiveness is not scientifically falsifiable or testable. Legit Ev Psych would be better off junking the idea entirely. This, the idea of an EEA, is usually a time-based claim that human psychology massively evolved in the Pleistocene.

Bullshit. On several counts.

Humans rely on vision more than any other sense, and the last major evolution in vision was the re-evolution of a third cone cell for trichromatic vision a couple of million years before hominids evolved, but arguably more important than just about any evolution that happened within the genus Homo within the Pleistocene.. On the other hand, humans as social animals are hugely dependent on language, which evolved just 50,000 years ago, roughly. (I had previously, in the emotional heat of the first writing, credited re-evolution of trichromatic vision to hominids and not primate ancestors, and apologize for the mistake.)

Beyond that is the claim that hominids were hunter-gatherers during this time. 

More bullshit. We were usually scavenger-gatherers. Much less "noble." It's quite likely that we didn't become hunter-gatherers until after the invention of fire, and then cooking, which has been postulated as a major factor in the evolution of homo sapiens, and not just hominids in general.

Related to that, we can't, as of now, and likely ever, due to the rarity of brain imprint fossilization, to say nothing of how little such imprints on the inside of skulls can actually tell us anyway, point to one time period in human history and say evolutionary development related to human psychology was either more critical at this point or more rapid at this point.

Again, that's not testable now and probably never will be.

Beyond that, there's a variety of hominid species within the Pleistocene. So, there's massive imprecision there, as well as a "confounding" of homo sapiens and predecessor species.

A variety of hominids cover that 2 million year period. Can psychological evolution of homo sapiens really be explained by psychological evolution of homo erectus? Would you explain the psychology of the modern horse in terms of Eohippus, or even something halfway between?

Beyond that, here's a way of putting it by analogy.

As long as legitimate evolutionary psychology remains wedded to the concept of the EEA as a lynchpin of theorizing, it's like psychology was 50 years ago, when behavioralism was still "in the saddle." Or 70 years ago, when Freudianism still ruled.

That's how scientific the EEA is. Period. It's about one or two steps above junk science. If that.

Oh, and commenters? Rather than talk about my attitude, tell me where I'm wrong, especially about the EEA. Tell me where, since 2009 and Buller's crushing response in Scientific American, he's been proven wrong. Or, per my own observations, tell me you can view the speed of evolution as uniform over the entire Pleistocene, and uniform from earlier hominids to humans.

As for doing comparative study with our primate kin, like chimps and bonobos? We may know how their brains or their genes evolved since our common-ancestor split, but we have no idea of how their culture evolved, nor do we have any idea of how various epigenetic influences affected their genetic expression. And, in both cases, again, we likely never will. (And, as the recent history of Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, and older history of primate research has shown, sometimes, "detachment/attachment" issues get in the way of research.)

That's why, within legit Ev Psych, the most acceptable claims are the ones that are, in general, the most narrowly stated.

For more on my thoughts on the subject in general, here's the link to my post tag for Pop Evolutionary Psychology, and for Evolutionary Psychology. (Posts may have some overlap, being tagged for both.)

Second, contra claims in that blog post (linking to the Center for Evolutionary Psychology) that David Buller, the leading critic of over-the-top claims of Ev Pysch, Pop or otherwise, have been refuted? Simply not true. In 2008, after the last serious attempt at refutation, Buller crushed his critics. Period. End of story. Since then, they've remained shut up. 

And, I'm not the only skeptical type to find Watson largely on target. Read James Croft.
Proof that Atheist Plusers don't do criticism well?

That said, regular readers of my blog know that I have nothing but scorn for Atheist Plusers, especially the likes of Rebecca Watson, even more than for "old" Gnu Atheists. In fact, I have blogged specifically about the start of the "pluser movement."

Bottom line? Watson is a twit aspiring for intellectual pretensions. "Lucky" for her, she hit gold in stumbling on something that to some degree (Randy Tanehill and the adaptiveness of rape, anybody) halfway fit her concerns about sexism, even if she did crib all her arguments. It's too bad that there's not a better refutation of Watson at SkepticInk than this one, which is, in its last part, worthy of ridicule itself. And, so, Rebecca winds up with a new tar baby. 

(And, if any of the commenters so far object to my attitude toward Watson, not Pop Ev Psych, I'm not even debating you. She "lifted" her comments on the blog via some cheap Googling.)

And, great, or "great." Stephanie Zvan has jumped in the fray; nth-wave feminism tidal wave ahead. That's what's behind the picture just above.

On the third hand, one can criticize both Watson and people who skirt too close to Pop Ev Psych. If it's Rebecca Watson vs. Ed Clint, and somebody's trying to make me take a Hobson's choice, I want the deck reshuffled.

More below the fold, mainly back to my thoughts on legitimate evolutionary psychology and what the field needs to do to become more legitimate.

Per the second of my two tag links, I've never objected to the idea of legitimate work on evolutionary psychology. Humans have evolved, including the evolution of their brain, their sensory systems, etc., and therefore the human mind and its expression have evolved. No-brainer.

But, in general, the study of the evolutionary evolution of the human mind hasn't itself greatly evolved. Yes, perhaps Leda Cosmides is halfway on the right track now as opposed to 25 years ago. But, why did it take so long, and how did she get started so far off base in general?

Why is the EEA made into the linchpin of ev psych today? Why dod people who aren't Pop Ev Psychers feel the EEA has to be a linchpin. Etc., etc.

And, as long as legitimate evolutionary psychologists think the EEA has to be the methodological linchpin of their work, they cripple their work, from where I stand.

These are the types of questions that philosophers of science like Buller (and educated laypeople like me, no matter what you think of my "attitude" ask of a scientific discipline when it won't ask the questions of itself. And perhaps, going beyond Buller, that's part of the problem with ev psych today — it's not that self-reflective yet.

This isn't even getting into the issue of "just-so stories," where Ed Clint is also wrong, and Steve Gould, whom one of his links criticizes, is also right. Yes, legit evolutionary psychology istn't as bad at that as it used to be on that, either, but it still does it.

To the Ed Clints of the world? The burden of cleaning up evolutionary psychology is nowhere near done. Either stop defending it so blindly or call me back in 20-30 years.

Otherwise, this whole issue is frustrating. If legitimate theorizers (and researchers, to the degree that can be done) had been honest about evolutionary psychology's shortcomings 10 years ago, and admitted that some of them were structural, rather than shooting the messengers like Buller (and on a smaller scale, myself), we wouldn't be having the Rebecca Watsons and Stephanie Zvans of the world tilting at this particular windmill.

And, beyond that, we might actually be having more legitimate research done, or at least more realistic theorizing leading to research. And, we might have legitimate evolutionary psychologists not having to face such a gantlet of skepticism. I stand by what I said above: At least 50 percent, if not 75 percent, of what claims to be legitimate evolutionary psychology today is still problematic. 

We might also get legitimate ev psychers to address group selection (sorry, "dissers," but it's real), epigenetic influences to the small degree those can be checked for, cultural evolution (especially to the degree it connects to group selection) and more.

As it is now, whenever I see a book that professes to have some legitimate evolutionary psychology insights, one of my two eyeballs reads the book doing little more than looking for errors. Not factual errors, but methodological and framing errors.

Tell me, Mr. Clint and other blanket defenders of evolutionary psychology, if you had a book on astronomy and you felt you had to read it that way, what would you think about astronomy as a science? Or since non-evolutionary psychology has advanced beyond Freudianism and behavioralism after all, if you had to read every psychology book that way, what would you think about psychology as a science? 

And, no, this isn't an example of a non-expert stepping out of his league to critique and criticize where he shouldn't. 

First, experts from both philosophy of science (Buller) and a related scientific field of paleontology (Gould) have offered similar critiques. And, speaking of philosophy, many of my critiques are about methodology, parameters and definitions. These are all issues of philosophy, generally related to logic, and within that, to a nontechnical informal logic. Any reasonably logical person could make such a critique. 

There's also one other issue, and that's that of the relationship between legitimate evolutionary psychology and Pop Ev Psych. It's like the relationship between liberal Protestantism and young-earth creationist tea-party supporting fundamentalists. Secularists like I wish that liberal Christians were more forthright, more often, in denouncing the "mouth breathers." That said, liberal Christians are, overall, a model of proactiveness, often, on this issue as compared to legit evolutionary psychologists vs. Pop Ev Psychers. Oh, sure, the most egregious examples, like Randy Tanehill claiming rape is adaptive, get shouted down, though even that didn't happen immediately. But too much still is let fly.


Anonymous said...

You certainly have a high opinion of yourself. Does anyone live up to your minimum standards?

Gadfly said...

And you appear to have an even higher opinion of yourself, Mr/Ms Anonymous. Assuming you came here from Skeptic Ink, Pop Ev Psych is still basically untrue. And the claims on that page are definitely not all true. As for the comments on the post? David Buller and others have made many of the same. But not all, and not in exactly the same ways. I do my own thinking.

Marcel Kincaid said...

"And you appear to have an even higher opinion of yourself"

There's no evident basis for that idiotic tu quoque.

Gadfly said...

And, someone else knows how to call me out in Latin for saying, "So's your old man."

Well, Marcel, Anonymous could have actually tried to debate any of the things I said, but instead, chose to make a snarky emotional statement.

So: Tu quoque maxime.