SocraticGadfly: Pop Ev Psych and sexism

February 23, 2013

Pop Ev Psych and sexism

Legitimate evolutionary psychology, as it has developed, has enough problem with scientific rigor, especially on gender issues. That all starts with its idea of an environment of evolutionary adaptiveness, or EEA. (Scratch that; I think ALL ev psych, even with the bathwater thrown out, is borderline pseudoscientific.)

Ev Psych "conveniently" postulates a long history of Homo sapiens as hunter-gatherers, with noble, brawny males battling to hunt down big game while dutiful demure women gathered up tubers, roots and herbs.

However, early in H. sapiens' history, and going back to our Homo erectus predecessors, we were scavenger-gatherers long before, and for many millennia before, become hunter gatherers. Nothing "noble" about it. Nothing particular androcentric about it, either. 

Of course, that's actually three scientific problems, or more.
  • Getting human development wrong by ignoring scavenger-gathererers;
  • Trying to artificially constrain the "evolutionary" part by limiting it to homo sapiens;
  • Either accidentally or willfully putting Nos 1 and 2 in the service of sexist conclusions.  
That said, as someone who accepts the neo-Darwinian findings of evolution by natural selection, I don't argue with the baseline idea, that as hominids, including but not limited to H. sapiens, evolved, so did the minds expressed by their brains in interaction with their external environments.

I do object to the things above.

Beyond that, I object to:
  • Making unfalsifiable statements, especially ones we may NEVER be able to falsify. And, given that brains generally don't fossilize, that covers a lot of territory.
  • Telling "just-so" stories, for which Steve Gould, especially, criticized evolutionary psychologists. 
Pop Evolutionary Psychology is to legitimate ev psych (to the degree it's becoming more legit) as Dan Dennett's idea of folk psychology is to legitimate psychology (to the degree psychology is becoming more legit scientifically). And, in going beyond the first three issues with much of ev pscyh, Pop Ev Psychers seem determined to be egregious about the second set of bullet points.

(Note: This post was inspired, originally, and developed from, one I did about sexual objectification among Pop Ev Psychers and nth-wave feminists alike. And, yes, feminists can be sexists, just like blacks or other populations can be racists.)

The  EEA, being based on sexist ideas about hunter-gatherer societies’ operation, as well as further sexist ideas that Homo sapiens had a long period as hunter-gatherers when we probably had just as much a period as less sexy scavenger-gatherers, has shown itself to be bathed in about as much an aroma of sexism as a bottle of Old Spice gone past its expiration date. (This long and colorful metaphor assumes Old Spice has an expiration date, of course.) And, Pop Ev Psychers like to treat it like the Nicene Creed

Example No. 1 is like shooting fish in a barrel Randy Thornhill claiming rape isevolutionarily adaptive. Tosh. Bullshit.

In pre-state tribe/band sized societies, you raped once, inside your clan, you were likely killed. There was little hierarchical structure for a chieftan, jefe or whomever to "pull rank" to rape lower-class women, either.

You raped some woman in another band? You immediately started a small-scale war, most likely satisfied when your clan handed you over ot the other clan to be put to death by them.

So, even if you were 100 percent sure your rape caused a pregnancy, it was only a break-even on "adaptiveness" if you were caught immediately. And, rape appears to be less likely to cause pregnancy than even the hit-and-miss of normal human sexual intercourse.   

Short of rape, though, there's plenty of other "just so" storytelling that's sexist.

Here's another. Theoretically, based on porn or whatever, we men in the modern West like big boobs. But,  Pop Ev Psychers claim that a genetic variation that appears to have given East Asian women, on average, smaller breasts, possibly to adapt to its cold winters (and per Jerry Coyne, even the issue that the genetic change coded for small breasts is debatable) was actually driven by sexual selection.
But Joshua Akey, a geneticist at the University of Washington in Seattle, said he thought the more likely cause of the gene’s spread among East Asians was sexual selection. Thick hair and small breasts are visible sexual signals which, if preferred by men, could quickly become more common as the carriers had more children.
There's a just-so story staring the likes of Ed Clint right in the face. 

Here's Coyne's take, though:
He wonders how the researchers concluded that the variant EDAR gene shrinks breasts at all, given that mice don’t have breasts­at least, they don’t have pronounced lumps on their chests the way people do.  
Er ... good point.

That said, such nuttery has better-known touters than Joshua Akey.  

Per Massimo Pigliucci, it seems Michael Shermer's also still swimming in the waters of Pop Ev Psych sexism. Gee, what a shock!

Here's Shermer, in an ongoing dialogue about how much science does (Pigliucci) or does not (Shermer) need philosophy to guide discussions of ethics:
Most men, for example, are much more receptive toward unsolicited offers of sex than are women. 
Just wow. And, as Massimo notes, simply not true!  

Shermer then goes on to claim rape is scientifically shows to be immoral, ignoring that Pop Ev Psycher Randy Thornhill claimed it was evolutionarily adaptive! Now, it is not true that everything adaptive should be moral. However, since Shermer himself has previously mangled David Hume's classic is-ought distinction, which in turn led to this dialogue between him and Pigliucci, I think it's legit to hoist him on this petard.

Meanwhile, it's not just differences in sexual desire. Whether it's Pop Ev Psych or John Gray-type pop psychology, the whole "men are from Mars, women from Venus," is getting more and more refutation.
"Sex is not nearly as confining a category as stereotypes and even some academic studies would have us believe," study researcher Bobbi Carothers, a senior data analyst at Washington University in St. Louis, said in a statement. 
Are there differences? Yes:
Carothers, who completed the research as part of her doctoral dissertation at the University of Rochester, and her colleagues are not denying that men and women often do differ from one another. Women, for example, are known to have higher levels of anxiety than men, on average, and to react to bad news with more stress. Studies also turn up gender differences in aggression, sexuality, frequency of smiling, and body image, Carothers and her colleagues wrote.

But researchers haven't spent much time examining the structure of these differences, Carothers wrote. It's possible, for example, that men and women usually fall into distinct groups. In this categorical world, knowing someone is a man would automatically tell you that he's aggressive, interested in short-term sex over long-term relationships, good at math and bad verbally. Alternatively, gender differences could occur more often on a continuum. You might know someone is a man, but it would tell you little about his skills with math. 

Which possibility is more likely might seem clear to anyone who has ever known a guy who can't figure out a tip to save his life. But humans tend toward categorical thinking, the researchers wrote, and gender is about as basic a category as you can get.
Bingo. And here's some specific issues where gender differences are an overlapping continuum:
Men and women fell along a continuum on such measures as interest in casual sex, frequency of thoughts about sex, and the appeal of certain traits such as virginity, looks and wealth in a mate. The same was true of attitudes toward close relationships, empathy and other interpersonal factors.

In other words, if told that a person is more than 6 feet tall, you would be pretty safe in guessing that they were a guy. If told that a person is very empathic, you'd be much harder-pressed to correctly guess their gender.
So, let's just put this "men are from horndog, women are from demure" idea on ice. It's insulting to both sexes. It perpetuates stereotypes, many of which then translate into our legal system, such as judges still occasionally admonishing rape victims about how they dress. 

Oh, and women don't talk more than men, either. 

Their "gap" on spacial relations skills appears to be at least somewhat culturally driven.

But, a lot of people like to assume they do. And, there have been Pop Ev Psych just-so stories about that, too.
And, on the psychology side of Pop Ev Psych, let's make sure that claims aren't being made on the basis of biased psychological studies, with such bias including gender bias. (Per Robert Sapolsky, in "moving backward" from Pop Ev Psych to some thought within evolutionary biology in general on sexual selection, such sexism isn't confined to thoughts about human evolution.) It also seems that Pop Ev Psychers, like drug companies, don't have any problems with being "selective" on how they frame their research or on what results they report.

Now, I’m not saying there are no sex-based differences in formulation and expression of sexual desire. But, the differences are smaller than either Pop Ev Psychers, nth-wave feminists or male-hierarchy Christians will admit. And, all three are similar in throwing bullshit ideas against the wall, hoping something will socially stick, either due to religious prejudice (the Christians), reverse sex prejudice plus tribalism (the nth-wave feminists) or sex prejudice cloaked in pseudoscience (Pop Ev Psychers).

I'm also not saying every Pop Ev Psycher, let alone every legit evolutionary psychologist, has such sexual issues, but, unless anybody close to a Thornhill is deliberately marginalized, the legit movement risks getting tarred with this big, black brush.

And, speaking of "black," what if such Pop Ev Psych sexist nonsense statements were made about blacks vs. whites?

Well, maybe we don't totally have to.

I've blogged this before, but I'm going to do so again.

Shermer has had two known racialists, Frank Miele and the recently deceased Vince Sarich, on the masthead of Skeptic magazine.

The two co-wrote "Race," a horrible racialist book which believes the different races are subspecies headed toward speciation, ignores the cultural background of IQ tests and much more, as I note in this review. A sampling:
On page 1, the authors misinterpret a Lincoln quote about the difference between races, and infer that, rather than talking about the sociologocial fallouts from a clearly perceived difference in skin colors, Lincoln was talking about deeper differences in physical attributes. ...

Page 9 - Going with their unproven -- and logically fallacious idea-generating -- 50,000 year date for the evolution of modern Homo sapiens, Miele and Sarich then use this to bootstrap their own arguments about the degree of difference between races, claiming this shows how rapidly human evolution can progress. It's clear circular reasoning based on an already assumed point of view.

Pages 9-10 have a laughably racist "genetic" rather than sociological assumption of evidence for various types of athletic prowess. ...

And, the piece de resistance on page 10 -- the "mean sub-Saharan African IQ of 70." All together, now, can we say Bell Curve?
How bad is it, and are/were they? They're both associates of A-grade racialist Philippe Rushton. With Rushton, at least, I am comfortable with removing the second syllable from the word "racialism."

It's yet more reason not to trust Shermer on any issues like this. Given that racialists like this mentioned above and Arthur Jensen and others, have spouted just-so stories about alleged differences in brain sizes, brain size vs. penis size and more, I have no doubt some racialists have a foot in the currents of Pop Ev Psych.   

I'll also counter Shermer's "scientism" with repeated recent revelations of cheating on grants, Ben Goldacre's whole new book about selective research reporting in the pharmaceutical industry, and more.

Say, Joseph Mengele? Eugenics "research" in the US? Arthur Jensen? Shockley?

Science is, to riff on Euclid, NO royal road to morality. Period. End of story. 

And, as I've said before, science in general is no guarantor of morality. Science badly practiced, or abused and twisted, though, usually is a guarantor of bad ethics, sometimes in narrow ways, sometimes in broad ones.

Besides that, Pop Ev Psych, and to some degree "legit" ev psych, "whiff" on more than sexism. More below the fold.

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.

So, a narrow EEA theoretically kills out discussing the psychology of trichromatic color vision. 

The argument by reverse analogy on this point, the existence of multiple hominid species during the Pleistocene, etc., probably demonstrate why Michael Shermer, and professional Pop Ev Psychers like Ed Clint, try to wall off their field from philosophy. They know that some simple informal logic and some thought experiments are easily enough to refute them.

Per Massimo Pigliucci, this problem of "scientism," sometimes coming from scientists, but often coming from the so-called "scientific skepticism" movement of folks like Shermer, Brian Dunning, et al, is widespread. In the likes of a Dan Dennett, it even has its camel's nose inside the tent of philosophy. It's "greedy reductionism," pure and simple, to hoist Dennett by his own petard.

That greedy reductionism shows up in Pop Ev Psych by claiming a "universal human nature," which David Buller thoroughly refutes.
And, speaking of Shermer, Dunning and adding Steve Pinker, a lot of this appears to have political roots.

In his introduction to his book "The Blank Slate," Pinker says, in essence:
Dear liberals: This is what the world of evolutionary psychology has found. Accept it, and deal with it. Change your programs and paradigms, because you're officially, scientifically, wrong.
And, it's not just there where he takes this stance.

A few years back, Pinker had a long interview in the New York Times Magazine. An extended comment of his on page 2 jumped out at me:
The most prominent finding of behavioral genetics has been summarized by the psychologist Eric Turkheimer: “The nature-nurture debate is over. . . . All human behavioral traits are heritable.” By this he meant that a substantial fraction of the variation among individuals within a culture can be linked to variation in their genes. Whether you measure intelligence or personality, religiosity or political orientation, television watching or cigarette smoking, the outcome is the same. Identical twins (who share all their genes) are more similar than fraternal twins (who share half their genes that vary among people). Biological siblings (who share half those genes too) are more similar than adopted siblings (who share no more genes than do strangers). And identical twins separated at birth and raised in different adoptive homes (who share their genes but not their environments) are uncannily similar.
Simply not true. Twin studies have been overinterpreted. All such studies in the past ignore issues of epigenetics, which is going to wind up being a major stumbling block to Pop Ev Psych and somewhat of one even to legit versions of the enterprise.

Beyond that, on twins? Even identical ones?

First, identical twins themselves differ on when after fertilization the twinning event occurred:• Do they have separate amniotic sacs and placentas?
• Share a sac but with different placentas?
• Share even placentas?

All of the above are of course environmental and not genetic effects, but Pinker conveniently ignores that.

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