Monday, February 26, 2007

Just-So Stories

 
Fanciful evolutionary explanations that have little connection to facts are called "just-so" stories after the collection of stories by Rudyard Kipling. I just found a website with all of the the just so stories [Just So Stories]. It's worth reading a few to get some idea of what we're talking about when we say that the "explanations" of evolutionary psychology, for example, are no better than just-so stories.

The illustration is from The Elephant's Child, a story about how the elephant got its trunk.
'Come hither, Little One,' said the Crocodile, 'for I am the Crocodile,' and he wept crocodile-tears to show it was quite true.

Then the Elephant's Child grew all breathless, and panted, and kneeled down on the bank and said, 'You are the very person I have been looking for all these long days. Will you please tell me what you have for dinner?'

'Come hither, Little One,' said the Crocodile, 'and I'll whisper.'

Then the Elephant's Child put his head down close to the Crocodile's musky, tusky mouth, and the Crocodile caught him by his little nose, which up to that very week, day, hour, and minute, had been no bigger than a boot, though much more useful.

'I think,' said the Crocodile--and he said it between his teeth, like this--'I think to-day I will begin with Elephant's Child!'

At this, O Best Beloved, the Elephant's Child was much annoyed, and he said, speaking through his nose, like this, 'Led go! You are hurtig be!'

35 comments:

  1. Chepe Noyon here. Once again a snowstorm has killed power to my remote abode, and once again I write from my wife's office, and so once again I must post anonymously.

    Larry, I've been laying for you on this one. I believe that your dismissal of evolutionary theory as "just so stories" has no rational basis. I'd therefore like to expand on that belief.

    Any historical theory (a theory that explains a current phenomenon by reference to past events) is necessarily untestable, hence the old bugaboo that evolutionary psychology is untestable cannot be applied here. Before you get all worked up about the Absolute Necessity of Testability, may I remind you that the Big Bang Theory is just as untestable as evolutionary psychology. Any untestability arguments you offer against evo psych are equally applicable to Big Bang.

    Consider the means that we have for accepting or rejecting a historical theory. We start off with observations collected today that we believe apply to the past. We then apply whatever theoretical models we have that bear on the phenomenon and do some logic on it all. This allows us to make predictions about the implications of the observation in terms of behavior. We check those predictions against reality, and if they check out, then we conclude that our reasoning is sound.

    For example, we note that the metabolic cost of having children is very low for males (who have only to manufacture and inject sperm) and very high for females (who must make the eggs and gestate the progeny). We can then do some logic on that information to conclude that males should show greater behavioral inclination towards copulation than females. Then we check our hypothesis against reality. Gollee gee, it certainly is true with homo sapiens!

    Note here that we're discussing behavior, not morphology or metabolism or anything tangible. We can't dig up behavioral fossils proving that this really happened. That doesn't mean that the theory is unreliable -- try digging up fossils for the Big Bang Theory.

    This does not mean that such theories are not falsifiable. Falsifiability can be established by applying the same logic to make predictions that we can test against reality. For example, suppose that we discovered a species in which, for some reason, the metabolic cost for the male to have children was higher than the metabolic cost for the female. Our logic would predict that, in this species, males would be less inclined toward copulation than females. We could test this prediction against reality, and if it turned out to be wrong, then we have falsified the theory.

    What possible criticism can you make of this process?

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  2. It's worth reading a few to get some idea of what we're talking about when we say that the "explanations" of evolutionary psychology, for example, are no better than just-so stories.

    It's worth reading all of them, because they're amongst the finest writing for children in the English language. Not all of Kipling's adult work has aged well, but the Just So stories are extraordinary.

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  3. I have no problem with Larry's post. The only problem occurs when creationists or other people with an ax to grind take legitimate, well-tested evolutionary hypotheses and call *those* "just-so stories." That is infuriating, and no more legitimate than saying "your explanation saying that different alleles determine eye color is a just-so story."

    What *really* chaps my [bleep] is when the people tossing around the "just-so story" accusation are themselves promoting nothing more than "ID/God did it" or their own exceedingly silly idea (genes from space or whatever). This sort of thing is the biggest know-nothing "just-so story" ever.

    The website Larry links to is a creationist website however, and quite often it is doing what I describe above -- often taking news reports and press releases rather than going to the original research. When they catch people making loose remarks about evolution did X without documentation, great, but when they say that "humans evolved from a common ancestor with apes" is a just-so story -- which I'm sure they would -- then they're just being dumb.

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    1. --What *really* chaps my [bleep] is when the people tossing around the "just-so story" accusation are themselves promoting nothing more than "ID/God did it" or their own exceedingly silly idea (genes from space or whatever).--

      The above statement is an excellent example of the near ubiquitous "genetic fallacy" that appears in one form or another in threads such as this one. Supposing a proposition or argument is inherently flawed simply because it issues from a source that freely acknowledges a paradigmatic position that has some intellectually bearing on a particular topic at hand the argument is unabashed bias - a cognitive distortion that obfuscates discussions and frustrates efforts aimed at getting at the truth of something.

      Any proposition or argument is likely true (when considering inductively derived conclusions) if and only if it comports with reality, possesses well-evidenced premises from which the conclusion is properly inferred.

      With respect to "just-so"stories, the argument is that the proposed evolutionary trajectory for a particular life form stems from unwarranted inferences that are based on premises that are not supported by one or neither an adequate sample of strong evidence and/or data inappropriately adduced as evidenced.

      As an example, in my opinion, for which I don't have time to adequately argue, the strength of the overall argument that modern humans evolved from a common ancestor with the chimpanzee is weak and should therefore, pending future empirically based discoveries of relevant data, be rejected - though an honest skeptic ought not close off this possibility in view of the ongoing discoveries, particularly along East Africa's Rift Valley. Skeletal similarities in contrast to their dissimilarities, specifically skull and jaw/teeth fossils, observed between modern humans and certain candidate ancestral specimens is not persuasive especially in view of the myriad incongruous temporal sequences in the speculative hominid evolutionary line. I recognize that other finds (such as site and regional artifacts, ecofacts, structures and formations) have been brought to bear in support of this hypothesis but ultimately the argument for human evolution turns on the interpretation of the collection of Paleolithic bones and their dates. Any narrative such as the one describing the selective pressures that evolved human altruism must necessarily represent "just-so" stories because if we view the general argument for human evolution as remarkably weak, as I do, then any argument predicated on this basic more fundamental (though unsubstantiate) argument of human evolution must necessarily be all the weaker. In view of scientific standards for evidence, arguments that impinge on the topic of evolutionary human neuropsychology are rightfully understood to be nothing more than fanciful story telling - just so.

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    2. Robert J. Simpson says,

      ... the strength of the overall argument that modern humans evolved from a common ancestor with the chimpanzee is weak and should therefore, pending future empirically based discoveries of relevant data, be rejected

      and he also says ....

      ... ultimately the argument for human evolution turns on the interpretation of the collection of Paleolithic bones and their dates.

      The evidence that humans and chimps share a recent common ancestor is overwhelming. So much so that it is considered a scientific fact. The evidence would still be overwhelming if we had no fossils whatsoever.

      The fact that Robert Simpson doesn't know this is evidence of something but it's not what he thinks.

      Delete
  4. LM -- Are you arguing that there are "too many" just-so stories masquerading as real science in EP, or do you think that the entire EP enterprise itself is inherently flawed?

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  5. anonymous says,

    Larry, I've been laying for you on this one. I believe that your dismissal of evolutionary theory as "just so stories" has no rational basis.

    If I were dismissing evolutionary theory as just-so stories then I would agree with you.

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  6. Jeff Chamberlain asks,

    Are you arguing that there are "too many" just-so stories masquerading as real science in EP, or do you think that the entire EP enterprise itself is inherently flawed?

    Because there are too many just-so stories in evolutionary psychology, the entire discipline is flawed. In order to qualify as real science the discipline has to clean up its act and start distinguishing between facts and wishful thinking. It would help if all evolutionary psychologists took a course on evolution because it's clear that most of them don't understand it.

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  7. Larry, I meant to write "evolutionary psychology" when I wrote "evolutionary theory". My mistake. Sorry.

    Methinks. however, that thou are using that mistake of mine to evade responding to the substance of my comment. I provided a case in favor of evolutionary psychology. I presented an example in the form of male inclination towards high frequency of copulation. You have not responded to these. Please respond.

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  8. Chepe:

    I agree that the claim of "just so stories" are often raised without definition.

    Often it seems to be ad hoc theories, posing a mechanism that describes exactly the type of phenomena it is constructed to do. If it can not make other types of predictions, or make contact with a main theory, it is likely it will be shown wrong later. In the worst case, these ad hocs aren't reliably tested - and I get the feeling this often applies to evolutionary psychology.

    The rest of your comment concerns a pet peeve of mine, the usual misconception about "historical theories". Expect much bold text. :-)

    All our observations are in the past. There is no magic barrier to find here, just as there is no magic barrier for evolutionary change. The time between an event and its detection can be milliseconds to Ma in astronomy, depending on the travel time for the signal.

    Similarly, the analysis that produces the fact can be delayed. For example, in particle accelerators, medical research, astronomy or geology observations can be stored for years before they are accessed and produce data.

    So is there a difference? Yes, we don't initiate historical events. We can not for practical reasons set up the whole experiment (make black holes, for example) or we study a unique system (the universe, for example).

    But that is the only difference. In practice, it doesn't mean much. For example, historical events lets us make repeatable observations, exactly in the statistical sense we then require. We can observe several fossils from the same species by digging for more, or study several supernovas as their light reaches us. Again, there is no 'magical barrier'.

    One prime example of predictiveness and repeatability of "historical theories" is the find of Tiktaalik. The characteristics, layer age and layer type was predicted, and several observations of the species were made afterwards.

    So events can be historical, but it makes no discernible difference for science. What about theories? Since as we have seen evolution and cosmology describes both our history and our current situation, how can they be called "historical theories"? The term doesn't make sense.

    "the Big Bang Theory is just as untestable as evolutionary psychology"

    This is either a misconception about big bang or its observational consequences, or both. We live in big bang - it is the expansion process of the universe, from which we have 13.7 Ma data and expect much more. ;-)

    The observational consequences are numerous, like primordial nucleosynthesis (BBN), the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR), the cosmological structure of matter, the redshift of light, and the flatness of the observable universe, to name some. These are your "fossils for Big Bang Theory".

    Bigbang trivially solves Olber's paradox - if the universe didn't expand, we would live in a universe that are as hot and shiny as the stars surfaces. So the evidence is before all our eyes the whole time. Except that the observations 1 s or more back are historical, of course. :-)

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  9. Anonymous proposes,

    For example, we note that the metabolic cost of having children is very low for males (who have only to manufacture and inject sperm) and very high for females (who must make the eggs and gestate the progeny). We can then do some logic on that information to conclude that males should show greater behavioral inclination towards copulation than females. Then we check our hypothesis against reality. Gollee gee, it certainly is true with homo sapiens!

    Duh! If you had to carry a baby you'd probably be more picky about who you sleep with as well.

    Why in the world would you need to postulate a genetic component to something that just seems like common sense (if you're a woman)?

    And how, exactly, would this allele have arisen in humans? Do you imagine a time when men did not want to make out with anything in skirts? Do you postulate that a mutation arose making men more promiscuous and this allele then became fixed in the human population? If so, what was the selective advantage? Before the advent of birth control, did women prefer men who want to do it several times a day so those over-sexed guys were more likly to establish a long-term monogamous relationship with a woman?

    Do you see the problem with simplistic just-so stories? The story tellers don't ever bother to think through the consequences of their fairy tales.

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    1. I think there could be something sort of useful in evolutionary psychology, if we drop the idea that it's all in the DNA.

      Someday we might find out that animal instinct is somehow in the DNA and find the mechanisms that new psychological mutations get created and selected. I'm no holding my breath. I have big doubths.

      But the evolutionarily stable strategy is a sound concept from game theory. It makes sense even if you don't know exactly how memes spread. I'm not clear that it's science, but it has potential uses of various sorts.

      If it's an art and not a science, then we will need to learn the art of creating EP stories that are somehow useful to us, as opposed to really stupid ones.

      Delete
  10. On a side note, I just realized that the requirement for expansion is a nice answer to creationists misuse of fine tuning. If they don't understand that they are confusing a priori probability with a posteriori outcomes, one can hit the stupidest with this example of 'fine' tuning necessary for life. It won't work on YEC'ers, but they would presumably not discuss it anyway, or anything else remotely recognizable as facts.

    Um, back to our scheduled thread!

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  11. Mr. Larsson, the logic you're using seems a tad sloppy to me. Allow me to explain:

    You describe just-so stories as "ad hoc theories, posing a mechanism that describes exactly the type of phenomena it is constructed to do."

    So, does the Big Bang theory not "pose a mechanism that describes exactly the type of phenomena it is constructed to do."? I think it does. Your distinction between "ad hoc theories" and Big Bang is without substance.

    I am baffled by your emphasis on all scientific data being in the past. Yes, that's true, but there remains a crucial difference that you seem to ignore. If I concoct a theory about quarks, I should be able to use my theory to make predictions that can be tested by experiment. The experiment can then either falsify my theory or yield results compatible with my theory. In the former case, my theory is shot down; in the latter case, my theory gains some credence based upon how otherwise unexpected my prediction was -- but it is never proven.

    This is the notion of "testability", which often misconstrued to be a requirement for any theory. But in fact, it is falsifiability, not testability that is important here. Perhaps I should not have brought up the distinction between testability and falsifiability, but I have heard that argument made so often, I felt it necessary to make that distinction clear. And in fact, you seem to be laboring under a related misconception when you declare that the Big Bang theory is testable. No, it is not testable in the sense that we can perform an experiment upon the event itself. It is most certainly falsifiable in that we can make projections from the past based upon the theory, and then check those projections against reality -- but we can do exactly the same thing with all the good hypotheses in evo psych.

    I again emphasize the distinction between TESTABILITY and FALSIFIABILITY. Neither Big Bang nor evo psych is TESTABLE. Both are FALSIFIABLE. There is no difference between the two approaches in this sense.

    You imply that Big Bang is a reliable theory because "we live in it". Indeed so. And we also live in the environment established by the effects of the evo psych hypotheses. Again, there is no operational difference between the two. You cite mass distribution and 3 degree Kelvin radiation as evidence for Big Bang. Indeed it is. And the behavior of modern humans is just as much evidence in favor of evo psych hypotheses.

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  12. Larry, I am surprised by your questions; they suggest unfamiliarity with the elementary notions of evo psych. Let's begin with your observation that every woman would be cognitively aware of metabolic load considerations, and therefore needs no genetically founded aversion to promiscuity. I suggest that a little anthropology might serve you well in this matter. It turns out that many cultures do not have a clear notion of exactly what causes pregnancy. As late as 1500, Western civilization retained a great deal of confusion about impregnation. This evidence contradicts your claim that the female reluctance to copulate is derived from cognitive analysis.

    Even more catastrophic to your claim is the vast amount of data on animal behavior. Guess what -- most animals show the same gender differences in sexual behavior. Are you suggesting that female marmots and robins carry out a logical analysis of their genetic futures to reach the conclusion that they should be selective in their choice of mate? And in fact I referred to the reverse case in which males have a higher metabolic load because I vaguely recall such a species being discovered -- and guess what, it's the males who are choosier in that species. But I can't recall any details so I must leave that out of my main argument.

    Lastly, I am flabbergasted by your question "If so, what was the selective advantage?" referring to the male propensity for copulation. The selective advantage is, if you impregnate more women, you get more children!!!

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  13. This is actually where the elephant got its trunk down by the great grey green greasy Limpopo

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  14. Larry, I am disappointed that you have failed to answer my challenge to your unsubstantiated slurs against evolutionary psychology. I have encountered such slurs in a number of places, and I have challenged them whenever possible, and in every case the mudslinger has slinked away without answering my challenge. I had hoped that your expertise would provide you with the foundations for answering my challenge, but I was wrong. Like Diogenes, I shall continue my search for someone who can defend the rejection of evolutionary psychology as "just so stories". But with each failure, I grow more confident that this slur against evolutionary psychology is unsubstantiable.

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  15. Chepe Noyon says,

    I am disappointed that you have failed to answer my challenge to your unsubstantiated slurs against evolutionary psychology.

    Well, then we're both disappointed. I'm disappointed in the quality of your "challenge." It's not worth any more of my time.

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  16. Chepe:

    "You describe just-so stories as "ad hoc theories, posing a mechanism that describes exactly the type of phenomena it is constructed to do.""

    Actually, my intention was that the whole description of "Often it seems to be ad hoc theories, posing a mechanism that describes exactly the type of phenomena it is constructed to do. If it can not make other types of predictions, or make contact with a main theory, it is likely it will be shown wrong later. In the worst case, these ad hocs aren't reliably tested" is the definition.

    What you described is called ad hoc hypotheses.

    "So, does the Big Bang theory not "pose a mechanism that describes exactly the type of phenomena it is constructed to do."?"

    It is very obvious it is not, because it was a theory that originated to describe red shift. The remaining predictions were made later.

    "If I concoct a theory about quarks, I should be able to use my theory to make predictions that can be tested by experiment."

    The difference between prediction and postdiction is superficial - we can have collected the data without being able to analyze or explain it before. The important difference is if the theory makes new predictions, that hasn't been made before.

    "the distinction between testability and falsifiability"

    Falsifiability is exactly about testability of new predictions, assuming it has passed the test on the old ones. If data refutes the prediction the theory is falsified.

    "it is not testable in the sense that we can perform an experiment upon the event itself."

    That isn't what testability means. Testability is if we can test the theory on its predictions. In this case stuff like red shift, BBN and so on.

    It is pretty evident that you have read some philosophical text about science methods, but you haven't any idea of what scientists think and do here.

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  17. Mr. Larsson, you really shouldn't indulge in speculation as to my educational background or professional experience -- you really don't know anything at all about that. If you think my arguments ignorant, you are welcome to point out the weaknesses of the arguments themselves, but drawing grand conclusions as to my mental frailties based on a few hundred words of text is a bit overdone, don't you think?

    Much of your complaint against my arguments is quibbling; you still have not addressed the substance of my case. (And Mr. Moran refuses to.) One of your substantial points seems to be that a good theory offers multiple predictions, each of them individually verifiable. You then claim that EP is a collection of single-prediction ad hoc hypotheses, and this is what distinguishes EP theory from Big Bang theory.

    I agree that Big Bang makes numerous predictions and has passed multiple tests. Where we disagree is in your implicit claim that all EP hypotheses make but a single prediction. I would think that any careful thinker would be reticent to make such sweeping statements.

    Consider, for example, the simple case I offered regarding gender differences in copulation behavior. The prediction made by evolutionary theory is not just that one species shows this behavior, but that ALL sexual species should demonstrate such a behavioral trait where the metabolic costs are distributed so unevenly. That's a lot of predictions -- and they've been borne out.

    The same thing goes for a great deal of the other work found in EP. These people aren't just concocting one-off hypotheses to be cute. Most of their conclusions are based on comparisons across species, with variations in context showing variations in behavior concomitant with the hypothesized mechanism.

    An emeritus psychology professor once warned me not to take seriously the many criticisms of psychology. (And no, I am not a psychologist.) The problem, he explained, is that psychology is always newsworthy, and so whenever a study is published, the press rushes out and gets it wrong. All the carefully prepared caveats and restrictions are thrown aside and the headline declares something along the lines of "Scientists prove that all left-handed, blue-eyed people are child abusers!" This leads a lot of people to conclude that psychology in any form is a lot of hooey.

    I suggest, rhetorically of course, that perhaps you might be laboring under misinformation provided by the popular press, rather than direct contact with any of the technical material on the subject. I am not challenging your authority to discuss the subject here; I am instead offering you an opportunity to broaden your knowledge of this subject. My first suggestion for introductory texts would be Pinker's "The Language Instinct". It's rather old, but well-written and quite entertaining. A real oldie-goldie is "The Moral Animal" by Robert Wright, if I recall correctly. My personal favorite is a work by Steven Mithen, an archaeologist, with a title like "The Evolution of Thinking" -- I've probably got it wrong. Jared Diamond, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning "Guns, Germs, and Steel, wrote several books touching on this, including "The Third Chimpanzee" and "Why is Sex Fun?" Lastly, if you're a real masochist, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy's massive tome on mothering, whose title I cannot recall, offers such an avalanche of mind-numbing proof that it will forever quash the ignorant claims of people who simply haven't studied the field they so vociferously condemn.

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  18. "drawing grand conclusions as to my mental frailties"

    Huh? I claimed that you didn't seem to know about what scientists think about how science should be practiced.

    "you still have not addressed the substance of my case"

    I had no intention to. What I did was to agree with you about the term "just so stories" being banded around on loose grounds, and suggested a definition.

    Also, if a biochemist doesn't feel it is enough quality in your case ("challenge"), who am I to suggest otherwise who has nothing with "bio" in on my CV. (Well, apart from a single course in molecular biology way back. Way, way, way back. Hmm, OK, way, way back. I'm not *that* old. :-)

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  19. Mr. Larsson, if you want to appeal to authority ("Also, if a biochemist doesn't feel it is enough quality in your case ("challenge"),"), I can match your one biochemist with such luminaries as Pinker, Cosmides, Tooby, Blaffer-Hrdy, Mithen and Bickerton, all of whose names are recognized far beyond the confines of their own institutions, and all of whom have far more relevant training than Mr. Moran. If you leave behind the ignorant brayings of the peanut gallery and examine the scholarly debate, you will find that the controversy is not at all about the basic validity of evolutionary psychology. Even the eminent critics of EP (and there are many) concede it far more respect than you or Mr. Moran. There was a lively debate a while back between Pinker and another eminent scholar, but she did not dismiss his ideas as "just-so stories", nor did she claim that the "entire discipline is flawed", nor did she question Mr. Pinker's understanding of evolutionary theory, as Mr. Moran does.

    There are many controversies related to evolutionary psychology; it is a young science and a very exciting one. It is in much the same position that quantum mechanics was in in the 1920s -- just getting started. There are lots of mistakes being made, but also much impressive progress. Old fogeys may harrumph and dismiss it all as new-fangled nonsense, but if you examine the scholarly controversies, I think you will find that there's much more going on here than the simplistic pratings you have been exposed to.

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  20. Chepe:

    "if you want to appeal to authority ("Also, if a biochemist doesn't feel it is enough quality in your case ("challenge"),"),"

    I was adressing relevancy.

    Of your authorities I have only read some of Pinker, and IIRC I didn't find anything beyond the untestable "just so stories" we are discussing here. At least, I wasn't impressed.

    "There are lots of mistakes being made, but also much impressive progress."

    I will embrace the progress when I see it.

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  21. You and Mr. Moran are always denouncing these just so stories, yet neither of you have presented one from a real source. You believe that you have found one in Pinker; good, I'd like to hear about it. Let's stop talking vague innuendo and get into specifics, OK? And please, let's not cite some case from the newspapers or some oddball. Let's limit it to Pinker, Cosmides, Tooby, or Blaffer-Hrdy, OK? There's tons of material from which to choose from these people. Please offer me just one single case of a just so story.

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    1. I don't have sources handy, but I can present some real stories.

      1. There was the claim that human women don't have a visible estrus, that men cannot tell when women are ovulating. The question was raised why human women would have evolved to hide this.

      1A. The answer was proposed that women could choose a mate to be with most of the time and get all the advantages of the work he did, but still choose the "man with the best genes" to father her children. That would give her the best children and so this would be a good thing for her to do and anything that got her to do this would be selected.

      1B. The best men, who could have any women they wanted, would tend to choose the most attractive women who had providers, because that would give the best men the best children. Since they could have any women they wanted they would not provide resources to one woman.

      And so modern relations between the sexes are explained.

      But then a female evolutionary psychologist got involved.

      1C. Many women do not themselves know when they ovulate. They can't choose when to sneak off with a superior man to get pregnant. Why would evolution favor women who don't know when they are fertile? Because evolution encourages women to have as many children as they can successfully raise. Women who choose for themselves how many children to have are likely to choose fewer than that. But evolution cares nothing of women's comfort. A woman who works as hard as possible raising her children, dying just when the youngest of them no longer needs her, is the evolutionary ideal for women. Fewer children is something to select against. If women could prevent pregnancy by watching their ovulation, they would have more sex and fewer children.

      With modern paternity testing, we find that about 90% of the time the child has the father the mother claims, and only about 10% it's somebody else. Do women choose a superior man 10% of the time? How do they know? Basketball stars? Rock stars? Politicians? Folk singers? I say that if a woman has all of her children by the same man, they all have the same four HLA groups. If a disease comes through that none of those can handle, they are all in trouble. But if she has ten percent of her children with somebody at random, that's likely a fifth HLA group. That child can take care of everybody else while they're sick, and they might all survive something that would otherwise kill them all. If only that child survives, at least she didn't put all her eggs in the same basket. The other man needn't be "superior", only different.

      Are any of these JustSo stories? All of them? Is this sort of thing ever worth doing, apart from the question whether it gets done well?

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  22. "yet neither of you have presented one from a real source."

    That would have been fair, if not for the fact that you were the one introducing authorities; I should probably not have mentioned my opinion there at all. It behooves you to make examples, if you want to argue against Larry's claim.

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  23. "It behooves you to make examples, if you want to argue against Larry's claim."

    I have already offered a simple (and poorly presented) example in the form of male sexual behavior, but I will offer something much better this time: read the primer on evolutionary psychology by Cosmides and Tooby:

    http://www.psych.ucsb.edu/research/cep/primer.html

    If you find anything objectionable anywhere in that primer, please present your objection. Even better, they offer a specific example in the form of social bargaining theory. Their example is, I think, absolutely compelling. Please advise as to how this constitutes a just-so story.

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  24. Chepe:

    I have no intention to discuss evolutionary psychology. My aim was to propose a definition for "just so stories" and discussed science in general.

    I lost concentration in my last two comments and wasn't clear, sorry for that. I offered my opinion for no good reason when you proposed authorities, on Pinker that I have read bits of.

    The discussion you had or have on evo psych is with Larry.

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  25. OK, Mr. Larsson, if you don't care to defend the silly claim that evolutionary psychology is a bunch of just so stories, I won't drag it out any further. Every time I challenge an advocate of that position to substantiate it, they back away. I think it's because their claim is a bunch of hot air, and they know it.

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  26. Nick Matzke said "The website Larry links to is a creationist website..."

    I think Nick was referring to http://darwinstories.blogspot.com

    where Nick has commented on his work on the flagellum motor.

    Nick, this is not the link that Larry included in his post!

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  27. Pretty appalling responses to Chepe Noyon, Larry. You have discredited yourself big time. Poor.

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  28. It is a very sweet irony for evolutionists to complain about just-so stories in evolutionary psychology, at the same time as they propound an unending set of just-so stories to rationalize evolution theory.

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  29. Chepe: "What possible criticism can you make of this process?"

    The process you described is one of the fundamental reasons that so many other practising scientists (perhaps not the majority, but a significant minority at least) regard evolutionary psychology as a pseudoscience. Let me explain:

    Chepe says "Any historical theory (a theory that explains a current phenomenon by reference to past events) is necessarily untestable, hence the old bugaboo that evolutionary psychology is untestable cannot be applied here."

    That's not exactly true. What you mean is that, for example, a palaeontologist cannot follow the scientific method laid out in most school textbooks. By "test" you mean a repeatable laboratory experiment.

    But they still test their theories against the real world. Theories can be shown to be plausible or not (using modern experiments), and you must actually move beyond establishing plausibility and test the theory against the rock record.

    Evolutionary psychology doesn't have an analogous logic.

    It stops, dead, at the stage of "theories can be shown to be plausible or not". The process you outlined illustrates this.

    You wrote:

    "For example, we note that the metabolic cost of having children is very low for males (who have only to manufacture and inject sperm) and very high for females (who must make the eggs and gestate the progeny). We can then do some logic on that information to conclude that males should show greater behavioral inclination towards copulation than females. Then we check our hypothesis against reality. Gollee gee, it certainly is true with homo sapiens!"

    You have a theory, and have established that is plausible. But the hypothesis you tested was "Do males prefer to copulate more than females?"

    The hypotheses you want to test are, "Do males copulate more than females because of an innate genetic drive?", and "Has this drive come about under selective pressure?"

    The problem with the hypothesis you tested is that there are competing theories which produce exactly the same hypothesis. Adding a new competing theory to produce the same hypothesis does nothing beyond suggesting the plausibility of the new theory.

    For example, that "males prefer to copulate more than females" because the social/historical context makes promiscuity both easier, safer and more acceptable for males, while being harder, more dangerous and less acceptable for females.

    Consider this competing theory against the ev.psych. theory. One has a wealth of other tests backing it up; a ready explanation for variation within and across cultures, a set of proximate causal mechanisms observed over and over again and intensively studied, a fluctuating approach to promiscuity by individual humans placed in different contexts and in the course of their own lives. All of these establish not only the plausibility, but also the probability that the social/cultural explanation has weight.

    The ev psych explanation has an animal model extended to humans by analogy, and that's about it.

    The one, single line of evidence that gives any weight to the ev psych explanation - analogous animal modeling - is dubious in the first place, considering the confounding factor of culture and society: something present in humans without being present in any of the animals to which human behaviour is implicitly compared by evolutionary psychologists.

    This is a major confounding factor. It's one which is massively underestimated by evolutionary psychologists as a whole. And it's not just crazy arts graduates that say so, because it's the basis for the behavioural zoologist's fundamental commandment: Don't anthropomorphize!

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  30. Chepe said:

    "If you leave behind the ignorant brayings of the peanut gallery and examine the scholarly debate, you will find that the controversy is not at all about the basic validity of evolutionary psychology."

    That actually isn't true, at all. Steven Jay Gould & Richard Lewontin are just two professional scientists, with extensive knowledge of evolutionary biology and relevant training, who question the fundamental validity of evolutionary psychology as a discipline.

    The argument is very much about whether or not evolutionary psychology is science at all.

    "There was a lively debate a while back between Pinker and another eminent scholar, but she did not dismiss his ideas as "just-so stories", nor did she claim that the "entire discipline is flawed", nor did she question Mr. Pinker's understanding of evolutionary theory, as Mr. Moran does."

    Then I, who have training in evolutionary biology (including training by some avid evolutionary psychologists) and do research in palaeontology, would not agree with this 'eminent scholar'.

    I would dismiss the entire discipline, and I am not the only one who would do so. In fact, Steven pinkers understanding of evolutionary ideas is particularly fraught. I would suggest that this emminent scholar was either just being polite, or not a particularly good representative of the solid, scientific opposition to evolutionary psychology.

    "There are many controversies related to evolutionary psychology; it is a young science and a very exciting one. It is in much the same position that quantum mechanics was in in the 1920s -- just getting started."

    That is absolutely a bad analogy. When quantum mechanics was just a young field, it already had some major discoveries under its belt, and a promising set of tests ahead of it.

    Evolutionary psychology has yet to produce a single result even remotely comparable to quantum mechanics's analysis of the photoelectric effect, or the revised double-slit experiment, or any experimental advance you care to name.

    And it certainly has not produced any theoretical work that points the way to future research in the way that quantum theory did (even in it's earliest days!), or any real-world application even remotely comparable to the development of semiconductor crystals and the transistor.

    "but also much impressive progress."

    Where? I've yet to see anybody name a single bit of meaningful progress made by or within this field.

    "Old fogeys may harrumph and dismiss it all as new-fangled nonsense"

    I'm 29. I was 18 when I first heard about ev psych. I was 22 when I started learning it formally at university. I was 23 when I realised what a bizarrely unscientific field it was.

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