Friday, June 05, 2009

Why Won't Your Daughter Call Home?

 
The Human Behavior and Evolution Society (HBES) is meeting at California State University, Fullerton. There are 450 evolutionary psychologists in attendance [Notes from an evolutionary psychology conference]. I don't think I could be happy there.

One of the attendees is a graduate student named Elizabeth Pillsworth. She studies the evolution of adaptations for avoiding incest. You'll be surprised at what she reports.
The researchers' hypothesis on incest avoidance was that near ovulation, women are motivated to avoid affiliation with male kin (fathers) but not mothers, to avoid the potential costs of inbreeding. Their predictions were that relative to low-fertility days, on high-fertility days women would initiate fewer calls and engage in shorter conversations with fathers, compared to mothers.

They had 51 normally-ovulating women (mean age 19.1 years old) provide complete cell phone bills from one month, along with their menstrual cycle information and details about individuals on their phone bill. It turned out that the subjects called their fathers significantly less than their mothers during high fertility days, and when both mothers and fathers called them during high fertility days they spent less time on the phone with their dads than with their moms.

Conclusion: "this is the first evidence of adaptation in human females to avoid affiliation with male kin when fertility is at its highest."
Isn't that amazing? I can't possibly think of any other explanation. There must be a gene for not talking to your father when you're fertile. I wonder what chromosome it's on?

I wonder if there were any controls—like how often the women spoke to their boyfriends, or when mothers called their sons?


40 comments :

  1. Bayesian Bouffant, FCDFriday, June 05, 2009 3:52:00 PM

    and when both mothers and fathers called them during high fertility days they spent less time on the phone with their dads than with their moms.

    There's a control not being reported here. I'd bet that calls with their dads are shorter all the time, ovulation or no.

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  2. One of the commenters on the Sci Am site nails it... all it would take to disprove this hypothesis is running the same study with female who aren't ovulating because they're on birth control. Funny, I thought good science started with trying hard as hell to prove your pet hypothesis wrong...

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  3. "Controls"? You are talking evolutionary psychology - a soft "science" that does not need not stinking controls!

    Seriously, the biggest problem with soft sciences seems to be not that some if their data are hard to get reliably - but a lack of thinking about controls, falsifiability and alternative explanations.

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  4. Gee willickers. Is there a gene for kin-selected altruism in Mexican free-tailed bats? I dare say one (or some) hasn't/haven't been discovered, Yet, using kin-selection theory has led to enormous insights into the behavior of these critters. When will some get it through their bullet-proof heads that it isn't necessary to know the genetic particulars to test adaptationist hypotheses? This is what evolutionary biologists do all the time, yielding spectacular insights. If you feel these particular results are suspect, do your own study and join the discussion. Otherwise, save your uninformed assertions about "soft" and "hard" science. Publish something.

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  5. so, someone will do the controls as they should (have been) ben done.

    when they're done and the results hold, will you be so jaded?

    probably not.

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  6. evo. psych. is truly an embarassment to science

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  7. Am I wrong to say that they deserve some credit here? I mean, they didn't start with a known facet of human behaviour and try to concoct stories to explain it, they started with an hypothesis, made predictions and tested them.

    There is clearly a lot more work to be done but their sample size was only 51 so shouldn't we be treating this as a preliminary study to see if it even holds water?

    Are people getting so worked up because the method was bad or the premise?

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  8. Where did you guys find the whole report of the study?

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  9. Jan,

    Go to HBES.com and follow the links to the conference proceedings. There are abstracts of all the presentations/posters that were included in the program.

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  10. skeezix said...

    "Publish something."

    Is there a gene for snarkiness in commenters on blogs?vasin

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  11. Tyro says,

    Am I wrong to say that they deserve some credit here? I mean, they didn't start with a known facet of human behaviour and try to concoct stories to explain it, they started with an hypothesis, made predictions and tested them.

    To me it looks like they began with the assumption that the so-called "incest taboo" in humans has a genetic component. It's an adaptation. Then they set out to find evidence to support that belief.

    They think that 19 year-old girls are sexually attracted to their fathers when they are at the most fertile time of their cycle. Because of this they avoid talking to their fathers out of fear that they might have sex with them.

    Does that make a lot of sense to you? Do you know of many fathers of teenage girls who sense that they are being shunned once a month by their daughters living at home? Or is it only when they go away to college that the avoidance becomes obvious?

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  12. Veronica...
    No, but there may be a "gene for" (if you require that) informed, competent contributions to the discussion.

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  13. Larry,
    Actually, it makes perfect sense to me. But, as I assume you know, anecdotal data is irrelevant.

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  14. This is sort of off topic but relevant to publishing:

    John Wilkins at Evolving Thoughts directs readers to , "Who's Afraid of the Big Black Wolf?",written by a student and posted on Todd Oakley's blog: http://evolutionarynovelty.blogspot.com/.

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  15. Veronica,
    A very competent review of a published study. Publishing is good.

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  16. To me it looks like they began with the assumption that the so-called "incest taboo" in humans has a genetic component. It's an adaptation. Then they set out to find evidence to support that belief.

    Well, you say "assumption", others might say "hypothesis". And yes, they did look for ways of supporting it but it sounds like they weren't just anomaly hunting, they made predictions and made tests which could have proved them wrong, so I'd say they looked for ways to "test" rather than "confirm" their hypothesis. Sure the test could be better but as a first step it sounds reasonable or am I missing something? (I'm not a scientist, so pardon me if this is obvious to everyone else.)

    I totally agree that it is premature to draw firm conclusions but is what they did really so bad as a first step? It sounds like they weren't testing for daughters ignoring their parents, but ignoring them with predictable, regular cycles and that seems to be what they found.

    Compared to the evolutionary psychologists who seem to be making up stories to explain currently known behaviours (the "Just So Stories"), this group seems to be making predictions and testing them which, to me, sounds like they should be a step above the rest.

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  17. Thanks Skeezix, but an abstract is insufficient, to me at least, not for Larry, to evaluate the whole methodological aspect of the study.

    He must have much more information because he knows that "They think that 19 year-old girls are sexually attracted to their fathers when they are at the most fertile time of their cycle. Because of this they avoid talking to their fathers out of fear that they might have sex with them."

    This is from an evolutionary point of view the complete opposite of what I would expect as hypothesis. Larry, where did you find all this information?

    Openness is a nice thing in science.

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  18. I recall reading about some research that suggest men spend far less time using the phone for social internaction than do women.

    Is it not far more likely that daughters pick up on their father's reticence in using the phone ?

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  19. Skeezix says,

    Actually, it makes perfect sense to me.

    Really? Then please explain it 'cause it makes no sense to me.

    Why do these young women not want to talk to their fathers when they are at the most fertile time of their cycle? What are they worried about?

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  20. Aversions to opposite-sex relatives as a function of the evolved psychology regarding incest avoidance may manifest themselves by reduced contact/communication, ergo, one might hypothesize the phone communication differences that were analyzed. These aversions may be hypothesized to co-vary with the menstrual cycle as incest avoidance would be a particular adaptive problem during this time.

    Like most brain processes, conscious awareness is unnecessary.

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  21. There seems to be a significant number of people who react blindly and irrationally whenever they see a study that hints of a selective advantage to any human behavior. (But never when it involves animal behavior; Why is that?). “No Controls!” (Sheeze, they have the best controls: each student served as their own control for other days in the ovulation cycle.) “Ha Ha! A gene for cell phone calls! Right!” (It’s one thing to play with it in a tongue-and-cheek way, as Shermer did in his article; it’s another to act as if one is leveling a serious criticism.)

    Incest avoidance is not a uniquely human phenomenon, the consequences of incest are very real, and the strategies to avoid it extend well beyond behaviors that just prevent it at the moment of sexual activity. The known strategies include those designed to minimize contact so that a true mating opportunity is less likely to even occur (such as migration, selection of social groups, etc). To suggest that the strategies for avoiding incest are genetically based and can involve behaviors that seem remotely related to actual mating behavior is just not controversial.

    IMO, the uncertain part of the study is whether human father-daughter phone time really is a valid marker of an underlying incest-avoidance strategy. But just because the behavior they studied is a very modern technologically-assisted one that could only have been observed in the last 100 years does not make it unreasonable. Certainly the answers they produced are not definitive, but IMO it’s a clever study that addressed an interesting question at a minimal cost using easily obtainable information. An analogous study of a wild animal population in the field would have entailed a much more labor and cost-intensive study.

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  22. Divalent said...

    "There seems to be a significant number of people who react blindly and irrationally whenever they see a study that hints of a selective advantage to any human behavior."

    Tell me about it....as an academic evolutionary psychologist, these people are almost as annoying as creationists (almost).

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  23. Skeezix> slightly OT: I'm starting my PhD in the fall in Sci Ed, and want to look at the evolutionary basis for learning... I've seen some of the ideas Pinker has laid out, but not seen anything studied in depth. Yes I can and will do my own lit review, but do you know of anything that would be a good starting point?

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  24. InfuriatedSciTeacher said,

    "[I] want to look at the evolutionary basis for learning...do you know of anything that would be a good starting point?"

    That sort of depends on what you mean by "learning" and in what domain of human cognition/behavior you're interested in. Evolved psychological mechanisms are sensitive to specific contextual inputs. There's actually very little evidence for anything that can be called a general-purpose learning mechanism (other than, perhaps, basic Skinnerian processes).

    One example: We don't "learn" to talk in the same way that we "learn" to read. The former utilizes different evolved psychological mechanisms than the latter.

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  25. Divalent says,

    There seems to be a significant number of people who react blindly and irrationally whenever they see a study that hints of a selective advantage to any human behavior. (But never when it involves animal behavior; Why is that?).

    I don't see many of those kind of people. Most of my friends are very much aware of the fact that some behavior has a genetic component.

    What I see is a large number of people who react blindly and irrationally whenever they see any kind of human behavior at all. They automatically jump to the conclusion that it must have a genetic basis and that it must be adaptive.

    They never stop to ask themselves what kind of genes could be involved and, if genes are involved, whether particular alleles increase fitness.

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  26. Larry Moran says...

    "They automatically jump to the conclusion that it must have a genetic basis and that it must be adaptive."

    In the early 60's, George Williams wrote "Adaptation and Natural Selection." He and Hamilton and Trivers and Maynard-Smith and on and on have addressed issues re: the difference between adaptations, by-products of adaptations, and genetic "noise" as well as what counts for evidence of adaptation and what doesn't. Evolutionary psychology simply attempts to apply this reasoning to human behavior and cognition. Some research is profoundly ground-breaking in its implications and some is, well, not so much. The same can be said of biochemistry, no?

    What, exactly, is your problem?

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  27. Skeezix says,

    In the early 60's, George Williams wrote "Adaptation and Natural Selection." He and Hamilton and Trivers and Maynard-Smith and on and on have addressed issues re: the difference between adaptations, by-products of adaptations, and genetic "noise" as well as what counts for evidence of adaptation and what doesn't. Evolutionary psychology simply attempts to apply this reasoning to human behavior and cognition. Some research is profoundly ground-breaking in its implications and some is, well, not so much.

    You ask "what's my problem"?

    My problem is that evolutionary psychologists are classic adaptationists. You prove that by only quoting adaptationists in support of your position.

    I would have been more impressed if you had quoted Gould and Lewontin's famous paper and indicated that you understand the message. You give the impression that you are unaware of any controversy concerning the views of Williams, Hamilton, and Maynard-Smith. Does their opinion reflect the current gospel of evolution?

    Can you point me to any recent publications by evolutionary psychologists where they looked at the evidence and decided that a certain behavior did *not* have a genetic component or it did have a genetic component but was *not* adaptive?

    If you can't, then how do you explain the fact that the vast majority of papers in evolutionary psychology seem to support the adaptationist worldview to the exclusion of any other possibility?

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  28. Larry says,

    "I would have been more impressed if you had quoted Gould and Lewontin's famous paper and indicated that you understand the message. You give the impression that you are unaware of any controversy concerning the views of Williams, Hamilton, and Maynard-Smith...Can you point me to any recent publications by evolutionary psychologists where they looked at the evidence and decided that a certain behavior did *not* have a genetic component or it did have a genetic component but was *not* adaptive?"

    Wow...it seems like George Williams beat you up when you were a little boy. I can see not understanding evolutionary biology but the knee-jerk rejection of the adaptationist program that has been the hallmark of this science is astonishing. You are familiar with the term "phenotypic gambit" aren't you? Does it at all concern you that this approach to the behavior of organisms that has you so troubled has given us nearly everything we know about their behavior?

    As for Gould and Lewontin, they are (were) flies on the arse of evolutionary biology and have been easily swatted away decades ago. Their "classic" (if you insist) paper (The Spandrels of San Marco) was much huffing and puffing about stuff that had been hashed out years prior by those nasty adaptationists (Williams in particular). Yes, I am aware of the "controversy" but I happen to agree with Maynard-Smith (who, unlike Gould, was actually a biologist) when he said that "Gould's ideas are so confused as to hardly require comment." Maybe this paper will help you, written by a bunch of know-nothing, adaptationist, evolutionary psychologists (http://homepage.psy.utexas.edu/HomePage/Group/BussLAB/pdffiles/Adaptations_Exaptations_Spandrels_1998.pdf). It's 10 or so years old now...I thought you might have read it already.

    As for your request for publications, may I suggest you read the recent "Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology", especially the early chapter by Leda Cosmides and John Tooby. This may help you to understand why your "gene for" mentality is woefully misguided and decades behind the evolutionary literature.

    But, if you insist, here's one. There appear to exist adaptations for fears, phobias, and anxiety reactions to snakes (see the recent work of Judy Deloache). Similar reactions (and, therefore, similar adaptive machinery) do not appear to exist to cars, even though cars kill huge numbers of people compared to snakes. Adaptationist hypotheses seem reasonable to suggest here without the requirement that the genetic details be known. But, hey, you're the biochemist. Maybe you and your buddies can take a look at the genetics that is strongly suggested by the evolutionary biology of phobias...

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  29. Skeezix> Well, In Blank Slate, Pinker lays out 6 (or 8? it's escaping me at the moment) learning tasks for which humans appear to have an innate affinity. The ones I am most interested in examining for purposes of Sci Ed would be number sense, sense of scale, and our innate view of physics (Pinker phrases it as an impetus-driven concept); I'd prefer to focus on the latter as it's a richer subject area or more directly applicable to the classroom afterward. Then again, I may simply find that there isn't much evidence for that, either.

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  30. Skeezix says,

    As for Gould and Lewontin, they are (were) flies on the arse of evolutionary biology and have been easily swatted away decades ago. Their "classic" (if you insist) paper (The Spandrels of San Marco) was much huffing and puffing about stuff that had been hashed out years prior by those nasty adaptationists (Williams in particular). Yes, I am aware of the "controversy" but I happen to agree with Maynard-Smith (who, unlike Gould, was actually a biologist) when he said that "Gould's ideas are so confused as to hardly require comment."

    Spoken like a true adaptationist. It's people like you who create the stereotype of adaptationist thinking. (And I'm using the word "thinking" in its loosest sense in order not to be insulting.)

    Maybe this paper will help you, written by a bunch of know-nothing, adaptationist, evolutionary psychologists (http://homepage.psy.utexas.edu/HomePage/Group/BussLAB/pdffiles/Adaptations_Exaptations_Spandrels_1998.pdf). It's 10 or so years old now...I thought you might have read it already.

    Interesting paper. It purports to explain modern evolutionary thinking for the benefit of psychologists. It was originally published in American Psychologist in 1998. The article is 15 pages long but it doesn't even mention by name the most common mechanism of evolution!

    Is that supposed to be proof that psychologists understand evolution?

    Let me give you two bits of advice, Skeezix. First, exaptations are only a minor part of what's wrong with the thinking of evolutionary psychologists. Second, the default hypothesis of evolutionary explanations is not adaptation, in spite of what that paper says.

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  31. (And I'm using the word "thinking" in its loosest sense in order not to be insulting.)

    Fail! :)

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  32. Larry said...

    "Let me give you two bits of advice, Skeezix. First, exaptations are only a minor part of what's wrong with the thinking of evolutionary psychologists. Second, the default hypothesis of evolutionary explanations is not adaptation, in spite of what that paper says."

    Golly...worthless "advice" and an uninformed, dogmatic assertion all in the space of one small paragraph. Sounds rather like religion to me. BTW, it would have been nice to hear your rebuttals to Gad Saad's post on the digit ratio topic but all we got was more of the "dogmatic assertions from Larry that MUST be true" type of analysis. Figures...ALL biochemists are like that I hear.

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  33. InfuriatedSciTeacher,

    You might find this helpful:

    http://web.missouri.edu/~psycorie/GearyEvoEd.pdf

    Good luck with your degree...

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  34. Skeezix says,

    Golly...worthless "advice" and an uninformed, dogmatic assertion all in the space of one small paragraph.

    Sorry 'bout that. You gave me the impression that the article you referenced was your Bible.

    I didn't realize that you rejected some of the most important parts of that article.

    So, you understand that "exaptation" is a red herring and you understand that the most common mechanism of evolution is not natural selection.

    What's your problem?

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  35. My problem is that you fail to grasp that the only known mechanism of DESIGN is natural/sexual selection. There are many mechanisms of evolution but complex design requires natural/sexual selection. You do understand that difference, don't you? I can't continue pointing out the overwhelming success of this research program (like, virtually all evolutionary biology over the last 50 years) just to hear you bellow your hollow, insulting, ignorant, and borderline commitable tirades about "stupid evolutionary psychologists." So, enjoy fiddling with your ridiculous little blog and make sure to shout out a hearty hello as the science passes you by...

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  36. Skeezix says,

    My problem is that you fail to grasp that the only known mechanism of DESIGN is natural/sexual selection.

    Well, that's a relief. If that's your only problem then I'm happy to inform you that you are completely wrong.

    I do understand that the only known mechanism producing the appearance of design is natural selection. (With a few minor quibbles.)

    There are many mechanisms of evolution but complex design requires natural/sexual selection. You do understand that difference, don't you?

    What "difference" are you talking about?

    I've already told you that I understand about the appearance of design in organisms. (Note the word "appearance"—it's important.)

    I can't continue pointing out the overwhelming success of this research program (like, virtually all evolutionary biology over the last 50 years) just to hear you bellow your hollow, insulting, ignorant, and borderline commitable tirades about "stupid evolutionary psychologists."

    I'm not exactly sure what "research program" you're referring to. If it's adaptationism then to say that it has been responsible for "virtually all evolutionary biology" is just another way of confirming that some evolutionary psychologists (i.e. you) are stupid.

    Have you heard of molecular evolution? Have you heard of paleontology?

    BTW, I'm still not convinced you are even aware of the other main mechanism of evolution. You know, the one that gets a full chapter in all the textbooks?

    You give the impression of someone who doesn't know what they're talking about. Are all evolutionary psychologists this ignorant?

    So, enjoy fiddling with your ridiculous little blog and make sure to shout out a hearty hello as the science passes you by...

    You're not really an evolutionary psychologist, are you? You sound like an adolescent. I've known for some time that many evolutionary psychologists are intellectually impaired but I didn't think they were childish as well.

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  37. the only known mechanism producing the appearance of design is natural selection.

    Woa! I beg to disagree. Take this crystal. Is it "design"? Sure, it's a cube. Was this shape naturally selected? No, of course not - it's a calcite. Well, what about these complex designs? No, they were not naturally selected - these are fractal crystals of water, for crying out loud.

    There are fractal crystals with shapes undistinguishable from fern leaves. That's "design", too. But it was never naturally selected.

    Natural selection favors some designs but does not create them. Designs just happen.

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  38. Dk says,

    Woa! I beg to disagree. Take this crystal. Is it "design"? Sure, it's a cube. Was this shape naturally selected? No, of course not - it's a calcite. Well, what about these complex designs? No, they were not naturally selected - these are fractal crystals of water, for crying out loud.

    I take your point. When skeezix said, "the only known mechanism of DESIGN is natural/sexual selection" I took it to mean that he/she was talking about biology and evolution.

    I should have specified that in my response to the statement in order to avoid the quibble.

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  39. Lots of emerging complexity and order emerges in organisms by structural reasons, not by natural selection. In regular ontogeny, the emergencce of complexity is not by natural selection, for instance. In this regard consider strcutural explanations, just as you would for the crytsal (Its called DEVELOPMENT, Larry, something where you know pretty much close to nothing )

    Also, I consider there is nothing intrinsically "complexifying" about selection. Seriously, if that were so, we would have to learn about selection in thermodynamics. It can only be an explanation at an ideological level. Evolving lineages accumulate changes; that is EVOLUTION; you cannot call any accumulation of change natiral selection chao gott a go!!!!!

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