Boobies, Blue-footed And Otherwise.
As you might imagine, Robert Kurzban is heavily into evolutionary psychology. Here's what he says on his website.
Research, Philosophy, and Motto. Evolution gave rise to mechanisms designed to solve the bewildering array of problems that humans faced, from problems of survival to navigating the intricate strategic dynamics of the social world. Was there an adaptive problem faced by our ancestors for a substantial period of human history? If so, then, yeah, there's an adaptation for that.Robert Kurzban was upset by my critique of science journalism and evolutionary psychology [Evolutionary Psychology Crap in New Scientist]. You might recall that my criticism is based on many common features of evolutionary psychology but the most important are the unwarranted assumptions that: (1) a particular specific behavior has a strong genetic component. (2) that the behavior is adaptive, and (3) that we know how our ancestors behaved.
Research in the lab is currently being conducted on morality, cooperation, friendship, mate choice, supernatural beliefs, modularity, self-control, and other topics.
The particular example I discussed is domestic violence and whether there has been selection in the past for alleles promoting violent behavior of men toward their wives. I discussed this in terms of the possible genetics of violence-toward-women in order to make the point that even if there was such an allele, it's adaptive value is highly questionable.
Robert Kurzban got a real bee in his bonnet over this comparison. He claims that the violence-toward-women that was adaptive was restricted to special circumstances. According to him, it's not just general violence toward women that was being selected it was violence only under special circumstances. In other words, the specific allele that Kurzban is proposing is one that cause males to only attack their mates some of the time—like when they suspect infidelity. That's correct, that's what the paper discusses even though the distinction isn't clear in the article in New Scientist.
Like it makes a difference. All that Kurzban is doing is making the genetics and the evolution more difficult by restricting the behavior to special circumstances. What he is saying is that there is an allele (or a combination of alleles) that makes men respect women most of the time but, under special circumstances, they attack their mates violently. Since these special circumstances are, presumably, rare, it becomes even more difficult to imagine what kinds of genes/alleles might be involved and how such alleles could become fixed in the population. (Especially if most males never encountered those special circumstances.)1
This is supposed to make evolutionary psychology much more acceptable?
Here's what Kurzban says,
Now suppose our hypothetical author said that because this trait, predicted to occur only in certain circumstances was not, in fact, seen all the time, then,well, there is something “seriously wrong” with the field from which the paper is drawn.Let me try and be clear about what I said using Kurzban's terminology. What he is saying is that violent behavior toward women under certain circumstances was adaptive in our ancient ancestors. Therefore the alleles (or combination of alleles) for this behavior became fixed in the population. Therefore all modern men have this genetic tendency to act violently toward women under particular circumstances.
Most modern men do not act violently toward women under those particular circumstances even though they presumably carry the adaptive allele (or combination of alleles). It's reasonable to ask how such a behavior could be possibly adaptive enough to have been fixed in the population. It hard enough to believe this just-so story but it becomes even harder if the penetrance of the genotype is low.
Robert Kurzban seems to think that my simplified version was a serious mistake that calls into question the critique of evolutionary psychology. I think that his scenario does not rescue the field—in fact it makes it look even more ridiculous.
Kurzan also tries another defense of evolutionary psychology.
Now, finally, because the topic at hand is something with moral overtones, let’s say the author punctuated the critique with a pious remark about how siblicide is bad, bad, bad, and that the boobies who engage in it are “assholes,” and added that, hey, we can all overcome our bad, bad traits.I know damn well that there's a difference between genetics/evolution and ethical behavior and anyone who reads my blog knows this. We've discussed the naturalistic fallacy and the is-ought problem many times on this blog and I've said repeatedly that I'm a big fan of Gould's position on those issues. [See The Internal Brand of the Scarlet W.]
What kind of person would thoroughly botch an argument about a paper, condemn an entire discipline on the basis of the incorrect analysis, and then brandish their moralistic piety by condemning the behavior in question? I don’t know…some kind of Moran?
What pisses me off is the way evolutionary psychologists turn those arguments upside down. They postulate—often without any scientific evidence—that bad behavior has a strong genetic component and that such behavior was beneficial in our ancestors. According to them, we are stuck with these alleles today even though we don't like the consequences. We all understand that possibility.
Just because it's a possibility doesn't mean it's correct. According to many evolutionary psychologists, anyone who criticizes the science must be doing so because they don't like the behavior and not because the science is bad.
It's a convenient way to avoid dealing with the real problems in evolutionary psychology.
1. Wouldn't it be nice if evolutionary psychologists could actually do some research to establish the existence of these amazing alleles and show where they map in the human genome? Heck, I'd settle for just a decent speculation on what kinds of alleles could possibly be involved.
Take this particular case as an example. There must have been a combination of alleles in our ancestors that caused men to be nice to their wives all the time. Then, 50,000 years ago, a mutation (or several mutations) arose that caused men to start beating their wives under special circumstances but to be nice to them most of the time. We have 20,000 genes. Which ones control that kind of behavior?
And if all those subtle behaviors were so strongly adaptive then how come evolution didn't fix some more serious problems like impacted wisdom teeth, hernias, susceptibility to breast cancer, and stupidity?