Monday, March 12, 2018

Is evolutionary psychology a deeply flawed enterprise?

We were discussing the field of evolutionary psychology at our local cafe scientific meeting last week. The discussion was prompted by watching a video of Steven Pinker in conversation with Stephen Fry. I pointed out that the field of evolutionary psychology is a mess and many scientists and philosophers think it is fundamentally flawed. The purpose of this post is to provide links to back up my claim.

There are several good sources of information that can be consulted. The Wikipedia articles note the controversial nature of evolutionary psychology [Evolutionary Psychology] [Criticism of evolutionary psychology]. The article by Stephen M. Downes on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy site is very comprehensive. It include an extensive discussion of the potential flaws in evolutionary psychology [Evolutionary Psychology]. Downes says ....
I said in my introduction that there is a broad consensus among philosophers of science that evolutionary psychology is a deeply flawed enterprise and some philosophers of biology continue to remind us of this sentiment (see e.g. Dupre 2012). However the relevant consensus is not complete, there are some proponents of evolutionary psychology among philosophers of science.
I think there's a broad consensus among evolutionary biologists as well. The critique from biologists is summarized by Robert C. Richardson (a philosopher) in his book Evolutionary Psychology as Maladapted Psychology.
The claims of evolutionary psychology may pass muster as psychology; but what are their evolutionary credentials? Richardson considers three ways adaptive hypotheses can be evaluated, using examples from the biological literature to illustrate what sorts of evidence and methodology would be necessary to establish specific evolutionary and adaptive explanations of human psychological traits. He shows that existing explanations within evolutionary psychology fall woefully short of accepted biological standards. The theories offered by evolutionary psychologists may identify traits that are, or were, beneficial to humans. But gauged by biological standards, there is inadequate evidence: evolutionary psychologists are largely silent on the evolutionary evidence relevant to assessing their claims, including such matters as variation in ancestral populations, heritability, and the advantage offered to our ancestors. As evolutionary claims they are unsubstantiated. Evolutionary psychology, Richardson concludes, may offer a program of research, but it lacks the kind of evidence that is generally expected within evolutionary biology. It is speculation rather than sound science—and we should treat its claims with skepticism.
You may disagree with these criticisms of evolutionary psychology but there's no denying that the discipline is being attacked. In fact, it's hard to think of any other academic discipline whose fundamental validity is being questioned so openly [Evolutionary Psychology Deserves Criticism] [How Valid Is Evolutionary Psychology? ] [Four Fallacies of Pop Evolutionary Psychology] [A Critique of Evolutionary Psychology] [A critique of evolutionary psychology].

The field of evolutionary psychology is full of hyper-adaptationist thinking. It's primary task is explaining modern features of human behavior as adaptations that took place in primitive human populations. From an evolutionary perspective, this requires that the behavior has strong enough genetic components to be subject to evolution by natural selection. It requires that primitive populations contained alleles for the modern behavior as well as alleles for a different behavior that reduced fitness. Finally, it requires that selection for the modern behavior is strong enough to lead to fixation in just a few hundred thousand years.

All of these assumptions require supporting evidence that is almost always missing in evolutionary psychology publications. In the absence of evidence, the default assumption should be that the behavior is cultural. If there's evidence of a genetic component then the default assumption should be fixation by drift unless there's evidence of selection [see 5 Ways to Make Progress in Evolutionary Psychology: Smash, Not Match, Stereotypes].

John Wilkins, among others, has attempted to defend evolutionary from these criticisms [Eww, I stepped in some evolutionary psychology and other crap] [Evopsychopathy 1. Conditions for sociobiology]. Steven Pinker has also responded to his critics [A defense of evolutionary psychology (mostly by Steve Pinker)].

In theory, it should be possible to mount an effective defense of evolutionary psychology by simply asking proponents to list the outstanding achievements of the discipline. One could then weigh the successes against the failures and reach a conclusion about the value of the field as a whole. PZ Myers tried to find some good examples of evolutionary psychology papers but he gave up [Kate Clancy tackles Evolutionary Psychology]. Jerry Coyne offered one paper as evidence that the field isn't entirely worthless [The Best of Evolutionary Psychology According to Jerry Coyne].

A few years ago I was discussing this issue with Gad Saad, an evolutionary psychologist at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. He defended his field by listing a number of notable achievements [The Great, Profound, and Valuable Works of Evolutionary Psychology]. I'll end this post by giving you his list and letting you decide for yourselves whether the field is worthwhile. As you read the list, ask yourselves the following questions ...
  • Is there evidence for genes (alleles) that are responsible for this trait?
  • Is there evidence that in primitive societies this trait improved fitness more than the original, presumably deleterious, trait?
  • Is there evidence that this is a universal trait present in all human populations?
  1. Women alter their preferences for the facial features of men as a function of where they are in their menstrual cycles. When maximally fertile, they prefer men possessing markers of high testosterone.
  2. Babies display an immediate instinctual preference for symmetric faces (at an age that precedes the capacity for socialization).
  3. Children who suffer from congenital adrenal hyperplasia display a reversal in their toy preferences. Furthermore, using inter-species comparisons, vervet monkeys display the same sex-specific patterns of play/toy preferences as human infants. This suggests that contrary to the argument made by social constructivists, play has an evolved biological basis.
  4. Individuals who score high on an empathy scale are more likely to succumb to the contagion effects of yawning. This is indicative that this particular contagion might be linked to mimicry and/or Theory of Mind.
  5. How provocatively a woman dresses is highly correlated to her menstrual cycle (a form of sexual signaling found across countless Mammalian species).
  6. Culinary traditions are adaptations to local niches. For example, the extent to which a culture utilizes meat versus vegetables, spices, or salt is a cultural adaptation (this is what behavioral ecologists study).
  7. Maternal grandmothers and paternal grandfathers invest the most and the least respectively in their grandchildren. Whereas all four grandparents have a genetic relatedness coefficient of 0.25 with their grandchildren, they do not all carry the same level of "parental uncertainty." In the case of maternal grandmothers, there is no uncertainty whereas in the case of the paternal grandfather, there are two sources of uncertainty. This last fact drives the differential pattern of investment in the grandchildren.
  8. Good male dancers are symmetric (paper published in Nature). One would expect that some behavioral traits might correlate with phenotypic quality as honest signals of an individual's desirability on the mating market.
  9. Self-preference for perfumes is linked to one's immunogenetic profile (Major Histocompatibility Complex).
  10. When a baby is born, most family members (especially those of the mother) are likely to state that the baby looks like the father. This phenomenon is found in countless cultures despite the fact that it is objectively impossible to make such a claim of resemblance. The reason for this universally found cultural tradition lies in the need to assuage the fears of paternity uncertainty.
  11. Environmental stressors (e.g., father absence) and the onset of menarche (first menses) have been shown to be highly linked. In numerous species, the likelihood of a female becoming reproductively viable is affected by environmental contingencies.
  12. Women are less receptive to mandatory hospital DNA paternity testing (for obvious reasons). In other words, their willingness to adopt a new product/service is fully driven by an evolutionary-based calculus.
  13. Women can smell the most symmetric men. In other words, women have the capacity to identify men who possess the best phenotypic quality simply via their nose. This is what I have referred to as sensorial convergence.
  14. Using fMRI, the exposure to ecologically-relevant stimuli (e.g., beautiful faces) yields distinct neural activation patterns in men and women.
  15. In choosing a mate, humans tend to prefer the smell of others that are maximally dissimilar to them along the MHC. This ensures that offspring possess a greater "defensive coverage" in terms of their immunological system.


35 comments :

  1. Re #15 -- that's the ridiculous "smelly T-shirt" experiment -- they measured supposed "mate choice" by having members of the opposite sex rate the attractiveness of people wearing a T-shirt that they hadn't changed! Saad thinks that was a notable achievement, I'd hate to see what he considered non-notable.

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  2. Is evolutionary psychology deeply flawed? In principle no, in practice yes. There's no reason to think evolution can't, at least in principle, be brought to bear to inform questions relating to human psychology. Though I would certainly agree the work being done is anything but impressive or all that insightful.

    Your two latter questions seem rather strangely adaptationist to me however. Could historical evolutionary events not have shaped aspects of human psychology without them being selectively beneficial? It's almost like you ask the questions insinuating that insofar as no evidence of positive selection on certain psychology-affecting genes can be found, then no evolutionary explanation for that psychology even exists.

    Well, certain behaviors could be spandrels, unavoidable byproducts of other things that are adaptive, or they could be straight up neutral, but nevertheless manifest as they do because those neutral alleles still got fixed over geological time.

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  3. "The field of evolutionary psychology is full of hyper-adaptationist thinking."

    It's not. EP from the outset went far beyond hyper-adaptionism. If There was a scale of how adaptionist somebody was and you had - say - Gould as a 2, Dawkins as an 8 and C.G. Williams as a 9, then "Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer" by Cosimides and Tooby, which served as the template for the discipline would rate as roughly 20 billion.
    The thing even the most hardcore adaptionist biologists always accept, is that it makes no sense to look at traits without undestanding their primitive states. Phylogeny matters to adaptionist thinking, because only by looking at the plesiomorphy can you compare the apomorphy and argue which advantage it confers. But to EP that is not part of what they call adaptionism. Their adaptionism is contrasted to the "phylogenetic approach", which considers common descent and thus plesiomorphic traits. It's incaple even of telling just so stories on how the ancestors of humans lost their tails, because it is incapble of considering that we had tailed ancestors. It won't tell you a just-so story on how we went from no opposable thumb, to an opposable thumb, because it considers the fact that we had ancestors without an opposable thumb to be irrelevant to any questions regarding modern thumbs.

    "Individuals who score high on an empathy scale are more likely to succumb to the contagion effects of yawning."

    I want to do that test. I'm severely affected by the contagion effect of yawning, to the point where somebody mentioning yawning makes me yawn (I've yawned 8 times while writing this paragraph). It's a great source of amusement for friends and colleagues, because to me that's a reflex. I've started to learn Japanese, and while it's of course hard to learn a new language, I now reflexively yawn when somebody says "akubi". There's obviously some higher brain functions involved, if I translate that term and immediately respond by yawning. I'm also pretty sure this is a bug and not a feature.

    "This suggests that contrary to the argument made by social constructivists, play has an evolved biological basis."

    Points deduction for the incorrect use of social constructivism.

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  4. The list is a joke right/ thats their best stuff?
    I have heard/read about evolutionary psychology's demise. Its great fodder for creationists in attacking presumptions about selection.
    So many conclusions and hypothesis are foolish.
    Indeed they so easily guess some trait was useful to a primitive human population but its traits very unlikely/impossible they would be selected for and stick to some mysterious gene.!
    Yet i say its only in a spectrum of the whole evolutionary problem with evidence.
    i think evolutionists realize evo psych is hurting them in credibility.
    Its one of the few fields of study, where ppeople get paid to do it, that is attacked in academic circles.
    It looks simplistic and foolish beyond usual claims of experts status.
    When I used to read Uncommon Descent one of the authors had great articles on foolish claims in evo psych.
    Yes it shows a bigger problem with evolutionary biology.
    You can make any claim about genes doing this or that without actual biological evidence but instead hijacking other subjects like geology, genetics, comparative anatomy, biogeography.
    So for a creationist attacking evo psych is just attacking the extreme of the curve.

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  5. It shows a bigger problem with religion.
    You can make any claim about gods doing this or that without actual evidence.
    /seewhatIdidthere

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  6. I think you’re being a bit unfair. Even if the field isn’t very rigorous (I agree that the list is not very convincing), that doesn’t mean that the underlying premise is flawed. One could equally argue that ‘cancer research’ is flawed, since a lot of the work is being done on cell lines, with increasingly few people bothering to make the distinction between cell lines and tumour tissue. Both fields are theoretically sound, but in practise, they fail to be enough introspective to ask the right questions of how the work ought to be done. In addition, one could argue that any work on the genetics of behaviour (in either man or animals), is evolutionary psychology done correctly; I fail to see why the field should be restricted to human psychology. (And that might be a reason for the adaptionism; it’s the inferiority complex rearing it’s head again.)

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    1. Not at all. Work on cancer cell lines is basically the equivalent of working on model organisms in other fields of biology. Everybody understands that they are just models used for simplification and are such the right tool for initial studies. Everybody understands that results in cell lines may not predict the results in mice or humans, just like results in E. coli or Drosophila may not be applicable beyond these organisms.

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    2. Yes, in ideal conditions. Everything is a model of something. But I think there’s a tendency in the literature to get a bit carried away with the implications; cancer biology is just a case-in-point: before you’ve established that the model is satisfactorily similar to what you’re trying to model, I’m not comfortable to say that the work says much about anything. And I’m not sure in vitro cell lines are very similar to in viva cancers. Neurodegeberation is a similar issue: when you model it in a mouse (say), and then ‘cure’ it, unless you’ve established that the disease mechanisms are similar, you haven’t really accomplished much at all. We’re very good at preventing proliferation of cell line-derived cancers, or induced neurodegeneration, but our understanding breaks down when we try to apply it more generally—presumably because our models failed to capture the essence of the disease that were really interested in understanding. Trust me, not all scientists/researchers are clear-sighted enough to realise the limits of their models. In the ideal world, they would, but that’s not the reality we live in (sadly).

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  7. Evolutionary psychologists are at least trying to use evolutionary theory to understand human behavior. If you look at a lot of the other social sciences, they are still stuck in a pre-1859 timewarp. Some went beyond rejecting Darwin and even rejected the scientific method for decades - e.g. cultural anthropology and history. Compared to some of these other efforts, most evolutionary psychology seems positively enlightened.

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    1. nobody is stuck in the pre 1859 timewarp. nor rejected the scientific method as they understand it. I think the method is slippery when in use.
      History shouldn't be using evolution. Its about human motives and actions and investigation is after the fact. Indeed origin subjects are , largely, history ones.
      Evo psych has too many crazy conclusions that has lost it credibility by those who pay attention.
      Its just lines of reasoning from very raw data.
      Yes i say its not greatly different from evolutionary biology in its great conclusions.

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    2. The historical method is basically a form of the scientific method. I suspect that both of you know very little how history is done.

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    3. The historical method is not a form of the scientific method.
      Otherwise why qualify it with the word bASICALLY. Such a word hides a lot.
      the whole point of science is to be accurate in investigation, including definition, as to demand confidence in its conclusions.
      History can not make such demands.
      motives/actions of men long gone is only figured out by the remaining evidence which means a ceiling is always placed on conclusions because the the evidence quality has a ceiling.
      You make my case that some subjects, claimed to be science based, have problems with actually being worthy of scientific methodology confidence.

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  8. Evolutionary psychology itself is not flawed, but some theories in the field are.
    Can anyone deny the fact that parents who were more resolute in protecting their offspring passed more of their genetic material than those who didn't?
    Can anyone deny the fact that a male who fathered many females passed more of his genes than the one who stayed with a single female? (It is more complex but the concept is the same.)
    In most cases men need time to realize that they love a woman. Women on the other hand need even more time to realize that they fell out of love for a man. Women invest more in having a child than a men, and so they invest more in the relationship, therefore it is more difficult to walk away from it. There is an evolutionary connection there.

    Then cultural differences are circumstantial. People do not gather to a city square and agree about their culture. The culture is a result of climate, geography and historical events. The successful cultures survive, and those that did not adopt to circumstances disappear. Culture itself is an evolutionary phenomenon.

    It is another thing that some authors fail to make a scientific case.

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  9. "Can anyone deny the fact that parents who were more resolute in protecting their offspring passed more of their genetic material than those who didn't?"
    I can, unless you're making a circular argument where resolutely protecting parents are defined as those who have more kids.

    "Can anyone deny the fact that a male who fathered many females passed more of his genes than the one who stayed with a single female? (It is more complex but the concept is the same.)"
    This contradicts your first point, this is about offspring generation not protection. So I guess you deny one of these two premises.

    "In most cases men need time to realize that they love a woman. Women on the other hand need even more time to realize that they fell out of love for a man."
    Citation needed, because my BS detector is going off.

    "Women invest more in having a child than a men, and so they invest more in the relationship, therefore it is more difficult to walk away from it."
    One premise and two conclusions. Neither conclusion follows from the premise.

    "There is an evolutionary connection there."
    Says you.

    "Then cultural differences are circumstantial. People do not gather to a city square and agree about their culture. The culture is a result of climate, geography and historical events. The successful cultures survive, and those that did not adopt to circumstances disappear. Culture itself is an evolutionary phenomenon."
    Oy vey. See the above issues, they apply here as well.

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    1. I wrote a comment not an essay.
      My point is that if a few researchers are wrong it does not mean that the theory is wrong, just those researchers. Then I threw a few ideas what could be a good topic for research, much better than what was given in this article. To me it seems that the author cherry picked the most ridiculous among them and used those to trash the whole theory. Cherry picking arguments to prove the point is politicking, not science.
      Granted I did not construct my comment right, but this is not an essay.

      Just few more lines:
      Parents are protecting their offspring. It happened through evolution, as we see that less evolved species do not care about their offspring, but have many of them, while more evolved spices have fewer but nourish and protect them. Those who didn't, did not pass their genes. In fact among mammals there are two very simple compounds Oxytocin, and Vasopressin that play that role. No citation, this is not an essay.
      A male can be a carrying parent and still be able to father many females in a short period of time.

      About men and women and how they enter and leave relationships, I ran it by psychologists and they agreed that there is something there. Needs research, of course, but I have my daily job - and what I do there I must not publish. Most people are not in academia.

      Give it the benefit of the doubt and try to see if you can prove it. Just for giggles.

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    2. "Give it the benefit of the doubt and try to see if you can prove it."
      That's not how science is supposed to work. But I know it doesn't matter because you wrote a comment not an essay, ergo you can express opinion as fact and no one is allowed to point out problems with that.

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  10. I may have a graduate degree but I'm not a scientist and I my experience is that people of science tend to deploy their rigorous skepticism on scales that slide with more subtle motivations. Of course when human values are at stake, this is what we all do. The brilliant insights of Jonathan Haidt in THE RIGHTEOUS MIND conjures the image of a huge elephant presumably steered by a human rider. The rider is a metaphor for our conscious, rational thought -- the elephant is a metaphor for all the bio-chemical, subconscious and unconscious parts of our being. Per Haidt, each of us is both the elephant and the rider -- and the role of the rider tends to be one of rationalizing the choices of the elephant AFTER THE FACT.
    .
    To me it would seem that our life's mission is to master the elephant, and while we may have some moments of success, we fall short again and again and again. Dr. Jordan Peterson conjures a different image, he suggests that each of us consciously resolves to eat right, work out at the gym, and get ahead in our assignments -- yet afterwards we find ourselves sitting in front of the TV in our underwear eating Cheetos. The similarly brilliant Dr. Peterson points out that homo sapiens have been here for about 0.2 million years, but the brain chemistry we have is remarkably similar to animals that have been around for 600 million years, namely, lobsters. The point being that humans are driven by factors way beyond our conscious choice -- and our becoming more attentive to this reality helps to better master our lives.
    .
    Now when others claim that evolutionary psychology is of dubious merit, it sends me on a tangent (for which I apologize). My gut tells me that perhaps the critics are taking sides in the feminism vs James Damore debacle. When Damore correctly repeated findings regarding the tendencies of males and females, not only was he was demonized, a grand movement arose to label all those who concurred as "evolutionary psychologists" (or worse) and public criticism of the field increased. So if what is really going on here with this article is a movement to discredit scientists like Dr. Haidt and Dr. Peterson, then just come out and say it.

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    1. i never heard of james Damore. Yes I can understand other motives interfering with conclusions/methodology in subjects in science.
      Yet if feminism etc can interfere so much in conclusions from a science then somebody/everybody is saying the science is not real science.
      So its possible or more so.
      Evo psych has heaps of crazy conclusions constantly presented to the public or academia
      i'm not doubting its most likely some identity movement , at this point in history, makes commands about truth and freedom of science with both losing.
      however forceful people always rule the world. Democracy , academic freedom, and science must fight and conquer such oppressions.
      Trouble in the past, trouble in the present. creationism makes these complaints for sure. .

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  11. To clarify, is it that you think Evolutionary Psychology is flawed from the outset, as people like Richard Lewontin once claimed? Or is it that, like PZ Myers, you haven't seen examples of good research motived by evolutionary approaches in psychology?

    If it's the first, I think it would be good to know your reasons for thinking its a problem at the outset. You allude to the idea that E psych is 'hyper adaptationist'. Is that the main issue?

    If you just haven't seen examples of good evolutionary psychology then, I would like to know your preferred theoretical disposition in psychology. It might be the case that you don't find theories of social interaction that rely on evolutionary assumptions to be compelling... But what's your alternative? Because I find much of social psychology very unconvincing and they are sometimes grounded in theories that are even less well supported than the 'hyper adaptationism' you see in evolutionary theories.

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    1. Economic explanations for human behavior make a lot more sense than genetic ones. Why do you think people in the American Rust Belt voted for Trump? Do they have a "Republican Gene" or do they simply naively believe that Trump will bring back the factories and coal mines their fathers worked at?

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    2. (Replying to Michael Payton)

      I just haven't seen good examples of evolutionary psychology, and would like to see one. A few years ago, I went looking, and delibrately avoided social psychology, looking instead for examples of evolutionary theory being used to give insights into cognitive psychology, especially visual pyschology. My only 'theoretical dispostion' in psychology is that I reckon cognitive psychology is the most rigourous area within psychology.

      For example, there is a bunch of papers about fear of (photographs of) spiders and snakes. I failed to find a good paper. Can you help?

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    3. I would recommend Passingham and Wise's 2015 book 'The Neurobiology of the Prefrontal Cortex' as an stellar example of evolutionary reasoning applied to Cognitive Neuroscience. If you want a specific example, look at their chapter on why the FEF (frontal eye field) should be considered part of the Prefrontal, rather than the Premotor cortex.

      But being in that area, I can tell you that aside from some hold outs, the anti-EP arguments have largely been dismissed. Even the very month that this blog post was written Trends in Cognitive Science published an article 'How Primate Brains Vary and Evolve' which is explicitly adding to the EP framework.

      I could also add that same week, Current Biology posted 'Sociobiology: Changing the Dominance Hierarchy' which, as the name suggests, is working in an EP framework.

      The problem I see with people like PZ Myers and others when they claim not to have found any 'good' examples of EP research is that I really cannot believe that they have looked. The field is filled with examples. More coming every week. Furthermore it's not just that they are ignoramuses (sorry, but that is the right word here) themselves, they use their claimed expertise in a tangental area to undercut the very good work that is being done currently.

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    4. @Michael Payton

      I have no qualms about applying evolutionary thinking to most aspects of neurobiology and brain function.

      When I challenge evolutionary psychology I'm questioning the application of sloppy evolutionary theory to aspects of human behavior. It's psychologists who are causing the problem, not biologists who study brains.

      Many of us have asked leading proponents of evolutionary psychology to give us their best examples and they have consistently failed to come up with papers that meet the standards applied to other fields. This is a problem, as you know, and it's led to widespread criticism of the field.

      If you are truly working in the field of evolutionary psychology then I'm saddened to hear you say that the anti-EP arguments have been dismissed. What you and your colleagues SHOULD be doing is helping to clean up the discipline by vocally criticizing the people who propose lists like the one in my blog post.

      Some workers in the fields of psychology and sociobiology have done that. Do you think they are wrong?

      Don't forget that many of the critics may not be experts in evolutionary psychology (for good reason) but they are experts in evolution. They can recognize when psychologists are misusing evolution.

      Stephen Jay Gould is an excellent example. His critique of evolutionary psychology in The Pleasures of Pluralism (1997) is as valid today as it was twenty years ago. It's a critique based on his expertise in evolutionary theory and it's misuse by workers in other disciplines.

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    5. @Michael Payton: You misrepresent what Evolutionary Psychology is, if you synonymize it with sociobiology. Sociobiology - while having a pre-history that goes back to Darwins "The Descent of Man" - really starts with E.O. Wilsons seminal "Sociobiology: The New Synthesis". The discipline defined itself broadly, using our understanding of evolution alongside psychological, sociological and archeological evidence.

      Evolutionary Psychology started in the early 90s, 35 years after sociobiology did and it narrowed the focus in terms of what parts of evolutionary biology were deemed relevant:

      "Two of the most important evolutionary principles accounting for the characteristics of animals are (1) common descent, and (2) adaptation driven by natural selection. If we are all related to one another, and to all other species, by virtue of common descent, then one might expect to find similarities between humans and their closest primate relatives. This phylogenetic approach has a long history in psychology: it prompts the search for phylogenetic continuities implied by the inheritance of homologous features from common ancestors.

      An adaptationist approach to psychology leads to the search for adaptive design, which usually entails the examination of niche-differentiated mental abilities unique to the species being investigated. George Williams's 1966 book, Adaptation and Natural Selection, clarified the logic of adaptationism. In so doing, this work laid the foundations of modern evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychology can be thought of as the application of adaptationist logic to the study of the architecture of the human mind." (Cosmides & Tooby, 1997)

      This excludes studies that make use of phylogenetic data, like the Trends in Cognitive Science paper.

      It also clearly separates itself from cognitive neuroscience, which is about proximate explanations, while EP is stated to elucidate ultimate explanations. That would also take out the Current Biology paper from consideration as EP.

      It was evolutionary psychologists who defined their field in such a narrow way, so I don't think it's unfair to judge them on how much they can contribute with that fairly restricted set of tools.

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    6. "It also clearly separates itself from cognitive neuroscience, which is about proximate explanations, while EP is stated to elucidate ultimate explanations. That would also take out the Current Biology paper from consideration as EP."

      @Simon Gunkel: This isn't quite right. In psychology and cognitive science, information processing mechanisms are explained at 3 levels of analysis: functional, computational, and neural (Marr, 1982; Marr labelled these levels differently than I've done here, but the labels I'm using are closer to how we would describe them today). The functional level of analysis is obviously about distal explanation, but the other two are about structure or proximate explanations. Evolutionary psychology is focused on testing hypotheses about how *proximate* computational mechanisms work. What's the source of these hypotheses? One source is the recurrent adaptive problems faced over evolutionary time. To put it another way, the basic idea that I think we would all subscribe to is that structure reflects function. Evolutionary psychologists take that idea seriously by developing theories of function (adaptive problems) to generate hypotheses about mechanism (psychological mechanisms). That's what makes it *evolutionary* psychology - the hypotheses are motivated by evolutionary considerations. But it is through and through about studying proximate explanations. Here's a really nice introduction for those interested in a clear discussion of how evolutionary psychology actually works and how evolutionary theory can inform cognitive science:
      Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (1994). Beyond intuition and instinct blindness: Toward an evolutionarily rigorous cognitive science. Cognition, 50, 41-77.

      So while it's true that evolutionary psychology tends to focus on computational explanations rather than neural ones, it is not true that it never considers the neural implementation (e.g., Duchaine, Cosmides, and Tooby, 2001; Ermer et al., 2006; the evolution section of Gazzaniga's edited volume, The Cognitive Neurosciences) and it is not true that it does not study proximate explanation - in fact, that's what it primarily focuses on but at the computational level. Cosmides extensive program on the proximate mechanisms underlying social exchange is a prime example. Hope this helps clarify things.

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    7. "Evolutionary psychology is focused on testing hypotheses about how *proximate* computational mechanisms work." That is empathically not what the article you cite states - Cosmides and Tooby argue that most of cognitive science is focussed on the proximate issues, while EP adds an emphasis on function. It also does nothing to rectify any predjudices I might have regarding the discipline when it inludes sections like:
      "In contrast, textbooks in evolutionary biology and behavioral ecology are organized according to adaptive problems: foraging (hunting and gathering), kinship, predator defense, resource competition, cooperation,
      aggression, parental care, dominance and status, inbreeding avoidance, courtship, mateship maintenance, trade-offs between mating effort and parenting effort, mating system, sexual conflict, paternity uncertainty and sexual jealousy, signaling and communication, navigation, habitat selection, and so on.
      Textbooks in evolutionary biology are organized according to adaptive problems because these are the only problems that selection can build mechanisms for solving."

      Is there even a single textbook on evolutionary biology organized in the fashion? I'm not aware of one, but I am aware of a large number of them that are not.

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    8. "That is empathically (sic) not what the article you cite states - Cosmides and Tooby argue that most of cognitive science is focussed on the proximate issues, while EP adds an emphasis on function."

      You're correct, there is an emphasis on function in evo psych, and not just function, evolved function. But as discussed in detail in the article and briefly in my previous comment, *the emphasis on function informs hypotheses about proximate mechanisms.* Here are a couple of examples from the article:

      "Theories of adaptive function specify what problems our cognitive mechanisms were designed by evolution to solve, thereby supplying critical information about what their design features are likely to be."
      *"Design features" refers to aspects of the proximate mechanisms.

      "The biological and cognitive sciences dovetail elegantly because in evolved systems - such as the human brain - there is a causal relationship between the adaptive problems a species encountered during its evolution and the design of its phenotypic structures."

      "If we know what these (adaptive) problems were, we can seek mechanisms that are well engineered for solving them."

      "We thought an effective way of doing this would be to use an evolutionarily derived computational theory to discover cognitive mechanisms whose existence no one had previously suspected."

      If you get a chance to read the paper, you can find other examples throughout.

      One possible source of confusion is to think of evolutionary psychology as separate from cognitive science. Evo psych is an approach to cognitive science. It draws on theories of evolved function to inform hypotheses about cognitive mechanisms.

      Hope that helps clarifies the primary MO of evo psych: using function to generate and narrow hypotheses about structure (proximate mechanisms).

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    9. @Laurence A. Moran

      "I have no qualms about applying evolutionary thinking to most aspects of neurobiology and brain function."

      Well then I'm confused. If you see no problems with the application of evolution into understanding the brain, then it seems odd that you would have problems with applying it to the understanding of behavior and thought. The two are obviously very strongly linked.

      "When I challenge evolutionary psychology I'm questioning the application of sloppy evolutionary theory to aspects of human behavior. It's psychologists who are causing the problem, not biologists who study brains."

      As above, I don't think there is a hard line that seperates the biological study of the brain and psychological study of behavior. I'm probably misunderstanding you here, and I am genuinely interested hearing your opinion on this, so I might just need to you clarify.

      "Many of us have asked leading proponents of evolutionary psychology to give us their best examples and they have consistently failed to come up with papers that meet the standards applied to other fields. This is a problem, as you know, and it's led to widespread criticism of the field."

      I know it's a widespread criticism, and certainly it's one that applies to many studies. I'm just not sure that this criticism wouldn't also disrupt every other area of study in psychology. The field (psych) has many problems, but I think Cosmides and Tooby make a point along the lines of saying that one of the majoy problems is the lack of grounded theory in psychology. Evolution by natural selection seems to be at least a strong candidate for generating hypothesis about the mind.

      "If you are truly working in the field of evolutionary psychology then I'm saddened to hear you say that the anti-EP arguments have been dismissed. What you and your colleagues SHOULD be doing is helping to clean up the discipline by vocally criticizing the people who propose lists like the one in my blog post."

      Well, I'm not working specifically on evolutionary psychology. But I do think an application of biological thinking has to be in place to understand the brain, and cognitive functions. Our brains use 20% of all the calories we eat, the size of our brains make us vulnerable to death by comparatively minor head trauma, and failing that even giving birth was and still is a death sentence to many women. I think those evolutionary pressures working against having large brains certainly looks puzzling if we don't think there are also some adaptations that make having them advantagious or at least neutralize the cost.

      "Some workers in the fields of psychology and sociobiology have done that. Do you think they are wrong?"

      No, there's plenty of bad work. It deserves criticism. But there's bad work in developmental psychology. But I don't hear criticisms of developmental psychology as *in principle* flawed endevors.

      "Don't forget that many of the critics may not be experts in evolutionary psychology (for good reason) but they are experts in evolution. They can recognize when psychologists are misusing evolution."

      Agreed. But the knife cuts both ways. There are also experts in evolution that don't bat an eye at applying natural selection to behavior.

      "Stephen Jay Gould is an excellent example. His critique of evolutionary psychology in The Pleasures of Pluralism (1997) is as valid today as it was twenty years ago. It's a critique based on his expertise in evolutionary theory and it's misuse by workers in other disciplines."

      I have to disagree there. I haven't read that book, but for the most part I do not find Gould particularly convining. We've discussed this before. But I don't want to turn this into a discussion about Gould. His arguments are fair game though if you want to discuss those.

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    10. @Prof. Moran

      "I have no qualms about applying evolutionary thinking to most aspects of neurobiology and brain function.

      When I challenge evolutionary psychology I'm questioning the application of sloppy evolutionary theory to aspects of human behavior. It's psychologists who are causing the problem, not biologists who study brains."

      The problem is that every time you write a post about EP you don't make the distinction between:

      1) Does biology (and therefore evolution), including genetics, developmental processes, etc, affect and condition behaviour in animals, including humans?

      2) Has EP research been riddled with flawed methods, evolutionary misconceptions on the part of their practitioners, etc?

      These are linked questions, but quite independent of each other. I totally agree with the latter (EP research is severely flawed) but I also have no doubts abut the former. But the way you write your posts continuously passes the idea to the reader that you think behaviour in animals is completely unbounded/conditioned by biology, and that evolution, neutral or adaptive, has nothing to say about it.

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  12. RE: Very interesting questions and discussions!

    Yes, my short answer to the above post-title question is Yes, EP -- as derived from EB or neo-Darwinism post-1859 -- is a very flawed scientific enterprise or discipline!

    Also, like Darwinism of the 1859 fame “On the origin of species”, EP (as based on the list-descriptions above) is primarily full of general phenomenological observations of behavior (or Nature in Darwin’s case); but essentially lack of any scientific or direct causal (but not corelational nor rhetoric) specifications or substantiations at all!

    Thus, especially by our postmodern scientific and biomedical understandings and definitions nowadays, any studies (including cancer research and treatment) that have had been based on the very restrictive reductionism of neo-Darwinism of the 19th-20th centuries past, may now be broardly disqualified as trully a basic biomedical, scientific projects, at all! -- A fierce discussion that has recently resurfaced here: http://nautil.us/issue/58/self/its-time-to-make-human_chimp-hybrids#comment-3797981126 !

    Best, Mong 3/17/18usct14:25; practical public science-philosophy critic (since 2006).

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  13. "In the absence of evidence, the default assumption should be that the behavior is cultural."

    Evolutionary psychology may have something to teach you. It doesn't subscribe to simplistic, false dichotomies like nature vs nurture, genes vs environments, biological vs cultural, innate vs learned, etc. It embraces GxE casual interactionism (of the Jacob & Monod flavor), although it's primarily focused on using adaptive problems to generate focused hypotheses about the computational mechanisms, shaped by evolutionary processes, including but not limited to natural selection, to regulate behavior.

    I'd be interested to hear your take on the primary literature, rather than reciting other people's takes. Here's a good start:

    Tooby, J. & Cosmides, L. (1992). The psychological foundations of culture. In J. Barkow, L. Cosmides, & J. Tooby (Eds.), The adapted mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Tooby, J. & Cosmides, L. (1990). On the universality of human nature and the uniqueness of the individual: The role of genetics and adaptation. Journal of Personality, 58, 17-67.

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  14. "Is there evidence for genes (alleles) that are responsible for this trait?

    Is there evidence that in primitive societies this trait improved fitness more than the original, presumably deleterious, trait?

    Is there evidence that this is a universal trait present in all human populations?"

    Also, do evolutionary psychologists have anything to say about the massive genetic load that would presumably result from all of their mental traits being selected for?

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  15. Read "The Seven Sins of Evolutionary Psychology" by affective neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp.

    http://www.flyfishingdevon.co.uk/salmon/year3/psy364criticisms-evolutionary-psychology/panksepp_seven_sins.pdf

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