LINK: Most of EvoPsych is pseudoscience

post by polymathwannabe · 2015-12-08T00:53:40.567Z · score: -1 (23 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 18 comments

The evolutionary origin of human behavior is doubtless a valuable scientific field, but the way the research is currently being conducted raises several concerns.

By request from readers, I've added some excerpts:

EvoPsych’s most common failing is its fallacious methodology, often consisting of not even acknowledging the need to describe, much less pass, any adequate falsification test. 

(1) This is most commonly the case in its frequent failure to even confirm that a behavior widely exists cross-culturally [...]
(2) EvoPsych also rarely finds any genetic correlation to a behavior [...]
(3) More problematic still is the rarity of ever even acknowledging the need to rule out accidental (byproduct) explanations of a behavior [...]
(4) And one of the most common confounding factors for creating accidental behavior effects will be the sudden radical changes in our environment caused by civilization and technology.
[...] This makes EvoPsych almost impossible to practice as a genuine science. What it wants to know, is almost always simply impossible to know (at least currently).
First, EvoPsych imagines such a vast repertoire of evolved stimulus-response psychological mechanisms as to require a vast genetic apparatus that simply isn’t found in the human genome.
Second, [...] EvoPsych needs to test the non-adaptive hypothesis for any claim first. It should not be assuming every human behavior is a product of biological adaptation.
[...]
(1) The evidence actually suggests human evolution may operate at a faster pace than EvoPsych requires, such that its assumption of ancient environments being wholly determinative of present biology is false.
(2) “Neuroscientists have been aware since the 1980s that the human brain has too much architectural complexity for it to be plausible that genes specify its wiring in detail,” 
(3) “The view that a universal genetic programme underpins human cognition is also not fully consistent with current genetic evidence.”
(4) “Human behavioral genetics has also identified genetic variation underlying an extensive list of cognitive and behavioural characteristics,” thus challenging any claim that certain traits were adaptively selected for—when clearly, after tens of thousands of years, the variance was clearly adaptively selected for.
(5) “The thesis of massive modularity is not supported by the neuroscientific evidence,”
(6) “Evolutionary psychologists rarely examine whether their hypotheses regarding evolved psychological mechanisms are supported by what is known about how the brain works.”
(7) EvoPsych needs to start doing experiments in social learning, to see what can and can’t be unlearned by a change in culture and cognition, so as to isolate what actually is biological, and what is actually instead just picked up [...]
(8) [...] such studies do not test the evolutionary hypotheses themselves [...] by failing to rule out plausible alternative explanations for all of its results, EvoPsych has actually failed to prove anything at all.

18 comments

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comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2015-12-09T10:57:13.861Z · score: 7 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Didn't read the article, but at least based on the excerpts, it sounds like many of these are pretty common misunderstandings of evopsych. E.g.

(2) “Neuroscientists have been aware since the 1980s that the human brain has too much architectural complexity for it to be plausible that genes specify its wiring in detail,”

is quite weak, as discussed in Barrett & Kurzban 2006:

In considering the issue of a gene shortage, it is important to distinguish between architectural modularity and developmental modularity. As discussed in the evolutionary developmental biology literature, an aspect of the phenotype is developmentally modular to the degree that natural selection can act on it independent of other aspects of the phenotype (e.g., Griffiths, in press; Riedl, 1978; Schlosser & Wagner, 2004; Wagner & Altenberg, 1996). Architectural modularity refers to the endpoints of development—the degree to which the phenotype is “chunked” into functional components (e.g., Sperber, 2002). A single developmentally modular process can give rise to multiple architectural modules. For example, the process that produces hair follicles is presumably at least somewhat developmentally modular, yet it produces many millions of individual architectural modules in the form of individual hair follicles.

Does this apply to cognition? Module-like representational structures for face recognition are probably constructed for each face one can reliably recognize even though there are obviously no separate genes for recognizing each one. Architecturally modular novel tokens no more undermine developmental modularity than do novel tokens in other domains. The human immune system generates novel responses to parasites all the time (see, e.g., West-Eberhard, 2003, p. 58), yet no one seems to question whether there are sufficient genes to explain this process. Further, as discussed above, “high-level” modular architectures, such as the cognitive structures underlying chess skill, are probably tokens of module-generating developmental processes designed for other functions. The inference that such systems “cannot be based on a Darwinian algorithm” (Sterelny & Griffiths, 1999, p. 330) is unlicensed. Critics of massive modularity must articulate why novel cognitive tokens are more problematic than novel tokens elsewhere in the phenotype.

Further, developmental processes that give rise to distinct phenotypic structures in the brain presumably share many procedures in common as well as many of their necessary genes (i.e., genes that contribute causally to the development of the structure). Many developmental processes exhibit a nested hierarchical structure: They share common beginning points, with bifurcation or decision points during the process as structures become differentiated from one another and are more precisely specified (Gilbert, Opitz, & Raff, 1996; Riedl, 1978; see especially chap. 4 of West-Eberhard, 2003). Large numbers of modules in the brain might begin from a common starting point, and share many of the processes that build them, the more so the earlier one looks in development. This is a common pattern for evolved developmental systems in general (West-Eberhard, 2003). Subsequently, regulatory processes cause structures to diverge in their development, mediated by inputs from the internal or external world. In fact, different environments might cause different structures to develop by design (because of a history of selection for that outcome) even if there is complete overlap in the genes responsible for the development of the two different structures. [...]

Therefore, the answer to the question “Does each module need ‘its own’ set of dedicated genes?” is no: Finding genes responsible for building that module and only that module is unlikely. Consider the genes “for” (in the sense of Dawkins, 1976) arms and legs. The genes that play a causal role in building arms and in building legs (as well as many other structures) overlap heavily. The same logic applies to the construction of mental modules.

As another way of seeing this, if one tried to specify the number of phenotypic details in the human body that reliably recur during development because of a history of natural selection acting on historically contingent developmental systems, one would certainly find that the number is greater than 30,000, the approximate number of genes in the human genome.6 That is, it would require more than 30,000 parameters to specify the human phenotype in blueprint or informational terms. If such a one-to-one mapping were required, there probably wouldn’t be “enough genes” to build a single cell in the human body (for a similar argument, see Marcus, 2004).

Most of the other numbered points in the second list also seem to be based on similar misunderstandings/misrepresentations of the field.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-12-09T11:53:58.289Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

A single developmentally modular process can give rise to multiple architectural modules.

To the extend that a single developmental modular process leads to multiple architectual modules, it's a reasonable argument that it's improper to analyse the evolutionary advantages of a single architectual module without knowing looking at the other achitectual modules that spring out of the same developmental modular process.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2015-12-09T15:22:27.808Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW

That sounds like a much more reasonable criticism than the ones presented in the OP.

comment by HungryHobo · 2015-12-08T14:05:06.886Z · score: 6 (8 votes) · LW · GW

You post a link to someones blog starting with them using their personal perception of arguments with people as a basis for their argument.

This is not promising.

I got bored part way through and just started skipping to the next sections and sampling paragraphs because the author is neither eloquent, concise, clear, insightful nor interesting to read and I have a life to live so I'm just grabbing a few glaring flaws.

So it starts with a nice generic attack on all of Psychology.

"Psychology Itself Is Not That Reliable"

To attack Evo-psych specifically

"Adding Evolutionary Hypotheses Increases That Unreliability"

Throw in some appeal to authority.

"Third, Many Qualified Experts Concur"

But of course anywhere the qualified experts disagree with the author the qualified experts are wrong, including the main person they point to.

"Fourth, Defenses of EvoPsych Remain Inadequate"

Wherein the author goes back to vaguely recounting vague impressions from their arguments with people without specifics.

I have no strong feelings on evopsych, I'm sort of of the opinion that it's too easy for people to make up just-so stories unless they're disciplined and scientific with their enquiries but the linked article is garbage. Spectacularly long winded, self-important garbage.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2015-12-09T13:38:50.848Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

There are certainly interesting things to say about EvoPsych, and many interesting things that have been said, but why did you make this particular article the subject of attention?

comment by polymathwannabe · 2015-12-09T20:39:36.442Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I just found it refreshing to read what EvoPsych looked like from outside of the LW-sphere. It's the first time I've seen someone take the trouble to address such a large number of unchallenged assumptions.

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-12-09T22:20:37.399Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

If that's your idea of "addressing", I can point you to some creationist sites.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-12-08T22:15:56.974Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

This is basic law of conjunction: the probability of two things being correct must necessarily always be less than the probability of one of them being correct. Famously illustrated by the Conjunction Fallacy. So, since EvoPsych depends on claims being correct in both Evo and Psych, and the latter alone has a reliability rate of only 1 in 3, then the conjoined reliability rate must necessarily be less than 1 in 3. How much less?

This is just wrong. Evolutionary psychology does not depend on everything else in the rest of evolutionary biology and psychology being right. That would be silly. I wouldn't describe the post as useless, but yeah, as others have said, this could have been made a lot shorter. He's ranting too much.

comment by gjm · 2015-12-08T09:41:18.269Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Would one of the several people who have downvoted this like to explain their reasons? Not because I think they're wrong (I've barely skimmed the linked article and have no idea) but because it seems like it could be any of "it's too long and boring", "it's flatly wrong on issues X, Y, and Z", "I think Richard Carrier is an idiot and would downvote links to anything of his", "how dare you criticize evolutionary psychology?!", etc., etc., and more specific criticisms would be much more useful.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-12-08T15:37:24.991Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW · GW

It is long and boring. But even the beginning is not promising at all. The author starts by essentially saying that evopsych is bad because racism, but it has some redeeming features because it allows for gays. That's a really bad start.

comment by gjm · 2015-12-08T16:49:04.323Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

That doesn't match my impression of the start of it. The article's first mention[1] of racism is this:

A lot of what people find eyerollingly stupid about EvoPsych is actually a product of the media [...] or almost as often pseudoscientific loons [...] misreporting or misusing the results of EvoPsych. For which EvoPsych proponents can’t be blamed, other than for not doing more to combat this abuse and misrepresentation of their field than they should be [...]. Indeed EvoPsych proponents should be more involved in publicly combating the nonsense that their science is abused for (including racism, sexism, and misogyny).

which is saying not "evopsych is bad because racism" but "evopsych may get a bad reputation because of racism but that's not evopsych's fault and its proponents should be fighting abuse of evopsych". (And "because it allows for gays" seems actually to be "because it offers an explanation for the otherwise puzzling existence of homosexuality".)

[1] There seems to exactly one other, which is made only in passing and seems clearly unobjectionable.

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-12-08T21:47:20.545Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

"evopsych may get a bad reputation because of racism but that's not evopsych's fault and its proponents should be fighting abuse of evopsych"

Well many critics of EvoPsych accuse perfectly correct parts of EvoPsych of racism because they don't like the conclusions. True, maybe Carrier doesn't do that specifically in this essay, but I think it's only fair to expect critics of EvoPsych to be more involved in publicly combating the nonsense accusations some of the critics make.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-12-08T23:17:57.549Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I think it's only fair to expect critics of EvoPsych to be more involved in publicly combating the nonsense accusations some of the critics make.

Are you aware of the prehistory with Rebecca Watson?

In case you aren't Rebecca gave a speech at Skepticon crticizing EvoPsych as being pseudoscience because of bad thoughts being spread online under the banner of EvoPsych (Carrier links to her speech at the beginning). It became clear that Rebecca didn't look into the actual science of EvoPsych. Some people suggested that Rebecca is was playing out the typical anti-science handbook of not engaging with the claims of scientists when critizing a science but engaging stupid claims from people on the internet. Obviously holding an anti-science speech at a Skeptic converence is controversial.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-12-08T12:03:18.675Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

If you link to an article of the length, post excerpts. I would expect the article this post to have a more positive reception if a few well chosen paragraphs would be cited.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-12-09T10:52:40.254Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I didn't downvote but my feeling was the same as ChristianKI's. As this topic has seen a number of different debates/discussions over the years at LW, I wondered why you thought this particular article was worth bringing up.

comment by zslastman · 2015-12-11T12:43:58.320Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Here's a much better article criticizing evo-psych. I think it goes a little too far in some places, and I've posted it before, but those looking for something a bit more structured and well argued would do well to start here.

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-12-08T21:46:35.745Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

EvoPsych also rarely finds any genetic correlation to a behavior

This is a ridiculous standard. The author presumably has no problem with using evolution to describe non-psycological traits. No one, say, demends we find the "trunk gene" before talking about why elephants evolved trunks.

More problematic still is the rarity of ever even acknowledging the need to rule out accidental (byproduct) explanations of a behavior

It's called Ockham's razor. If a behavior has beneficial (to the individual) effect X, it having evolved for that purpose is a more parsimonious explanation than to having evolved for reason Y that just happens to correlate with X.

The evidence actually suggests human evolution may operate at a faster pace than EvoPsych requires, such that its assumption of ancient environments being wholly determinative of present biology is false.

EvoPsychs are perfectly willing to explain traits using more recent enviroments when the evidence warrants it. Of course, Richard Carrier probably considers those parts "abuse of EvoPsych for purposes of racism". After all if a trait evolved after the human populations diverged, it probably didn't evolve the same way in all populations.

“Neuroscientists have been aware since the 1980s that the human brain has too much architectural complexity for it to be plausible that genes specify its wiring in detail,”

Amazing how the Creationists' "argument from complexity" suddenly becomes respectable when applied to psycological traits specifically.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-12-08T22:44:43.043Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW · GW

No one, say, demends we find the "trunk gene" before talking about why elephants evolved trunks.

Are there academic papers that discuss why elephants evolved trunks?