Nugget of Awesome: welcome to evo psych redux

There’s another evo-psych stoush brewing in the atheist/skeptic blogs, predictably arising ultimately from Rebecca Watson saying those four little words a while ago and apparently she has not been denigrated enough yet for doing that because she’s still talking about stuff that bothers/insults women! PZ is far from impressed, and Stephanie Zvan found the time to dissect the latest critique and its embarrassing misunderstandings/misrepresentations of Rebecca’s speech against bad science used to buttress the gender status quo.

Anyway, here’s my chosen nugget.

jose at Pharyngula
Evolutionary biologists love Matsuzawa and Jane Goodall and and their research on qualities we long thought were uniquely human but turns out they aren’t. They love to talk about the evolution of morality, the evolution of politics, of culture, of the artistic sense, etc. But these are topics evolutionary psychology hardly covers. There is instead an obsessive focus on gender roles.

This actually parallels something Rebecca said in her talk, in a response to a question:

Q: Is there any good evolutionary psychology?
A: Is there any good evolutionary psych. Probably? I’m guessing yes, but it’s so boring, because you can only make it interesting if you make up everything. Because, really, good evolutionary psychology would be more like, “Well, we don’t really know what happened in the Pleistocene, and we have no evidence for this, but maybe this”. It’s not the sort of thing that makes headlines. So if there is good evolutionary psychology, it’s not in the media, and therefore, it might as well not exist as far as the general public is concerned.

At this point in time, given what we know of the sort of evo pysch speculations which the mainstream media loves to push, it’s pretty much guaranteed that if an evo psych study’s results are getting headlines then it’s either bad science or bad journalism, and far too often it’s both. Sucks to be one of the minority rigorous evolutionary psychologists who are working hard on solidly evidenced studies, because the pop-evo-psych shonks are ruining their name.

Categories: culture wars, gender & feminism, Science

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6 replies

  1. In psychological terms, the big argument that evolutionary psychology gets caught up in is the Nature/Nurture controversy. Are we the way we are because these behaviours have been hard-coded into our genetics (Nature), or are we the way we are because there’s a cultural component to the way humans behave (nurture)? Is there an overlap and if so, how much of an overlap is there?
    According to my psychology textbook from the Introduction to Psychology course I did earlier this year, the evolutionary approach to psychology looks at behaviour through the lens of Darwinian theory. The core question in evolutionary psychology is: does a particular behaviour confer an advantage to humans when it comes to things like surviving to breeding age, and reproducing the next generation (and if so, how does it do this)? The examples the textbook uses are things like childhood attachment to parents, eating, sexual behaviour in general – things which can be argued as genuine universals across the range of cultures.
    So I’d argue there’s space in the cultural lexicon for a separation to be created between evolutionary psychology (the actual experimental and theoretical psychological approach based around the theory of Natural Selection) and evo-psych (the glib pop-cultural insistence on justification of culturally discriminatory behaviours on grounds of “tradition”).

    • After some fairly strong challenges in the comments, PZ clarified his stance:

      PZ Myers 3 December 2012 at 11:50 am

      There is respectable work published under the banner of evolutionary psychology. It’s just that the respectable stuff seems to be an interesting fusion of genetics, molecular biology, and anthropology that identifies and quantifies measurable genetic traits. I’ve got absolutely no beef with that.
      It’s just that the ridiculous just-so stories that the more credulous evo psych people use to publicize their work in the popular press are fucking embarrassing, and there seem to be a number of ‘researchers’ who go no further than those pop psych nonsensical rationalizations, and it takes idiocy of the magnitude of Kanazawa’s for the evo psych community to rise up and police their own.
      Clint’s article is a perfect example. His outrage isn’t aimed at the people who do bad, commercially influenced hackwork for commercial interests and fluff magazines, it’s against the person who dares to expose the stupidity.

      That seems eminently fair to me.

  2. The problem, continuing on from Rebecca Watson’s point about getting evidence for any particular hypothesis, is that the worthwhile, scientific stuff is almost certainly going to be published as human genetics or anthropology. Psychologists, as far as I can tell, don’t get the training required to do evolutionary analysis. Any psychologist who wants to do evolutionary studies should be collaborating with anthropologists or geneticists/molecular biologists.
    And I’m old enough to have been around when anthropologists first got into molecular biology techniques, and there was some really embarrassingly bad science done. It remains true, per David Hull, that evolution is so simple, almost anyone can misunderstand it.

  3. Megpie: as someone who has an actual advanced degree in an evolutionary subject area, what I find frustrating is that people (even psychologists who ought to think like scientists) think nature vs nurture is a meaningful dichotomy. Everything is a mixture of both, and the question is more how the two interact (in complicated and messy ways, usually).
    An analogy might be cooking: there’s the recipe (or what would be a recipe if you wrote it down) and the ingredients. The final dish will be affected by both.
    My favourite anecdote in this line is that you can ignore most twins-brought-up-by different-adoptive-parents studies of the heritability of intelligence. Because poor people don’t often adopt. So those studies tell you about the heritability of intelligence when you’re growing up in a reasonably comfortable environment. But most people who want to draw conclusions about the heritability of intelligence want to extend those conclusions across a much wider spectrum of upbringings.

  4. Aqua: I agree that the whole nature/nurture thing, like most of the arguments within psychology, is a lot more complex under the hood than the simple version which is presented as an introduction for beginning students, or ignorant journalists.
    My own go-to example for the difficulty of disentangling nature and nurture is looking at my particular mental illness. I have chronic depression, as does my father, my mother, both of my mother’s siblings, at least three out of four of my cousins on the maternal line, and at least three out of my four grandparents. I suspect both of my cousins on the paternal line are also prone to it, but then I don’t know too much about them. So it’s possible that within my family, depression is a heritable condition – that’s the nature side of things.
    But it’s also equally possible that it’s a learned behaviour – certainly as a child, being raised by two depressed parents, it’s a mystery how I would have escaped learning the basics of “how to be depressed” or “thinking and acting as a depressed person”. So there’s the nurture side of the equation.
    But then again, my younger brother, while he’s had a few depressed episodes, doesn’t appear to have the same sort of chronic, unstoppable version that I and other members of the extended family do. So maybe there’s a mixture there – there might be a genetic pre-disposition toward depressive thought patterns, which is then accentuated by the depressive family culture I grew up in. So it could be a mixture of both nature and nurture, with the nature determining how much of a grip the nurture gets on the psyche.
    It gets even more interesting when you consider that the way I learned to think (as a depressed person) growing up may well have affected the way my brain processes things, meaning I’m in that 40% of the population for whom SSRI-type antidepressants are just an expensive route to nowhere. I’ve been on at least three SSRIs so far, and despite the fact that according to the biochemistry experts I apparently shouldn’t acclimatise to them, my experience is they eventually wear off and stop working. My guess is it’s a weird little quirk of neural plasticity – my brain learned how to be depressed very young (I had my first episode of suicidal ideation when I was about ten, and I don’t really remember having had a very happy childhood at all) and it is now very good at being depressed. To the extent that it will take steps to ensure I wind up depressed again no matter how much I fiddle with the biochemistry – or in other words, I suspect the nurture impacted on the nature.
    To quote the Goon Show: “It’s all rather complicated, really.”

  5. Twin studies: I also read recently (past year or so) that many twin studies have the problem that the twins aren’t actually kept apart, even if they are adopted by different families. Basically, that the nurture is not so independent as it is usually presented as being.
    (Does anyone have a link?)

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