Lame Slate Article on Evolutionary Psychology

Today's article from Amanda Schaffer has the provocative title:

Cave Thinkers: How evolutionary psychology gets evolution wrong.

And so you'd expect some kind of thorough debunking, right? Wrong. It takes as its leaping-off point a recent assertion from John Tierney that men are generally more competitive than women, and are that way due to the way their psychologies evolved.

Tierney's peculiar, pseudo-scientific claim—not the first from him—reflects the extent to which evolutionary psychology has metastasized throughout public discourse. EP-ers' basic claim is that human behavior stems from psychological mechanisms that are the products of natural selection during the Stone Age. Researchers often focus on how evolution produced mental differences between men and women. One of EP's academic stars, David Buss, argues in his salacious new book The Murderer Next Door that men are wired to kill unfaithful wives because this response would have benefited their distant forefathers. Larry Summers took some cover from EP this winter after his remarks about women's lesser capacity to become top scientists. And adaptive explanations of old sexist hobbyhorses—men like young women with perky breasts and can't stop themselves from philandering because these urges aided ancestral reproduction—are commonly marshaled in defense of ever-more-ridiculous playboys.

This kind of thinking about innate differences between the sexes makes some folks uncomfortable. And you can see it in the language above: "peculiar", "salacious", "sexist", "ridiculous". The signal is clear: this is not gonna be an objective look at EP pros and cons. The matter is settled, as far as Ms. Schaffer is concerned. And she's not too concerned with Tierney's alleged "pseudo-science;" that's just the hook. Her real ire is directed at real scientists.

Evolutionary psychologists have long taken heat from critics for overplaying innate characteristics—nature at the expense of nurture—and for reinforcing gender stereotypes. But they've dismissed many detractors, fairly or no, as softheaded feminists and sociologists who refuse to acknowledge the true power of natural selection. Increasingly, however, attacks on EP come from academics well-versed in the hard-nosed details of evolutionary biology. A case in point is the new book Adapting Minds by philosopher David Buller, which was supported by a research grant from the National Science Foundation and published by MIT Press and has been getting glowing reviews like this one (paid link) from biologists. Buller persuasively argues that while evolutionary forces likely did play a role in shaping our minds, the assumptions and methods that have dominated EP are weak. Much of the work of pioneers like Buss, Steven Pinker, John Tooby, Leda Cosmides, Martin Daly, and Margo Wilson turns out to be vulnerable on evolutionary grounds.

Really? Well, we'll see. First warning sign, of course, is that we have a philosopher going up against actual scientists. Not that there's anything necessarily wrong with that. But if you can't find any scientists that will make the point you want to make, doesn't that say something about the scientific merit of your argument?

But the actual objections that Schaffer lists are weak themselves.

  • "To begin with, we know very little about the specific adaptive problems faced by our distant forebears." True. But if that was a stopper, you might as well not do evolution at all, period, let alone evolutionary psychology. This is a crashingly silly objection.
  • "In addition, we are probably not psychological fossils. New research suggests that evolutionary change can occur much faster than was previously believed." However, following the link makes clear that this assertion is currently speculative, at best. There's no evidence actually presented saying we're not "psychological fossils;" it's just a hopeful guess.
  • "Finally, the central, underlying assumption of EP—that humans have hundreds or thousands of mental problem-solving organs produced by natural selection—is questionable." It's obviously questionable; any scientific hypothesis is. But has it been scientifically debunked, like phlogiston? Uh-uh.
  • "In fact, considering how much dramatic change our forebears faced, it makes more sense that their problem-solving faculties would have evolved to be flexible in response to their immediate surroundings. (A well-argued book from philosopher Kim Sterelny fleshes out this claim.)" Again, this is a scientific issue; if Ms. Schaffer can't find a reputable scientist that can debunk the EPists with alternative hypotheses, her argument is ultimately unpersuasive.

In short: this alleged rebuttal to Evolutionary Psychology is prejudiced, at best vague and speculative, and not overly scientific.

Ms. Schaffer does (seemingly accidentally) hit on something, though:

…EP's conclusions can be quite difficult to falsify.

This is, of course, meant to be devastating. Ms. Schaffer doesn't seem to realize that the anti-EP hypotheses she's pushing are no less difficult to falsify.

But in fact, the "unfalsifiability" criticism applies equally well (such as it is) against evolution generally. EPists aren't doing anything out of the scientific mainstream. If you're going to aim your philosophical big guns on Evolutionary Psychology, it's really going to be difficult not to shoot at Evolution as well.

Last Modified 2014-10-03 3:46 PM EDT