August 16, 2005

Bad Science of the Week: Ev Psych

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at August 16, 2005 6:05 PM

Slate has a nice piece up today pointing out flaws in evolutionary psychology. Long-time readers may remember that ev psych annoys me to no end, as it is usually someone making up some just-so story about life on the savanna to justify preconcieved notions about human behavior. All too often this is in service of some sexist claim or double standard. Hence I always love finding pieces that debunk ev psych. Here's an excerpt from the Slate article:

EP claims that our minds contain hundreds or thousands of "mental organs" or "modules," which come with innate information on how to solve particular problems—how to interpret nuanced facial expressions, how to tell when someone's lying or cheating. These problem-solving modules evolved between 1.8 million and 10,000 years ago, during the Pleistocene epoch. And there the selection story ends. There has not been enough time in the intervening millenia, EP-ers say, for natural selection to have further resculpted our psyches. "Our modern skulls house a Stone Age mind," as Cosmides' and Tooby's primer on evolutionary psychology puts it. The way forward for research is to generate hypotheses about the urges that would have been helpful to Stone Age baby-making and then try to test whether these tendencies are widespread today.

What's wrong with this approach? To begin with, we know very little about the specific adaptive problems faced by our distant forebears. As Buller points out, "We don't even know the number of species in the genus Homo"—our direct ancestors—"let alone details about the lifestyles led by those species." This makes it hard to generate good hypotheses. Some EP-ers have suggested looking to modern-day hunter-gatherers as proxies, studying them for clues about our ancestors. But this doesn't get them far. For instance, in some contemporary African groups, men gather the bulk of the food; in other groups, women do. Which groups are representative of our ancestors? Surely there's a whole lot of guesswork involved when evolutionary psychologists hypothesize about the human brain's supposedly formative years.

Now I am aware that a small fraction of ev psych research is actually worthwhile. But the stuff that gets media attention is almost always total bullshit.

Tags: Evolution, Psychoceramics, Science

I agree some of that stuff is really wacky, to say the least.

One comment on the last item: This is an extreme example of what one sees with other sciences. If you ask a person who gets their "science" from the NY Times (or similar sources), it would not be all that surprising if they thought, for example, that Brian Greene is one of the preeminent living physicists. Similarly, some subjects are much sexier than others (such as controversial ones like the one you mention) and the practitioners of some subjects are much worse at advertising their wares than others.

Posted by: Mason | August 16, 2005 8:47 PM
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