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Taking aim at evolutionary psychology

June 23, 2009

Sharon Begley has a doozy of an article in Newsweek taking aim at evolutionary psychology. The article is a real mixed bag and is already starting to generate vigorous rebuttals.

As background, the term “evolutionary psychology” tends to confuse outsiders because it sounds like a catchall for any approach to psychology that incorporates evolutionary theory and principles. But that’s not how it’s used by insiders. Rather, evolutionary psychology (EP) refers to one specific way (of many) of thinking about evolution and human behavior. (This article by Eric Alden Smith contrasts EP with other evolutionary approaches.) EP can be differentiated from other evolutionary approaches on at least 3 different levels. There are the core scientific propositions, assumptions, and methods that EPs use. There are the particular topics and conclusions that EP has most commonly been associated with. And there is a layer of politics and extra-scientific discourse regarding how EP is discussed and interpreted by its proponents, its critics, and the media.

Begley makes clear that EP is not the only way of applying evolutionary principles to understanding human behavior. (In particular, she contrasts it with human behavioral ecology). Thus, hopefully most readers won’t take this as a ding on evolutionary theory broadly speaking. But unfortunately, she cherrypicks her examples and conflates the controversies at different levels — something that I suspect is going to drive the EP folks nuts.

At the core scientific level, one of the fundamental debates is over modularity versus flexibility. EP posits that the ancestral environment presented our forebears with specific adaptive problems that were repeated over multiple generations, and as a result we evolved specialized cognitive modules that help us solve those problems. Leda Cosmides’s work on cheater detection is an example of this — she has proposed that humans have specialized cognitive mechanisms for detecting when somebody isn’t holding up their obligations in a social exchange. Critics of EP argue that our ancestors faced a wide and unpredictable range of adaptive problems, and as a result our minds are more flexible — for example they say that we detect cheaters by applying a general capacity for reasoning, not through specialized cheater-detecting skills. This is an important, serious scientific debate with broad implications.

Begley discusses the modularity versus flexibility debate — and if her article stuck to the deep scientific issues, it could be a great piece of science journalism. But it is telling what topics and examples she uses to flesh out her arguments. Cosmides’s work on cheater detection would have been a great topic to focus on: Cosmides has found support across multiple methods and levels of analysis, and at the same time critics like David Buller have presented serious challenges. That could have made for a thoughtful but still dramatic presentation. But Begley never mentions cheater detection. Instead, she picks examples of proposed adaptations that (a) have icky overtones, like rape or the abuse of stepchildren; and (b) do not have widespread support even among EPs. (Daly and Wilson, the researchers who originally suggested that stepchild abuse might be an adaptation, no longer believe that the evidence supports that conclusion.) Begley wants to leave readers with the impression that EP claims are falling apart left and right because of fundamental flaws in the underlying principles (as opposed to narrower instances of particular arguments or evidence falling through). To make her case, she cherrypicks the weakest and most controversial claims. She never mentions less-controversial EP research on topics like decision-making, emotions, group dynamics, etc.

Probably the ugliest part of the article is the way that Begley worms ad hominem attacks into her treatment of the science, and then accuses EPs of changing topics when they defend themselves. A major point of Begley’s is that EP is used to justify horrific behavior like infidelity, rape, and child abuse. Maybe the findings are sometimes used that way — but in my experience that is almost never done by the scientists themselves, who are well aware of the difference between “is” and “ought.” (If Begley wants to call somebody out on committing the naturalistic fallacy, she should be taking aim at mass media, not science.) Begley also seems to play a rhetorical “I’m not touching you” baiting game. Introducing EP research on jealousy she writes, “Let’s not speculate on the motives that (mostly male) evolutionary psychologists might have in asserting that their wives are programmed to not really care if they sleep around…” Then amazingly a few paragraphs later she writes, “Evolutionary psychologists have moved the battle from science, where they are on shaky ground, to ideology, where bluster and name-calling can be quite successful.” Whahuh? Who’s moving what battle now?

The whole thing is really unfortunate, because evolutionary psychology deserves serious attention by serious science journalists (which Begley can sometimes be). David Buller’s critique a few years ago raised some provocative challenges and earned equally sharp rebuttals, and the back-and-forth continues to reverberate. That makes for a potentially gripping story. And EP claims frequently get breathless coverage and oversimplified interpretations in the mass media, so a nuanced and thoughtful treatment of the science (with maybe a little media criticism thrown in) would play a needed corrective role. I’m no EP partisan — I tend to take EP on a claim-by-claim basis, and I find the evidence for some EP conclusions to be compelling and others poorly supported. I just wish the public was getting a more informative and more scientifically grounded view of the facts and controversies.

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