Going Further on Evolutionary Psychology

A couple of weeks ago, Brad Peters of the blog Modern Psychologist left a comment on my post on Rebecca’s Skepticon talk. He suggested many of us, me included, were going too lightly on evolutionary psychology. Today, he’s put up a post saying something very similar.

Many, for example, want to censor Watson based on her apparent lack of scientific credentials (she has a communications degree). My thought is this: if you do not like what she has to say, you ought to engage her in debate, based on your own reasons. You should not try to dismiss an argument because they do not work within that field, or you don’t like what they have to say. By this logic of ‘specialized credentials,’ we might follow a slippery slope where we decide that only experts in evolutionary psychology should be able to critique their own, which is absolute nonsense, since conceptual communities naturally gravitate toward insular thinking that only serves to reinforce its own biased set of assumptions. It is for this reason that we need not less, but MORE people challenging theories from the outside.

Edward Clint, an evolutionary psychologist, seems particularly offended by Watson’s critique, and in his multiple-page attack of Watson’s position, goes so far as to accuse her of ‘science denialism’. Of course this is a ridiculous assertion, and both Stephanie Zvan and Mark HoofNagle do a fair job of arguing his points, though they regrettably suggest that Watson might have been critiquing only a small segment of pop evolutionary psychology. It seems blasphemous to critique the whole field, lest you ironically find yourself charged with ‘denying science.’

I suspect that if Peters and I were to talk it out, he’d find that I don’t consider the problems Rebecca brought up in her talk to be a particularly “small segment” even by his reckoning. But that’s a quibble.

Peters also has a few things to say about the is-ought fallacy defense and about Jerry Coyne’s defense of evo psych. I haven’t said much myself on the latter because, well, Coyne was pretty vague about what was making him happier about evo psych these days. I tend to stick with fairly specific methodological criticisms. Peters approach is different.

Personally, I find Jerry’s position unconvincing. But let’s look at Jerry’s arguments for giving evolutionary psychology its fair shake. He suggests that before we dismiss evolutionary psychology, we should all read this article by Confer et al. (2010). Jerry tells us that this is a good paper, and even though it is written by evolutionary psychologists, that it is “an evenhanded exposition of the state of modern evolutionary psychology…” Jerry goes on to say that “If you can read the Confer et al. paper and still dismiss the entire field as worthless … then I’d suggest your opinions are based more on ideology than judicious scientific inquiry.” I don’t think he sees the irony here. First, Jerry tries to persuade us that the defense presented by evolutionary psychologists is “evenhanded” and implicitly unbiased, and then concludes that if we don’t believe it, we must have fallen slave to ideology. Is the pot calling the tea-kettle black Jerry?

First of all, the Confer et al. paper is grotesquely biased, and it is a shame that Jerry cannot see it.

Peters’ approach on evo psych is more top-down than mine, as we can see if we look at the preprint version of his critique of evo psych as a whole.

It should be noted that there has been considerable debate about whether the mind is massively, moderately, or non-modular. A mind that is massively modular (Fodor, 1983) would be comprised almost entirely of pre-specified incompressible mental programs or modules; a moderately modular mind (Carruthers, 2003) would be mostly modular in composition, while the non-modular mind would be almost entirely domain-general and non-modular in composition. For the purpose of this discussion, I will focus on the prevailing view within evolutionary psychology. Though there is some theoretical variation within the field, this position would appear to lie somewhere between moderately and massively modular assumptions (Tooby & Cosmides, 1992; Pinker, 1997), with modules being by definition, relatively distinct, though at times proposed as being functionally connected with other modules (Tooby, Cosmides, & Barrett, 2005). Within the literature of modularity, there has also been debate regarding the innateness of modules, though again, for the purpose of this discussion, I will focus on the prevailing position within the field.

A little later:

The evolutionary psychology definition of the mind, comprised of dedicated information-processing mechanisms, would have been influenced by philosopher Jerry Fodor’s (1983) original hypothesis presented in the Modularity of Mind. Yet, Fodor himself saw the mind to be divided into systems – some made up of modules and some not. This view is consistent with the position of most modern day neuroscientists, who describe both phylogenetically old special-purpose systems, and later evolving general-purpose neural systems (e.g. Panksepp, 1998; Rose, 2005). We might briefly conceptualize the more hard-wired lower-level systems as including spinal and cranial reflexes, systems controlling balance or orientating movements, autonomic nervous system responses, basic emotional states, and so on. These systems tend to be specified, reflexive, functionally discrete, yet interconnected, similar to how evolutionary psychologists might envision their hypothetical modules. Ontogenetically, these kinds of systems tend to be fully functional at birth, and are less amenable to change as a result of environmental input. In contrast, higher-level neocortical systems, including those responsible for complex thought and social interaction, appear to involve an integration of numerous systems of varied differentiation. They are hardly at all developed at birth, offer greater neural plasticity, and are therefore extremely amenable to change as a result of environmental input. So while there is abundant evidence for modularity in lower-level systems, it is simply incorrect to suppose that all or even most of the human central nervous system works this way.

This is a long read and slightly technical, but if you want a picture of objections to the underlying theory of evolutionary psychology and how it interacts with research design and interpretation, it’s pretty good, as is the brief follow-up. They’re both worth reading.

Going Further on Evolutionary Psychology

8 thoughts on “Going Further on Evolutionary Psychology

  1. 3

    Hm. Interesting bit about modularity.

    It seems that modeling the brain as modular is directly contradictory to theories of a general IQ or “g-factor.” Logically, if the brain is best described as a set of semi-independent modules, each with its own function, then the brain cannot be well-described as having a single overarching scalar quantity that describes its effectiveness, and vice versa. And AFIAK, the g-factor is a popular (though far from universally accepted) theory in cognitive science.

    Until now, I didn’t know that this conflict existed between evo-psych and cog-sci. I wonder how many of the people crying “but you’re not an expert!” realize that evo-psychologists are making controversial unstated assumptions about fields they’re not experts in. I wonder how many of them would shut up if they did know.

  2. 4


    From what I understand the g-factor related theories are considered fairly weak, especially in comparison to popular modularity theories of brain function like the one proposed by Norman and Shallice (1986). IIRC Ward (2006) briefly discussed how the theories behind ‘crystallised’ and ‘fluid’ intelligence fit much better than ideas of a “g-factor” when considering the deficits that arise from prefrontal cortex lesions. It seems that intelligence is itself broken down into subtypes that serve different purposes and can function fairly well independently of each other.

    I’d link you Ward’s discussion but unfortunately it’s buried somewhere in a textbook. Support poor psychology professors by spending an obscene amount of money on it 🙂

    Hopefully that made some sense. I am unbelievably terrible at explaining things and deal more with neuroscience than IQ theories. Could be totally barking up the wrong tree,

  3. 5

    Interesting. One slightly OT quibble:

    Edward Clint, an evolutionary psychologist

    I’m pretty sure he’s just in his first year of grad school. Does that makes him an “evolutionary psychologist”?

  4. 6

    Until now, I didn’t know that this conflict existed between evo-psych and cog-sci. I wonder how many of the people crying “but you’re not an expert!” realize that evo-psychologists are making controversial unstated assumptions about fields they’re not experts in. I wonder how many of them would shut up if they did know.

    Exactly this. I’m not an expert in cog-sci either. It’s a field I’m interested in and I’ve done some reading. By “some” I mean that I’ve not even scraped the tip of the iceberg of what’s available, I’m sure. But everything I have read seems to contradict basic precepts of evo-psych.

    As I said, I don’t feel particularly knowledgable in the field so I hesitated to enter the “show me your sources!” and “citations!” fray on the subject previously. Thanks for this link, Stephanie.

  5. 7

    @4 (Stacy):

    I’m pretty sure he’s just in his first year of grad school. Does that makes him an “evolutionary psychologist”?

    Eh, I’d have said something like “a graduate student in evolutionary psychology”. Normally I wouldn’t give someone the label “field-of-study-ist” unless they’re primarily employed as such (yes, grad students are often also employed as TA’s or RA’s, but they’re typically still considered full-time students). But of course the employment status of folks in academia can often baffle… just try explaining to any given government agency the employment status of a foreign postdoc 😛

    As for the OP, FWIW* I’d agree with Peters’ analysis, and especially appreciated that last quoted line in the OP 🙂

    (*I’m an neuroscientist/neurobiologist.)

  6. 8

    I’d say if he is actively researching and publishing in the field he is an “-ist” of that field. One doesn’t need a degree to publish or do research. I know one high-energy physicist that has a large publication history, but never went beyond an M.S.

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