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Eww, I stepped in some evolutionary psychology and other crap

Last updated on 18 Sep 2017



I try and try to stay out of the muck, but they keep pulling me back in! I saw what I thought was a careful and rather overly-documented critique by Edward Clint of a talk by Rebecca Watson against evolutionary psychology (EP). It was full of references and arguments, devoid of ad hominem, and well defended. So I linked to it on Twitter. I got these responses:

And off it went. There were some response articles by Stephanie Zvan (which PZ called a GOOD response), James Croft (the most measured response so far) and Greg Laden, but the raw nerves were on fire. Clint was accused of being an “MRA” (men’s rights activist – a term of abuse apparently, and one I hadn’t come across) and having evil motives against Rebecca. Others said that because evolutionary psychology was bad science, a post defending it must be wrong (I suspect that might be PZ’s underlying enthymeme) no matter what the arguments made were.

I also discovered that while I had linked to one post, I disagreed with Clint on his treatment of agnosticism (1 and 2). I am not recommending him as an Authority, but then I don’t do that.

I am not shocked (any more) that this has descended into partisan personalities. I have come to expect this. But I am interested in the arguments made. Stephanie’s post is not bad, but in the end Croft effectively says “It’s okay to equivocate and cherry pick if it’s for popular purposes”, and that I do not agree with. If it’s bad science, and we can attack antivaccinationists, homeopaths and creationists for popular bad science, then the wheel turns against us skeptics too.

Clint’s defence of EP as potentially good science and not at all to be attacked because of the bad examples and bad reportage is solid, I think. The problem is that EP has its defenders who will ignore all counter evidence and counterarguments, while the opponents will ignore all evidence and arguments in its favour. I want to do something here, which I have previously alluded to: announce my being a born-again sociobiologist – EP is a form of sociobiology.

The criticism of sociobiology and EP is largely cultural. It tends to privilege the power structures of the people doing the research. Henrich’s, Heine’s and Norenzayan’s recent essay on psychology focusing on WEIRD students (western educated industrialised rich democratic, if memory serves) points out that all psychology and social science tends to do this, by default. But we should try to remove that bias as much as possible in all science, so it is fair criticism of EP also.

But what some people, including (I know from personal contact) PZ and Larry Moran, object to about EP is what Gould called “panadaptationism” and “Just-So” storification. Here is where there is interesting and philosophical issue, and so here is where I am most compelled to comment. Forgive me in advance.

First of all, there is the issue of when it is appropriate to use adaptationist explanations. Clint cites the leading philosopher on natural selection, Elliot Sober. Now I often disagree with Sober, especially in the assumption of optimisation studies (and of course classification), but Clint is right to cite Sober here:

Adaptationism is first and foremost a research program. Its core claims will receive support if specific adaptationist hypotheses turn out to be well confirmed. If such explanations fail time after time, eventually scientists will begin to suspect that its core assumptions are defective. Phrenology waxed and waned according to the same dynamic (Section 2.1). Only time and hard work will tell whether adaptationism deserves the same fate ( Mitchell and Valone 1990).

Opponents, largely following Gould and Lewontin’s 1979 attack, tend to assert (often without consideration of the particular attempts to give adaptive explanations) that any and all adaptive hypotheses are cheap and to be avoided. This has the effect of basically eliminating natural selective accounts of anything. But we know that selection is the only process that results in complexity over any time, and the fact there are complex traits among organisms leads to the inevitable conclusion that we should be able to give selective explanations from time to time. I have argued before that we should think of adaptation as a viable hypothesis at all times; but being viable doesn’t make it true. The problem is not that EP or sociobiology makes adaptive hypotheses. They should. It is that they often make them without testing them.

This is no longer the case, at least not universally. Desmond Morris is long gone from the forefront of panadaptationist thinking, and we can start to deal with the more serious claims and studies made. As Clint says

Although there are always going to be some  flawed studies, researchers weeded out failed hypotheses and refined methodologies. The influence of evolutionary psychology has steadily grown. Evolutionary psychology theories once controversial are now accepted by mainstream psychology.

Mind, that isn’t a high bar to leap. A lot of psychology is still fairly simplistic (but not most, by any means). If there’s a field that is really well grounded in my subjective assessment, it is comparative psychology, which is cross-specific at comparing human cognitive development and our nearest relatives, the primates. And that gives us a constraint upon EP-style adaptationism. If it is shared across all primates, then it can’t be an adaptation to an ancestral environment not shared by all primates (not unless some massively unparsimonious evolution has occurred, in which case we can’t say squat about evolutionary history).

But something must have happened in our lineage to give us the traits we now have and it simply is not sufficient to say it could have been evolution by accident. Accident is an admission we cannot explain things. It is the background assumption of anything. And let us not forget that accident is the raw material of selection. Accident proposes, selection disposes. Accidental variation is the origin of things, not the reason why things are retained and built upon, at least, not always. If something can be acquired by accident, and spread through a population via drift, then it can be lost the same way. Nobody sensible would go so far as to say that there is no evolution by accident. But neither should anyone sensible suggest there is no evolution by selection either. The question, as the wit said to the society woman, is how much.

So sociobiology as a hypothesis is acceptable. It need not lead to Nazism, racism, sexism or US exceptionalism. So long as there is empirical data, testing the particular hypothesis at hand, it is and can be good science. It is not the final word. And as Twain said, I wouldn’t hang a dog on a newspaper report. EP like anything else can be misrepresented by various interests, just as evolution always has been.

This brings us to the formal and informal fallacies this whole subject seems to attract like things that are attracted to bad metaphors. If PZ is saying Clint’s post was bad because it asserts and defends something he knows without argument to be false, then that is question begging and displays massive confirmation bias. This is not a good trait in scientists. If, similarly, he approves of Zvan’s piece because it agrees with his belief that EP is false, then that too is confirmation bias. If he dismisses Clint’s defence because Clint is an MRA or has “issues with Rebecca”, that is obviously a fallacy of ad hominem, and a genetic fallacy to boot. His argument stands or falls on the merits of the case made (even if, and I can’t stress this highly enough, he is massively wrong about agnosticism!).

And no, Stephanie (see comments) James, it is not sufficient to accept a bit of exaggeration or cherry picking or equivocation when we do it because it’s entertaining or fun. It is false argument. If it’s wrong to do it when you are anti vaccination, then it’s wrong to do it when you are “skeptical”. This is called tu quoque in reasoning. Rebecca equivocates between a field and reportage or misuse of a field. She is clearly trying to poison the well. Similarly, Dawkins does the same thing with religion in The God Delusion. It’s simply dishonest argument, no matter how entertaining.

In the past I have been challenged by PZ and Larry Moran for saying “we are all subject to our own biases”. I know I am (and because they are mine I am not sure what they are, although in the case of chocolate I have suspicions), but Larry once said to me that I should show him his. Well he’s not engaged on this topic for now, but here is me showing some cognitive biases of some skeptics.

I initially thought Clint’s piece was overkill. Now I see that it will never be enough for some. No matter what his history or motives.

Late note: PZ has a post here and a promise of more to come.

Later note: The first of his ?EP series is here.

This series:

  • Introduction
  • 1.Conditions for sociobiology
  • 2. The Phylogenetic Bracket
  • 3. The explanatory target
  • 4. Adaptive scenarios
  • Conclusion


Gould, Stephen Jay, and Richard C. Lewontin. 1979. The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm: a critique of the adaptationist programme. Proc R Soc Lond B 205:581–598.

Henrich, Joseph, Steven J. Heine, and Ara Norenzayan. 2010. The weirdest people in the world? Behavioral and Brain Sciences 33 (2-3):61-83.


  1. pzmyers pzmyers

    But we know that selection is the only process that results in complexity over any time, and the fact there are complex traits among organisms leads to the inevitable conclusion that we should be able to give selective explanations from time to time.

    That is patently false. Increases in complexity are rarely adaptive — see Muller’s Ratchet, for example. Chance processes are far better at generating increasing complexity, so your conclusion fails — it certainly isn’t inevitable.

    • Dawkins would disagree with PZ’s position, of course. See R. Dawkins and J. R. Krebs (1979). “Arms Races between and within Species”. Proc. R. Soc. Lond.B 205 (1161): 489–511. Anyway, I always thought it was both and clearly selection plays an important role. I don’t see how Wilikens’ conclusion is “patently false.” The reference to Muller isn’t proof of that assertion. See Muller HJ (1932). “Some genetic aspects of sex”. American Naturalist 66 (703): 118–138. doi:10.1086/28041

  2. Cristian Pascu Cristian Pascu

    Creationism is not science. Creationism does not fight science. Creationism fights naturalism which is the framework in which evolutionism makes sense and grows.

    Creationism does not fight quantum mechanics, general relativity, thermodynamics, astronomy, or any other science. Creationism brings others assumptions on the table than those of evolutionism. And draws different conclusions.

    It tries, and does not always succeed, to offer a different explanation for the state of the world as we see it. As discovered by sciences that deal with the present state of the Universe.

    Those that accuse creationists of ‘science denial’, are really offended by the denial of their dear *branch* of science, evolutionism.

    I haven’t watched Rebbeca’s talk, but an article that starts with the wonder of having a rover on Mars as an achievement of Science… C’mon! Compare this with the time they realized physics was not so classic as they though it was.

    When it comes to digging the past, it all comes down to accepting what is reasonable or not to believe. Take this hill over there. Was it formed in a long time? Was it created? Was is formed in a very long time, slowly? Was it formed in a very short time by some natural phenomenon.

    What if two phenomena explain the same state? Which one we pick? And when it comes to explaining the past, there’s always an infinite number of possible explanations.

    Picking constantly the naturalist explanations is ideologic. That could have happen only in a (semi) naturalist society. Modern society grew into that a few centuries before Darwin. If we explained naturalistically the movement of the stars, than anything must be explained like that. Including the originis of the Universe.

    Which is an a priori assumptions. Not necessarily true. And outside science.

    Thus, whoever attacks that assumptions does not attack science.

  3. Hm — I’m conflicted. I haven’t watched Rebecca Watson’s presentation though I did read Edward Clint’s critique.

    Yes, I imagine that Rebecca Watson was trying to poison the well. If you had been spending time with people who use the term MRA, you would have been seeing the trolls who get called that and you would would understand what the underlying issue is. Whether a legitimate science of evolutionary psychology exists or not, the way EvoPsych is used in common culture is the way quantum physics is used by homeopaths.

    It’s very rare that EvoPsych is necessary to prove a point outside of EvoPsych journals, just as quantum physics is very rarely required in everyday life. In the rare cases that either is, the case must be very clearly defined.

    I happen to think that it would be a good thing to know that your friends and internet commenters are going to laugh and point at you when you bring out EvoPsych to explain why women can’t do math or why men will never help with the housekeeping so you might as well stop nagging right now.

    Rebecca Watson may have used bad science to try to bring about this desirable state of affairs, which I’m not going to say was ok. But what I will say is that the appropriate follow up is not to say that Rebecca Watson Is A Twit, but to come up with better ways to make the point. Bringing up EvoPsych to justify your offensive assholery and bigoted opinions is about as intellectual as using quantum physics to sound sciency when you say “magic is true” or “the universe will supply your desires if you apply the Law of Attraction.” Quantum physics is true, and I presume at least some of EvoPsych is true, but I don’t have a lot of respect for most people who wave them around on the internet or in the organic food store.

    • Please do not think I was in any way being critical of Rebecca on the Elevatorgate issue, nor defending those who attack her, so far as I can tell, simply because she is female. That is way outside the Pale for me, as I have often said.

      Nor do I think she (or PZ or anyone else in this dispute) is a Twit. That is a term I reserve for inbred royals. And maybe antiscience campaigners. But she makes a mistake here, as do several other folk I otherwise respect.

      But then I’m a Chamberlainist accommodationist faitheist, remember?

      On EP itself; there is so much promise here to the naturalism project that while we should resist the abuse of nascent science, we should not squelch it. I am a thoroughgoing philosophical naturalist, and so I expect we will figure out a lot of this, but science never finishes, even in physics. So there will always be lacunae and mistakes to rectify.

      • Thanks, John.

        I didn’t think you were addressing Elevatorgate at all, and since you spent very little time on Rebecca Watson’s presentation I didn’t think you were calling her a twit. (I thought Edward Clint was, though.)

        I just thought your response accepted the premise that whether any element of EvoPsych is ever credible is what is up for discussion, when I think that the point that needs making (and that I am perfectly prepared to believe that Rebecca Watson made poorly) is that people who use EvoPsych in routine arguments are often MRAs and usually not credible, and that it should be made culturally clear that saying “science proves women don’t actually want any of the things they don’t have” is not a way to prove one’s intellect.

        • If you had addressed the use of evolutionary theory around 1900 outside some technical fields, it would have been used primarily to support:

          1. The superiority of English/German/French/American “races”

          2. The superiority of England/France/Germany/America/Japan

          3. The inferiority of women

          4. The inferiority of native societies

          5. The inevitability of the working class defeat of the capitalist class

          6. The inevitability of the defeat of socialism by capitalism


          Such is the way science is employed in popular culture. So yes, what Rebecca targeted is Bad Shit. But not the science itself, as such.

          As to the MRA thing, I hate such terms. Male prejudice and privilege over women is a thing to be combated, but little is gained with such name calling, especially if the person concerned is not a member of any MRA group. I do not know what Clint is like in that respect, and do not particularly care. Nor do I care if Rebecca is a member of any feminist association. I care about human rights though.

        • With the exceptionof 5), it’s being used for the same thing today.

          I agree with you on the rest. I don’t call people MRAs and I don’t spend much time with those who do — just enough to recognize the term and the behaviour that calls it forth.

          I agree that at least some of EvoPsych is very likely true even though I know nothing about it, and I agree that attacking it the way Edward Clint claims Rebecca Watson did was disappointing.

          I just don’t like to see Rebecca Watson’s baby tossed out with the bathwater. Is there a better way?

        • Well I haven’t seen any defences of 5ish claims on the basis of EP, but Singer’s recent book tended a bit in that direction, as does Pinker’s latest.

          Yes, there is a better way. When you are attacking reporting, attack reporting. When you are attacking a science, attack the science. Use the principle of charity to construct a solid target not a strawman. Be skeptical about claims of rampant stupidity on the part of your opponents. People are rarely rampantly stupid. Do not overgeneralise. Do not equivocate. Treat your opponent the way you wish to be treated, with civility and respect (if that is what you like) and do not complain when people do treat you the way you treat others.

          We could call this “rational argument”. Someone should write a book.

        • It’s a shame this little treasure is buried in the comments. How this gets lost on so many people I just don’t know.

        • julian julian

          Treat your opponent the way you wish to be treated, with civility and respect (if that is what you like) and do not complain when people do treat you the way you treat others.

          Will ironies never cease…

  4. Cristian Pascu Cristian Pascu

    BTW, the article seems to be really, really bad. Speaking about the arguments alone. It’s mostly “this is well known, established, you can’t deny it”. It’s really hard to read it.

    The argument against the 4th claim says much about this. The quote is a good one. Since evolutions came up with such specific and functional *designs*, and evolution is true, then it doesn’t matter which genes are responsible. And even Darwin did it, so can we. 🙂

    Then, the 5th point:

    For example, pregnancy involves numerous costs, and we therefore expect that females in many species will be more picky about mating than will males. This prediction has strong empirical support for both humans and other animals.

    *Prediction?! You have a very good article on about this. Then his source for ‘strong empirical support’ is just a paragraph stating what needs to be proven.

    I’ll read the rest of the article.

  5. Cristian Pascu Cristian Pascu

    I forgot to subscribe to the comments. BTW, the website works much better!

  6. Great post John. This is a topic that is difficult to wade into because there are two polarized sides that make reasoned discussion difficult. Ed Clint’s passive aggressive insults raise hackles as do accusations of being an MRA. Whether or not either is true, it makes it near impossible for someone not to be forced between camps. YAY the internet.

    I do want to raise a concern where you say ” Accident is an admission we cannot explain things. It is the background assumption of anything.” I realize you note that randomness can and does lead to evolution change and I appreciate the ‘accident proposes, selection disposes’ phrase. However, accident can explain things, if the evidence supports it. Too often adaptionists move from one explanation to another to another, without considering the null hypothesis: accident.

    I can see the hypothetical concern of a person simply saying accident as a way to cut-off any other possibility. However, in practice I see no evidence of this happening. Quite to the contrary, I see the avoidance of accident being the default state. In the field of evolutionary psychology, accidents seem to be completely absent as a viable hypothesis.

    • Completely? I do not know enough of the literature to make such judgements, but I’ll defer to you if you do.

      But it is hard to employ stochastic models and test for them in any aspect of evolution, and likewise it is hard to test for selection (although an increasing number of studies employ selective sweep analyses I am incompetent to evaluate). So still we are left arguing over the price.

      • Alright, so maybe I earned my hyperbole badge. Much, and all that I am aware of, of the big press EP is adaptionist. One of my greatest concerns is that when EP hypotheses are put out there, I do not see consideration of the null hypothesis. This is not restricted to EP and is common in the genomics fields as well. If a gene is expressed under some condition it is considered to be important for adaptation to that condition often without any confirmation. (Another possibility is that the gene is simply expressed without benefit.)

  7. I said what? Where? I can’t figure out what you’re referring to, but I generally trust your fairness. Please let me know what reads that way to you.

    • I find nothing in your post now, so I must have conflated you with somebody else making the argument that this was okay because it wasn’t an academic conference. I will immediately edit out your name. My deepest apologies.

      • No worries, John. There’s enough mess going around that mistakes are bound to happen. Thanks for the quick fix.

  8. Best post on the topic so far, John. Thank you.

  9. Oh, it was James Croft, not Zvan who made that comment, BTW.

      • bluharmony bluharmony

        Here’s the exact quote, and for the record, it’s in the body: “Watson’s talk was a highly funny presentation for a lay audience. It was not the presentation of an academic paper at a professional conference. It was delivered, from the start, in a highly ironic and slightly over-the-top manner (this is not a criticism, merely an observation). And, as such, it seems to me reasonable to expect a somewhat loose, amusing primer in a topic, which may be rather hyperbolic, rather than a highly accurate academic disquisition on evolutionary psychology. I know I have to be on my guard for overstatements, because comedy works, frequently, through overstatement and exaggeration.” — James Croft

        That reads to me as an excuse for presenting a significant amount of misinformation, as Watson did. He also blames the reader for not getting the humor when it’s not apparent, but the problem is the talk is so disjointed and the issue is so serious that humor isn’t even appropriate. That kind of approach is a terrible way to introduce people to a subject they’re unfamiliar with. It’s misuse of EP, and not EP itself that’s the problem, and that should be made crystal clear, especially when talking to a lay audience.

        In the end, she does admit, however, that she knows nothing about actual EP, finds the science boring, and hopes there are no real evolutionary psychologists in the audience. This, to me, signals that she is not the right person to give such a speech.

        As an aside, I will probably be adding to Hallquist’s critique of Zvan’s post tonight, as I largely agree with him, but I think he missed a few minor points. I’ll also be discussing an interview with Watson where she compares EP to eugenics. If I find the time…

      • And it might be in the comments rather than the body of the post — I just remember reading it and thinking… um, no. Again, thanks for doing such a great job with this post. It’s appreciated by those on both sides of this silly war, I hope.

  10. DiscoveredJoys DiscoveredJoys

    An interesting topic. Might I add a link to Robert Kurzban’s blog about Evolutionary Psychology. Particularly the most recent blog about the EEA.

    A recurring theme in Kurzban’s blog is that Evolutionary Psychology is often parodied and then the parody criticised. I imagine that the simplistic and often incorrect reporting by journalists doesn’t help.

    I’ve noticed that certain subjects, no matter how dispassionately addressed, seem to inflame people of a certain mindset – before their rational faculties have had time to reflect on what is being said. I guess we’ve all got ‘hot buttons’ that spark reaction rather than reflection, but some sciences (e.g. the original ideas about evolution, sociobiology and evolutionary psychology) seem particularly inflamatory to those of certain inclinations. I’d even argue that divorcing man from the supernatural is one cue, and treating human behaviour as a subset of animal behaviour another.

    And that’s why I think the debate(!) is so heated; it’s more about worldview than content.

  11. There are many problems with evolutionary psychology.

    Here are a few of them.

    1. Evolutionary psychologists frequently attribute behavior to specific alleles (or groups of alleles) whose selection in the past has fixed them in the human population. (Or led to a huge increase in their frequency.) None of these alleles are identified and in most cases it doesn’t seem reasonable that they even exist.

    2. Adaptation requires more than just a postulated selective advantage for an allele (or group of alleles). That selective advantage has to be significant in order to drive the allele(s) to near fixation in a short period of time because otherwise they will be lost, especially in a large population.

    3. If you postulate that these traits were fixed in a small population of hunter-gatherers on the African savannah then the probability of fixation by random genetic drift is high and you have to supply evidence that the selective advantage is huge. (In addition to supplying evidence that there are alleles in the first place.)

    4. While it might be reasonable at times to leap right to an adaptationist explanation, ignoring any other possibility, good science still demands that you explain why you have dismissed the possibility of accident. It also demands that you justify your claim that the trait has a genetic basis. These steps are frequently “forgotten” by evolutionary psychologists. I have read many “summaries” of basic concepts of evolution in the psychology literature and most of them don’t mention any mechanism of evolution other than natural selection, This suggests to me that the null hypothesis is being ignored because many evolutionary psychologists don’t understand evolution. Here’s an example of evolutionary psychologists responding (in “American Psychologist”) to criticisms of adaptationism. Notice that the word “drift” doesn’t appear anywhere in the entire article and the idea that alleles could be fixed by accident is not discussed [Adaptations, Exaptations, and Spandrels]. Isn’t that strange?

    5. Many of the “just-so” stories are quite ridiculous if you think about them seriously for more than a microsecond but they get published in the evolutionary psychology literature without any self criticism. This is not good science. Lots of other disciplines publish bad papers but evolutionary psychology is unique in that there are so many of them and they are so devoid of rational thought. [Evolutionary Psychology Crap in New Scientist] [Why Dads Can’t Dance] [Evolution Makes Women Stupid]

    6. An acquaintance of mine, Gad Saad, is an evolutionary psychologist whose work correlates finger length with various behavioral traits. He once gave me a list of the very best things that evolutionary psychologists have discovered: The Great, Profound, and Valuable Works of Evolutionary Psychology. Read it and weep.

    7. We really don’t have any idea what kind of society our ancient hunter-gatherer ancestors lived in. We don’t even know if a majority of them lived on the African savannah for long enough to affect evolution. Nevertheless, most just-so stories rely heavily on suppositions about exactly how these ancestors must have behaved in their day-to-day lives.

    • “2. Adaptation requires more than just a postulated selective advantage for an allele (or group of alleles). That selective advantage has to be significant in order to drive the allele(s) to near fixation in a short period of time because otherwise they will be lost, especially in a large population.

      Huh? Several of your statements are in complete reverse of population genetics and evolutionary mechanisms the way I learned them, supported by mathematical models.

      A) If an allele has a net selective advantage (“s” in population models), all things being equal, its frequency will *increase* over time. The stronger (or more significant, as you put it) the adaptive value (higher s), the faster the trait will move toward fixation. However, traits with lower s will simply move toward fixation more slowly and are more prone to genetic drift and other stochastic variation, which might very well be strong enough to push a less adaptive allele toward fixation. Which leads me to the next point –

      B) Lost *especially in a large population*? No, it’s small populations in which the effects of drift are strongest and stochastic fixation or loss of alleles (including loss of a selectively advantageous allele) takes place more quickly. Large populations tend to retain allelic variation for longer, and there’s a long tail of exponential decay in frequency of less adaptive alleles.

      C) Hence, all things being equal, alleles which confer even a small selective advantage will move toward fixation over time in a large population.

      Feel free to correct me where I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure those are the standard predictions about allele behavior in populations.

      • I’m sure Larry mistyped. He has been banging those facts into my head for two decades.

        • Indeed, looking at his argument at 3, he very well probably typed “large” where he meant “small”. However, the overall argument that a selective advantage has to be strong in order to be maintained is at odds with evolutionary population genetics as I learned it. Then again, not saying the way *I* learned it is necessarily correct, so if you or Larry can fill me in on a misconception I have, then by all means, do so.

        • No, I think you are right. Haldane showed that a very small selective coefficient can cause an allele to go to fixation back in the 1930s, I think. But it does depend on how much drift there is as well, as you note.

  12. Larry Moran sent me here to straighten you out. Well, not specifically me – he encouraged all of his readers.

    But then I’m a Chamberlainist accommodationist faitheist, remember?

    That (in a comment) got me laughing. Perhaps the same is being said of me. Maybe Larry will say that of me, after he reads how feeble is my effort at setting you straight.

    Thus far, I don’t recall having seen anything good come out of EP. But, like you, I do give the EP people the benefit of the doubt (of the very considerable doubt). My current expectations of EP are very low. Steven Pinker seems to be one of the better EP people, yet I find myself skeptical of most of his theses.

  13. “But something must have happened in our lineage to give us the traits we now have and it simply is not sufficient to say it could have been evolution by accident.”

    This part, yes.

    • julian julian

      How do you both know that?

      You don’t. It’s an assumption (although not necessarily an unjustified one) you use to make theorizing and collecting evidence for a proposition easier.

      A little more recognition of that and a little less mockery (and not accusing either of you of doing this) of people looking for present time explanations would probably go some ways to mending fences.

      • I’ve given my argument for this here:

        Wilkins, John S. 2007. The Concept and Causes of Microbial Species. Studies in History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 28 (3):389-408.

        I am not mocking anyone when I say this.

  14. jose jose

    I have been reading evolutionary psychology articles and critiques of the articles for years. It is a mainstream issue. People who google evolutionary psychology will find debates about the discipline much more easily than actual reviews and studies. This isn’t an isolated event.

    I have been following blogs by pop science writers either critiquing or endorsing critiques of evolutionary psychology for years (and not this or that study, but the whole field), including many of the popular ones in the english speaking blogosphere: Coyne, Myers, Khan, Zimmer, Pigliucci, Moran, Yong, Hawks (and some non-mainstream ones too, such as Athena Andreadis)… as well as articles in pop science magazines including Discover, Scientific American, New Scientist, etc. And you probably have, too.

    Consequently it surprises me Watson’s talk has had this reaction. Never, ever, have I seen this level of controversy over what’s essentially the same list of criticisms that have been around for years advocated by many different people, just applied to a particular example. Nobody cared back then, seemingly! Particularly surprising are the accusations of feminist bias, as if these age-old arguments had been created ex nihilo by Watson just for her talk.

    • jeb jeb

      I am not familiar with the topic but was surprised stumbling across older references that the criticism by Edward Clint was not more widely focused, it was a somewhat length post and I certainly got the initial impression from it and other comments that this was a a stance taken by one individual.

    • Jose –

      Sorry, but I don’t think Watson was offering the same kind of criticisms. Many biologists and behavioral scientists have offered nuanced and evidence based critiques of EP over the years. This one by Frans de Waal being a favorite of mine:

      Jerry Coyne has done similarly well-reasoned critiques, albeit, he’s far more dismissive of the field than de Waal is.

      Watson, on the other hand, made a sloppy and ideologically-based attack on the entire field (even with her subsequent backpeddling that is was merely attacking media representations of “pop evolutionary psychology”). That is most certainly not in the same league as the kind of critiques mentioned above. Given the fact that Watson is pretty much a professional controversialist, such rable-rousing is par for the course – maybe no reason to hate her, but not sufficient reason to exactly defend her as unreasonably disliked, either.

      As for “people didn’t care back then”, well, a group of people most certainly did care enough back in the 70s to pour a pitcher of water on E.O. Wilson’s head. I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if the current crop of “social justice warriors” pulled an equivalent stunt, albeit, such people aren’t as prone to be active in meatspace as their 70s pre-internet predocessors.

  15. I am led by Cliff’s opening statements on the “irrationality” of the critiques of nuclear power and GM crops to believe that the denialism he bemoans has little to do with science, and quite a bit to do with technocracy.

    Nobody denies that nuclear power plants generate electricity, and could easily provide enough for all our forseeable needs. The question raised by critics is whether or not the social costs of this method of power generation are worth it. Even before Chernobyl and Fukushima we had no safe, practical, “permanent” way to store nuclear waste. Nuclear power is prohibitively expensive, and the fuel is ecologically damaging to mine. Among people who reflexively believe that the most technologically advanced option is always the best one, nuclear power is popular. Among people who have actually studied its effects (yes, ecology is a science), it is not.

    Likewise with GM crops. Who are the denialists? No one argues that Roundup-ready corn is actually Roundup-resistant. No one denies that golden rice has a higher Vitamin A content than white rice (though whether it is bio-available is another matter). What critics observe is that these technologies may not be the right answers to global nutrition problems. There is very little independent evidence that GM crops have tangible beneficial effects on agriculture, and very rational reasons to take pause, not the least of which are the private ownership of seed stock as intellectual property, and the further proliferation of industrial monocultures.

    This isn’t to necessarily defend Watson’s presentation, which I agree isn’t very precise in its criticisms. But it’s hardly denialism. Any there are very good critiques of EP that are very close cousins to the ones Watson makes. In my view the biggest problem with EP is that it’s either banal or self-defeating. I don’t doubt that neurochemical structures perist from the Pleistocene. But we also have a culture that is often in conflict with the dictates of those structures. Rape may well be natural, but so is refraining from rape. Why privilege one form of behavior over the other as truly essential? Any psychological discipline that is only curious about the ways we resemble our ancestors of 10-20 millenia ago, rather than the ways we do not, has some other aim than understanding the human mind.

  16. Coyne’s and Pigliucci’s criticisms of EP are intelligent, limited, and informed, unlike Watson’s. That’s the difference.

    • julian julian

      The difference is you dislike Watson but not the others. Coyne’s criticisms have often been even more generalized than Watson’s and Pigliucci is refrenced in more than one feminist work critical of Evo Psych.

      If you have a problem with Watson’s talk, you have to have a problem with both of the men you mentioned.

      • I do have problems with Coyne’s arguments from time to time, and I often think Massimo is wrong as well. He returns the favor.

        But Blu said nothing about Watson the person. How do you get to she dislikes Watson and that is why she rejects her argument?

        • julian julian

          Because she’s said so elsewhere in less than kind language :p

          Sorry, not my first rodeo with some of these names. Will withdraw so I don’t fill up your blog with past drama.

        • She may have, but that doesn’t affect this version of her argument or claim. If she is asserting that Rebecca’s critique is intemperate but Jerry’s or Massimo’s isn’t, it doesn’t matter what her past history with any of them is, nor whether any of them have been used in a feminist context. It is supportable or not (on this blog at any rate).

          I know Massimo and am well acquainted with Jerry’s work. I know them both to make fairly scholarly (though often wrong!) arguments. This is a virtue – it means they cite their sources and try to make explicit their points. They also tend not to equivocate (that is, make an argument against popEP and then make claims about AcEP). But if they have done the same thing Rebecca has done, please show this in the comments.

        • Julian, I hope you can see the obvious differences in the example I posted. It’s hard for me to imagine how you can deny them. I really do believe that you’re a good person and your heart is in the right place, for what little that’s worth.

      • You are right, at this point I do dislike Watson. I am aware that this makes me biased. But that doesn’t change the fact that Coyne makes none of the multiple factual errors that she does, the ones that are clearly pointed out by Clint. Personally, I’m not really a fan of EP or psychology in general. I think it’s all very speculative, and often conforms to our biases. Also, I agree that it often conforms to sexist biases. Personally, I prefer hard science. But the same time, I have to allow for the fact that we do have to do study the human mind somehow, and psychology is one of the better tools we have right now. And it is constantly improving. (Psychology was one of my three undergrad majors; I hated it, though it was always an easy 4.0).

        I don’t think Coyne is perfect either, and I used to love Myers, though I can’t really take him seriously anymore without a whole lot of independent fact-checking.

        If you stop attributing everything I say to my dislike of Watson, to which I’ll admit, you might find that I’m not as unreasonable as you think I am. Moreover, I want to like Watson. I’m tired of all the hate, but when I hear about the way she’s treated some of the people I care about, I can’t, at least not without an apology (to them, not to me).

        Here’s how Coyne’s criticism of EP differs from Watson’s:

        Note how cautious, limited, and respectful he is. Still, I find Pinker’s arguments more persuasive in the end.

        • Especially this paragraph:

          Now I don’t oppose evolutionary psychology on principle. The evolutionary source of our behavior is a fascinating topic, and I’m convinced that the genetic influences are far stronger than, say, posited by anti-determinists like Dick Lewontin, Steve Rose, and Steve Gould. Evolved adaptations are particularly likely to be found in sexual behavior, which is intimately connected with the real object of selection: the currency of reproduction. I’m far closer in my views on this topic to Steve Pinker than to Steve Gould. And there are many good studies in the field, so I don’t mean to tar the whole endeavor.

        • I am, at the moment, in love with this blog. I’ve long searched for balanced discussion about the things that fascinate me (and that I don’t know nearly enough about), and I think I’ve finally found it.

        • julian julian

          I’m going to be brief. Arguing this elsewhere has sapped me and reminded me why I actively avoid sites where the familiar names of the slympit and skepticink pop up.

          What’s been said and is being said about Watson and this talk goes well beyond pointing out the errors she made in it. I think it’s dishonest to pretend that it’s been almost exclusively constructive criticism or even mostly fair criticism.

          I’m not going to list them because they’re irrelevant to this particular blog but that “criticism” elsewhere is why I made it a point to bring up Coyne and Pigliucci. Much of it (no, not the sloppiness and inability to cite good research, although Coyne has been pretty inflammatory when discussing anti-depressants) applies to them as well.

          Anyway, it’s all off topic. Sorry for bringing it up.

        • Julian, have you ever thought about judging an argument based on the merits and not on who’s making it? It takes a lot less energy, and that way, you don’t even have to keep up with all the shifting alliances. Also, of what relevance are things that *I* did not say about Watson and this talk? Or things that Ed Clint didn’t say? Remember, we’re not talking about Watson the person, but the merits of her presentation (both substantive and stylistic) and her qualifications to give it. Any argument you make has to address those issues and not any others. Anyway, I wish you well.

        • For crying out loud, stop dismissing the arguments made by the persons making them. It doesn’t matter. Go for the argument. Regardless if the argument is sound or not sound, what matters is that you don’t make ad hominems. You frequently do this, julian, and it makes me think that you’re not really interested in a debate. You’re just looking for a fight.

          And is it at all relevant that people from the “Slymepit” make an appearance on some of these blogs? It’s not. Your insistence to invoke this guilt by association tactic is insipid and it’s tiresome. Also if we’re going to stoop to that level, I don’t think it’s fair for you to argue reason when you’ve threatened — more than once — to break people’s necks. (Or was it spines? Either of the two.) Now, see, that’s a low blow and I don’t want that. But that seems to be the kind of discussion you want and it’s unfortunate.

          If you’re going to keep saying that Wilkins’ critcism is “beyond pointing out the errors she made”, make the case. Show some evidence. Do something other than than make empty accusations without supporting them. Jesus!

        • julian julian

          Is it customary to respond to what you think someone is saying rather than what they are saying?

          I said nothing about dismissing criticism because who it came from and I’ve agreed more than once Watson’s characterization of EP wasn’t good and that she definitely should have had some idea of wat constitutes good research before going into that talk.

          So why don’t you three (BenSix, Bluharmony and yourself) quit the script and try asking people what they mean? You know, actually try to establish a dialogue. That thing you keep yelling at Watson and others for shutting down.

          And that’ll be my last comment. I’ll stick the flounce this time.

        • The Principle of Charity is ambiguous. Sometimes it seems to be: respond to the best version of that argument. Sometimes it seems to be: respond to the argument that person is making under a given interpretation.

          I prefer the former to the latter unless I am doing history or hermeneutics.

        • What to you mean? I asked you to engage the argument, and you never did, so I really don’t see how what you’re saying applies to me.

        • What has sustained my interest is the fact that Rebecca Watson misrepresented scientific research and defamed researchers and the first response of prominent scientists and sceptics was not “obscuring the truth is bad” but, “Her critic is a git. And she was being humorous. And who likes evolutionary psychology anyway?” It doesn’t do a lot to quiten the fear that ideology has served to distort truthseeking.

      • Very, very wrong Julian. I’m not exactly somebody with warm and fuzzy feelings toward Rebecca Watson, but even if I were favorably-disposed toward her, I’d still conclude her critique is nowhere in the same league as those of de Waal and Coyne, not the least of which is that the later make a critique thoroughly grounded in the state of the science, of which they’re well informed, rather than political animus.

        BTW, I very much like Coyne, but don’t always agree with him, particularly in regard to his disagreements with E.O. Wilson and like evolutionary biologists, but his critiques are always intelligent and one I can learn a great deal from.

  17. jeb jeb

    Balanced, Informed and Informing being the key, when presenting to a non-expert audience, this was certainly not very illuminating in this regard.

    But at least one constructive model on how to carry debate on the subject further.

  18. I decided to do some maths to quantify what proportion of Rebecca’s talk seems to be critical of evolutionary psychology as a whole rather than of specific bad studies and the excesses of the media.

    I counted five segments in her talk in which she either (a) makes broad negative claims about evolutionary psychology, or (b) makes concessions with implicature, i.e. mentioning exceptions to a rule in a way that implies such exceptions are rare. These segments are: 14 seconds from 8:48; 64 seconds from 12:28; 64 seconds from 20:36; 20 seconds from 45:30; 36 seconds from 47:34. Rounded up, that’s 200 seconds altogether.

    The Youtube video is 2917 (48:37) seconds long. If we take the content of the talk as starting at 1:06 and ending at 48:26, then the “true” length of the talk is 2840 (47:20) seconds. So: 200 out of 2840 equals just under 7% of Rebecca’s talk that is critical of evolutionary psychology in general. Let’s call it exactly 7%, to be generous to Edward.

    I think the only reasonable conclusion is that both parties are guilty of some hyperbole. Rebecca probably should have been more careful with her wording in places, and included a disclaimer to limit the bounds of her target (say, to what the average person is likely to see in the media). But reading Edward’s rebuttal, you’d think the main thrust of Rebecca’s talk was to denigrate evolutionary psychology, yet there’s at most 7% of it that could be taken as doing so, and those generally come across as parenthetical. The charge of science denialism seems rich — i.e. hyperbolous — against a talk that could have been improved with a few minor tweaks.

    Edward’s response is predicated on the assumption that “[Rebecca’s] thesis [is] that evolutionary psychology is pseudoscientific and sexist“. As I interpret it, that assumption is unwarranted, in which case the charge of hyperbole applies more to his rebuttal than to the talk he rebuts. (It may, however, still contain worthwhile points.)

    • Thank you for the analysis, but I suspect you have not made the claim that quantity equals meaning (nor have you shown that Edward has not a good argument to make over that 7%). For example, suppose I give a 48 minute talk about the virtues of women, but for exactly 2 seconds I insert the comment “Of course, women need to be controlled by men to achieve these virtues”, could you say that because only 1/1440th of the talk was overtly sexist anyone criticising me for offensive sexism was unjustified or committing hyperbole?

      But let us suppose not only that you are right – that it was the parenthetical comments made in pursuit of another rhetorical target – but that she did not intend it carefully. I still think that Edward’s takedown is important, because an entire science is being dismissed on grounds that if it were done by someone outside the skeptical community we would attack no matter how parenthetical or slight the comment.

      There are solid criticisms to be made about EP, but these are not, I think, correct, and Edward showed that. I will make them myself in a near future post.

      • jose jose

        You only need to watch the talk once to realize the arguments against EP are the ones that have been around for years. The general lack of empirical support for the adaptationist stories – that’s probably the most popular one, the one you will find in science magazines. You can’t tell me you haven’t heard the exact same argument from a bunch of other people. You have linked a post by Coyne in which he criticizes EP as a whole, telling evolutionary psychologists that they should police their discipline better (I agree). Razib Khan talks about the need to reform the field as a whole because evolutionary research is leaving EP’s conceptual foundations behind. Then you have the arguments that these studies don’t bother telling us just which genes they’re talking about, nor are they concerned with proving whether this or that behavior is in fact hereditary or not; and that we know too little about the daily lives of our ancestors. Well, you have Larry Moran in this very thread giving you those two arguments verbatim. The list goes on and on.

        They are the same arguments. Watson did not come up with them.

      • jeb jeb

        “is being dismissed on grounds that if it were done by someone outside…”

        Crap I did that based on the second paragraph. I missed out skeptical as I would not use language like science denial or identify much with online skeptics.

        Second paragraph looked like a product of that culture. I have engaged in the error of mistaking a term I don’t like for thought.

        Still as an introduction I think this section let the article down down.

        I find the way liberals, uber right wing American shock jocks and David Icky supports can all find a common strand of identity somewhat interesting but I suspect liberal ideology is not the motivating factor. But really I have little idea what is going on here.

        Science denialism seems a bit of a blanket term to motivate the horde. Mass of debates in science and almost everyone must be on the wrong end of some. But describing it as a denial of the subject as a whole is a somewhat dramatic. But it is what suggested for out-groups.

        I suppose it gives the impression that you have answers to these complex social and cultural issues.
        Marking them of as things that require no further thought and discussion as they are the product of out-groups and privileging and exempting the thoughts of in-groups.

        Modify my first sentence. Would appear to indicate the terms used by skeptics to define cultural groups are not empirical, self serving and intentionally emotive.

        Deeply complacent and conservative community rather than a skeptical one. Danger of becoming such a thing if it continues to mistake such terminology for thought.

    • (Just noticed that 200 out of 2840 is actually (very) slightly more than 7%. The source of my error is that I used 198 instead of the rounded 200 second figure in my calculation, and then forgot that I had done so.)

    • jeb jeb

      John I think their are two things to sort out (or it may be the case they are just hopelessly confused in my mind and I am very wrong).

      Science as a discipline and science as a culture. I think they are seriously confused in these online discussions and I don’t think that paper moved forward here.

      I think scientists are perfectly capable of dealing with the science as discipline side but utterly uncritical in regard to cultural questions.

      Take culture here as constructing a way of life and a worldview and run with the notion that’s something the skeptical community is engaged in doing.

      The fact that these question are dealt with by less mature sciences leaves them open for a kick in the teeth by those who’s day jobs lie in more mature sciences but I don’t think that’s a particularly sound basis for judgement.

      I think those outside the skeptical community would accuse it of attempting some form of cultural hegemony.

      It seems to be constructing a sense of community by structuring difference. This cultural activity does look like it is playing a role in this debate.

      But despite the loud noises I don’t think science will have problems sorting out good science from bad in the long term.

      If scientists attempt to block study expecting that every thesis must be successful, based on very firm ground and not take risks (P.Z seemed to be making very typical sounding academic noises in this direction with regard to E.P). Subjects won’t move forward. Failure and risk have to be an option with knowledge; career and making the right moves to further future prospects are not the basis on which to make research choices.

  19. AnimalAndy AnimalAndy

    Thank you for the well-reasoned blog post. I am quite disturbed by the unscientific, dogmatic and ideological turn the skeptic discourse has taken over the last months.

  20. Patriarchae Persona (@noelplum99) Patriarchae Persona (@noelplum99)

    Very interesting and balanced response.
    Funny that you mentioned Dawkins. I just made a comment elsewhere along the lines that asserting that RW gave here anti-evo psych talk purely on account of her dislike for RD is cut from the same cloth that PZ’s implication, via twitter that EC wrote his piece purely out of a dislike for RW is cut from. Fortunately, thus far Rebecca has at least been judged on the content of her speech; Ed’s mileage has varied somewhat.


  21. PZ is now presenting a series of posts on evolutionary psychology, the first of which is now up.

    • And I (briefly) responded, since he has yet to address the substance of Clint’s argument.

    • J. J. Ramsey J. J. Ramsey

      I read the first of that series. His criticism of Barbara Drescher is, uh, interesting. She says, “Pseudoscience and fraud are not science, so please don’t drag out the straw men and accuse me of claiming that only scientists can be good skeptics.” Guess what PZ Myers does?

      Also conspicously absent from it is any recognition that Watson’s talk had gross errors and distortions, which hampered any possible usefulness it could have as an “exposé of shoddy science.”

  22. Just for the record I’ve not read Clint’s post. My post is about Rebecca’s talk.

  23. Aleister Aleister

    Thanks for the summary! Just my luck that another ‘conflict’ of sorts between FTB and the blogosphere has erupted the week I start catching up on all the articles that went unread last month when I had end of semester exams.

    According to PZ’s tweets, we all have to voice our potential biases and past history with a person when relating to that person in a post. I used to be an avid reader of Pharyngula before I was banned by PZ over a misunderstanding on the message boards (nothing to do with feminism, I wasn’t an MRA or a troll and didn’t insult any members). I was told not to reply any further by PZ (why didn’t he just lock the topic?) but I had to point out an unfair misrepresentation of what I had said by PZ.

    Out of all the responses on the matter, I agree with yours the most. Croft’s response was fair and levelled but did seem to argue that: “It’s okay to equivocate and cherry pick if it’s for popular purposes” as you said. Clint’s was comprehensive and factual but went a bit too far in concluding that Watson was anti-science. Hallq’s was a good response to Zvan’s and similar to Croft’s in concluding that Watson did a poor job of targeting pop-EP if that was her intended goal.

    PZ’s ?EP article just annoyed me as it is typical to expect that kind of poor reasoning from him of late. It came as no surprise to me that PZ interpreted Clint’s argument that ‘Watson wasn’t an expert so her arguments dismissing an entire subfield of science should be taken with a grain of salt’ as meaning that all arguments of non-experts are invalid. After that, he attacks a few things Drescher didn’t say and rants on about that for the rest of the post before concluding that EPs should ‘clean house’ rather than criticise someone who is trying to bring attention to EP’s problems. I guess no one told PZ that it would help if Watson’s criticisms were actually accurate in the first place; just because they’re criticisms it doesn’t make them valid, PZ.

    • He’s promised substantive posts, but I haven’t seen any, which makes me wonder why, if it’s so easy to discredit EP as a whole or to support all of Watson’s assertions about it, it’s taking him — a biologist — so long (and why he had to start with an ad hom attack and an irrelevant blog entry about qualifications). Shouldn’t the truth be what we’re seeking? And seeing a good debate between experts would go a long way toward helping me figure out what that is.

  24. Hmm Pz seems to disagree with your claim about selection and complexity? See the last pingback.

    • Yes, and I’ll deal with those issues in the promised next post, which is getting long…

  25. tmtyler tmtyler

    Complexity – as in K-complexity – is easily produced and doesn’t require a selective explanation. Biologists probably mean something else by the word – although they don’t always say what.

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