A collection of essays by Bill (website@ccjj.info) accompanied by feedback from his friends.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Massimo Pigliucci on Evo Psych

In the 24 pages of chapter 7 of his book "Making Sense of Evolution", Massimo Pigliucci lays out scientific objections he has with the fairly new (since 1975) field of Evolutionary Psychology. In his book "Nonsense on Stilts", there is a small section where he deals with evo psych, but it is basically just a shorter subset of what is discussed in that chapter.

Massimo has been quoted in a
Newsweek article as saying that evolutionary psychology is "not good science". I am assuming that it is in these two books where he makes his case for this. The Newsweek article was an appalling piece of journalism -- intellectually dishonest, and resorting to emotional cheap shots. Massimo's chapter, in comparison, is like a breath of fresh air -- he sticks to scientific arguments and refrains from getting personal.

I am not going to defend everything any evolutionary psychologist ever said. I have not read anything by Tooby and Cosmides, and the criticism I have read of evo psych seems to particularly single out their work. Having only heard the criticism, I don't think much of it, and the things they are quoted as saying fail to strike a chord with me like what I've read from other evo psychs such as David Buss or Steven Pinker.

Generally, I am very leery of things said by evolutionary psychologists that are not backed up with psychological experimentation. It is very easy to do a lot of armchair speculation and call it "evo psych", making up evolutionary stories that are based on things that have not been verified about our ancestral environment, and substituting modern social stereotypes for actual psychological data. But if someone carefully studies what is known about prehistoric life, comes up with theories based on that, and tests those theories with psychological experimentation, that should be taken pretty seriously.

We need to make a distinction here between two different concepts: "Evolutionary Psychology", and "Psychological Evolutionary Biology". In evolutionary psychology, we use knowledge about evolution to cast light on psychology. In psychological evolutionary biology, we use knowledge about psychology to cast light on evolutionary biology. As we shall see, Massimo is mostly debunking psychological evolutionary biology, not evolutionary psychology.

In his book, Massimo is constantly comparing evo psych with the study of the evolution of non-human organisms by evolutionary biologists. It should be noted that for evo psych to be useful to humanity, it has to be at least about as good as mainstream psychology. The study of evolutionary biology of non-human organisms is the wrong standard to which to compare it. If
both mainstream psychology and evo psych are less scientific than evolutionary biology of non-human species (as is almost certainly the case), that does not in any way establish that mankind would not benefit greatly from studying evo psych.

One objection Massimo makes is that while evolutionary biologists often study species which have many other species closely related to them, comparison and experimentation between these species being very illuminating,
homo sapiens has no close living relatives, the most recent common ancestor of ourselves and the great apes having lived some 6 million years ago. This is obviously totally irrelevant to the issue of any comparison between evo psych and mainstream psychology, since it is a problem both of them face.

Throughout his discussion, Massimo is really obsessed with distinguishing whether observed traits of species are adaptations or caused by other evolutionary forces, such as genetic drift. This is a very central issue to an evolutionary biologist, but it's not very interesting to a psychologist. A psychologist is primarily interested in whether a trait exists, not how it came into being. The difference between evolutionary psychology and psychological evolutionary biology is key here. If a species-wide genetic psychological trait is identified and verified to exist, that is progress, regardless of how the trait emerged.

Massimo says that evo psychs sometimes talk about high level, specific behavioral traits when the evidence may not be sufficient to support such conclusions. That may be true sometimes, but you can accuse any field of intellectual inquiry, including mainstream psychology, with excessive speculation beyond what the evidence would support. This may be a relevant objection to bring up with respect to specific conclusions, but it does not mean that evo psych cannot be done well.

Massimo goes into a lot of detail about the fact that humans are very difficult to study because ethical considerations preclude a lot of experimental methods routinely used on other species. Again, this is a problem shared by
both evo psych and mainstream psychology, and it says absolutely nothing about how one is better or worse than the other.

Massimo claims little is known about life during the Pleistocene. He says "little", not "nothing", so it's not clear how much he means by that. I maintain we know enough to make progress, and I deal with this issue in my piece
Manufacturing an Absence of Evidence.

Done right, evo psych has a lot to offer. Evolutionary psychologists have at their disposal every technique available to a mainstream psychologist, plus they have the evolutionary perspective, much as an anatomist is better off for being aware of the fact that the organisms being studied were being shaped by evolution, and that most of the structures being observed therefore contributed to survival and / or reproduction in some way. Demanding that psychologists ignore the theory of evolution makes about as much sense as demanding that anatomists ignore it as well.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Book Report: Evil Genes by Barbara Oakley

I met Barbara Oakley when she gave a talk in New York about the book she wrote after this one, "Pathological Altruism". The talk was poorly received because she ran afoul of liberal orthodoxy, but I thought she made some good points and the audience was just being dense. "Pathological Altruism" was not available yet on kindle, but her other book, "Evil Genes", was.

In "Evil Genes", she focuses on the "successfully sinister", people who are profoundly lacking in morals who nonetheless not only stay out of jail, but excel in society. One case she talks about is her morally dysfunctional older sister, who shamelessly used and abused her family at every opportunity.

On the one hand, how objective can we expect anyone to be about their own sister? On the other hand, it makes for entertaining reading. I read Steven Pinker's "How the Mind Works", a much more scientific piece, but found I remembered nothing about it. The author's liberal use of anecdotes to describe the dysfunctional people she focuses on bring the issues to life.

She discusses mental illness, especially borderline personality disorder and psychopathy, and how they lead to morally depraved behavior. She uses several examples of tyrants including Serbian president Milosevic, Chairman Mao, Adolf Hitler, and the CEO of Enron to illustrate her points.

At this point, science is at the level where many specific genes associated with mental illness have been located, and Oakley frequently mentions them. I wonder how long it will be before we will have located genes associated with certain types of intelligence, or with altruism? Also, we still have at least fragments of the bodies of many of the tyrants she discusses, it would be interesting to analyze their genomes and see if her analysis of their mental illnesses is very accurate.

Oakley says there are two types of people: those who have encountered the successfully sinister and those who haven't. I count myself in the first category -- I had a close friend a long time ago, who I thought was a wonderful person until I got up close, then she started acting really underhanded and making threats. I got as far away as I could as fast as I could, but she rose to become a successful CEO.