Evolutionary Psychology: Use With Caution

Constant correctly deduces my underlying motivation in this post:

One thing that I expect really gets your goat is evolutionary psychology.

Bingo.

I used to be a big fan of evolutionary psychology, and I still find it interesting and useful to some extent. I also used to express righteous indignation, the way some of my co-bloggers still do, when those on the left would express extreme skepticism if not completely reject nature-type explanations.

But over time, I came to recognize a pattern. Over and over again, I noticed that evolutionary psychology--moreso than any other academic subject--attracted the Kevin MacDonalds and J. Philippe Rushtons of the world. Why is that? Are these sorts of people genuinely just interested in following the "truth", wherever it happens to lead them? Or do they have a preexisting agenda, and use evolutionary reasoning as post-hoc rationalization for it?

I've come to recognize why the left is so skeptical and so resistant to these sorts of arguments. And I share their concerns. It takes an extraordinary amount of chutzpah to pretend that evidence and not ideology is leading all these people to embrace these sorts of ideas, when the past 150 years has been replete with the same kind of "scientific" justifications for millenia-old traditions of anti-black racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and anti-gay bigotry. When these "scientific" proofs were later debunked, the bigots kept on searching for something new to justify their hatred.

Now, obviously not every fan or practitioner of evolutionary psychology is motivated by racism and bigotry. If evolution is true--and it is--and if humans are just another animal--and we are--then it follows that evolutionary reasoning can help us understand human nature. And that's great. But at the same time, it's also true that historically, this is dangerous territory, used and abused by people that were not sensitive to common pitfalls (dressing up "common sense" folk wisdom in fancy scientific language, often without malicious intent) or who were actively promoting a vicious agenda and not really interested in "truth" at all. Given our history in this area, it pays to be cautious.

The NYTimes piece discussing the recent Saletan debacle echoes my reservations:

To Eric Turkheimer, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia who specializes in behavior genetics, the research itself is morally weighted. Given the complex interaction between genes and the environment, Mr. Turkheimer said, "the question is fundamentally impossible to settle scientifically because we can never take people out of their environment."

That doesn’t mean research into genetic differences in intelligence should be banned, he said, but it should be judged. "What troubled me about posts at Cato" — an exchange Mr. Turkheimer participated in — "and the tone of Saletan’s blog is the assumption that because these papers are labeled as science, they are value-neutral and they’re as deserving of respect as any other scientific hypothesis," he said of genetic racial theories.

"But you can’t get away from what these people are trying to prove, which is exactly the basis of the stereotypical beliefs that informed segregation here for 200 years."

[...]

A subject as sensitive and complicated as this deserves to have a higher level of proof, he [Saletan] said, adding that he erred in treating it like any other topic.

"I don’t agree that it’s best not to discuss it,” he said, but “you have to do it in a responsible way and always with a constructive purpose." Judging from his own experience, he said, the Internet is not a place where that can be done at the moment.

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But this is no argument at all

Is this how we judge science? Identify the bigots, see which side they support, and champion the other side? If so, are we really talking about science any longer, or have we moved into the realm of social alliances and personal insults?

Of course they're gonna highlight every bit of genetic differences they can find! They're bigots after all! I'd be surprise if they didn't. I can't, seem to find it any more, but I once ran across a website that claimed that blacks were inferior because they got sickle cell disease. Does that mean that sickle cell disease doesn't exist? Anyone who made the argument, "Look at all the white supremacists supporting the research behind sickle cell disease. We should be skeptical about the existence of sickle cell disease and stop pretending the research into altered hemoglobin molecules is value-neutral" would and should rightly be laughed out of any respectable scientific arena.

You mention MacDonald and Rushton. What about people associated with the field itself? E. O. Wilson was made a pariah by leftists for... what exactly? What about the modern day popularizers, Tooby and Cosmides? Robert Wright, Matt Ridley, Steven Pinker? Are they bigots too?

Most people I know who criticize evolutionary psychology know nothing about the field and have never actually picked up a book on the subject. They make all sorts of asinine claims like, "It can't be falsified." But I'm heading off topic.

You argue that this type of research has been used for nefarious purposes in the past. What about the historical consequences of the nurture-only view? Blank slatism was a defining part of the philosophy behind communism, that man is infinitely malleable and can be created and molded anew. In other times, women were told that it was their fault for not loving their children enough when they turned out to be autistic. I dare say the nurture-only view has a worse track record than the nature-only view (which BTW is not the modern emerging consensus; rather it's nurture-via-nature).

Why don't leftists who think the research is so obviously tainted fund their own research projects to disprove the existing research? Or you know, criticize the science itself: "The controls in this study are not true controls. We can't control for X. The n's in this study are too low. There might be recall bias here. Etc." That would be the most respectable route. If the left wants to assume the entirety of the research into these topics is tainted because some nefarious parties point to it to support their normative beliefs, they should stop pretending they're any more reality-based than the creationists and faith healers on the right.

MacDonald and Rushton

You mention MacDonald and Rushton. What about people associated with the field itself?

I never heard of them before now, but they seem to be associated with the field itself. The wikipedia entry for Rushton quotes a defense of Rushton by E. O. Wilson. Wilson writes:

I think Phil is an honest and capable researcher. The basic reasoning by Rushton is solid evolutionary reasoning; that is, it is logically sound. If he had seen some apparent geographic variation for a non-human species - a species of woozle or boggart hawk, for example - no one would have batted an eye.

Geographic variation - even without reading through the piece, I can guess from this quote what Rushton argues.

The field seems much less accepting of MacDonald (Pinker attacks him and Tooby specifically says he is not an evolutionary psychologist), but he has defenders also. (My sense of MacDonald, from scanning the critiques and defenses at Wikipedia, is that he is a crackpot; however, disappointingly, nothing in the "criticisms" section of the wiki article is sufficiently concrete for me to form a strong opinion.)

Update: I checked out this interview of MacDonald by Mark Green (a Holocaust denier, excuse me, revisionist). He's repeating and updating Adolf Hitler's talking points, familiar from Mein Kampf. And there's nothing in that interview that resembles evolutionary psychology. It's not even science. It's political commentary, with a Jews-are-at-the-center-of-everything spin.

As Constant mentioned,

As Constant mentioned, MacDonald and Rushton are associated with the field itself, and each have their defenders among the "mainstream," including E.O. Wilson.

Why don't leftists who think the research is so obviously tainted fund
their own research projects to disprove the existing research? Or you
know, criticize the science itself: "The controls in this study are not
true controls. We can't control for X. The n's in this study are too
low. There might be recall bias here. Etc." That would be the most
respectable route.

This is already being done.

Look, there are a few points worth reiterating. First, none of us here are professionals working in the field. Second, few of the conclusions reached by evo-psyc, particularly the more controversial ones dealing with alleged racial differences, are settled or even widely agreed upon by the professional community at large. Third, there is a very ugly record on both sides of the nature/nurture debate in modern history. (However, I am more confident of economics than I am of evo-psych. Therefore, my objection to communism is not that they were radical nurturists, but that they were poor economists.) Fourth, given this uncertainly, as nonprofessionals approaching a controversial and disputed subject, we should approach it with caution and skepticism, moreso than we would when approaching, say, research on the habits and behavior of mollusks.

I agree with all this. 

I agree with all this.  But, it should be noted, Browne's arguments do not--so far as I can tell--rest on evolutionary psychological grounds: they're merely descriptions of the way people are.  It's true he mentions some ev psych, but it's not like his argument is "Selective pressues should have produced people who are like X; therefore people are like X" but rather "People are like X, and here's an evolutionary reason this might be so."  The Ev Psych angle is interesting, but superfluous.

That was me

I was the one who brought in the superfluous Evo. Psych. angle, because I wanted to show off that I had been reading a book. In my defense, I also supplied proof.

Ha!  Everyone look at the

Ha!  Everyone look at the nerd and his books!

Part of the problem with

Part of the problem with using Ev Psych in even the way you suggest Browne uses it is that doing so implies that these characteristics are endogenous and not exogenous. By saying, "We observe men are more courageous than women. Here is an Ev-Psych rational for why this is so," he is implying that men are simply born with more courage than women. But is this the case? It might be. But it might also be the case that, from early infancy all the way to adulthood, boys are socialized to do "manly" things" like play with G.I. Joe's, toy guns, Cops-and-Robbers, Cowboys-and-Indians, and so on, while girls are discouraged from these sorts of games and instead encouraged to play dress-up and tea-party and Barbie and House. We then observe that adult men are expected--and expect of themselves--to be courageous and aggressive, while women are expected to be just the opposite; this observation alone tells us nothing about whether these characteristics are endogenously genetic or exogenously socially contructed. Even if boys are born with a tendancy to be more aggressive and courageous than girls, it's also true that culture reinforces these differences, which makes it nearly impossible to tease out how much of the effect we can attribute to nature and how much to attribute to nurture.

In the long run

In the long run even the societal expectations must originate in inherited nature, because cultural transmission simply can't maintain the integrity of a signal for thousands of years, and yet in society after society we find the same disparity in expectations of men and women. So even the exogenous is, indirectly, endogenous.

You might argue that societal expectations, while ultimately inspired by inherited differences, are still errors, unhealthy exaggerations of inborn differences. But an alternative hypothesis is that while societal expectations may exaggerate inherited differences, this exaggeration is akin to the exaggeration inherent in any specialization, and such exaggeration is a good thing. People tend to specialize in areas where they have some slight initial advantage, and having specialized, their advantage is greatly exaggerated through long practice. But specialization is a good thing. If we were to try to combat the exaggeration inherent in specialization, turning everyone into a generalist, that would tend to be a bad thing, reducing productivity. Similarly, one might argue, with sexual specialization.

By the way, there is direct evidence of inborn gender differences, from babies too young to have been socialized, and from non-human primates, which surprisingly display the same gender difference when presented with boys' toys and girls' toys.

But nature/nurture

But the nature/nurture distinction is irrelevant, no?  What matters is how difficult it is to change those personalities, or the system that forges them.  Something may be the result of genes, or it may just be the result of societal influence--but the degree of fixation is what matters when considering whether or not to take it as a given, as Browne seemingly does.

I think the 'popularizers' I mentioned in my original comment...

...would be quite suprised to see Rushton labeled an "evolutionary psychologist". In nearly every book they write, the specifically make it a point to say that the races aren't different "on the inside".

First, none of us here are professionals working in the field.

Sure, but again, this is not a very good argument. It also falls into the social realm, not the scientific realm. It's saying, "You are not capable of making an honest argument." None of us, with the exception of Brian as far as I know, are professionals in economics. Yet, we talk economics all the time. We've long accepted the practice of critiquing and evaluating the argument of professional economists. I've definitely read more economics than ev-psych, but I've read quite a bit on ev-psych: the # of books can't be counted on my hands. This is how I know, for example, that Robert Wright would be quite suprised to see the claim that ev-psych supports genetic differences in intelligence.

Second, few of the conclusions reached by evo-psyc, particularly the more controversial ones dealing with alleged racial differences, are settled or even widely agreed upon by the professional community at large.

I think the issues are more agreed upon than you believe. There's a big disconnect between professionals and the media/blogosphere. The professionals, for example, agree that IQ does measure something, and that it correlates with all sorts of social outcomes. They agree that the measurements are reproducible. They also generally agree that there are racial differences in IQ. The most controversial issue is whether or not these differneces are genetic. Yet, most of the media don't realize how much agreement there is on the former propositions.

Third, there is a very ugly record on both sides of the nature/nurture
debate in modern history. (However, I am more confident of economics
than I am of evo-psych. Therefore, my objection to communism is not
that they were radical nurturists, but that they were poor economists.)

If both sides have an ugly record, then by your argument, the arguments
skeptics of today are no better than the arguments supported by the
MacDonalds. The road of this type of critiquing in the social realm leads to a dead end: if both sides are ugly, we can't say anything about the topic at all. A better approach is to let science be science. Despite what Turkheimer says, science is value neutral. A single study, even if funded by biased leftists, if it showed that adopted black children raised by white parents have the same IQ as their white peers, would make serious damage to the argument that group differences in IQ are genetic.

Fourth, given this uncertainly, as nonprofessionals approaching a controversial and disputed subject, we should approach it with caution and skepticism, moreso than we would when approaching, say, research on the habits and behavior of mollusks.

And a better approach than saying, "Bad guys support proposition X, thus X is wrong" is to actually look at the data and criticize the science.

 

 

Every book

In nearly every book they write

You read more than one book? Now I really feel inadequate.

It'll be a long time before

It'll be a long time before any of us can outnerd Wilde.

In nearly every book they

In nearly every book they write, the specifically make it a point to say that the races aren't different "on the inside".


Patri disagrees
. And so did Saletan, at least until he issued a retraction upon realizing that his source was Rushton. And so did Murray and Hernstein in The Bell Curve. Rushton and the issue of race are very much a part of the Evolutionary Psychology movement, whether we like it or not.

None of us, with the exception of Brian as far as I know, are professionals in economics.

True, but as you acknowledge, you are much better read in econ than you are in ev-psych, and I think the same is true for the rest of us as well. Further, ev-psych is still in relative infancy, whereas econ is not. Further still, there is a much stronger consensus among economists than there is among evolutionary biologists and psychologists regarding the validity of the claims made by ev-psych, And finally, I would argue that ev-psych is many degrees more complex than econ, and because of its closer connection to empirical science than econ, and its sordid past, it should be held to a higher burden of proof and approached with a greater degree of caution and skepticism.

I don't see where Patri says anything related to ev-psych

Similarly with Charles Murray - he'd be surprised to see himself called an "evolutionary psychologist". I think the reason for our disagreement here Micha is that you haven't read too much on the topic. Evolutionary psychologists deal with human universals. They ask themselves, "What things do we find across all cultures?" If certain things are found across all cultures, they're very likely to have a genetic etiology rather than a cultural one. So they take up the study of things like why men are more aggressive and why women are more conservative (wrt risk) and why languages are constrained in their form. These traits are seen across all cultures/races. But you see the problem here wrt your claims? If the things studied by evolutionary psychologists are seen across all cultures/races, then surely, they can't claim anything about the differences between races.

You're getting evolutionary psychology mixed up with other things that are related but quite different. It's important to distinguist between evolutionary psychology, behavior genetics, and human biodiversity. Self-labeled "race realists" on the human biodiversity side of things consider evolutionary psychologists creationists. Evolutionary psychologists don't accept the assumptions of the others. Etc.

Further still, there is a much stronger consensus among economists than there is among evolutionary biologists and psychologists regarding the validity of the claims made by ev-psych,

Perhaps. But it depends on which claims you're talking about. I doubt there is much in the way of disagreement over some basic claims of evolutionary psychologists such as kin selection, reciprocal altruism, and differential parental investment leading to differential selectivity of mates.

And finally, I would argue that ev-psych is many degrees more complex than econ, and because of its closer connection to empirical science than econ, and its sordid past, it should be held to a higher burden of proof and approached with a greater degree of caution and skepticism.

I disagree that ev-psych is more complex than economics. Both are limited in their ability to undergo controlled experiments. But at least with ev-psych, we have various models to study, chiefly other primates. More than that, even non primates, like birds, help us study various claims.

Re: sordid past. As you stated above, both the nurturists and the naturists have sordid pasts. So where does that lead us? To be skeptical, sure, but skeptical of the naturists AND the nurturists. We should avoid arguments that rely on political associations. We should focus on the science itself.

I'll take your word for it

I'll take your word for it that I'm unfairly lumping together ev-psych with human biodiversity. I didn't realize they were considered seperate camps, one inside and one outside ev-psych. I just figured there were just multiple competing factions within ev-psych.

I just realized one other thing

I think you and Constant are talking past each other somewhat.

The term "evolutionary psychology", at least as understood by its popularizers - the people I listed in the above comment - generally denies any race differences in things like intelligence by saying that people of all races/cultures have evolved the same way over the last 10000 years. In my experience, leftists generally dislike evolutionary psychology because of what it concludes about the nature of women, though I think it says the same amount 'bad' things about the nature of men.

Rushton and MacDonald don't really apply when using this term. They believe there are significant genetic differences between races wrt intelligence. They'd fit more in the category of "race-realists" or advocates of "human biodiversity". Though the nefarious agents may belong to these categories (though this doesn't say anything about the research itself as I say above), they don't have much to do with "evolutionary psychology" so I don't really see your objections. Which nefarious agents are backing research into ev-psych?

One thing I probably should

One thing I probably should have included in the main post--perhaps I'll write about it again in the future--is the connection between the empirical claims made by evo-psych about human nature and how these should translate into normative claims about personal and public policy. Consider, for example, Will Wilkinson's excellent piece on capitalism and human nature. Or David Friedman's piece. Or Bryan Caplans recent book.

Assuming what they say is true, and I think it is, we are coalitional, we are hierachical, and we are envious zero-sum thinkers, to borrow Will's three main category claims. And while these empirical facts constrain our policy options, the constraints are not as rigid as many would have us believe. If they were, modern capitalism would be hopelessly impossible - we should just go back to living in primative hunter-gather societies in which we evolved. Instead, we can overcome or redirect unfortunate aspects of human nature through socialization and culture. Writes Will,

The key political lesson of evolutionary psychology is simply that
there is a universal human nature. The human mind comprises many
distinct, specialized functions, and is not an all-purpose learning
machine that can be reformatted at will to realize political dreams.
The shape of society is constrained by our evolved nature. Remaking
humanity through politics is a biological impossibility on the order of
curing cancer with pine needle tea. We can, however, work with
human nature—and we have. We have, through culture, enhanced those
traits that facilitate trust and cooperation, channeled our coalitional
and status-seeking instincts toward productive uses, and built upon our
natural suspicion of power to preserve our freedom. We can, of course,
do better.

So too, even granting whatever differences one may wish to posit exist between genders or races, these differences alone do not dictate policy. They may constrain our policy options, by presenting costs and challenges associated with overcoming or redirecting our preexisting biases and inclinations, but ultimately our values and goals, informed by these cost constraints, dictate how we choose to act, both as individuals and as social groups. Too often people on the nature side of the debate skip this second step and simply assume that initial characteristics dictate outcomes. And yes, it's also true that people on the nurture side ignore the first step and assume that the costs and challenges associated with changing initial characteristics simply don't exist.

Too often people on the

Too often people on the nature side of the debate skip this second step and simply assume that initial characteristics dictate outcomes. And yes, it's also true that people on the nurture side ignore the first step and assume that the costs and challenges associated with changing initial characteristics simply don't exist.

This is fine, too, but Browne's argument is not simply "differences exist, end story" but rather, the more subtle:

All of these assumptions [underlying the pro-integration position] are flawed, in my opinion, and, as a result, the costs and difficulties of sexual integration of combat forces are often substantially underestimated.

So your main problem with his position seems to be that his calculations are off somehow.  Certainly possible, but doesn't seem to justify the vitriol.

I've come to recognize why

I've come to recognize why the left is so skeptical and so resistant to these sorts of arguments. And I share their concerns. It takes an extraordinary amount of chutzpah to pretend that evidence and not ideology is leading all these people to embrace these sorts of ideas...

Surely there are ideologues to be found on the pro-ev psych side. But they're on the other side, too, and while the ideology they fight for may be less vile, it is no less politically-charged.

At any rate, even assuming in the extreme that ev psych is out and out worthless, or--as your quote indicates--too complex to be fruitfully discussed by laymen, that's no justification for (us laymen) taking the "men and women are psychologically indentical" hypothesis as our default.

that's no justification

that's no justification for (us laymen) taking the "men and women are psychologically indentical" hypothesis as our default.

Who made this claim?

No one here.  I'm just

No one here.  I'm just sayin', s'all.

None of us are professionals...

"Look, there are a few points worth reiterating. First, none of us here are professionals working in the field. Second, few of the conclusions reached by evo-psyc, particularly the more controversial ones dealing with alleged racial differences, are settled or even widely agreed upon by the professional community at large. Third, there is a very ugly record on both sides of the nature/nurture debate in modern history. (However, I am more confident of economics than I am of evo-psych. Therefore, my objection to communism is not that they were radical nurturists, but that they were poor economists.)"

 

Most economists today support a minimum wage. Poor economists still dominate; so much for the consensus of the professional community. And I've often seen professionals in the hard sciences making horribly flawed arguments. I'm not impressed by credentials.

Most economists today

Most economists today support a minimum wage.

Are you sure? From what I recall, this is currently a minority position, And of those who do defend/support a min-wage, they concede that it doesn't have much of an effect on poverty either way, and there are better alternatives. I pretty much agree.