Sunday, April 17, 2011

Evo-Psy in Crisis [Anthony McCarthy]

There is a major crisis in the field of Evolutionary Psychology promulgated by one of the founders of it -- or as he'd probably have it, Sociobiology. One of its major founders has lost faith in one of its central beliefs. E. O. Wilson was one of the authors of a major attack on the belief in the evo-psy explaination of "altruism". That belief is that individuals acted unselfishly to benefit other, closely related individuals, even at a possible cost to their survival and so reproductive advantage in order that the shared genes that the individuals shared would be propagated. Wilson's part in the promotion of that view couldn't be larger, he was the one who first promoted W. D. Hamilton's mathematical equation on which just about all subsequent assertions of Sociobiology and evo-psy rests.

There have always been critics of the idea that unselfish behavior was, actually, selfishness by proxy, though not generally from within those who had accepted the belief. I remember the first time that I read it wondering if it was really all about the genes then an act of evo-psy "altruism" that produced the death of the altruistic individual and very possibly didn't save that of the one helped would result in an actual disadvantage to genetic propagation. And that's only the first thing that came to me as being a problem with it. In her lecture "The Strange History of Altruism" , Marilynne Robinson did a pretty good job of tearing the idea to shreds. I can't possibly hope to improve on what she said so I'll recommend that you either listen to her or, better, read the published versions of her 2009 Terry Lectures.

The problem, as the article linked to in the Boston Globe, arose due to the belief that Darwin's concept of Natural Selection was the sole explanation of evolution and, in its most extreme adherents, literally every phenomenon of life. Charles Darwin, himself, saw the problem with the phenomenon of people and animals seeming to act unselfishly, putting themselves at a reproductive disadvantage. There was, literally, no way to account for unselfishness with natural selection, yet it couldn't be made to disappear. In fact, it was a problem, not only for biology but for every subsequent area of intellectual engagement which adopted natural selection as a major feature of its ideology.

The major way in which those intellectual efforts dealt with it was to try to explain it away. As in the case of Hamiltonian theory, to make personal selfishness a mere appearance for an underlying act of selfishness. It's the old hedonistic argument with variables, dressed in a lab coat. But the reasons given for doing that always come back to "it has to be that way because you can't account for it with natural selection any other way". That's only a problem for natural selection IF you believe that it is the necessary explaination for everything, including behavior. It has always looked, to me, like the creation of "evidence" to fit the theory instead of using the theory to explain evidence. I think the habit of doing that pervades the social sciences and evo-psy. The phenomena are trimmed from what they are in order to fit them into a theory that there is no reason to believe could explain them. As Robinson pointed out, there is absolutely no way to put the idea to any kind of scientific test in the case of humans.

Using the word "altruism" is something I've been trying to give up since reading Robninson's essay. The history of the word is so fraught with distortions and contradictions that I don't think it has any useful meaning today. I, also, don't think there's anything good that will come out of trying to analyze the behavior of other species as "altruistic", since it's far easier to mischaracterize, opportunistically, the behavior of animals who can't articulate an understanding of their own actions. I don't trust an invested behavioral scientist to come up with an honest observation of that then I would a fundamentalist to come up with a criticism of biblical texts.

I am interested in the obvious acts of unselfishness that people do, which benefit other individual animals which are suffering. Animals they haven't kept themselves, sometimes of animals dangerous enough to present a danger to their own survival. And not only animals of other species, but of other people who are potentially dangerous to themselves. There is no way that giving help to other species, distantly related, genetically, to people, could constitute a survival advantage for our genes that could be mathematically significant. Yet it's quite frequently seen that people are more moved to help such animals than they are other people who are closely related to them. And within the human species, it's not unknown for people to put their own survival at risk, their own possibility of leaving descendents to help individuals and even groups of people more distantly related to them.

I think the simplest conclusion to reach is that the entire enterprise to explain unselfish behavior in terms of natural selection can't be achieved without resorting to dishonesty. We know there are other mechanisms of evolution today, some of those are likely to be more powerfully explanatory than natural selection, genetic drift, the prime contemporary example. It's entirely possible that as more is learned about evolution that newer explanations based in other evidence will cause basic modifications to natural selection, if not supplant it. The effort to dispel unselfish behavior using natural selection has been going on for almost a century and a half, I doubt it's going to get any better.

The idea that behavior is, necessarily, a phenomenon that is governed by physical law is a foundation of academic psychology. The earliest attempts to establish it as an academic study took that as a foregone conclusion, based on absolutely no evidence that it was the same kind of thing as the legitimate subjects of physical science, it was explicitly stated that would be the basis of university based psychology. I think that was due to the political necessity for making a case for the establishment of departments of psychology, it wasn't a factual finding. After a history almost as long as that of natural selection and with a largely failed history, I'm more than a bit skeptical about that universally held assumption and only become more skeptical, the more reading I do into its literature.