Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Today's Deep Thought

This is on evolutionary psychology (ep), given that it's ep week on this blog, and the deep thought or thoughts have to do with the great difficulty one faces when trying to criticize any study that resorts to an ep explanation. For example, I have been accused of being anti-science if I don't accept bad science or of being anti-evolution if I don't accept every iffy theory about some specific human characteristics and its possible evolution.

Well, I am not anti-science at all. Indeed, I respect it too much to sit quietly while it is being exploited for political purposes, including the validation of any unfairness in the current status quo as most likely just the way biology has made us.

Neither am I anti-evolution. But note that while physical evolution can be proven with fossil findings, for instance, we have no such evidence on the psychological evolution of human beings. The speculations ep uses are just that: speculations, and currently not testable. Vague references to genes are not the same thing as actual genetic findings and the general theorizing about how prehistoric humans might have lived and acted and what adaptations they might have undergone is not the same thing as "proof."

Chesterton put this best:

"It is necessary to say plainly that all this ignorance is simply covered by impudence. Statements are made so plainly and positively that men have hardly the moral courage to pause upon them and find that they are without support. The other day a scientific summary of the state of a prehistoric tribe began confidently with the words 'They wore no clothes!' Not one reader in a hundred probably stopped to ask himself how we should come to know whether clothes had once been worn by people of whom everything has perished except a few chips of bone and stone. It was doubtless hoped that we should find a stone hat as well as a stone hatchet." (G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man)

As an example, consider the study I discussed earlier on this page, about women developing good food-related navigational skills because of their gatherer-role in prehistoric tribes. Men are assumed to be better general navigators because as hunters in that prehistoric society they had to be able to learn to read movement and random directions. I'm paraphrasing here. But the bit that just slides past us in these explanations is that nobody living today can actually positively state that the prehistoric women did all the gathering and the prehistoric men all the hunting. That this is not something that can be proved is pretty much ignored. We all now "know" that women used to gather and still go shopping like mad, and that men used to spend all their time hunting and now miss it badly.

The evidence that exists on this division of labor is from recent nomadic tribes, and there is a fairly good possibility that our prehistoric ancestors might have done something similar in some areas and at some times. But always? Was there always enough game to hunt? Or could there have been seasons of the year when the game was plentiful and all the members of the tribe worked setting traps and hunting in various ways? What about times when all there was to eat were roots and berries? Did the men just lounge about, waiting to be fed? - We can't answer these questions but we should ask them, I believe, especially considering that the 1970s ep stories assumed that the women sat in caves cooking and minding children while the men were out killing mammoths. I'm not kidding.

It is this non-testable and hypothetical nature of the basic theories that is far too often given a pass. But more worryingly, many popularizations of ep research interpret the empirical findings, having to do with human behavior today, as proof of the underlying speculations. Even more worryingly, I have met some people who believe that the findings or "findings" of ep studies are from actual research into our genes. We have been "hard-wired" to act a certain way, they tell me. Never mind that the genetic research needed for backing ep theories does not yet exist, to my knowledge and never mind that genes may not actually "hard-wire" us to only a few rigid forms of behavior.

Hence, one reason I so often write about ep studies is because I am unhappy with the lack of proper scientific criticism in that field. A second reason is that many of the studies I have read demonstrate poor empirical work and often ignore the obvious alternative explanations, simply concluding that any empirical correlation in the right direction must support the researchers' initial ep thesis. I should note, though, that later ep studies often benefit from the criticism of the mistakes in the earlier studies. From that point of view my amateurish criticisms may in fact benefit the field.

The third reason for my critical stance has to do with the political uses of a certain type of evolutionary psychology, the type I call Evolutionary Psychology. The capital letters are to remind me that we are talking about an ideology in this case and not a science. A prime example of this type of work is Satoshi Kanazawa's Psychology Today paper. I quote from him:

The implications of some of the ideas in this article may seem immoral, contrary to our ideals, or offensive. We state them because they are true, supported by documented scientific evidence. Like it or not, human nature is simply not politically correct.

Note the conservative shorthand "politically correct" in that sentence. It sets the stage on a long litany of ways in which women are destined to always be the way they were in the 1950s United States. Note also how we are asked to accept the truth of his assertions because they are based on "documented scientific evidence".

But when the last part of his article discusses sexual harassment at work and argues that it is a natural consequence of the different mating strategies of men and women and of men's competitive nastiness no documented scientific evidence seems to be necessary.

It is this little school of EP, attached to the body of evolutionary science like a nasty canker sore that I mostly criticize. It has a very specific political agenda, a conservative one, and it demands acceptance solely because of its quasi-scientific dress. Not surprisingly, most of those who criticize my criticisms belong to this particular school of thought. Or ideology.

Now that was a long deep thought. Sorry about it.