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Ease up off that evolutionary psychology January 8, 2010

Posted by Summerspeaker in Evo psych.
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In the discussion I’m having with Michael Anissimov about cryonics over at his blog, he asserted “deep psychological differences” between males and females because “different selection pressures crafted us.” Needless to say, I protested. I’m disappointed whenever I see people take the troubled field of evolutionary psychology seriously. As a fan of Steven Pinker, Michael appears to be heavily invested in that school of thought. While feminists such the blamers at I Blame the Patriarchy have been tearing evo  psych to pieces for years, psychologists and neuroscientists also complain. A notable critique comes from Jaak and Jules Panksepp. In short, cutting-edge neuroscience argues for the remarkable plasticity of the human brain against the hardwired evo-psych modules.

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1. Zack M. Davis - January 8, 2010

Evolutionary psychology is really an unfortunate term, because it’s been used to refer both to study of the evolution of the human mind generally, and to specific tenets of the Cosmides/Tooby/Buss/&c. school. (David Buller uses lowercased evolutionary psychology to refer to the former endeavor, and capitalized Evolutionary Psychology to refer to the latter.)

Could you spell out more detail what specific evolutionary-psychological propositions you think are false? The Panksepp and Panksepp paper you link to (great read, by the way, thanks) criticizes Evolutionary Psychologists for inter alia postulating complicated modular adaptations without specific support from neuroscience, but surely Panksepp and Panksepp are evolutionary psychologists in Buller’s lowercase sense: they’re interested in integrating knowledge of evolutionary biology with knowledge about the human mind; they just think that the dominant EP school is doing it wrong.

2. Summerspeaker - January 14, 2010

That’s interesting, Zack. I wasn’t aware of the distinction you draw, though that makes sense. It’d be hard to support opposition to your (or Buller’s) lowercase evolutionary psychology. The problem I have with the evo psych I’ve seen centers on the question of plasticity versus rigidity. I favor the former, seeing it as more consistent with the anthropology, other branches of psychology, and daily experience. In practice, so many evo psych studies merely take an existing patriarchal cultural element and assign genetic legitimacy to it.

3. Zack M. Davis - January 16, 2010

I’m not sure plasticity vs. rigidity is the right conceptual distinction to focus on, though. To say only that a trait is plastic is to gloss over the particular way in which it is plastic, why the organism has some particular sort of response to a given environment rather than any number of other possible responses. Individual humans learn from experience, but before any of that happened, natural selection first had to evolve the brain structures that are responsible for that learning, and Evolutionary Psychologists would argue that those structures are modular, content-specific, species-universal modulo sex, &c., even as they combine with each other and the environment to produce diverse (although not arbitrarily diverse) behavior. Quoth Cosmides and Tooby (“The Psychological Foundations of Culture”):

For example, some individuals speak English while others do not, yet everyone passes through a life stage when the same species-typical language acquisition device is activated[.] In fact, if an individual survives a childhood of aberrant social isolation she [note the generic feminine—ZMD] may never acquire a language and may be incapable of speaking; yet, she will have had the same species-typical language acquisition device as everyone else. So what at the behavioral level appears variable (“speaks English,” speaks Kikuyu”; or, even, “speaks a language,” “does not speak any language”) fractionates into variable environmental inputs and a uniform underlying design, interacting to produce the observed patters of manifest variation.

Certainly you’re less likely to find this kind of nuance amongst those (and you are right that there are many) who just use evopsych to rationalize their sexist preconceptions, but that only goes to highlight the importance of yet another conceptual distinction: the truth or falsity of a hypothesis is distinct from the psychological motivations that cause people to accept or reject the hypothesis (or some conveniently twisted popular descendant thereof). On the whole, people who are attached to the status quo will be biased to accept theories that say that continuation of the status quo is likely, and those who want to bring about some change will be biased to accept theories that say that favored change is likely. But physics doesn’t care; the actual cause-and-effect mechanisms remain the same no matter how much humans lie, misunderstand, and misrepresent them.

4. Summerspeaker - January 19, 2010

The Panksepp conception of general-purpose brain mechanisms that can be connected to ancient special-purpose circuits depending on life experiences resonates with me. I maintain that there’s merit in the plasticity versus rigidity distinction. Needless to say, plasticity only goes so far. It would be insupportable to imagine human beings as completely blank slates. As in your quotation from Cosmides and Tooby, all human behaviors comes from a complex interaction between genes and environment. That’s what makes the debate so difficult. Taking about either side alone mainly confuses things.

To your last point on an uncaring physical world, remember that culture and politics mediate our access to that reality. You find this element even in the hardest, most rigorous disciplines. You can’t get away from it in fields like psychology. Neuroscience hasn’t yet reached the point of providing definitive answers about human nature. I’m confident useful knowledge about the brain will continue to increase in the coming decades, but I’ll be surprised if there’s much resolution to these issues before the Singularity. I’m looking forward to seeing what emerges.


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