Field of Science

How psychology gives evolution a bad name

Of course our minds are shaped in part by our evolutionary history. Our instincts are in our brains, so to speak; at least some of those instincts are patently adaptive; the brain evolved. But, not only do I see some problems with the ways many evolutionary psychologists go about doing science, concluding that this and that behavior is adaptive without really testing it, I also do see lots of really bad science reporting on these very sexy topics.

Case in point is one of the shoddiest pieces of quick and easy blurbs titled Study Shows An Evolutionary Response Towards Protecting Infants on written by an 'olivia'. I don't really know the site or who the contributors are, but I'm glad that it at least isn't in a major newspaper this time.

Here it is in its entirety, with my comments in red:
A new study has shown that humans have developed an evolutionary instinct [What does that even mean, 'evolutionary instinct'? Are there any other kinds?] towards infants that may explain how morality factors in to genetic coding. [This kind of study really would never explain how morality is encoded in genes.]

In the study, 240 wallets were left in Edinburgh streets. All but 80 contained pictures, with 40 of each has either a picture of a baby, a puppy, a family, or an elderly couple. Of the other 80, half had no photos but contained papers confirming an act of charity (such as a paper slip showing a monetary contribution), and the other half were control wallets with nothing. All wallets had information to allow them to be returned to their owners.

Almost half of all wallets were returned intact, but of those the highest percentage came from those with baby pictures.

“The baby kicked off a caring feeling in people, which is not surprising from an evolutionary perspective,” research lead Dr. Richard Wiseman was quoted by The Times Online. [True, that wouldn't be surprising at all. But it also isn't tested at all, so someone might as well say that it is not surprising given my personal creation myth: God made humans more caring of infants from day one (or is that day six?).]

He argues that the instinct to protect children, especially infants, is one that has been strongly developed [make that 'evolved'] through the evolutionary process in an attempt to protect future generations of the human race. [No, not to protect future generations. Evolutionary processes do not have such foresight, because there is no mechanism by which it could. Rather, such an instinct would increase the fitness of the parents that have it, nothing more. That's also all it takes for the instinct to spread.

And again, the story (when phrased correctly) sounds plausible, and I could believe it, too. But as long as this hypothesis isn't tested, the statement is guesswork, and not science.]

He also pointed out that it likely triggered a response within the brain that saw the child as the person’s own, which created a greater empathetic link with the parents as well. [Likely schmikely.]

The next largest group, interestingly, were the puppy photos, then the elderly couple. The family photos scores slightly lower then the elderly couple, and the charity and control wallets had the least returns.
This kind of uneducated reporting (and dare I say ditto on the scientist's statements about evolution?) does not do any good for the public understanding of evolution. First off, people often equate evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology (and they aren't the same things). The latter often isn't rigorous enough, and that gives the former a bad name. And, of course, reporting like this leaves the reader with the impression that the scientist here knows something about our evolutionary past from experiments with human subjects. No, he has learned something about the human psyche. It's a psychological experiment and nothing more.

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