Field of Science

Ideology in science is not an option

A few days ago I commented on Sharon Begley's article in Newsweek. I'm not the only one to have done so by far. Two great responses are by Gad Saad and David Sloan Wilson.

Gad Saad makes this comment to Begley, who dismissed evolutionary psychology in her article:
I challenge Ms. Begley to find a culture in the annals of recorded history where parents were overwhelmingly more concerned about their son's chastity as compared to their daughter's. I challenge Ms. Begley to find a culture where on average men have had a sustained preference for mating with post-menopausal women. I challenge Ms. Begley to find a culture where individuals who possess asymmetric facial features are judged to be more attractive and desirable than their symmetric counterparts. I challenge Ms. Begley to find a culture where on average women have had a sustained preference for lazy, submissive, apathetic men as prospective mates.
Well put, Dr. Saad. It may be very hard indeed to verify, for example, the hypothesis that men's preference for younger women is an adaptive trait, but the trait is there, and so is the theory. Denying those is folly. We may not like nature's influence on our behavior, but I guarantee it's here to stay.

David Sloan Wilson's article in the Huffington Post is fairly thoughtful. He is very critical - in a paternal sort of way - of Tooby and Cosmides, two of the founders of evolutionary psychology, and counts the ways that they went wrong back in the day:
Let me count the ways: 1) They portrayed the mind as a collection of hundreds of special-purpose modules that evolved to solve specific problems in the EEA. 2) Their conception of the EEA was limited to the range of environments occupied by humans during their evolution as a species, which they acknowledged to be diverse. However, it did not stretch back in time to include primate, mammalian and vertebrate adaptations; nor did it stretch forward to include rapid genetic evolution since our hunter-gatherer existence. 3) They emphasized a universal human nature, or rather separate male and female natures, while minimizing the importance of adaptive genetic variation that cuts across both sexes. 4) They dismissed open-ended, domain-general psychological processes as a theoretical impossibility, creating a polarized worldview with "Evolutionary Psychology" at the positive end and "The Standard Social Science Model (SSSM)" at the negative end; 5) Their blueprint had almost nothing to say about culture as an open-ended evolutionary process that can adapt human populations to their current environments. They did not deny the possibility of transmitted culture, but they had almost nothing to say about it. Their most important point was that what seems like transmitted culture can instead be an expression of genetically programmed individual behavioral flexibility (evoked culture).
Hey! Don't skip that. Read the whole quote.

It may sound like it, but Wilson is not out for a kill. Rather, he wants to fix these problems by taking back the terms to their right meaning:
Take back the terms! Terms such as "sociobiology" and "evolutionary psychology" have straightforward meanings: Sociobiology is the study of social behavior from an evolutionary perspective. Evolutionary psychology is the study of psychology from an evolutionary perspective. Unfortunately, there is a tendency for these terms to become associated with particular schools of thought and endorsed or avoided accordingly. Thus, the study of social behavior from an evolutionary perspective has never been more active, but the term "sociobiology" is avoided because of the controversy surrounding the publication of E.O. Wilson's Sociobiology in 1975. The study of psychology from an evolutionary perspective has never been more vigorous or rigorous, but the term "evolutionary psychology" is avoided by those who disagree with the particular school of thought that arose in the late 1980's.
I have just finished reading E.O. Wilson's autobiography, Naturalist, and walked away thoroughly offended by what other professors and students subjected him to in response to Sociobiology. Particularly two fellow professors at Harvard, Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould, comes off as particularly nasty in their attempt of academic castration, based not on the lack of merits of Wilson's theory, but on the ideological implications of it, which didn't square of well with Lewontin's and Gould's Marxist views.

It's time (in fact it is way over) to throw away criticisms of scientific theories that do not attack the science. We may not like what we take to be the implications of a theory, but the only proper way to discredit it is to find its scientific flaws. Ideological angles are never an option.


  1. Unfortunately, most of the evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology studies that are reported in the media look like pseudoscience, and media-savvy academics in this field seem willing to speculate wildly on the evolutionary basis of practically anything.

    In my blog on Playboy models and economic crisis I said

    "Evolutionary biology provides a catch-all kind of explanation for all sorts of nonsense, including sexist nonsense. I'm not saying that all evolutionary biology is suspect, but much of what reaches the lay reader seems to be based on very poor science."

    Correlation is not causality - just because a behaviour pattern exists doesn't prove that it must be the result of evolution. And when the evolutionary explanations seem to conflict so gratuitously, this undoubtedly lowers the public perception of evolutionary biology as a credible science.

    Stafford Beer introduced the principle of POSIWID - the purpose of a system is what it does - and this seems to be one of the axioms of evolutionary biology. For more examples, see my blog.

  2. Hi Richard.

    I am not sure what you mean by "look like pseudoscience." To whom? Why?

    Also, putting evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology in the same sentence might be misleading, since they really are quite different disciplines with very different methodologies (unfortunately).

    I closely follow what is reported in the media on evolution, and also notice that some of it appears to be less rigorous than what is desirable. However, that only goes, as far as I can see, for the evolutionary psychology studies.

    If you could give examples to the contrary, I would be happy to look them over.

  3. I presume that evolutionary biology seeks to explain anatomical or physiological features (such as the shape and function of the sex organs, or the effects of various hormones), while evolutionary psychology seeks to explain such phenomena as behaviour, preference and choice. There are some studies where these factors seem to interact or overlap - for example the studies on orgasm. There are also some academics whose specialism seems to change gratuitously from one media story to the next.

    I think I have examples of both evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology on the POSIWID blog, although you may think I have not correctly classified all of them. I'd welcome your comments on any of these examples.

    Why do I call any of this pseudo-science? Because there often seems to be no way of testing or refuting the underlying hypothesis that every trait must be the result of evolutionary adaptation. So we apparently get the absurd situation whereby the same theory can accommodate two opposite phenomena. See for example my post on Ovulation and Sexual Attraction".

  4. The study in your post 'Ovulation and Sexual Attraction' is pure evolutionary psychology.

    There are also some academics whose specialism seems to change gratuitously from one media story to the next.

    That may be, but it does not merge the two fields in method.

    One thing is not testing a hypothesis. That non-action doesn't make the hypothesis unscientific, obviously. But if it turns out that that hypothesis is not falsifiable, then you may name it pseudoscience. If you could point me to studies like that in evolutionary biology, I would be interested in checking it out...

  5. I'd be interested in your views on the recent claims about the purpose of labour pains. Are these claims amenable to study by evolutionary biologists?

    Link: Purpose of Labour Pains

  6. Yes, I think an evolutionary biologist could study labor pains. If Dr. Denis Walsh only presents a hypothesis based on evolutionary guesswork, but falls short of testing it, then that would be quite inadequate. In fact, his assertion that labor pains prepare the mother for nurturing is eye-rolling inane, in my opinion. But, if a better hypothesis could be thought of, where labor pains is an adaptation, then perhaps that could really be tested. For example by comparing different human populations that have different amounts of labor pain. However, my personal view is that the idea that labor pains is an adaptation is highly unlikely. Rather, like yourself

    I think it is more plausible to say that labour pains are a side-effect of a much more important adaptation, namely large brains.

    I can think of a way to test that, but I would hope no one ever does it: subject female apes (chimp, gorilla, orang) to birth of a much too large baby, and see if they feel the same kind of pain as humans. If they do, is there a benefit?

  7. Applying sociobiological thinking to human societies is a perilous undertaking. But the sociobiology of the New World Order must be revealed!!

  8. Heresiarch, why is that a perilous undertaking?

  9. Bjørn, you appear to have a clearer understanding than I do of the dividing line between biology and psychology, but I'm guessing that your comment here counts as a defence of evolutionary psychology.

    It may be very hard indeed to verify, for example, the hypothesis that men's preference for younger women is an adaptive trait, but the trait is there, and so is the theory. Denying those is folly. We may not like nature's influence on our behavior, but I guarantee it's here to say.

    It is one thing to acknowledge nature's influence on our behaviour, and an entirely separate thing to suggest a specific evolutionary path for the development of this influence.

    Please correct me if I've got this wrong, but the notion of pleiotropy surely implies that evolution can produce many traits that don't advantage the individual or the species, merely as a side-effect of some other adaptation. So we can't just automatically explain any trait on the strength of some supposed evolutionary advantage.

  10. Hi Richard.

    Yes, I defend evo psych, but not that all traits are adaptive, as some evolutionary psychologists use a method (e.g. David Buss in his famous textbook exactly admits that not all traits and trait values are adaptations, but then continues to go on to assume it for a wide variety of traits). I also do not defend all EP studies - I think there is a lot of hand-waving going on there, at times, but the idea that some behavioral traits are adaptive, for sure.

    No, you're right. Pleiotropy precisely means that selection cannot optimize all traits because they are pleiotropically linked, and therefore they will not all be there for adaptive reasons.

    Incidentally, this is what Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini (see review) think they have discovered on their own.

  11. ... psychologists use a method

    Make that "as a method".


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