Field of Science

Falsifiable foot?

Yet another superficial poke at evolutionary psychology by one Andrea James at Boing Boing, What's wrong with evolutionary psychology?

The article is tedious because it makes the silly inference that a whole field of science (EP) is disqualified by the dubious assumptions made by some scientists, such as
  • Computational mind (the brain is more like a computer than a biological organ)
  • Determinism (biology is destiny)
  • Fatalism (free will/choice is an illusion)
  • Consciousness (subjective awareness deludes us into thinking we have free will)
  • Reductionism or essentialism (race and gender are concrete, not socially constructed, can be reduced to their genetic essence, and are quantifiable)
  • Intelligence is definable and measurable
  • Sexual selection should focus on benefits for the individual organism
  • The "function" or "purpose" of life is to make more life
  • The __ gene: The gay gene, the god gene, etc.
I agree to an extent with some of these, and disagree with others (most notably I do not see any way by which free will can be anything but an illusion, but that's for another day). I find it silly to bring up these "tenets" at all, but will say that it is totally irrelevant what one thinks of them with regards to doing research in EP. Whether you agree with them or not, you can do the research.

But also, the discussion in the comments to the article is very good, and a couple of people address this list of tenets and other points in the article. For example, on the issue of whether EP makes falsifiable claims or not, SamSam says:
The argument that no statement in EP is falsifiable is possibly valid, but doesn't necessarily detract from the statement's value.

There are plenty of statements one can make regarding physical evolution which are just as hard to falsify but are never-the-less valuable.

For example: "The Human foot's shape evolved because it provided a selective advantage to a primate when running and walking."

This statement has value and is most likely true. However, is there any way that it can be falsified?
This question got me thinking, because I didn't have an answer ready for it. I would definitely also assert that most likely the human foot is an adaptation for walking and running, but why would I? The claim is made by combining our understanding of evolution and of human anatomy and biophysics, and it really does seem very plausible. I had to think for an embarrassingly long time (I think it was 53 seconds!) before I could see the obvious way that it can be falsified: Show that the human foot is not good for walking and running. Like the famous "girls like pink because they evolved to pick ripe fruit" which can be falsified by showing that girls do not prefer pink, so is the human foot claim falsifiable.

It may be very hard to falsify, and in this case it certainly is, but that's because it is most most probably true. The real issue is of course whether a hypothesis is falsifiable in principle or not. And this one totally is.


  1. Huh, the "computational mind" thing is sorta interesting, because it was a popular EP book (The Blank Slate) that got me looking at the brain as more of conglomerate of biological parts than as a single computational unit. Go figure.

    The "Intelligence is definable and measurable" is an interesting one to object to so strenuously. While the problems with defining and measuring intelligence are well-known, and there certainly have been many folks over the years who thought they could measure it with an absurd amount of precision, it seems to me rather stubborn to insist that we can't even roughly measure something that might be loosely-termed "intelligence". I mean... that's just silly. Unless one thinks the only difference between Einstein and Corky was upbringing....

    There's a similar PC stubborness with race and gender. Yes, they are social constructs, and too few people understand that -- but to deny that these social constructs have a rough biological correlate is asinine. Gender identity and sex are independent, but clearly they are correlated -- I mean, it's not like 50% of people with penises identify as male and 50% identify as female! Same with race, i.e. skin color is independent of ethnic heritage, but clearly there is a correlation. Or is the prevalence of sickle cell anemia among people of African heritage just a conspiracy by the racist establishment?

    The ___ gene is mostly a function of science journalism, and I'm pretty sure nobody thinks they are doing a good job.

    As far as the determinism thing, I'll reiterate what I said in the other post on EP: I really think that the majority evolutionary psychologists and sociobiologists don't believe in biological determinism. But they need to do a better job of articulating this, particularly in popular science literature.

    When a popular science book needs to make what ought to be an obvious caveat, it is necessary to repeat it at least once per chapter. In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins constantly reiterates that the idea of a gene "behaving selfishly" is obviously just a metaphor, and that it is necessary to frequently return to a non-metaphorical analysis and see if our conjectures make sense. He repeats this to the point of tedium, possibly detracting from the entertainment value of the book -- and yet people still accuse him of anthropomorphizing genes. There's a lesson in that...

  2. He repeats this to the point of tedium, possibly detracting from the entertainment value of the book -- and yet people still accuse him of anthropomorphizing genes. There's a lesson in that...

    Shouda put it in the title, then.

    What do you think about the fatalism point, then? I don't personally see how this has anything to do with EP, but still interesting...

  3. Like you, I don't see "free will" as being a well-defined or meaningful phrase. It is much like "soul" -- there is no way to even ask the question without invoking some kinda of ghost-in-the-machine style of argumentation. (Of course, just like the "soul", we all act on a day-to-day basis as if we have something that could be roughly termed "free will", but it's more a feeling than a phenomenon, and clearly there is no physical reality to it)

    So my question would be, what the heck does "fatalism" have to do with the philosophical question of "free will"? Just as I find it absurd when religious people suggest that if there were no god then they'd go around raping and pillaging all the time, I find it absurd that people would be disturbed if, technically speaking, their actions were either pre-determined or random (depending of course on results from quantum mechanics). The system is so complex and chaotic that, even if it is "deterministic" in the strictest sense, who cares?

    The bottom line is that all of us (except maybe Calvinists) are going to live our lives as if we have "free will", regardless of the null philosophical meaning of the phrase. So it winds up being a discussion about nothing, and with no practical consequences. :D

    Far more relevant to EP, and far more disturbing, is the increasing evidence that so many of our actions are decided pre-conciously, and only instants later to do we formulate a rationalization for it. I think it's an open question just how much of human behavior falls into this category (it clearly includes "some", and I find it extremely dubious that it includes "all" -- it's not like my so-called lizard brain figures out the correct answer to a calculus problem before my conscious mind has a chance to work through it!)

    I suppose in a sense the idea that a significant amount of our decisions fall into this "post-rationalized" category could be termed a sort of "fatalism", but I don't think that's a very useful way of looking at it. Even if a shockingly high percentage of our perceived-as-conscious decisions were in actuality determined subconsciously, that doesn't mean we have no practical control over it.

    e.g. If I perpetuate a silly argument with my wife, probably a lot of the time I am consciously saying, "Well I'm right and if I don't make that clear, then we'll just have the same argument again in the future!", but that is probably a post-decision rationalization for what is just a simple fight-or-flight response. That does NOT mean I am "fated" to always perpetuate every tiny little argument -- there are all sorts of methods for combating that impulse.

    To sum up all of this rambling: While I think studies into the brain (sometimes overlapping with EP) are revealing that a good portion of our decision-making process is consciously inaccessible to us, I do not think that observation implies a "fatalistic" reality. We still have a means to consciously determine our behavior. And the fact that consciousness is an illusion, while philosophically and scientifically important, is rather uninteresting from a practical perspective, since all of us operate under a ghost-in-the-machine model of consciousness 24/7 in our daily lives anyway.

  4. My biggest problems with sociobiology and evolutionary psychology are

    In terms of methodology
    * rather than establish universal behaviors that are almost certainly selected for in humans they keep trying to examine gender-specific behavior.
    * the methods they use to probe for gender-specific, particularly their very-small sample sizes, don't appear to be sufficiently granular to resolve real signals from cultural background noise.
    * they're awfully slow to correct people who make really, really spurious claims beginning with "since our hunter-gatherer ancestors would have..."

    Seriously, to hear most (though obviously not all) of those guys talk you'd think the only human behaviors subject to selective pressure are mating-related.

    To be fair they could focus only on mating behavior because everything else about human behavior and evolution seems to be covered (and covered with considerably more academic discipline) by cognitive science, anthropology, sociology, paleontology, molecular biology, regular psychology, regular biology...


  5. Figleaf, I've read a fair amount of textbook EP, and I don't recognize your critique that "most" EP is about human behavior related to mating behavior. It sounds a lot like you're getting your input from the popular press only (sex does sell, as I know you're very well aware of).

    Also, I don't understand your last sentence. You actually think that all other human behavior is well explained by those other disciplines you list? Then please tell me how the moro reflex is explained, then. Or ophidiophobia and other phobias.

  6. Hi Bjørn, I wasn't aware the moro reflex was considered a psychological behavior. I admit my education is now very out of date so I could be very, very wrong but I understood it was considered an artifact of neurological development that probably wouldn't have been specifically selected for (though neurological development certainly would be.)

    I'd love to see a study demonstrating how fear of snakes and/or spiders and/or mice are genetically determined. It would be particularly nice to see whether each phobia is specifically selected for and, especially, what controls their differential expression in individuals. As I said I'm very comfortable with the idea of evolutionary psychology, I'm just dismayed by the... enthusiasm given to half-baked research into sex and especially gender.


  7. It's true that "enthusiasm given to half-baked research" does seem to mar the field of EP, in my experience. And that is a shame.

    I'm not sure about the psychological/neurological distinction, actually. To me, when it's a thing of the brain, I think it's fair to investigate it under the assumption that it's selected for, like with the moro reflex.

    As for phobias, again it is a behavior induced by the brain, and additionally clearly not something that we learn. Even people raised in places with no snakes, who never experience that they are dangerous, can have ophidiophobia. And there are good reasons to believe that such phobias were adaptive.

    But, like you, I'd love to see rigorously demonstrated how phobias a genetically coded (if they are). That sounds like it lies far into the future, given our limited understanding of both genotype-phenotype maps and brain development and function.

  8. Oh, and other examples of non-gender points of interest in EP are questions about memory, perception, or language.


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