Tag Archives: Evolutionary psychology

Talk on Evolutionary Psychology, Sunday, March 2nd

I will be giving a talk in Saint Paul, at the Best Western Kelly Inn, on Evolutionary Psychology.

The original plan was to get two people to debate the topic, but it was hard to find two people in town to do that. One idea was to get PZ Myers over here, and then he and I would debate the topic. Problem with that is that we probably agree a lot more than we disagree so that would be boring. Well, I’m sure we’d make it interesting but we’d have to switch topics.

So it ended up being me. There will be a debate. I’ll handle both sides. Seriously.

I’d love to give you a working link to meetup.com for this event, but meetup.com appears to be undergoing a massive, extended DDoS attack. From some very lonely person, I assume. Here’s the link in case it works.

Anyway, this talk is sponsored by the Critical Thinking Club of Saint Paul. Details:
Sunday, March 2, 2014
10:00 AM
Best Western Kelly Inn
161 Saint Anthony Ave
Saint Paul, MN 55103

Evolutionary Psychology is a late 20th century scientific discipline created for the explicit purpose of understanding how the brain works (mechanisms) and why the brain works that way (adaptations). It assumes the adaptations we observe in the brain are to the environment in which they arose. Unfortunately, this new discipline was created in human brains (as opposed to some other really smart species) and human brains did not evolve in an environment in which understanding the workings of brains was important. Rather, human brains evolved in an environment in which outsmarting other people may have been more important than getting things right. In this talk, we will see what is right, and perhaps not right, about evolutionary psychology.

Greg Laden is a biological anthropologist who has studied key transitions in human evolution, including the ape-human split and the rise of our genus, Homo. He was present at the birth of Evolutionary Psychology, in room 14A of the Peabody Museum, at Harvard, and has been observing the field ever since. Greg writes about evolution, climate change, and other issues on his blog at National Geographic Scienceblogs, often provides public talks or interviews on these topics.

Breakfast Buffet $12.00 Coffee only $3.00. We need to plan for the room setup and meal, so if you are going to attend, please RSVP by Friday, February 28.

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Evolutionary Psychology Panel at CONvergence 2013

There is now a video and a transcript of the Evolutionary Psychology Panel at CONvergence 2013. Many of you, when you watch this, will become enraged at things said by the panelists. Rumors of what was said had already been spread around on the internet and as I understand it Jerry Coyne and Stephen Pinker have already become enraged. Or maybe the loved it. I’m not sure.

If you want me to respond to any of your enraged rage regarding anything that was said, or for that matter, if you have anything at all … negative, positive, informative, whatever … to contribute to the conversation please put it in the comments below. Of late I’ve been engaged in a handful of projects that curtail my web surfing activities so if you put comments somewhere other than below this post I’m very unlikely to ever see them. This thread will not be moderated unless you post secret launch codes or whatever. (Comments are typically held in moderation until I release them unless you are a prior-trusted commenter, but I’ll put whatever you’ve got here that is not spam … or launch codes.)

Here’s the video:

The transcript is here.

Are you fat? You can’t earn a PhD, according to one Evolutionary Psychologist

Geoffrey Miller, author of The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature, has made a goof.

Miller is an evolutionary psychologist with an interested in IQ, the usual sex related things Evolutionary Psychologists are interested in, etc. etc.

On June 2nd he wrote this tweet:

Dear obese PhD applicants: if you didn’t have the willpower to stop eating carbsk, you won’t have the willpower to do a dissertation #truth

The number of way in which this is wrong is myriad.

Anyway, he’s in a heap of trouble. Here is a video from his university, the University of New Mexico, showing his department chair trying to do some damage control.

Good luck with that.

I’m guessing this … that if you are fat you are not PhD material … is not really a scientific assertion on the part of Professor Miller. Rather, it looks more like a bone-headed remark he made because of something personal that happened to him. Professor Miller may have demonstrated something useful, though. If you are X stay away from Twitter because you are a jerk. I’m not sure what X is. Maybe it is just being a jerk. If you are a jerk stay away from Twitter because you are a jerk. Hard to say.

Anyway, Professor Geoffrey Miller is digging in and/or backpedaling. As you can see in the video, and indicated on this UNM web page, Miller now claims that he is carrying out a research project in which he produces inflammatory tweets.

Do you think he’s telling the truth? What would you do if you were his department chair?

How Do You Get Sexual Orientation and Gender in Humans?

Humans appear to have a great deal of variation in sexual orientation, in what is often referred to as “gender” and in adult behavior generally. When convenient, people will point to “genes” as the “cause” of any particular subset of this diversity (or all of it). When convenient, people will point to “culture” as the “cause” of … whatever. The “real” story is more complicated, less clear, and very interesting. And, starting now, I promise to stop using so many “scare” quotes.

Continue reading How Do You Get Sexual Orientation and Gender in Humans?

Evolutionary Psychology: Careful, some practitioners may be carrying a kitchen knife!

Darwinian Psychology, or really, any “Psychology” that claims to be science, will operate under the assumption that the human brain, as an organ, has arrived at its modern form through the process of evolution, which includes a certain amount of design through Natural Selection. It does not take that much additional sophistication to realize that the human brain is not only good at, but absolutely requires for typical functioning, a great deal of learning. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that the typical human brain functions as it does because of information provided by the genes that were shaped by evolutionary forces and information provided via learning, from some combination of culture and personal experience, which by the way, could also be subject to Darwinian selection (and includes the behaviors generated by other human brains, which in turn, were subject to Darwinian selection).

A simplified model for the development of typical behavior in humans might include these elements:

1) Behavior that emerges no matter what because genes make that happen. If you want to go see some of that, sneak up behind a friend and poke them with a sharp object. They will let out a primal sound and jump. They didn’t need to learn that.

2) Behavior that would not be observed at all were it not for enculturation or learning in the individual. If you want to see some of that, check out the languages people speak. Regardless of how language itself emerges in individuals, one is not genetically programmed just to speak French. One learns one’s language, and the language one uses is a very important behavior.

3) Behavior that is only “normal” (normative in antro-speak) or “typical” when it develops as a combination of those two things (canalized learning). This is a bit harder to explore. Looking at language in a different way than above might be one. Another might be looking at individuals with an upbringing that deprived them of the usual cultural inputs, like some of the classic “wild child” examples.

(I’m avoiding defining what “behavior” is to allow this discussion to fit into one blog post!)

This is basic Evolutionary Biology. A lot of people think that what I just described is Evolutionary Psychology. If it is, then Evolutionary Psychology has broadened its mission considerably, which would be fine. But Evolutionary Psychology is more narrowly defined than this. Specifically, Evolutionary Psychology assumes the existence of “modules” in the brain, mainly in the cerebrum (but there is no reason for them to not involve other brain structures) that are distinct neural systems that allow individual humans to carry out specific behaviors. From Cosmides and Tooby’s Primer on Evolutionary Psychology:

We have all these specialized neural circuits because the same mechanism is rarely capable of solving different adaptive problems. For example, we all have neural circuitry designed to choose nutritious food on the basis of taste and smell – circuitry that governs our food choice. But imagine a woman who used this same neural circuitry to choose a mate. She would choose a strange mate indeed (perhaps a huge chocolate bar?). To solve the adaptive problem of finding the right mate, our choices must be guided by qualitatively different standards than when choosing the right food, or the right habitat. Consequently, the brain must be composed of a large collection of circuits, with different circuits specialized for solving different problems. You can think of each of these specialized circuits as a mini-computer that is dedicated to solving one problem. Such dedicated mini-computers are sometimes called modules. There is, then, a sense in which you can view the brain as a collection of dedicated mini-computers – a collection of modules. There must, of course, be circuits whose design is specialized for integrating the output of all these dedicated mini-computers to produce behavior. So, more precisely, one can view the brain as a collection of dedicated mini-computers whose operations are functionally integrated to produce behavior.

While some of these behaviors might be in some form general to mammals (or primates or vertebrates or some other taxonomic group) they only count as proper modules if they exist in humans as human-specific capacities that are adaptations each shaped by a particular “environment of evolutionary adaptiveness,” altered over time through natural selection, to function a certain way. To be very clear: The functioning of these modules is primarily determined by neural systems that are specified by genes that were, in turn, shaped by natural selection.

The gasp and jump behavior noted above would be a bad example of a “human behavior” for this sort of study because although there are certainly human aspects to it, it is mainly a more general behavior. Try it with your cat and see what happens. A great example from Evolutionary Psychology would be cheater detection. Even if the detection of “cheating” behavior might be found in non-human animals, humans seem to do this in unique human ways. One study that supports and exemplifies this (which I’m a bit familiar with because I helped with it) compared human ability to solve a basic logic problem under different conditions. Briefly, humans were given two different problems, both with the same underlying logic and with the same logically determined answer, but framed in very different contexts. In one setup, the humans were asked to solve the problem in the context of an esoteric filing problem that a file clerk might encounter. In the other context the humans were asked to evaluate the honesty of individuals trying to get a drink at a bar, from the point of view of the bartender. In both cases there would have been an exhaustive, multi-step solution (such as asking everybody for their ID no matter what, or looking in every single file folder to see if everything was filed correctly) but there was also a clear and unambiguous least-step most efficient solution (ask only certain people for their ID, or look in only certain file folders), and the test subjects were asked to provide that efficient solution. In the case of the filing problem, people were shown to be really bad at finding the solution. In the case of the more human problem, where subjects were being asked to asses the chance that people were lying, they did rather well. This suggests that humans have an ability, built into the brain, to handle lying and cheating by other humans. (Here is an example of a recent related study.)

Evolutionary Psychology says that humans evolved to do this during a period of “evolutionary adaptiveness,” living in social groups where detecting cheaters conferred a fitness advantage, or not doing so caused a fitness disadvantage. Moreover, this capacity exists as a brain “module” that develops in individuals by virtue of genetic programming, with the genes doing that developmental programming having been under selection during that period.

An alternative explanation … but still evolutionary and still scientific … might be that the ability to detect cheating emerged in individuals who, over their lifetime, experienced the need to do so and learned, and/or received from their culture through the processes of enculturation, the ability to do so. In this explanation there may well have been gene-level selection to facilitate some sort of data processing or reasoning, and perhaps most importantly, learning, without which individuals would not be very good at developing a cheating detection mechanism.

In both cases, one could say that there is a “mental module” … a neural structure in the brain that is good at doing some thing. In both cases one could say that the module emerged as part of the evolutionary process. Indeed, I regard the result of this and similar experience as very strong evidence that there are modules in human brains that are really good at doing certain things, and that are sufficiently specialized that they are also bad at doing similar but in some sense “unnatural” versions of the same thing. In an Evolutionary Psychology version, the module was mostly built neurologically because of genetically specified development. In a more general Darwinian Psychology, brains are selected (though evolutionary process) to be good at learning how to do this sort of thing.

One way to test this would be to raise a group of babies in a cultural environment in which it was not necessary to ever detect cheaters, but where day to day activities of import required being really good at file clerking. If Evolutionary Psychology is right and Darwinian Psychology is wrong, then the adults that emerge from that experience will test the same way on the previously described experiment (or maybe a little different, but the pattern would be the same). If Darwinian Psychology is right and Evolutionary Psychology is wrong, then when confronted with a test for cheater detection vs file clerking, the test subjects will excel at file clerking and be lousy cheater detectors.

It is possible, of course, that both things happen: there could be genetically determined human-unique modules AND a set of general learning capacities.

ResearchBlogging.orgIn fact, much of the better research in Evolutionary Psychology addresses the potential combination or overlap between these developmentally distinct explanations. A recent paper by Fessler et.al is a great example of this. The paper, “Weapons Make the Man (Larger): Formidability Is Represented as Size and Strength in Humans,” tests the idea that when assessing the degree to which one should regard a foe as formidable, humans narrow down their assessment into a generalized variable that is very likely to have emerged as a cognitive tool during our Old World Primate/Ape ancestry: Size. They conclude “… knowing that a man possesses a gun or a kitchen knife leads people to assess him as larger and more muscular. In conjunction with prior work, our studies thus provide strong preliminary evidence that the conceptual dimensions of size and strength are employed to represent relative formidability.” To me, that is an excellent example of a study of evolved human capacities, done by a team of researchers who call themselves “Evolutionary Psychologists,” which does not ignore, but rather incorporates, the most likely scenario for the evolution of the human mind; human brains are the product of millions of years of evolution and specific human capacities emerge as a conjuncture of innate abilities and drives (attention to “bigness”) and individual culturally mediated experiences (understanding of the artifacts of violence) combined and fine tuned by forces that are worthy of further exploration.

(I would note that the lead author on this study, Dan Fessler, would be one of the first authors I’d point someone to whom might be interested in reading some “good Evolutionary Psychology.”)

“Evolutionary Psychology” can be viewed as distinct form a more general “Darwinian Psychology” which simply says that the brain is shaped by evolutionary forces, or a “Behavioral Biology” that might derive from both human and non-human primate studies, which could assert that typical human behaviors are the result of an unspecified (but knowable) combination of evolved genetically determined capacities or drives, and learning. hese are very different ideas, but many people conflate or confuse them.

Brains evolved. Sometimes, when criticizing Evolutionary Psychology, as I’ve done now and then and as Rebecca Watson recently did, those who call themselves “Evolutionary Psychologist” react in an interesting way. They claim that the criticisms are unscientific. They may label the critics as “creationists” or “science denialists.” I some cases, a defender of the subfield may even resort to cherry picking among the perceived attacker’s prior writings to falsely show that they hold certain beliefs. This sort of reaction has been observed of others who undergo criticism by people who really do hold similar fundamental views, but who do not agree in total with a particular position. I wonder if this reaction is a human universal of some sort. Perhaps, even, a module. It would be interesting to see this developed as a research project.

Fessler, D., Holbrook, C., & Snyder, J. (2012). Weapons Make the Man (Larger): Formidability Is Represented as Size and Strength in Humans PLoS ONE, 7 (4) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0032751

See also:

?EP: The fundamental failure of the evolutionary psychology premise

?EP: The fundamental failure of the evolutionary psychology premise

Is evolutionary psychology worthless?

Reason.tv: Stone Age Minds – A conversation with evolutionary psychologists Leda Cosmides and John Tooby

Critique of Rebecca Watson's Talk: Haters gonna hate.

Whinging About Skepchick

A critique of a talk by Rebecca Watson is very likely heavily influenced by the critiquer’s membership in one group or another as defined by The Great Sorting. This not because Rebecca is a polarizing person. It is because she has been outspoken on issues that tend to polarize people, like feminism. This polarization is enhanced by the fact that a break-off group of skeptics have chosen to join the haters rather than the thinkers and doers. Also, she leads a group of women who have tried to open up the Skeptical Community to having more female participants and to more frequently address women’s issues, and this has led to significant push back. As you listen to Rebecca’s recent talk on Evolutionary Psychology or read critiques of it, especially those that specifically call her talk “science denialism” or “creationism” or some other absurd thing, keep that in mind. Continue reading Critique of Rebecca Watson's Talk: Haters gonna hate.

How Girls Evolved to Shop

Rebecca Watson gave the following talk at Skeptcon. It is funny, well done, and critiques a Pop-Evol-Psy concept or two, which I have also addressed (Why Do Men Hunt and Women Shop?, Understanding Sex Differences in Humans: What do we learn from nature?, Falsehoods: Human Universals, A Tutorial in Human Behavioral Biology, Driving The Patriarchy: Demonic Males, Feminism, and Genetic Determinism, Race, Gender, IQ and Nature, What is the most important human adaptation?, How Do You Get Sexual Orientation and Gender in Humans?, Men = Testosterone Damaged Women!, Sex and Gender in An Odd Primate), as Rebecca notes, thank you Rebecca! I don’t agree with everything Rebecca said about the role of men and women in forager societies, but that isn’t too important to her talk.

The original video is HERE. Please be so kind as to go and “like” it, as there will be many haters who will bother to go and “unlike” it because they are haters.

CLICK HERE for my followup post on this. And, HERE is another, related post.

Why Do Men Hunt and Women Shop?

The title of this post is, of course, a parody of the sociobiological, or in modern parlance, the “evolutionary psychology” argument linking behaviors that evolved in our species during the long slog known as The Pleistocene with today’s behavior in the modern predator-free food-rich world. And, it is a very sound argument. If, by “sound” you mean “sounds good unless you listen really hard.”

I list this argument among the falsehoods that I write about, but really, this is a category of argument with numerous little sub-arguments, and one about which I could write as many blog posts as I have fingers and toes, which means, at least twenty. (Apparently there was some pentaldactylsim in my ancestry, and I must admit that I’ll never really know what they cut off when I was born, if anything.)

Before going into this discussion I think it is wise, if against my nature, to tell you what the outcome will be: There is not a good argument to be found in the realm of behavioral biology for why American Women shop while their husbands sit on the bench in the mall outside the women’s fashion store fantasizing about a larger TV on which to watch the game. At the same time, there is a good argument to be made that men and women should have different hard wired behavioral proclivities, if there are any hard wired behavioral proclivities in our species. And, I’m afraid, the validity from an individual’s perspective of the various arguments that men and women are genetically programmed to be different (in ways that make biological sense) is normally determined by the background and politics of the observer and not the science. I am trained in behavioral biology, I was taught by the leading sociobiologists, I’ve carried out research in this area, and I was even present, somewhat admiringly, at the very birth of Evolutionary Psychology, in Room 14A in the Peabody Museum at Harvard, in the 1980s. So, if anyone is going to be a supporter of evolutionary psychology, it’s me.

But I’m not. Let me ‘splain….
Continue reading Why Do Men Hunt and Women Shop?

A Tutorial in Human Behavioral Biology

If you read only one book this holiday season, make it all of the following twenty or so!

But seriously … I’d like to do something today that I’ve been meaning to do, quite literally, for years. I want to run down a selection of readings that would provide any inquisitive person with a solid grounding in Behavioral Biological theory. At the very outset you need to know that this is not about Evolutionary Psychology. Evolutionary Psychology is something different. I’ll explain some other time what the differences are. For now, we are only speaking of fairly traditional Darwinian behavioral theory as applied generally with a focus on sexually reproducing organisms, especially mammals, emphasis on humans and other primates but with lots of birds because they turn out to be important.
Continue reading A Tutorial in Human Behavioral Biology

When Your Genes Turn Bad …

i-7f48f95b6810cf4a4cc252c6c915c5eb-Evil_Genes.jpgEvil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother’s BoyfriendWhen I first received this book to review, I thought “Oh, great, another one of these pop evolutionary psychology books by some academic with a large mortgage payment” (or words to that effect). But then I read it and my attitude got better.

The theme of this book is as the title says, evil … at several scales, and understanding evil from a neuro-psychological perspective. Here, the genes themselves are actually relatively unimportant except as part of the necessary steps to build a human brain which then, in turn, can sometimes be an evil one. As a member of the military (having served in numerous interesting capacities) and the adoptive mother of two children from Milosevic-torn former Yugoslavia, Oakley brings an interesting personal side to the worlds of mind games, Machiavellian behavior, and ultimately, psychopathy. And as David Sloan Wilson mentions in his forward, Oakley serves effectively as this book’s Indiana Jones like guide through the neurophysiology of the brain. Most poignantly, Oakley sees the essence of humanity through her direct and indirect experience with her own sister, who is described as “an amoral woman who died under mysterious circumstances.”

I think if you start to read this book you will have a hard time putting it down. A lot of questions you may have will be addressed. More questions will be raised than answered. … And you may never look at your sister the same way again.