Monday, January 11, 2010

Evolutionary Psychosisology

There is a post up at BoingBoing about Evo Psych . It is a lot like this:

Now, I'm no fan of some EP (though it can be hilarious when they make up their BS), but its a variegated community, and those EPers who really know actual evolutionary theory, and like totally do empirical research are interesting if often provocative.  Its also weird to try and discredit an entire research program with such a short, confusing, mistake ridden article.  I shall attempt to correct them forthwith.   The author provides a list of 'often believed tenets of EP'.
  • Computational mind (the brain is more like a computer than a biological organ)
Ok no one says 'computational mind.'  There is the computational THEORY of mind, but no one thinks that the brain is more like a computer than a biological organ. That doesn't even make much sense.  What the theory advances is that the way in which a computer works makes for a useful model of how brains work. And, indeed, this has been productive and has produced a lot of good research, not just by EPers but by computational neuroscientists, philosophers, artificial intelligencers, and so forth.  Historically, the we have always modelled our understanding of the brain on whatever most advanced piece of technology we have: the gears and springs of clocks and other contraptions in the 17th century, the steam engines and mills of the 19th century, and the computers of the 20th and 21st centuries.
  • Determinism (biology is destiny)
Um. What? First off, calling this determinism seems misnomerish. But whatever.  Second, depending on how strongly you read it, this  might either be  false or  true.  And it furthermore seems to me to be an empirical statement, and one that casting aspersions upon by associating it with EPers does no real good.  Biology probably is destiny sometimes. Whatever that means. This is the whole fruitless nature/nuture battle. The truth lies in between, and depends upon the specifics of whatever is being destinied. Destinized? whatever.
  • Fatalism (free will/choice is an illusion)
Free will is a vexed problem, mostly because no one has any clear idea of what it could mean. (see:  And when it is defined it either seems like the kind of thing no one would want, or something that no one could ever have.  If we read free will as having to do with the way we make choices and judgments, its an empirical problem (albeit one with philosophical issues by the bucket. Too bad most philosophy buckets are hole filled. Hehe. Hole filled...). Whatever else can be said about EPers, they respect this aspect of the debate.
  • Consciousness (subjective awareness deludes us into thinking we have free will)
No one has a GD clue about consciousness (understood as first person experience).  And if this is what the EPers believe (not sure that it is), there may be something to it. 
  • Reductionism or essentialism (race and gender are concrete, not socially constructed, can be reduced to their genetic essence, and are quantifiable)
Reductionism and essentialism are not the same thing.  The latter is about moving from talking at a 'high level' (say about the temperature of a room) to talking at a low level (to talking about the mean kinetic energy of the particles in that room).  Essentialism has to do with kinds--that there are kinds in nature, and that these kinds have essential natures that make them what they are.  Both of these have long histories in the world of science.  And both have been shown to be true in some areas: for instance, reductionism in physics has been a resounding success (except for making gravity and QM play nice) and essentialism seems true of the nature of physical things like the elements and particles and so on.  It doesn't work so well for species and biological kinds (full disclosure: I'm a nominalist, but lets forget that for now). And parts of race and gender surely are concrete, real things--it does no one any good to deny that there are human kinds, and that kinds vary within the kind and between kinds. The question is to what the variation amounts to, and from my reading of the empirical data is that interspecific variation is less the intraspecific variation among 'races.'

This doesn't mean I endorse the crude stereotypes in some EP, only that these accusations get tossed around like the Fuhrer's name as argument enders. They are not.
  • Intelligence is definable and measurable
Um. This seems so obviously true that I don't know what could be objectionable about it. The problem lies in the reification of whatever the measure of intelligence is: that is, IQ is certainly measurable (in fact, it just is a measurment), but what exactly we are measuring is unclear.  The real trick is to figure out what is being measured, what the biological, social, genetic, whatever basis of the measurment is.
  • Sexual selection should focus on benefits for the individual organism
Um. First off EPers probably don't buy this because they seem to be hardcore Adaptationists, that is, Dawkins/Hamilton style gene selectionists. I have no idea what the
  • The "function" or "purpose" of life is to make more life
Perhaps EPers say this, but I doubt it. Evolution isn't teleological. Its a set of filtering mechanisms (natural selection, drift, maybe group selection, development stuff, etc). 
  • The __ gene: The gay gene, the god gene, etc.
I think it is rather bad science writers and not EPers who write this, though perhaps these groups are the same sometimes. I dunno.

The biggest problem with the article is that there is a lot to criticize with some EP, but the article does such a piss poor job of it.


    1. What about the Gay-god Gene and was he on the train?

    2. yes. god is dead. is a great KITH skit about god being dead.