Saturday, February 09, 2008

SEP on Evo Psyc

The latest addition to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy may be of general interest: "There is a broad consensus among philosophers of science that evolutionary psychology is a deeply flawed enterprise..."


  1. I can't see how one could say that - that entry seems unprofessionally (there is probably a better word for it) written for somethings from a encyclopedia.

    Evolutionary psychology is method for finding a certain sort of explanation for various traits. It may well be a field like many others that is flooded with bad science or people who have accepted conclusions on weak evidence - but it is a plausible method of inquiry.

    I suppose Pop evolutionary psychology is probably a bit like pop political studies, pop feminism and pop psychology in that there seems to be an incentive to create colorful explanations that are not supported by facts or presented with caveats. Still that is probably the sort of 'problem' also very deeply seated in most areas of philosophy.

  2. How is it unprofessional to accurately report the expert consensus?

    Anyway, compare section 4:

    "Most of these critics are philosophers of biology who argue that the research tradition suffers from an overly zealous form of adaptationism, an untenable reductionism, a “bad empirical bet” about modules, a fast and loose conception of fitness; and most of the above and much more. All of these philosophers share one version or other of Buller's view: “I am unabashedly enthusiastic about efforts to apply evolutionary theory to human psychology”. But if philosophers of biology are not skeptical of the fundamental idea behind the project, as Buller's quote indicates, what are they so critical of? What is at stake are differing views about how to best characterize evolution and hence how to generate evolutionary hypotheses and how to test evolutionary hypotheses. For evolutionary psychologists, the most interesting contribution that evolutionary theory makes is the explanation of apparent design in nature or the explanation of the production of complex organs by appeal to natural selection. Evolutionary psychologists generate evolutionary hypotheses by first finding apparent design in the world, say in our psychological make up, and then presenting a selective scenario that would have led to the production of the trait that exhibits apparent design. The hypotheses evolutionary psychologists generate, given that they are usually hypotheses about our psychological capacities, are tested by standard psychological methods. Philosophers of biology challenge evolutionary psychologists on both of these points..."

  3. I understand that there might not be a lot (or even any) good work out there on evolutionary psychology, but how could it not be the case that evolution has played a large role in creating the psychological make-up of humans?

    Of course, recognizing that evolution must play some role in understanding our psychology, and actually understanding that role are quite different things.

  4. Yes, again, the critics are all on board with this "fundamental idea". What they consider bankrupt is the particular research paradigm which goes under the name 'Evolutionary Psychology' (with its extreme adaptationism, 'just so' stories, assumption of massive modularity, etc.)

  5. Hi Richard - would be very interested if you'd got any more specific thoughts on this - or links, book reccommendations, something of that sort. Basically I'm working on a fiction project at the moment which involves a lot of pyschology issues (and various philosophical problems it generates), but most of the more popular stuff I've been reading, Steven Pinker and the like, definitely seem to buy into massive modularity in a big way. I didn't realise it was quite that contraversial. Any help or advice would be greatly appreciated

  6. I don't know much about the issue myself, but the SEP seems like a good place to start (it includes further references).

  7. Okay, thanks - I'll certainly do some googling and the like - from your posts I got the impression that you'd already seen evidence that the whole thing was rubbish, which was rather worrying!

  8. The worrisome thing about claims of consensus is that sometimes they're made carelessly, without much attention paid to dissenters. Potentially, there's a vicious cycle where the only people who count are the ones who are being discussed, and the only people who are discussed are those who are judged to count.

    A more serious worry about this article is it uses the idea of capital-letter evolutionary psychology as an excuse to ignore nuance in the work of its proponents. I read Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works over winter break, and found it much more nuanced than you'd expect from popular discussions evolutionary psychology. An encyclopedia article like this should focus on the best available stuff, not focusing on dissing the bad stuff.

  9. "A more serious worry about this article is it uses the idea of capital-letter evolutionary psychology as an excuse to ignore nuance in the work of its proponents."

    Where does it do this?

  10. This entry focuses on the specific approach to evolutionary psychology that is conventionally named by the capitalized phrase "Evolutionary Psychology".... This research tradition is the focus here but lower case is used throughout as no other types of evolutionary psychology are discussed.

    Of course, what I accuse the article of isn't done explicitly. However, nuance is definitely lacking, and such a statement of purpose as the above makes it possible to dismiss more nuanced versions of EP as "not the capital letter version I have in mind".

  11. I can't imagine anyone denying that Pinker is an exemplar of EP. (His book is even included in the SEP article's bibliography.)

    Anyway, I remain curious as to what specific parts of the article you consider lacking in "nuance" or otherwise flawed. (An encyclopedia article is subject to space constraints, of course, so cannot cover every detail. But, on a quick skim, I couldn't discern any straw-manning or other inappropriate elements?)

  12. Yes I read it.

    I consider an encyclopedia to have a special place. I expect it (possibly higher expectations than they achieve of course) would not state an opinion and then go on to argue it. An entry on evolutionary psychology would not directly ask a question like "is evolutionary psychology flawed" and if it did decide it was flawed it would be making a statement about the fundamental meaning.

    It is welcome to highlight evolutionary psychologists who have used bad evidence etc of course. It might state that such behaviour is common - with any luck backing that up with statistical evidence.

  13. If you read Pinker, there's a lot of comments in his book to the effect of "when I say X, I should not be misunderstood as saying Y." His explication of the computational theory of mind is particularly memorable, but there are are similar comments on nature vs. nurture, how modules are an abstraction and of course things are really happening at the level of genes, and I think on adaptationism (on adaptationism I may be mixing up what I've read in Pinker and what I've read in Dawkins, but in any case it's pretty clear to me that the accusations of hyper-adaptationism are based on a straw-man.) These distinctions are ignored in the SEP.

  14. Well, without knowing what 'X' and 'Y' are, and comparing them with the discussion given in the SEP, I'm not really in a position to assess any of that. So I guess you're asking us to take your word for it. Absent more specific evidence, I'm more inclined to defer to the SEP as an authority here.

  15. Genius - I'm not sure it's accurate to suggest that what the article does is "state an opinion and then go on to argue it." Rather, it seems to me that it reports the dominant expert opinion, and then goes on to give a summary of the dispute as found in the literature. This seems to be entirely appropriate for an encyclopedia article.

    Out of curiosity: do you think that an encyclopedia entry on Intelligent Design should neglect to mention or explain the scientific consensus against it?

  16. Intelligent design is a much more severe example because it is fundamentally flawed. evolutionary psychology just has practitioners following bad methodology.

    However, regardless, I think the encyclopedia should let the facts speak for themselves.

    start out with "intelligent design is....." then "critics say...." etc...

    besides the topic, I would have thought, was "evolutionary psychology" not "evolutionary psychologists average methodology".


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