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    Evolutionary Psychology – The Good, The Bad Or The Ugly?
    By Emmanuelle Savigny | January 9th 2010 08:19 AM | 17 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Emmanuelle

    Like most people on this website I have a passion for science. Unlike most people here I am unfortunately not investing this passion in my work...

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    As a young woman from France working as a civil servant in Liverpool in 1999, I once stumbled upon a book in a discount book shop, which was going to change the way I would look upon things. The book was called “Baby Wars: The Dynamics of Family Conflict” by Robin Baker and Elizabeth Oram. As its title doesn’t necessarily imply, it discussed the genesis of today's family dynamics from the standpoint of evolutionary biology. It was hardly a science classic, but coming myself from a relatively uninteresting degree of applied chemistry, and having never thought of human behavior  as being products of our  evolution before, that came as a complete revolution to my mind.



     I never had the chance to go through that book again since, as I lent it to someone and never got it back (if you are that person, I would appreciate you getting in touch with me). But that very book opened a door in front of me, through which I could explore in mind the WHYs of us, humans, being around, doing whatever it is we do, in the way that we do.



    From then on I looked for more and more books on the subject and discovered the sciences of evolution, evolutionary biology and mostly evolutionary psychology, which attempts to explain psychological traits, suche as memory, perception and language, as adaptations, that is, as the functional products of natural or sexual selection. When I discovered that an Masters degree  in evolutionary psychology was taught by Robin Dunbar, Louise Barret and John Lycett, a few miles away from my workplace, I changed my working hours in order to free one day a week to go to university.  But the story ended when I fell in love with a French man and decided to go back to France, change career (to become a primary school teacher) and give up my MSc halfway through. So much for the intellectual liberation of woman through marriage… But that’s another story.

    In France, the subject of evolutionary psychology seemed to be unknown. I wasn’t even sure how to translate it, using at first the wrong term. And I was forced to face the lack of interest I got from fellow French people whenever I tried to explain what it was all about.  So I gave up trying to make anyone interested in it and finally gave up even thinking about it.

    A few years later, after the birth of my daughter, I slowly got back into books and magazines about human nature and origins, and evolutionary sciences In general. I decided to find out what was happening on the subject of my old friend evolutionary psychology in the land of smelly cheese, as this was where I was going to be for a while.  I met Patrick Tort, director of the “Institut Charles Darwin international” and author of many books about Darwinian theory, and I was surprised at his face when I mentioned evolutionary psychology to him. He had very little time for it, and I got the impression that he was far too busy defending, translating and understanding Darwin’s actual writings to be wasting time on this kind of rubbish.  



    I was forced to admit that Evolutionary psychology (EP) was considered as a low-rank discipline by my fellow countrymen. Psychologists don’t want to hear about it because it’s no use to their everyday practice and would even tend to go against their theoretical background.  France has a history of great thinkers in the field of humanities, whose followers were at one stage in history strongly discouraged to follow any evolutionary approaches after some of Darwin’s ideas were misused and transposed in a social context. As for French researchers in evolutionary sciences, or anthropologists, they seem to have no real concern in it either (there is no research program in that field in France). 



    It turns out, as you might not be surprise to hear, that EP meets a lot of skepticism in other countries’ scientists as well.  But why would that be?  What could be so wrong with evolutionary psychology?



    The main flaw of this discipline, it seems, is the lack of hard evidence, as the mind and precise behavior of our ancestors has not left much proof for us to build upon. In one word, evolutionary psychology is for many nothing but speculation, to put side to side with science fiction or historical novels. Methodologically, it seems to go the wrong way round for many scientists: instead of experiencing to prove or disprove a theoretical stand, ending up with evidence, it starts off by a strongly set theoretical stand, trying to get the evidence to fit around it by speculation.  Evolutionary biology can have the same problem with proof. Gould had the good idea to remind us that noses were not made to carry glasses, and current utility cannot be assimilated with reason for origin. The short front legs of the tyrannosaurus can’t have been very useful for much. A non-adaptive hypothesis is that it could just have been a developmental correlate of allometric fields for relative increase in head and hind limb size. Even consistent adaptive explanations aren’t necessarily the ultimate explanations (especially when there are more than one solution to an adaptive problem in nature), but this is not often tested.  There are too many constraints on evolution for each aspect to be adaptive:  Phyletic constraints (you have to take into account the organism a species evolved from), for example humans are not optimally designed for upright posture) and developmental constraints (the early stages of ontogeny are remarkably refractory to evolutionary changes). So it’s already difficult enough to prove possible adaptations in the body, never mind trying to prove anything about the possible adaptations of the human mind and behavior due to evolutionary forces such as natural or sexual selection.  



    So as Marshall Sahlins puts it, “adaptive explanations of behaviors are always fitted around the final conclusion that is preferred.” A little bit like reading your horoscope and trying to find (usually successfully) how your actual day fits in with whatever was planned for all Pisces on that day. So where does that leave me and my affection for evolutionary psychology? Ok so I admit that I find some of the theories EP has found to explain things rather pleasing, or tingling, if not entirely satisfying on a purely precise and scientific basis. Speculation is not science.  But at the end of the day I believe that speculation can be a stimulating engine for science, offering possible solutions, which does not mean stating that’s how it definitely was. It can help to envisage solutions to unanswered questions, to which we might find ways in the future to measure up to the sanction of proof… until another new element shakes everything up again. 



    So evolutionary psychology seems to be standing at the crossroad between the fields of humanities and science, a very uncomfortable place where doors are very hard to open. But a place worth standing for, I believe. Let’s hope that the European Human Behaviour&Evolution Association, created in 2008, which “encourages rigorous science”, “irrespective of the disciplinary background or theoretical persuasion of the participants” helps evolutionary psychology to find its place within the European scientific arena. In any case it “acknowledges that weak evolutionary science, and undisciplined or untested story-telling can be counterproductive to the field” but that the “strongest evolutionary accounts of human behaviour will come from integrating insights and exploiting the full panoply of methods derived from  evolutionary psychology, human behavioural ecology, cultural evolution, and other evolutionary approaches ». All I can wish for them is good luck!<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" /?>

    Comments

    Gerhard Adam
    I also think that part of the problem is that evolutionary psychology is taking one of the most complex topics (human psychological evolution) and ignoring the rest.  It seems that exploring the psychology of other organisms is a crucial first step in establishing what adaptations may exist among animals.  From here, it becomes more reasonable to extrapolate where humans may have diverged.

    Even something as fundamental as defining what psychology should be looking for hasn't really been done.  It's easy to simply consider human mental processes, but is that really all there is?  When bacteria socialize, what does that represent from a behavioral perspective?  Clearly there are no "minds" involved, which raises the question of whether a mind is necessary in such discussions.

    In a nutshell, I think that any attempt to study the evolution of psychology must take into account all the permutations that exist in biology and not begin by focusing on humans.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Steve Davis
    What could be so wrong with evolutionary psychology?
    I think the answer to that Emmanuelle, is that evolutionary psychology is derived directly from selfish gene theory, which was itself a particular world-view. Selfish gene theory was based on incorrect assumptions, so your colleagues are right to be sceptical. Marshall Sahlins' view that you quote seems very realistic to me.
    Emmanuelle, being French like you are, and having lived for the last 30 years abroad, i often asked myself the same question about the common reaction in our country to subjects such as Evolutionary Psychology. i am not a scientist and i have not studied this point in depth, but it seems to me that one of the "mortal sins" of EP for everybody in France is that it does away with economy and politics as the primary shaping forces of all human phenomena. A purely scientific explanation (right or wrong) is bound to rub people the wrong way, because no explanation can be only scientific, 150 years of marxist dialectic have seen to that. In the anglo-saxon countries where i lived, this view was certainly prevalent in universities, but not outside of them. My frequent Skype discussions with my friends in France involve usually the same disagreements: everything for them boils down to "economic" reasons, while i tend to stray from these unbending views frequently. This certainly does not make my friends wrong, but every time we talk about EP, it sure results in lively calls—merci pour l'article!

    Gerhard Adam
    Evolutionary psychology has the potential to explore the possible ways in which biological mental processes have been established and how they've changed.  Any attempt to use this to explain WHY we do things, isn't scientific and falls into a silly kind of reductionism.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Steve Davis
    A purely scientific explanation (right or wrong) is bound to rub people the wrong way, because no explanation can be only scientific, 150 years of marxist dialectic have seen to that.
    That's probably a good point, but I hope you're not suggesting that EP is a purely scientific explanation. Being derived from selfish gene theory, it's been heavily influenced by a narrow socio-political view.
    "Selfish gene theory was based on incorrect assumptions"

    No, it was not. You have no idea what you are talking about. I'm quite sure you have never read, for instance, the book "The Selfish Gene".

    Skeptics on the subject of evolutionary psychology are also about 30 years out of date. I recommend reading Pinker's "The Blank Slate" (and all of his other books as well).

    Marxist dialectic may have dominated for well over a century, but it stopped doing so quite some time back. The elderly don't tend to notice such things. Try to keep up.

    Gerhard Adam
    "Selfish gene theory was based on incorrect assumptions"

    No, it was not. You have no idea what you are talking about. I'm quite sure you have never read, for instance, the book "The Selfish Gene".
    There are numerous bad assumptions in this idea, not the least of which is the poor choice in using the word "selfish".
    Mundus vult decipi
    What about reading some critic reviews of the work of Pinker and similar theorists?

    Steve Davis
    You say selfish gene theory is not based on incorrect assumptions? Here's one for you from The Selfish Gene. Dawkins stated that the thing that is so special about genes is that they are replicators. They are not. They are replicated. All gene functions are controlled by the cell. As incorrect assumptions go, that's a whopper.
    And I think you need to differentiate between Marxist dialectic and Marxism. 
    First off, i want to quickly address the main contention with EP that Ms. Savigny brings up in this article:

    "instead of experiencing to prove or disprove a theoretical stand, ending up with evidence, it [EP] starts off by a strongly set theoretical stand, trying to get the evidence to fit around it by speculation."

    This is not the case with good EP research. Evolutionary psychology research does indeed work in the proper direction. For example, when discussing, say, kin selection, evolutionary psychologists don't just start with an assumption that treating your family members differently than strangers is an adaptation, they start with the FACTS that all humans (as a researcher, i must count 99% as "all", as any researcher does) treat their family differently than strangers, and when related to sacrifice, this treatment is shown to be one of privilege; that is, people generally sacrifice more for their own family than for strangers.

    These are experimentally observed FACTS (gleaned through survey, neurophysiological, and case-study methods, to name a few) that are then dissected using evolutionary theory, WITH attention to the possibility that selective kin treatment could be a "byproduct" of human psychological evolution and not an adaptation (though that is highly unlikely given the data). So if the only "strongly set theoretical stand" that evolutionary psychologists come to the table with is merely believing in evolutionary theory (the binding theory of ALL biological science), what the hell is wrong with that?? (unless you're a creationist, but then you're probably on the wrong website). To argue that human behavior is not subject to a similar set of evolutionary pressures and principles as morphology is extremely logically flawed.

    In reply to Mr. Davis, one of your statements above appears to completely miss the point:
    "All gene functions are controlled by the cell"

    Every single protein that makes up the cell is encoded in its DNA...The cell would not EXIST if this were not true. Continuing with this logic, while parts of the "cell" may regulate translation and transcription of the DNA in its nucleus, this is done using PROTEINS that are coded for IN THAT SAME NUCLEUS! GENES ARE REPLICATED INDEED, AND THEY ARE REPLICATED BECAUSE THEY CODE FOR THEIR OWN REPLICATION! SO -> THEY'RE REPLICATORS!!! if they were not they would not exist today and neither would the cells that house them (nor would all life on earth, for that matter). You must revise your understanding of genetics before you judge the Selfish Gene theory...it really is the only game in town to any self-respecting biologist working in this day and age.

    Nice piece Emmanuelle. Please check out my website, http://thebeautifulbrain.com !!!!!!!

    -Sam

    Gerhard Adam
    ...it really is the only game in town to any self-respecting biologist working in this day and age.
    Not by a long shot.  The simple fact is that genes are not the only means by which heritable traits are passed. 
    Every single protein that makes up the cell is encoded in its DNA...The cell would not EXIST if this were not true.
    That's a bit of an overstatement, since there are many aspects of genetic control that are hard to distinguish between origin at the parent versus the offspring.  For example, cell membranes can't be contructed without a pre-existing membrane template, so you cannot argue that the gene expresses a cell membrane in the offspring.  Similarly, the parents attach the methyl groups to DNA which block expression of certain genes throughout the offspring's life.  It is hard to argue that this is in any way "replication", or that the gene-centric view is "the only game in town".
    ...they start with the FACTS that all humans (as a researcher, i must
    count 99% as "all", as any researcher does) treat their family
    differently than strangers, and when related to sacrifice, this
    treatment is shown to be one of privilege; that is, people generally
    sacrifice more for their own family than for strangers.
    What "facts" would those be?  Since the human male cannot determine his offspring without a DNA test, how does he determine how to treat "family" members, except by proximity?  Since babies have been switched at hospitals before, then it is clear that even the female can't identify her genetically related offspring.  How do people treat adopted children or step-children?  While they are certainly not strangers, they are equally not "kin" except in the psychological sense, so to argue genetics here is completely incorrect.  So, what is the basis for establishing "privilege" and what does the word "family" mean in this context?

    The most obvious problem, which is never explained, is the "privilege" granted to a spouse, since there is no genetic relatedness at all.  It cannot be argued that there is any genetic advantage, beyond utilitarian, in devoting any energy in helping a spouse.

    If your statement had been confined to a hierarchy of social groups, then it would make sense, since anyone outside that circle would be considered a stranger, while those inside each grouping would be afforded varying degrees of cooperation based on the relationship between members.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Hey Gerhard -

    Thanks for responding. One of my favorite things about blogs is getting to have dialogue like this.

    First, if genes "are not the only means by which heritable traits are passed," what's the alternative? I understand your reference to lipid membranes and parent-derived methyl groups, but i don't see how those could be cited as a negation of the idea that genes are the materials that code for every other heritable phenotypic aspects of organisms? Its the lack of convincing answers to this question that prompts the "only game in town" idea.

    Secondly, I partially defer to the following article in nature to respond to you contention about non-family members (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v445/n7129/full/nature05510.html), which shows how we do have some natural psychological mechanisms for kin detection. And I certainly agree with you that we do not conduct DNA tests in nature, and thus rely on things like proximity...and that's what an evolutionary psychologist would say too! An evolved mechanism that distinguishes who is close (in proximity) to you since childhood will probably "get it right" that they're your relatives most every time, but would certainly fail to be a perfect system in light of adoption or step-children/siblings (the system overgeneralizes). But (good) adaptationists don't argue for perfection...they just argue that certain behavioral programs exist because of evolutionary pressures in our history, and these behaviors surely manifest themselves in weird ways in the present, when faced with the existence of things like adoption agencies. And paternal uncertainty, which you bring up here, is a very real phenomenon and has many effects on the behavior of males (look up "infanticide in baboons" for some very interesting findings).

    I use "privilege" to refer treating your supposed kin differently than supposed strangers (and yes, one can be wrong about who's who) and "family" to refer to those who you are naturally inclined to regard as kin.

    Gerhard Adam
    An evolved mechanism that distinguishes who is close (in proximity) to you since childhood will probably "get it right" that they're your relatives most every time, but would certainly fail to be a perfect system in light of adoption or step-children/siblings (the system overgeneralizes). But (good) adaptationists don't argue for perfection.
    I would agree with you regarding the evolutionary perspective and advantage.  Where the problem comes in is when this is used to bolster "kin selection" as a basis for arguing that "genes" are then passed preferentially into future generations.  The fundamental problem is that if you cannot recognize genetic kin, then the entire premise of gene propagation is simply left to chance.  That's not a realistic interpretation of natural selection.  Chance is what you get with the null hypothesis, so no "kin" are necessary if that's how it works.
    I understand your reference to lipid membranes and parent-derived methyl groups, but i don't see how those could be cited as a negation of the idea that genes are the materials that code for every other heritable phenotypic aspects of organisms?
    The problem with the gene-centric view is that the definition of what constitutes a reliable replicator doesn't exist.  Genes may or may not be expressed, they may not have a visible influence that they could be selected for, etc.  In fact, a recent article about the sea slug which "steals" the gene to produce chloropyll from algae is a perfect example.  The gene is not part of the sea slug's genotype, and yet it can be passed on to its offspring.  Although they must still consume enough of the algae to acquire the necessary chloroplasts to take advantage of this acquired trait.

    In any case, the problem is that there are some tiny set of genes passed only through the mitochondria, and we've already considered how some genes are "turned on or off" which seriously throws into question how they can be selected for.

    I think part of the problem, is that we are so fond of our computer analogies, that it is tempting to view DNA as instructions and genes as little programs.  It has a certain appeal that makes everyone gravitate to this as a logical explanation.

    However, I would argue that the expression of genes is nothing like a computer program, but rather it is more like a recipe.  One can envision making a cake and following the instructions, but regardless of how carefully one does it there will always be some variation.  Similarly there could be errors introduced (good or bad) which would result in our "mutant" cake.  The survival of that recipe would be based on how good or bad the cake turned out to be.  In effect, it isn't that one instruction (i.e. stir the batter) is somehow more deserving to be passed on than  "add sugar".  It is all of them in concert that produce the result and it is their combined success that determines whether they will be selected to make future cakes.

    Interestingly, while the gene-centric view was introduced to counter a naive group selection hypothesis, it may turn out that the genes actually represent one of the best examples of group selection.  In other words, it is only the group that can succeed or fail, and that to parse out individual genes is simply naive reductionism.

    It seems from your web-site that you're also involved in music.  Consider this loose analogy.  Imagine each note as a molecule, with collections of them representing genes that make up a musical passage and that all those passages together make up the song the band is playing.  Can you identify which note or passage is the most important and has a probability of being selected in the future?
    Mundus vult decipi
    Steve Davis
    Nicely argued Gerhard.
    Sam you that THEY ARE REPLICATED BECAUSE THEY CODE FOR THEIR OWN REPLICATION! SO -> THEY'RE REPLICATORS!!!
    But that's not true, is it? They are replicated if and when the cell needs them replicated to continue its particular form of life. You've fallen into the error of all selfish gene theorists by attributing to genes a greater significane in evolution than exists in reality. The implied message in your explanation is that individual genes are in control, in fact, that they are alive. They are not. The cell (or group of cooperating genes) is the base form of life, and to introduce genes into a discussion of evolution, other than as background information, shows a lack of understanding of the issues, for genes are below the level of natural selection. Changes in gene frequencies, survival of particular genes and so on, are outcomes of natural selection, not the cause.
    Amazon (U.S.site) lists new copies of Baker & Oram's book
    under $5; used copies start at 74 cents.

    Steve, it's hard to take you seriously because you don't even know what selfish gene theory is. You got your data most likely from secondary sources, because everything you say reeks of morally-biased strawmanism.

    And Gerhard - the cake analogy sounds familiar; here's an excerpt to read:

    "Lewontin, Rose, and Kamin try to educate their readers on how living things really work according to their
    alternative to reductionism, which they call “dialectical biology":

    "Think, for example, of the baking of a cake: the taste of the product is the result of a complex
    interaction of components — such as butter, sugar, and flour — exposed for various periods to elevated
    temperatures; it is not dissociable into such-or-such a percent of flour, such-or-such of butter, etc.,
    although each and every component... has its contribution to make to the final product."

    Dawkins:
    "When put like that, this dialectical biology seems to make a lot of sense. Perhaps even / can be a
    dialectical biologist. Come to think of it, isn't there something familiar about that cake? Yes, here it is,
    in a 1981 publication by the most reductionist of sociobiologists:
    “... If we follow a particular recipe, word for word, in a cookery book, what finally emerges from the
    oven is a cake. We cannot now break the cake into its component crumbs and say: this crumb
    corresponds to the first word in the recipe; this crumb corresponds to the second word in the recipe,
    etc. With minor exceptions such as the cherry on top, there is no one-to-one mapping from words of
    recipe to ‘bits’ of cake. The whole recipe maps onto the whole cake.”

    I am not, of course, interested in claiming priority for the cake.... But what I do hope is that this little
    coincidence may at least give Rose and Lewontin pause. Could it be that their targets are not quite the
    naïvely atomistic reductionists they would desperately like them to be?"

    Indeed, the accusation of reductionism is topsy-turvy because Lewontin and Rose, in their own research, are cardcarrying reductionist biologists who {114} explain phenomena at the level of genes and molecules. Dawkins, in
    contrast, was trained as an ethologist and writes about the behavior of animals in their natural habitat. Wilson, for his part, is a pioneer of research in ecology and a passionate defender of the endangered field that molecular biologists dismissively refer to as “birdsy-woodsy” biology.
    All else having failed, Lewontin, Rose, and Kamin finally pinned a damning quotation on Dawkins: “They [the
    genes] control us, body and mind.”30 That does sound pretty deterministic. But what the man wrote was, “They
    created us, body and mind,” which is very different. Lewontin has used the doctored quotation in five different
    places."

    Steve Davis
    Jason, I suggest that you read Dawkins again. Gerhard's phrase "naive reductionism" sums up the selfish gene hypothesis nicely.