flewellyn: (Default)
[personal profile] flewellyn
Just thinking to myself tonight about how to boil down my problems with evolutionary psychology. It could have been a promising field! Really! It's just...as it is, it produces massive amounts of USDA Prime Grade bullshit.

Here, I think, is the chain of logic, boiled down to essentials:
  1. Human brains evolved. (Right! We know that.)
  2. Human psychology is a product of human neurology. (Makes sense.)
  3. Therefor, human psychology must have evolved in concert with our neurology. (Okay so far...)
  4. In evolution, traits which are adaptive (or neutral) tend to survive, while traits which are maladaptive tend not to survive. (Again, not controversial.)
  5. Human psychology definitely counts as a trait, if not many. (Fair enough...)

  6. Here's where they go off the deep end...

  7. Therefor, human psychological traits must, on the whole, be adaptive. (Well, hang on a second, all of them? Some might not be neutral or even maladaptive? And what about cultural influence? Hey, are you listening?!)
  8. Therefor, all behaviors that we observe in current human populations MUST have been adaptive traits that carry over from our savanna-dwelling ancestors, and biologically determined! Cultural norms of today are of course adaptive traits, and therefor there's no point in trying to change them! (Wait, WHAT?!)


See, they're doing fine up until that second-to-last step. Nicely reasonable premises that square with well-established science. Then suddenly it's VROOM! Straight over the cliff and into a huge sea of unfalsifiable hypotheses and "just-so" stories, transparently trying to justify current cultural norms as unchangeable biological imperatives. They routinely ignore cultural variation, both between contemporary cultures and within a single culture over time. They also ignore the enormous plasticity of the human brain, especially in childhood, and its ability to adapt itself to many different environmental conditions, on a time scale many orders of magnitude faster than evolution operates. And they tend to show a rather poor understanding of evolution; I am not a biologist, but what I do know on the subject tells me that this "cave-man psychology" thinking is woefully uninformed. I have read essays by actual biologists on the subject who make precisely that charge.

And it's surely a coincidence that the evolutionary psychologists who engage in such speculation are almost exclusively white men, and they spend an awful lot of time trying to justify problematic societal attitudes towards women and minorities, right? Right?

The frustrating thing is, up through step 5, it does sound like an intriguing field of inquiry. It really would be fascinating to learn more about how and why the overarching structure and function of our pscyhes formed, and how that influences our cultural development today. But the way they're doing it now, producing the neuropsychological equivalent of "How the Leopard Got His Spots"? That's not science. That's just pseudoscientific onanism.
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flewellyn

July 2014

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