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.

Date: 2010-08-04 06:06 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] arthur-sc-king.livejournal.com
By George, I think he's got it!

I think for step 6, it might work better as "some human psychological traits may stem from adaptive traits. But we shouldn't assume anything." And I think for step 7, there may be some truth to "some of today's cultural norms may have had their origin in adaptive traits. However, that doesn't mean we should just throw up our hands and just Live With It, especially if said cultural norms suck."

And yes, I think there's a shitload of wonderful knowledge out there that we could know more about, if only the bullshit didn't keep getting in the way.

Date: 2010-08-04 09:35 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] valkyriekaren.livejournal.com
Indeed. I'm especially wary of people who try to derive moral imperatives from evolution. Red in tooth and claw, remember?

Date: 2010-08-04 10:09 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] baka-kit.livejournal.com
"Pseudoscientific onanism," I love it!

Date: 2010-08-04 07:13 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] pixxelpuss.livejournal.com
WOOT. Good post.

The thing is that because we evolved these big old brains and the capacity to think on this wonderfully high level, we're now evolving on a memetic level as well as a genetic level (just WAY faster memetically). And memetically, there's a trend towards social justice. So evo psych hacks who want to rationalize injustice are functionally short-sighted when they disregard individual differences, cultural differences, and memetic evolution. They want to suggest that the only important evolutionary steps are those that occurred millions of years ago, totally failing to account for the more recent, and often more relevant, changes.

Date: 2010-08-04 07:46 pm (UTC)

Date: 2010-08-05 04:29 pm (UTC)

Date: 2010-08-10 03:26 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] happiestsadist.livejournal.com
You know, it's posts like this that make me wanna lick your brain.

Date: 2010-08-10 04:19 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] flewellyn.livejournal.com
I wonder if it tastes like chicken?

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