Sense on evolutionary psychology.

Controversy around Rebecca Watson’s recent talk on pop-psychology and media presentation of evolutionary psychology is probably having a least one positive side effect (see  Sceptical arrogance and evolutionary psychology and Sceptical humility and peer review in science). There’s now more discussion on the Internet about evolutionary psychology and much of that discussion is sensible.

I often find lately I am linking to Jerry Coyne’s website Why Evolution is True. I won’t apologise for that – he does have interesting articles – and I often find myself agreeing with his take on current issues. That’s certainly true with this new article – Is evolutionary psychology worthless? And it’s timely, because Jerry Coyne has sometimes been used as a witness for the prosecution in the current debate. So it’s good to be reminded that, as is often the case, his positions are far more nuanced.

Jerry’s article is not specifically targeting Rebecca’s talk (he had not watched the video when he wrote it), but it is relevant, as a number of the commenters showed.

Jerry says:

“I have gone after the popular distortions of evolutionary psychology that appear in the press or books (e.g., my comments on David Brooks’s New Yorker article “Social animal”—an article subsequently turned into a dreadful book). And I have criticized some evolutionary psychologists for failing to police the speculative excesses of their colleagues. But I’ve never maintained that the entire field is worthless, nor do I think that now. In fact, there’s some good stuff in it, and it’s getting better”

“. . . . I have to admit, though, that as the field has evolved, I’ve become less critical of it as a whole. That is, I think, as it should be!”

“Anyway, those who dismiss evolutionary psychology on the grounds that it’s mere “storytelling” are not aware of how the field operates these days. And, if they are to be consistent, they must also dismiss any studies of the evolutionary basis of animal behavior. Yes, there’s some dirty bathwater in evolutionary psychology, but there’s also a baby in there!”

Love that he used the same baby/bathwater metaphor I did in Sceptical arrogance and evolutionary psychology but more creatively, of course.

Both the article, and the comments, are worth reading in this case.

Paul Bloom and Steven Pinker

bloom-pinker

And here’s a related discussion also worth following. It’s a Blogging Heads programme with a discussion between Paul Bloom and Steven Pinker.

These both can be called evolutionary psychologists and there work is hard pop-psychology. Although, Pinker’s books particularly are quite popular.

There’ some interesting details in the discussion which are very relevant to the current controversy. I particularity take Pinker’s point that the science does not talk about evolution of behaviour – more the evolutionary origins of emotion and instinct underlying behaviour (discussion around 5 min, 30 sec).

Something to look forward for those who enjoy Pinker’s writings – he is currently working on a book which he describes as a “style book” for those communicating science. Sounds like a must read for those of us blogging on science issues.

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Update

PZ Myers has now contributed his first significant article in the current discussion (αEP: The fundamental failure of the evolutionary psychology premise). I have yet to digest it but it appears he is fundamentally agin the field.

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2 responses to “Sense on evolutionary psychology.

  1. Daniel Schealler

    One of the key paragraphs from PZ:

    Now this is not to say that every single researcher and paper in evolutionary psychology sucks. I’ve read a few that were decent (and lately people have sent me some others), but I’ve noticed something interesting: the farther the paper gets away from the “psychology” part, the more it looks at wider variation in populations, the better it is at narrowing the discussion to traits that actually exhibit demonstrable patterns of inheritance, and the farther it moves away from this Pleistocene nonsense, the stronger it is.

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  2. Sure Daniel – but he starts by saying:

    “I have a real problem with evolutionary psychology, and it goes right to the root of the discipline: it’s built on a flawed foundation. It relies on a naïve and simplistic understanding of how evolution works.”

    Can’t help feeling he’s having a bob each way. And his so called “flawed foundation” would also apply to evolutionary biology if the same assumptions were made by the researcher.

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