Tag Archives: evolutionary psychology

Scientists and philosophers discuss morality and meaning

I am working my way through the videos of the discussions at the Moving Naturalism Forward Workshop (see At last – Moving Naturalism Forward videos). I really appreciate these philosophical and scientific discussions because they aren’t weighed down, or diverted, by  theistic and supernaturalist philosophy.

As Daniel Dennett said in the introductions, what he really like about the workshop was not only the people participating, but also that certain philosophers were not participating.

Here’s the discussion on morality. I don’t think they covered everything they could have but what they did cover was interesting. It’s also a pity that Patricia Churchland had to withdraw from the Workshop – her contribution to this discussion would have been very helpful. I would have also like contribution from a good evolutionary psychologist.

Morality

The next discussion on meaning was also very wide-ranging and often insightful. I liked Owen Flanagan‘s description of Aristotle’s approach. When asked how he could prepare a suitably complete obituary for someone who had just died he said that one could gather all the information available but it would still not be enough. To really pass judgement on a person’s life you have to wait to see how the grandchildren turn out.

Meaning

Similar articles

Advertisements

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.

Similar articles

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.

Sceptical humility and peer review in science

This follows on from my recent post about Rebecca Watson’s condemnation of evolutionary psychology (see Sceptical arrogance and evolutionary psychology). Rebecca has now delivered this lecture several times New Zealand. None of them local so I couldn’t personally check if she had taken criticism on board. However, she was interviewed this morning on Kim Hill’s Saturday Morning (here’s the mp3 link).

She has not withdrawn her overall criticism of evolutionary psychology. She makes clear in her interview that this, as well as pop psychology in the media, are her targets (I’ll come back to that below). In fact, I think she makes her position even more untenable by providing a very naive description of peer review in science.

I wish sceptics when they defend science would describe it more realistically. It doesn’t help when they describe a utopian version which doesn’t exist in reality.

What is peer review?

This is an important social process in science where scientists’ ideas, conference presentations, and publications are reviewed by others in their field. Their peers. This helps reduce, maybe even eliminate, the influence of biases and pet, but unsubstantiated, theories held by the author. I have pointed out before that we are all prone to such cognitive biases – it’s part of being human. And having a Ph. D. doesn’t eliminate this human foible.

Scientists are human. And individually it’s hard to escape from our biases. The social nature of science helps to reduce their effect. Hence the importance of peer review.

But I must stress, such review doesn’t just operate at the time of a paper’s publication as Rebecca asserted in the interview. And it’s not just carried out under the watch of the scientific journal. Peer review occurs at all stages.

Peer review is occurring when hypotheses and ideas are being floated with colleagues. In more formal settings like departmental seminars, ideas are presented and exposed to criticism and improvement. Effectively conferences do the same thing to presentations. But often preparation of a conference presentation will have been reviewed by institutional colleagues – formally and informally. (Many groups will even have practice “dry runs” where the scientific content may be considered by colleagues as well as the details of the presentation, speech and visual aids).

Now, getting around to publications (the only area Rebecca included in her naive description). Good scientific institutes will have procedures which ensure formal internal review well before the paper is sent to the journal. And good journals will also have formal procedures to ensure quality and scientific standards in what they accept. Philosopher Masimmo Pigliucci provided a details of the procedure he uses as a journal editor in one of his Rationally Speaking podcasts (see 57: Peer Review). If you aren’t familiar with the process it’s worth listening to. Often such review will involve three anonymous referees, with the requirement that authors respond to questions and recommendations and final decisions on acceptance are made by an editor.

But wait, that’s not all.

The scientific peer review has barely started. Once published the research and conclusions are exposed to a far greater audience of peers. There’s plenty of opportunity for acceptance or rejection by peers. Often journals well accept “Letters to the Editor” types of response. Other scientists will condemn or support those conclusions when they write discussions in their own publications. There is scope for independent people to repeat the work, or usually something similar rather than exactly the same, and publish different conclusions.

Science is dynamic – our knowledge improves all the time. Publications are not sacred – they are easily and often superseded. (And there is scope for withdrawal of published papers when mistakes or scientific fraud are found).

It’s a mistake to think a published paper is the final authoritative stamp of approval on scientific ideas. It isn’t. And that’s the mistake Rebecca makes in her naive reference to the concept of peer review in science.

Rebecca presented an idealistic version of peer review where all mistakes, particularly scientific one, are detected during prepublication review of a paper. She says such mistakes should never make it into the published version. Yet, she says, this is happening in evolutionary psychology and she gives specific example where she critiques research findings and not just media coverage.

Well, guess what Rebecca. Such mistakes are probably made to some degree in all scientific fields. We are human after all. Mistakes do get into published papers (one of mine has my own name spelt wrong – five times). And all publishing scientists are well aware that some journals have much lower standards than others. We have probably all had a paper accepted without any feedback or criticisms from reviewers. Maybe even just on the decision of the editor. I certainly downgrade my impression of the journal when it happens to me.

Those shonky studies

Personally, it think peer review during publication may be a particular problem in the “soft sciences.” At least, I have been surprised to see some ideas presented in this area without supporting evidence, or obviously selected references. Perhaps these weaker standards are inevitable in some areas. Perhaps this allows more scope for intrusion of “political correctness” and popular ideological positions. Or perhaps authors feel less need to justify ideas if they are consistent with the prevailing ideologies in their field or institutes. Maybe the ideological issues in these areas are just too harsh to handle objectively. I imagine this might be true for feminism in the US and race relations in New Zealand.

I am sure Rebecca can find evolutionary psychology research journals where the quality of review is poor or ideologically compromised. But I am sure she could also find, if she looked, journals and publications where the standard of peer review is much higher. Perhaps her interest in feminist ideology and preoccupation with sex-related research has soured her overall view. I wouldn’t like to make that judgement. But soured it is.

Evolutionary psychology is being targeted

Some US bloggers have defended Rebecca on this issue by claiming her criticisms were only of pop psychology and media presentation. They refuse to acknowledge her inclusion of the whole field of evolutionary psychology in her attacks. Or else they excuse it. Maybe that is just the humane propensity to defensiveness coming out. Those sceptics may just be guilty of motivated reasoning (I referred to this in Sceptical arrogance and evolutionary psychology). For their sake I include this slide from Rebecca’s talk where she specifically describes her version of evolutionary psychology and critiques it.

Evol-Psych

I understand evolutionary psychology in broad terms as the application of an evolutionary perspective to human and animal psychology. This doesn’t need that researchers assume that human evolution stopped in the Pleistocene – or any of the other bullet points she has.

Rebecca has set up a straw man version of evolutionary psychology. Maybe that’s because of limitations in her reading or understanding. Maybe just because of her preoccupation with feminism and gender issues. But a straw man nevertheless.

Peer review for Rebecca

Rebecca Watson would have benefited immensely from some peer review herself before finalising her presentation. And all is not lost. Her presentation is getting peer review now. Yes, some of it will be rubbish which she should ignore. But there are some excellent comments being made she would be wise to take on board.

See also:
Science denialism at a skeptic conference
Science Denialism? The Role of Criticism
Oh gob, evo psych again?
Evolving skeptic psychology
Responsible Reading
Responsible Writing
FTB Blogger Stephanie Zvan Makes A Small Mistake
Let’s Confirm Negative Stereotypes About Women
αEP: Shut up and sing!
Do You Need To Be An Expert To Criticize Science?

Similar articles

Christmas gift ideas: Evolution of gods, morals and violence

Books are ideal Christmas presents. And as I am spending some time dealing with family business I thought reposting some of my past book reviews over the next few days could be useful am repeating some of my past book reviews.

This is an excellent book for anyone interested in a scientific understanding of morality and religion and their evolution.


Book review: In the Name of God: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Ethics and Violence by John Teehan.

Price: US$16.47; NZ$39.97

Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell (May 3, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1405183810
ISBN-13: 978-1405183819

In the Name of God is an excellent popular presentation of the scientific understanding of the origins of religion and morality. It also examines the origins of religious violence and opens a discussion on the way humanity may reduce these problems.

Some people will find it controversial. But not because some trends in evolutionary psychology have discredited themselves with extravagant claims. In this case the controversy will be because, as Teehan puts it, “this view of human nature – the very idea that there might be a human nature – smacks up against some strongly held political, moral, religious, and ideological positions.”

However, the time is right. “It is only within the last few decades that we have developed the tools that can give us a fair chance of setting out a scientific account of religious origins. In fact, I believe we are living in the midst of perhaps the greatest period of intellectual discovery in the history of religious studies.” One could say the same about the scientific study of human morality.

Continue reading

Evolutionary cooperation

Kropotkin wrote about evolutionary cooperation*

Here’s a lecture on evolutionary cooperation by PZ Myers. Ok, it’s pretty long, but it’s worth downloading and watching (or even listening as the video doesn’t catch most of the slides).

Click on World Humanist Congress 2011 08/13/11 07:32AM.

Cooperation as an important component of evolution is often ignored while competition is stressed. Creationists will purposely ignore cooperation. Yet cooperation and conflict are really two sides of the same coin.

Myers illustrates his talk with examples of cooperation from nature and stresses the important evolutionary leaps made possible by cooperation. But he goes on to show that cooperation is also natural for humans.

PZ presented this talk at the 2011 World Humanist Congress in Oslo, Norway last August. Human cooperation, world peace and conflict prevention were important themes at the congress. The programme looks interesting, including sessions on:

  • The role of supra-national organizations
  • Lifestance and peace
  • Our emotional life and the role of ceremonies
  • Bit by bit and Peace by Piece

While Myers doesn’t deal in any detail with strategies for cooperation in modern human society and internationally it looks like some of the other presenters did. I will have to download more videos.


*See, for example:
Mutual Aid; a factor of evolution
Evolution and Environment (Collected Works of Peter Kropotkin)
Kropotkin: ‘The Conquest of Bread’ and Other Writings (Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought)

Similar articles

Human Evolution and the Organ of Mind

Book Review: The Lives of the Brain: Human Evolution and the Organ of Mind by John S. Allen


Price: US$32.04; NZ$79.97
Hardcover: 352 pages
Publisher:
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (October 30, 2009)
Language:
English
ISBN-10:
0674035348
ISBN-13:
978-0674035348

Dr Jaak Panksepp in Episode 65 of the Brain science Podcast commented “In order to understand the mind—especially the emotional mind, there’s no alternative but to take an evolutionary perspective. The only organ we have in the body that is clearly evolutionarily layered is the brain.” I guess we could also say that an evolutionary perspective makes it easier to understand the brain itself. And this is the perspective taken by John S. Allen in this book. As he says: “a thorough understanding of human brain biology requires an appreciation of it evolutionary history.”

However, Allen doesn’t present this evolutionary history as a simple account. Instead he explores evolution of the human brain using recent research in palaeoanthropology,  brain anatomy and neuroimaging, molecular genetics, life history theory, and other related fields. This provides a rewarding resource for the reader. Chapters include, Brain size, The plastic Brain, Molecular evolution of the Brain, Evolution of Feeding Behaviour, The Ageing Brain, Language and Brain evolution, and Optimism and evolution of the Brain.

The result is an extensive and balanced coverage. This provides a picture of the current status of understanding. There is no tidy story; rather he presents competing hypotheses with some evaluation of their standings. Original papers are referenced and there are 45 pages of references included.

This more direct linking to current research and some of the terminology used may provide difficulties for the lay person. However, most readers will find chapters which are closer to their interests. I found some chapters easier to follow than others – purely because of different levels of familiarity with the different fields.

For the student and the professional

The book begins with an outline – The Human Brain in Brief – which is ideal for the newcomer to this field. It’s basically anatomical but provides a foundation for later chapters covering the separate aspects.

So I wouldn’t recommend this book for someone with only a passing interest in the subject. But even the layperson will find this useful if they wish to extend their knowledge in the overall subject or one of the specific fields covered.

I was intrigued to read how evidence for the evolutionary history of our brain is gained from diverse fields. Not just the fossil records, with all the problems it presents for soft tissues, but also molecular biology, feeding behaviour, aging and language. And the evidence is related. Allen says: “The expansion of neuroscience over the last twenty years really has seen the beginnings of the development of a truly holistic, synthetic approach to mental phenomena.” And this approach extends into related fields.

Summarising the subject, Allen says: “The cause for optimism in the study of the evolution of the human brain is not due to the fact that we have obtained a hardened, certain view of the past, but that there are so many fronts on which progress is being made.”

Sounds like an exciting time to be doing this sort of research.

Similar articles

Enhanced by Zemanta

Fallout from Hauser affair spreads

For background to the scientific misconduct charges circulating around Marc D Hauser have a look at A paper by Marc Hauser retracted – Harvard Magazine, A sympathetic take on Marc Hauser and the “scientific misconduct” issue, Hauser misconduct investigation – Full text of Dean’s statement, Marc Hauser replies – acknowledges mistakes and The myth of the noble scientist.

While Hauser’s acknowledgment confirms the eight misconduct charges mentioned by Harvard University’s Dean of the Faculty of Arts Sciences there is concern that the misconduct will taint the rest of Hauser’s work and publications.

It’s probably understandable that full clarity must await the final conclusions of US federal investigative agencies but inevitably there will be speculation. Gerry Altmann, the editor of the journal Cognition, posted a statement on his blog saying that his own review of information provided to him by Harvard has convinced him that fabrication is the most plausible explanation for data in a 2002 Cognition paper. This is the paper that is being retracted. (Two other published papers are being corrected and the other five incidents did not result in publications or were corrected before publication).

Continue reading

Evolution of gods, morals and violence

Book review: In the Name of God: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Ethics and Violence by John Teehan.

Price: US$16.47; NZ$39.97

Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell (May 3, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1405183810
ISBN-13: 978-1405183819

In the Name of God is an excellent popular presentation of the scientific understanding of the origins of religion and morality. It also examines the origins of religious violence and opens a discussion on the way humanity may reduce these problems.

Some people will find it controversial. But not because some trends in evolutionary psychology have discredited themselves with extravagant claims. In this case the controversy will be because, as Teehan puts it, “this view of human nature – the very idea that there might be a human nature – smacks up against some strongly held political, moral, religious, and ideological positions.”

However, the time is right. “It is only within the last few decades that we have developed the tools that can give us a fair chance of setting out a scientific account of religious origins. In fact, I believe we are living in the midst of perhaps the greatest period of intellectual discovery in the history of religious studies.” One could say the same about the scientific study of human morality.

Continue reading

Is and ought

I have been watching some of the videos from the Edge seminar THE NEW SCIENCE OF MORALITY. There will eventually be about 10 hours of talks and discussions posted on the Edge site. From the few presentations I have seen so far this looks to have been a fascinating seminar.

Partly because the science is relatively new – but also because there has been a lot of progress made. However, there are of course areas which promote intense discussion. I get the impression, for example, that several of the participants wish to challenge to dogma that one can’t determine an ought from an is. It’s going to be interesting to see that debate played out.

WEIRD culture and reasoning

Jonathon Haidt

Jonathon Haidt was the first speaker and made some interesting points about the relevance of a science centred largely around specialists from advanced western countries. He is using the acronym WIERD for the orientation around cultures in the Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) societies. This analysis comes from a recent paper The weirdest people in the world ? by J Henrich, SJ Heine and A Norenzayan. Those authors say “we need to be less cavalier in addressing questions of human nature, on the basis of data drawn from this particularly thin and rather unusual slice of humanity.”

Haidt also discusses some fallacies about human reasoning. “The puzzle is, why are humans so amazingly bad at reasoning in some contexts, and so amazingly good in others?” Again he refers to a recent paper by Mercier and Sperber – Why do humans reason ? Arguments for an argumentative theory. This is an interesting paper discussing human problems like confirmation bias, the human problem of search for evidence to support an preconceived conclusion.

Obviously both these problems are very relevant to a seminar like this. Go to the Edge site for a video of Jonothan’s presentation or download and audio file (MP3 Audio Download — Jonathan Haidt Talk).

Sam Harris and a role for science

As Sam Harris was one of the participants the seminar will surely have also discussed his ideas on the role of science in determining right and wrong. He presented these ideas in two recent lectures and they resulted in a lot of discussion, and controversy, on a number of scientific blogs (see Can science answer moral questions? and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UrA-8rTxXf0).

Permalink

Similar articles

Enhanced by Zemanta

Share

The new science of morality

Edge's John Brockman and the nine speakers in the New Science of Morality Seminar

This last week saw the latest Edge Seminar – The New Science of Morality – held in the US. (see Edge: THE NEW SCIENCE OF MORALITY).

This looks fascinating.  Nine leading researchers in the field gave presentations. Short abstracts are on the Edge site together with videos of the presentations. Transcripts of the presentations will be on line soon.

Morality is an area which religion has tried to ring fence, to claim a special role. But, as with anything else the “god did it” approach gets nowhere. Now the field is being actively researched and there is progress.

The nine researchers who gave presentations were Roy Baumeister, Paul Bloom, Joshua D. Greene, Jonathan Haidt, Sam Harris, Marc D. Hauser, Joshua Knobe, Elizabeth Phelps, David Pizarro.

There is information on the work and background of these researchers below the fold:

Continue reading