Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Followup on evolutionary psychology as ' just so stories'

A comment on my Sept. 28 post has passed on a number of excellent response to the book review I was noting in that post. I was remiss (lazy) in not taking to task one absurd contention of the reviewer, namely that "you don’t have to know about the evolution of an organ in order to understand it." (a third of my Biology of Mind Book argued the contrary.) After Jabr notes in his Scientific American comments several examples of how understanding the evolution of different brain areas has enhanced understanding and medical practice, he gives this nice analogy:
Studying the brain and mind in ignorance of its vast evolutionary tale does not make sense. It would be equivalent to an archaeologist discovering the remains of an enormous tapestry, slicing out a particular figure from the cloth and claiming that he could learn everything he needs to know by examining that figure in isolation. Even if the archaeologist described the figure in exquisite detail, taking it apart thread by thread and sewing it back together, he would remain willfully oblivious of the whole story. In the same way, disregarding the human brain’s history limits psychology and neuroscience to a paltry understanding of our brains and minds.
The comment also points to Kurzban and Gottschall as offering further commentary.

Also, let me note this comment on the Sept 28 post by Jim Birch:
I'm a little surprised by the animosity directed at evolutionary psychology. For me, it has provided revolutionary insights and understanding. In particular, the general notion that in biology, energy is not wasted, it is utilized adaptively. Under evolution, "adaptive" is not local in time and space but statistically selected over a period and range of the species' evolution.
This gives, or actually requires, a new way of interpreting any human behaviour: as statistically adaptive. And in doing so, it blasts away the incoherent mass of narrative explanations that have been conventionally applied. Our "craziest" tendencies like dying on Everest or blowing life savings on poker machines are no longer down to Freudian death wishes or moral failings (etc) but can be seen as adaptive behaviours operating badly, or even just out of context.
Of course, no one was around in the Pleistocene recording behaviours and survival rates so there's a need for speculation, modelling and indirect evidence. It is this that opens the field up to "just-so stories" charge. There is also the potential for use of selective evidence - to simplistically support preferred moral positions, eg, tooth-and-claw v. cooperative vision of "human nature". However, this is not a problem that is peculiar to evolutionary psychology, it's a perenial problem for science, especially new fields. No doubt the situation will improve as things develop and there's a lot of baby in the bathwater of evolutionary psychology.


  1. Glad the links were of interest, I would have left more details if I knew you were going to pay attention :)

  2. I'm no expert on Sigmund Freud, but while agree with the general tenor of Jim Birch's comment, I think his reading of Freudian theory is a bit off.

    First of all, Freud was one of the first to see consciousness/behavior is part of an energy system, something Birch apparently agrees with.

    Secondly, I think Freud's idea of the death wish is actually in complete alignment with the principles of evolution.

    Finally, Freud would have been one of the first to welcome any forms of new, hard data that contradicted his theories, something he said repeatedly in his writings, and incorporated in his own work by revising his older theories as new information became available.

  3. What I believe in is that, spiritual and psychological are interconnected. Why? Because for me, you have to be psychologically ready to be a spiritual counselor and vice versa.