Tuesday, 9 July 2013

CONvergence Panel on EP - Part Two.

This is part two of my comments on the CONvergence panel on Evolutionary Psychology. Starting again from the 30 minute mark.

Stephanie (I think) mentions that the panel have just been looking at the “good” EP so far, and have yet to get to the bad. This causes some laughter, which I can understand seeing as aside from a couple of concessions from Indre no one has had a good word to say about it.

I’ll just stop here to list a couple of the major sections of evolutionary psychology books I have read, including the course text set by the Open University.

Theory of Mind – Prominently featured in the university text and a number of pop-science books and introductory guides I looked at on the subject. Theory of mind refers to our ability to judge what others might be thinking. Clearly a highly adaptive trait and one that does seem to carry heritable components. A lot of work has been carried out comparing the ability of chimps and other great apes to perform skills associated with theory of mind.

Mentions by the panel: Zero.

Reciprocal Altruism - Prominently featured in the university text and a number of pop-science books and introductory guides I looked at on the subject. Essentially the notion explored in The Selfish Gene and similar books that basic morality may have arisen evolutionarily.

Mentions by the panel: Zero.

Common or Universal Emotional Responses and Phobias – Again, mentioned in every book I’ve read on the subject.

Mentions by the panel: Zero.

Mental Modules – Mentioned by some of the texts I have on the subject.

Mentions by the panel: Assumed to be the core of evolutionary psychology, and mischaracterised as parts of the brain rather than processes and cognitive shortcuts.

"Pleistocene Brain" – Mentioned by some of the texts I have on the subject, often in quite tentative terms.

Mentions by the panel: Assumed as a core of evolutionary psychology, and mischaracterised as a matter of closed debate (it isn’t).

An audience member asks a question about sex differences. I think it’s Stephanie who answers. She says that sex differences are largely cultural and not biological.

I doubt she’d receive any argument from most evolutionary psychologists, who would be happy to cede that the vast majority of observed differences between the sexes are sociocultural, and that changing culture affects even those differences which are thought to have a hereditary component.

Indre mentions that an example of behaviours changing over time would be the attitudes boys and girls have towards education. This is not a notion that has been challenged by evolutionary psychologists as far as I know. Generally it is attitudes towards violence, communication style, childcare and reproduction that are thought to be demonstrable cross-culturally in line with evolutionary psychology.

Indre mentions that the studies into men’s and women’s brains show less divergence on average than between given individuals of the same sex. I’m not sure if this means she admits to there being ways in which the average male brain differs from the average female brain, but it’s still rather by the by because evolutionary psychology focuses on behaviour, not the brain.

PZ tells an anecdote about having been involved in similar comparative studies, and he seems to say that they did find statistical differences between the brains of men and women. He puts this down to sociocultural impacts, which is convenient. Even if you find this line of argument convincing it’s still rather by the by because evolutionary psychology focuses on behaviour, not the brain.

Stephanie (I think) provides a hypothesis that patterns of women’s achievement in education may be economically driven. In itself a fair point, but by the by for the aforementioned reasons. The only psychologists who don’t admit to overwhelming cultural impact are bonkers psychologists.

Greg talks for a while, he reinforces the same point about variations and the overwhelming impact of sociocultural input. Again, I know of no evolutionary psychologist who would disagree.

He cedes that there is a particular sex difference that he recognises – that women outperform men in regards to certain types of communication. This is something evolutionary psychologists recognise and provide some insight on. Does he mention that? No.

Indre now talks about how hormones produce sex differences. Right she is. Does she talk about how this relates to evolution, or psychology, or evolutionary psychology? No.

The panel discuss why society is so fixated on gender issues. They think it’s because of the degree of investments people have in such things. No doubt this is true. Could any of these investments result from our natural history? They don’t say. Do they provide the perspective of evolutionary psychologists on the matter? No.

PZ brings up Evolutionary Psychology again, maybe he will discuss their attitudes to such matters. He just says that they are overly keen on trying to find an answer to things. I presume he means in the metaphysical sense, but I don’t know why being keen to find an answer is unbefitting a scientific approach.

Amanda reckons evolutionary psychologists are ignorant of the fact that marketers have had a major role to play in the notion that the colour pink is fit for a girl and blue for a boy, and that they have come up for reasons for why genes and hormones make boys prefer blue and girls prefer pink.

I know of one study, carried out by Professor Anya Hurlbert and Dr Yazhu Ling of Newcastle University that speculates loosely along such lines. Neither of them identify as evolutionary psychologists. Professor Hurlbert’s field is neuroscience. They cede that the only certain factor in colour preference is sociocultural, but speculate as to other factors including evolution. As far as I know their work has not made much positive impact on evolutionary psychologists. Whilst changes in tastes for fashion are clearly sociocultural they aren’t exclusive to notions of innate preference.

Indre talks about identity theory and how people like to categorise groups and that we tend to set these groups against one another. Is this something she thinks is innate or learned? She does not say. Might evolutionary psychologists have a perspective on notions of identity such as those demonstrated in Tajfel's minimal group studies? She does not say, she just reckons they are guilty of falling for the tendency in the pursuit of their own ideas.

I find this rather ironic, if there’s an in-group here it’s the panel, and the out-group being treated with undue dismissiveness are evolutionary psychologists.

I’m not sure what she says but Indre seems to mention that evolutionary psychologists are guilty of making pronouncements about different racial psychologies.

Now, do you remember that Pleistocene brain stuff that the panel seemed to find so amusing earlier?

That notion actually undermines a lot of racist opinions on the psychology of certain races, because if we have the same sort of psychological capacities as people in the late Pleistocene (“we” moderns as a group and “they” ancients as a group) then racist notions of how certain races made cognitive leaps in the interim are unsupported by evolutionary psychology (on the whole).

Now I don’t want to make too much of this, because the Pleistocene brain thing is held tentatively, and there could be notions of exception, and I know of a couple of practitioners who propose notions that I deem to be more or less racist.

But the field as a whole isn’t, and the reason for this is partly down to the (albeit tentative) notion that human minds have enjoyed their current capacities for A Long Time.

Bit of a mumble here – they mention studies into race and IQ. They don’t mention what role the field of evolutionary psychology plays in it. To repeat, on the whole it plays no role in it, and furthermore representative EP undermines it.

“Plasticity everywhere” pronounces PZ, he reckons that that is the take home message that is fatal to EP.

The take home message for PZ is clearly articulated in Steven Pinker’s discussion about PZ’s attitude to EP on Jerry Coyne’s blog.

Plasticity is just learning at the neural level, and learning is not an alternative to innate motives and learning mechanisms. Plasticity became an all-purpose fudge factor in the 1990s (just like “epigenetics” is today). But the idea that the brain is a piece of plastic molded by the environment is bad neuroscience. I reviewed neural plasticity in the chapter “The Slate’s Last Stand” in The Blank Slate, with the help of many colleagues in neuroscience, and noted that the plasticity that allows feedback during development and learning during ontogeny is superimposed on an innate matrix of neural organization. For example if you silence *all* synaptic activity in the brain of a developing mouse with knock-outs, the brain is pretty much normal.

Someone mentions that there are “quite a lot of evolutionary psychologists” who promote racism. No names are mentioned aside from the non-psychologist Andrew Sullivan. Talk then turns to the attitudes of the 19th century, about which I’m not sure evolutionary psychologists can fairly be blamed.

I don’t want to be flippant – I know there are racist ideas associated with the field. Even though I think that's an unfair association I don’t want to downplay how irritating it is or what sort of jeopardy it could present unchecked, and it is good to remain vigilant on that front. However, I don’t feel that such attitudes are prevalent or representative. Again - tentative notions of Pleistocene brains undermine a lot of racist theory.

Greg mentions Robert Picard as another of these people advancing racist notions. Is he an evolutionary psychologist? No. His field is journalism.

More on IQ follows – findings based on IQ are not something that evolutionary psychologists devote a lot of time to as far as I know. My experience may be atypical, but I was led to believe during my schooling in psychology that the field of psychometrics (of which IQ is the most famous) ought to be regarded as advancing tentative notions.

Greg mentions an anecdote about all studies into IQ between races going back to a particular study, and replicating its fatal flaws. I think that’s doubtful and besides, what has that to do with EP?

I think someone asks what the panel like about evolutionary psychologists.

PZ: That’s a really hard question.

Amanda (I think): I like the jokes actual biologists tell about them behind their backs.

Indre reckons they tell good stories that might lead onto testable hypotheses. OK. Who comes up with the hypotheses and the tests? Is it evolutionary psychologists, or do they just tell stories? She does not say.

Stephanie says evolutionary psychologists’ theories contradict one another, but does not give examples.

I think Amanda admits they have popularised the notion that evolution has had an impact on our psyches. Greg also cedes some “good stuff” but it’s such a begrudging mumble I can’t make much of it out. He seems to like the fact that they do studies with anthropologists from time to time.

PZ says he can categorically state that there are no good evolutionary psychologists because the premises so taint the field that it needs to be discarded. I hope anyone who reads this will agree that PZ demonstrates scant knowledge of their actual premises.

Amanda says she is often approached by evolutionary psychologists for a “debate”, and that she refuses but offers to forward them on to a biologist instead. She says they always back out at that point. No actual names are mentioned. If they are so easy to browbeat why didn't you invite one or two onto the panel?

PZ says he reckons evolutionary psychologists just aim stuff at the tabloid press. He also claims he has been convinced that women possess no maternal instinct, which strikes me as bizarre. Really - None?

There are then some more jokes.

Asked for last words Indre concedes that there will be more links found between genes and behaviour in years to come. Greg also seems a little more concessionary than earlier, but can’t hear him well enough to know what he's talking about in detail.

Thank you for coming and big round of applause - Huzzah!

1 comment:

  1. Excuse formatting - off to the flicks - will fix it when I am back.