Thursday, 4 December 2014

PZ makes more of the same erroneous arguments

This post is going to cover PZs latest blog post on the subject of Evolutionary Psychology and is also something of an attempt to drum up enthusiasm for a debate of some sort between PZ and Ed Clint.

There won't be much new content for people who read my previous posts on this subject - PZ is still making the same errors that he made last year and so the same criticisms of his points stand.

That said, I will go over them again. Orange text is PZ, black text is me.

PZ Myers vs Jerry Coyne
Once again it is a post by Jerry Coyne that has moved PZ to comment. PZ feels Coyne strawman's the position of opponents to Evolutionary Psychology. PZ says in response to Coyne:

Have you ever seen a critic of evolutionary psychology deny that we evolved, or that features and differences of the human body and brain are products of evolution? Not me. When I say that it’s theoretical foundations are ridiculous, I don’t mean the idea that there are evolved differences between the sexes, but that EP comes with a set of ludicrous assumptions, such as that we are adapted to the African savannah and the agricultural and urban adaptations of the last 10,000 years don’t count. It leads to absurdities like the paleo diet, in which it’s assumed that we should eat like cavemen, because evolution.

I don't have much of an opinion about critics of Evolutionary Psychology denying we evolved. It doesn't take long to find such people if you look. Fodor, for example, has moved from criticizing EP to criticizing evolution by natural selection. I must admit I don't really get Fodor's argument, but I don't mind people criticizing things provided they attend to counter-critique in order to remain credible.

Last year Steven Pinker explained to PZ that "Savannah" is merely used as a synecdoche for the period and place thought to be of latest significant pertinence to the evolution of human psychology. This being Central Africa and the Pleistocene.

PZ pooh-poohed this as being in the same league as creationists saying "just a metaphor" when it suits them. I don't respect this response because there is a body of work supporting the notion that the Central African Pleistocene was of particular pertinence to the development of human psychology, whereas creationists are forced to retreat into poetic license because of a lack of evidence for their own positions.

Arguments that a Savannah shortly after rainfall was a preferred human environment also exist (Orians and Heerwagen, 1992), and they would need critiquing on their own strengths and weaknesses rather than being dismissed outright just because someone doesn't like EP.

As for the last 10,000 years "not counting" - they certainly do! However all the evidence for psychological changes in the last 10,000 is scant, circumstantial, and cannot be applied in pan-human fashion. On the other hand so much evidence exists to support the notion that different human populations are psychologically equivalent when cultural differences are taken into account that many Evolutionary Psychologists feel confident that no measurable innate psychological changes have occurred in the last 40,000 years.

By all means doubt this - but where is there any sense of counter-argument from PZ?

The paleo diet - I've no real knowledge of it and it isn't something I've read about during any of my study into psychology in general or EP in particular. The only notion I have of EPers discussing diet is to try and explain human tastes for sugar, fat and certain spicy flavours. In the case of sugar and fat these explanations do not support the notion of a particular diet. In fact they warn us against indulging in cravings that may have an evolutionary basis.

I also criticize the just-so story-telling. Coyne should know this well: studying evolution is hard and demands rigor. Yet evolutionary psychologists will do a quickie study on color perception in college undergraduates and announce that women evolved to be better at recognizing ripe berries.

It is now sadly predictable that the Hurlbert and Ling study into colour preferences will be wheeled out as an example of how clearly atrocious EP can be. I wish those who do think it's worth bringing up would consider the following:

  • Anya Hurlbert and Yazhau Ling are cognitive neuroscientists who have done a lot of studies into sight and colour perception. This study is them having a go at a possible evolutionary explanation for the pattern they observe. They neither identify as evolutionary psychologists nor do they have much apparent connection with an EP "community" as such. This is not to deny that their study might well be of interest to Evolutionary Psychologists, but it is an odd one to cite as representative.
  • Why is it a "quickie" study? A body of work exists to the end that women are more sensitive to the Red-Green axis of colour perception than men. We know that about 10% of men are clinically impaired when it comes to Red-Green colour perception. Given that preferences may well be informed by sensitivity why is this particular sex difference of any given controversy? That we may bemoan the lazy use of pink to identify things as feminine has no bearing on whether or not observable phenomena play into the stereotype.
  • "Announce that women evolved to be" - this is straw. They speculate about a possible evolutionary driver. The only thing they announce in unambiguous terms is a cultural difference. However, the evolutionary content is more interesting by dint of being a possible fact rather than an apparent fact, and that's why it gets a bit more play. Why don't they devote as much time to the cultural input? Because it is so apparent it doesn't require argument to support, and they also have other papers published which examine that particular phenomena more closely.
  • "Better at recognizing ripe berries" is also straw. Red-Green sensitivity helps to distinguish vegetation in general.
  • A final point. I don't want to patronize two clearly accomplished neuroscientists, but recently there has been a fair bit of controversy over what does or does not contribute to making some women feel like outsiders in science. If letting women and minorities in science know they are appreciated is a goal of PZ's - could a paper by two women (one of them an ethnic minority in the UK) not be taken seriously and debated on its actual content by those purporting to stand up for women and ethnic minorities? Or should it be misrepresented and constantly cast as a clearly absurd study just because it may help explain a phenomena behind a particular stereotype?

And obviously, as you might guess, there are the methodological problems. There is so much trivial market-driven crap in evolutionary psychology that it swamps out any hypothetically ‘good’ research in the field. If I were doing research on the evolutionary basis of human behavior (I’m not, fortunately), I would run away so fast from the label “evolutionary psychology” that I’d make Kanazawa’s head spin, and he’d have to formulate some story about the distant ancestors of white people having to sprint away from noisy speculating sabre-toothed tigers.

OK, what methodological problems?

Notice he doesn't actually mention any. He just moves on to bemoaning the tablopid presentation of much EP, as well as taking a dig at Satoshi Kanazawa, a man who ought to be famous for having been designated a black sheep by pretty much everyone else with an interest in EP.

PZ then has a go at Coyne personally, about which I have little interest. I will even admit that as someone who identifies as left wing I actually agree with PZ about Coyne adopting something of a strawman in his own argument.

All I would suggest is that even if EP were to somehow justify the existence of some phenomena existing behind some stereotypes it need not justify discrimination, so much as adoption of sensible compensatory policies. I don't see EP as either left or right, politically speaking.

But please, spare us the simplistic causal explanations for these differences that rely on cartoony, evidence-free speculation, like that men evolved to be bigger than women because they had to punch each other lots in fights for dominance. Perhaps we should recognize that culture creates roles that can generate differential selection pressure on men and women, and that human behavior is far more complex and cooperative than cavemen bashing each other with clubs.

OK, by all means check out The Adapted Mind, or How the Mind Works, or Evolutionary Psychology, the New Science of the Mind for a dearth of evidence-free speculation about men punching each other, or cavemen with clubs. Or take a look at the actual arguments about size differences between the sexes and decide for yourself if they are themselves evidence-free. These arguments may not be conclusive, they may not even be right, but neither are they necessarily ignorant speculations.

And by all means check out the testimony of pretty much every Evolutionary Psychologist ever when asked if culture plays a role in psychology, to the end that they too actually understand that it does.

When Social Psychologists explain how culture creates psychology are they ever berated for undermining the role of innate faculties? Of course they are! It's almost as if people are expected to advocate for fields other than own, and make the arguments that they haven't looked into. It isn't the job of Social Psychology to constantly advocate for innate tendencies, nor is it the job of Evolutionary Psychology to defer to cultural explanations.

Orians, G. H. and Heerwagen, J. H. (1992) "Evolved Responses to Landscapes", The Adapted Mind, pp 555 - 580, Oxford University Press.

Ed Clint's Challenge
Ed Clint has been moved to challenge PZ to a debate on evolutionary psychology.

I'd very much like to see such a thing happen. I am pessimistic because PZ has established form for only talking about the topic in environments within which he is amongst supporters, for example the CONvergeance talk and his own blog.

Given that he refused to take Steven Pinker's attempts to correct his misconceptions seriously I doubt PZ will have time for Ed, but I'd love to see this happen.

My suggestion would be to have an online debate that could be hosted by Aron Ra - if he was interested. Aron has carried out several online debates with creationists on the League of Reason site. Due to his involvement with both Free thought Blogs and the Secular Global Institute I think he is fairly neutral on the subject, and I personally respect his integrity. I think he would moderate a good debate if he was willing.

Any help with publicizing Ed's willingness to debate PZ would be appreciated (as would any further publication of PZs predicted unwillingness to meet the challenge).