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A lot of cognitive scientists will say most Evolutionary Psychology is a crock with just a lot of hand waving as evidence.

Clark, I'll be most cognitive scientists would say any type of psychology (other than their own, if they consider it a form of psychology) is a crock.

I don't think that's correct. A lot of psychology is pretty empirical even if weakly so. Evolutionary psychology really has almost no empirical studies to shore it up. Most of it is speculation.

While you've probably seen it, this post by Chris at Mixing Memory is worth reading. Note that this isn't necessarily a slam on Pinker who does write a lot of great popularization. His ongoing debate on the origin of language has been fascinating as well. (Not in his books but in a series of papers with Chomsky and others)

So Clark ... would you describe Pinker as practicing evolutionary psychology or congitive science?

He one of the more noted EP folks but that's not all he does of course.

So Clark, do most cognitive scientists dismiss Pinker's work as a crock? Do they also dismiss evolution as a crock? What is it specifically about the thesis "human mental operations are a product of evolution" that they reject? If not evolution, are they invoking Creationism or ID as their explanation for the development of human mental processes?

Just curious.

The problem with most evolutionary psychology is that it isn't actually very useful. What good does an assumption that mother-love is motivated by a desire to ensure the furture of one's own genes do us? Especially since the mother does not experience her love in that manner and in those thoughts.

Aside from that, most evolutionary psychology suffers from the problem of being essentially hermeneutics. Pointing to the secret evolutionary motivations behind everyday ethical behavior is not that far from asserting that there are little angels and devils on our shoulders telling us what to do.

Most cognitive scientists I know of dismiss EP.

I don't see the connection with evolution which is very empirical. The problem with EP is that there are no fossils of brain structure for the last 200,000 years. So there's no basis to test theories. As John said, a lot of pronouncements are about as empirical as claiming little angels. Just a bit more socially acceptable. Plausible explainations are not sufficient to be scientific explanations. But a lot of EP speculation is taken as if there was more there than a few scientists discussing what could have happened.

None of this has much to do with evolution which is very testable and very empirical. (Which isn't to say there aren't questionable claims about particular branch histories of various species)

John, one can likewise make the argument that all of history and most of evolution arent' "useful" and are therefore a waste of time or otherwise unworthy of the time and money devoted to them. Or large chunks of higher mathematics. Or some areas of pure science (although scientists always stress the many potential if speculative applications of their research when pleading for funding). So I disagree that the alleged utility or inutility of EP really speaks to whether it provides insightful or correct explanations of things.

And I think it is worth distinguishing between necessary explanations (those theories establishing that a certain state of affairs must necessarily be the way it is) and contingent or historical ones (theories explaining why a certain state is the way it is, but that it could have been different). Obviously, in that sense evolution provides historical explanations for past and present life on earth and EP explanations take the same form. But I don't think you can argue that understanding the mechanisms by which the process occurs, as well as the course of evolutionary history, isn't worthy of study.

Dave, I actually don't think one can make that claim. (That evolution and mathematics aren't useful) They've been proven useful time and time again in thousands of ways. Depending upon what you mean by utility of course. They aren't too useful if you're running an auto-plant. But they are useful in other branches of science.

One problem with EP is that it really doesn't have much utility in that it doesn't tell us anything. (IMO)


I'm with Clark on this one. Evolutionary psychology is short on both logic and evidence and long on far-reaching generalizations. Look at Pinker's own arguments. He explains moral senses by generalizing studies about what "most people" conclude about a moral scenario, ignores the significant percentage of those in the test data who took the other option, generalizes to all people as if all people reasoned like "most people" on moral issues, and then gives a nerophysiological basis for the reasoning as if it were built into us. See also me post at New Cool Thang.

"As if it were built into us ..." It's not like morality is an odd occurrence in the set of human societies. Point me to an ethnography of the Tribe Without Morality, please. It pretty much is built into us. How did it get there?

You can either use an evolutionary framework or argue special creation. Or use a hybrid model that allows for evolutionary processes for plants and animals but brackets humans and applies a form of Special Creation to us and our psychology. Really, if you don't believe human psychology is the result of evolutionary processes, what exactly is your model?

Dave: Moral judgments are free actions and not the determined result of a naturalistic environment. A moral sense is built into us. How we make moral judgments is not. Take all of those who gave a different answer on the Trolley problem in the studies that Pinker relies upon (about 38-42% in most studies). Did they have a different evolutionary history? Is their brain physiology different? Of course not. So what explains their moral judgment? Not evolutionary psychology.

A different model? Heck yes. After all, I'm Mormon. I believe that we have an eternal sense of right and wrong, good and evil based upon what leads to our greatest mutual flourishing to realize our eternal and divine nature. You might want to check out chapter 3 of my second volume where I discuss it at greater length.

I don't suggest that we don't need functioning neurosystems to function as humans having a moral sense in this life. I do suggest that the notion that our moral sense evolved over millions of years is just plain difficult to support. The most social of all creatures, bees, don't have the brain systems that Pinker thinks is responsible for our social cohesion through an illusory morality. Moreover, there is no evidence that animals like lemurs have a moral sense -- and even the claim that Rhesus monkeys don't pull a lever to hurt another monkey out of some primitive moral sense is just non-sense in my view. In other words, the primitive brain systems that Pinker and other evolutionary psychologists think are responsible for our moral sense couldn't have evolved out of systems responding to a moral sense.

Finally, if our ethical norms are merely evolved behavior, then in what sense are they really binding or obligatory morally? Are you suggesting that morality is really just the random result of survival of the fittest and thus not really a moral sense at all but a mere biological imperative of the sort: "survive!"?

Dave most scientists probably think morality evolved. I just think that the claims Evolutionary Psychologists make about how are not empirical. Those are really two different issues which you are conflating (and which EP proponents encourage by how they titled their movement). One can think that any explanation of morality necessitates evolutionary explanations without thinking that the current explanations proffered are anything more than untested hypothesis with little to recommend them.

Now if we were doing metaphysics such weak arguments would probably be OK. The evidence for any metaphysical hypothesis is almost always weak and inconclusive. But these folks are passing it off as if it were science and worse established science. These claims then end up in the popular media as if they were established scientific truths when they are anything but.

To add, this isn't the only place this sort of thing goes on. And some of the claims aren't problematic because they lack testability. Some are propounded without bothering to even look at anthropological data. (i.e. the various EP like claims about the origins of male infidelity that keep being talked about in the press)

This really isn't an issue about evolution though at all. When EP proponents portray it as if it were it's amazingly misleading. After all the vast majority of cognitive scientists who dislike EP proponents are all mainly atheists who love evolution.

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