The Right Coast

July 11, 2005
Evolutionary psychology
By Tom Smith

Bit of a pissing match going on over the topic of evolutionary psychology and related subjects, including intelligent design. (Follow the links.) Safe in the knowledge I will probably be igonored, I offer the following comments.

It is certainly an unfair exaggeration to say evolutionary psychology is "hokum" or anything similar. Biology professor and blogger PZ Meyers describes it as such. Controversial it certainly is, and some biologists, psychologists and so on dismiss it. But many important biologists do not. I doubt E.O. Wilson thinks it is bunk, for example. Or that Robert Trivers thinks it is. Or lots of other distinguished scientists you could name. There are certainly plenty of bad EP papers out there, but that can be said of any discipline. It would be interesting to find out what Richard Posner thinks of EP. I doubt very much he would dismiss it. In any event, these are just anecdotes. If anyone has a survey of biologists or people in related fields regarding what they think of evolutionary psychology, they should cite it. I don't.

One also has to bear in mind that EP drives Marxists and their various sub-species insane. Much historical background here. The scandalous and sorry history of the "Committee against Racism"'s infamous campaign against Wilson is laid out here and here. For some, there are things far more important than the advance of knowledge, not to mention basic social norms. If the likes of Lewontin had been in charge, Professor Wilson would have ended up in some gulag, instead of sparking a scientific revolution.

I don't know why sociobiology and its psychological offshoot, evolutionary psychology, drives Marxists so nuts. It is no doubt a deep question, but one would have to know a lot about "dialectical method" and the like to really answer it, and life is short. I suspect the idea that human psychology is deeply and in fine detail shaped by the selection pressures of evolution is inconsistent with Marxist theory at a fundamental level. No new socialist man, etc. Personally, I have no trouble seeing Fidel as a large primate in fatigues, but maybe that's just me. S. J. Gould, the evolutionist and Marxist who was Wilson's colleague at Harvard, seemed determined to reach the conclusion that the human brain had not been shaped at least in fine detail by selective pressures, leaving a theoretical edifice I am betting will not long survive his death. Maynard Smith famously dismissed him as being too confused to be taken seriously, raising the more interesting question, what confused him? I would guess, his politics.

By contrast, the influence of sociobiology under a number of different names, such as human behavioral ecology and so on, is widespread and growing. Its fitness, meme-wise, appears to be high. My point here, though, is that one should, in my view, take the views of those on the hard to hardish left about sociobiology, EP and allied fields with a whole box of coarse grained salt. To mix metaphors, it is like watching sad attempts to get the great grand kittens back in the bag their ancestor escaped from it about 30 years ago. (Others on the left, such as the highly amusing Peter Singer, think sociobiology is consistent with good left-wing thinking. He says much that is sensible in his A Darwinian Left, but conservatives will find themselves gagging frequently.)

That being said, evolutionary psych has a long way to go. The ratio of hype to solid science is probably too high. This inspires jealousy, and resentment as well as justified criticism from more conventional scientists, quite apart from any ideological hostility. On the other hand, you have to remember the context in which evolutionary psychologists found themselves. They really were radicals, risking their careers to try to discover the relationships between where our mental organ(s) came from, and how we actually behave. That psychology was so profoundly confused that this was forbidden ground, has an historical explanation, which is discussed in Plotkin's very lucid and beautifully written book. (I recommend it for its review of the history of psychology and biology only.) I am not saying EP should be given slack, merely that if they sometimes have the roughness of pioneers, there is a reason for that.