Friday, June 26, 2009

Evolutionary psychology has had its day?

David Brooks had an interesting piece in the New York Times yesterday about evolutionary psychology. He says that evolutionary psychology has had a good run, but that it's time to recognize that organisms are much more adaptable than the field allows.

Adaptability is one of the basic principles of life that we propose in our book, but it has been out of favor in this era of genetic determinism. Genetic determinism has a long and sorry history as biological essentialism, a value-based view of what or who is good and what or who isn't, and what we really are like despite what we may think (and an assault on free will as well). It is part of a cycle in human that included decades of eugenics and Naziism as justifications for the worst possible actions by some against others.

It's interesting to see this conservative columnist taking up this cause.


Anonymous said...

I realize that I'm very late coming across this, but I'd like to offer a comment: the phrase "genetic determinism" is a straw man. I know of no evolutionary psychologist who subscribes to that notion, nor have I seen anything in serious writing on evolutionary psychology that amounts to genetic determinism. I suggest that using this phrase avoids the genuine issues brought up by evolutionary psychology. This is a young field with much to learn, but the underlying concept has been clear for 20 years now: human evolution affects not just organs but behaviors.

Anne Buchanan said...

Thanks for your comment. As we see it, the problem is that, as in most fields that are looking to genetics for answers to complex questions (epidemiology, psychology, political science, and so on), the understanding of how genes work doesn't seem to be very sophisticated. This is true even in human disease genetics -- the search for 'genes for' a disease or trait of interest is widespread, in spite of what's long been known about pleiotropy, gene environment interaction, gene gene interaction, and so on. Millions of dollars have been spent in human genetics looking for genes for complex diseases like asthma, heart disease, schizophrenia and so on, with little success.

And you get talk of genes 'for' intelligence, aggression, criminality, and so on, and explanations of how these genes evolved, without a nod to the complexities of development, or acknowledgment of the fact that our definitions of many behavioral traits are culturally loaded. We never look for genes for white collar crime, for example.

So, it's good to hear that EP may be more nuanced than it seems to be. But, see our paper in Feb 2009 BioEssays (Buchanan et al., What are genes ‘‘for’’ or where are traits ‘‘from’’? What is the question? BioEssays 31:198–208) for why we are less sanguine about this than some. Our argument applies to most fields looking to genetics for explanations, not just evolutionary psychology.

Ken Weiss said...

I understand your point and agree that careful ev. psych. people are careful. I tend to feel that they strongly overstate the specificity with which genotypes determine--that is, predict--behavioral traits. Of course one can debate what a trait is and how specific, etc etc.

But people when queried often are more cagey than their general statements, and one can surmise, as we do, what people actually have in mind when their caveats are brief and at the end of enthusiastic reports. And the media and public certainly eat this up without the nuances.

Even James Watson engages in these kinds of things, as you probably are aware. He may not be an expert, but then it is an understatement to allege that few ev. psychologists have a very deep understanding of genetics and genetic mechanisms.

These things can be endlessly debated. In my view, the bottom line is that deterministic views of behavioral evolution have been used as a rationale for all sorts of human abuses, the classical icons of this being eugenics and the Nazis. Even today, as soon as a gene 'for' (that is, implying that it determines) something like intelligence, sexual preference, etc. etc.) is announced, various scientists think of comparing human 'races'.

I don't personally believe humans are free from the same tendencies and that, unless resistance is offered, could unleash new versions. Thus, in that sense, I think it is important to insist on tempered claims and statements in this field. In my view, unless the caveats are as strongly and frequently stated as the claims, and unless the overlap is as often and strongly noted as the mean differences, the word 'determinism' is a fair one to apply.

Anonymous said...

I haven't seen any of the evo psych stuff attempting to get down to the level of genetic expression; it's all strictly behavioral at this point. If I may be so bold as to offer a generalization for an entire field of inquiry, I think that evo psych sees genes as a black box, with evolutionary influences establishing inclinations towards certain types of behavior. Cultural influences are layered on top of the genetic proclivities; individual personality layers on top of cultural influences; and finally, the circumstances of the moment lie top of all of the above. Thus, the behavior of any individual at any moment is determined by circumstances, personality, culture, and genetics, in roughly that order of priority. However, some kinds of behavior have stronger genetic proclivities than others. For example, human male promiscuity and female selectivity are both powerful inclinations that have obvious evolutionary foundations. Of course, the expression of these inclinations is strongly modified by cultural, personality, and circumstantial considerations.

Ken, I suspect that you are basing your evaluation of evo psych on the popular accounts, not the actual science. The other day I saw a cute cartoon about the problem with popular accounts. It showed a scientist being interviewed by a reporter. The scientist says "We were able to suppress the activity of 10% of the cancer cells in rats." The next frame shows the headline: "Cure for cancer found". The scientist with some irritation tells the reporter that they had not found a cure for cancer but had merely moved closer to the time in the future when a cure might be found. The resultant headline: "Time travel discovered".

I myself have been interviewed numerous times (in a completely different field) and it is astounding how frequently reporters distort the truth to get something sensational. They leave out the careful caveats, simplify nuanced statements, and sensationalize mundane claims. And I have had to deal with angry colleagues thinking that I've been hyping myself to the press.

So please, just throw away everything you have heard about evo psych that doesn't come directly from the evo psych people themselves. It's a field that is pregnant with potential for abuse from popularization. If you want to see the real thing, I recommend "Mother Nature" by Sarah Hrdy. It's long and sometimes dry, but it's serious evo psych from a scholar who devoted a lifetime to the study of maternal behavior in primates. It will surprise you with the magnitude of conclusions that can be drawn from the evidence, yet it will impress you with the cautions attached to the conclusions. There is most definitely no whiff of genetic determinism in this book.

Ken Weiss said...

Opinions on this area of biology vary, are often strongly held, and are based on each person's experiences, in our case that being over decades. Good work exists in every field. I haven't yet read Sarah's book, so can't comment on it. You may well be right that it is a well-argued work.