Computational Models of Mind, Theories of Evolutionary Psychology, and Sociobiology

In my recent review of Steven Pinker’s book, The Blank Slate, I used the term Scientific Psychology. As examples of Scientific Psychology, I frequently referred to computational models of mind, theories of Evolutionary Psychology, and Sociobiology. There are probably other examples I could use, but this is where Pinker draws his case from. In an e-mail exchange with Michael Turton, Michael made some remarks about distinctions between these terms, and particularly about the distinction between evolutionary psychology and Sociobiology. While I understand what Michael is referring to, I do not accept that this distinction is real. I also believe such models of human action are inherently flawed. They presume a higher level of predictive validity than they really have. The ‘softness’ of their predictive power leaves them open to so much interpretation that they can be bent and shaped to the rhetoric of a wide range of ideologies.

How is Behaviour Evolving?

First, some definitions.

I am not going to deal with computational models of mind here. Partly, this is because I do not understand the field particularly well, and partly because it is only tangential related to the distinction between Evolutionary Psychology and Sociobiology. The Net contains many discussions of various theories of mind. I don’t feel most of these Web-based discussions are that good, and bear in mind this is a very difficult area of scholarship to read. Regardless, you might want to check this link for an idea of what I’m talking about, while paying close attention to the point that computational models of mind are not the only theories of mind available.

And now, on to Evolutionary Psychology and Sociobiology. Evolutionary Psychology and Sociobiology, despite their similar sounding names, are very different fields – I am repeatedly told. As Michael Turton put it in a letter to me, “Evolutionary Psychology is not a branch of Sociobiology. The 2 fields don’t like each other at all.” This rather elaborate Website from the Center for Evolutionary Psychology puts it slightly differently in a description entitled “What Evolutionary Psychology is Not”

It (Evolutionary Psychology) separates evolutionary psychology from those approaches to human behavioral evolution in which it is assumed (usually implicitly) that “fitness-maximization” is a mentally (though not consciously) represented goal, and that the mind is composed of domain general mechanisms that can “figure out” what counts as fitness-maximizing behavior in any environment — even evolutionarily novel ones. Most Evolutionary Psychologists acknowledge the multipurpose flexibility of human thought and action, but believe this is caused by a cognitive architecture that contains a large number of evolved “expert systems”.

In this paragraph, Drs. Leda Cosmides and John Tooby are trying to differentiate Evolutionary Psychology from a branch of psychology that uses the biological concept of fitness to explain most or all significant human behaviours. This branch of Psychology is otherwise known as Sociobiology and it is the form of Psychology that I studied intensively as an undergraduate.

In fact, I think there is little to distinguish the 2 models. If we examine them historically the influence of evolutionary thinking on Psychology a different picture emerges. Despite Pinker’s description of Social Sciences, there have always been dominant theories of human behaviour heavily influenced by evolutionary theory. The work of Sigmund Freud during the 1920’s and 30’s relied heavily on an understanding of evolution. Unfortunately for Freud, at that time the principles of evolution were only poorly understood and he was only partially successful at incorporating them into his theories. Following Freud’s experiments, the next most notable name in evolutionary psychology was Konrad Lorenz. Lorenz’s work on animal behaviour was breathtaking. His well-known 1963 book On Aggression paved the way for the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine. But his work too ultimately proved too naive to handle the growing understanding of evolutionary principles and their applicability to animal behaviour. Next came the Sociobiologists, so named from the ground breaking 1975 book by Edward O. Wilson. As I pointed out above, Sociobiology is the strict application of biological principals of fitness, selection, and mutation to an understanding of animal and human behaviour.

And now we have Evolutionary Psychology, which we are told by its proponents is fundamentally different from each of its predecessors. But quite frankly, it’s hard for me to tell the difference. They all appear to me to be the same concept – the application of evolutionary principles to human behaviour – at different stages of understanding what those evolutionary principles are. The distinctions described by scientists who work in these fields seems to be genuine, but honestly, it is very hard for me to understand them.

The papers I browsed through on the site of the Center for Evolutionary Psychology left me with another feeling of familiarity. One of the reasons that this work seems so familiar to me is that I have read many, many papers written along these lines. I was trained in Social Psychology and even when I was an undergraduate, much of what was being written in Social Psych was firmly based in evolutionary thought and written along the same lines as this work. As long ago as 1983, I took courses where we discussed the role of evolution in creating the a wide range of characteristically human behaviours. There is little I saw that would look out of place in a course on Social Psychology dating back well into the 1970’s.

Having said all this, I must make one final point. Sociobiology is more than just a theory of psychology. Or at least it is widely perceived this way. It has been described as a political theory that could be used to justify oppression. Social activists have started groups of academic experts whose only goal was to attack Sociobiology. Other leading academics have written books about the evil of the discipline. So virulent has the protest against Sociobiology been that it has promoted some writers to call this conflict Sociobiology Wars. Regardless of what you think about Sociobiology as a theory, to call yourself a Sociobiologist was and probably still is to invite attack.

As I have said, there is no real scientific distinction to be made between Evolutionary Psychology and Sociobiology. Outside of a Department of Biology, I sincerely wonder how many scientists are still calling themselves Sociobiologists, no matter what they believe. Whatever distinction is otherwise agreed upon is a political label. So while I think there is nothing meaningful to distinguish Evolutionary Psychology and Sociobiology theoretically, except that one replaced the other after its ideas had been warn out, there is much to distinguish the two as academic disciplines. If there was no such thing as Evolutionary Psychology, it would have had to be invented so that Social Psychologists could continue talking publicly about evolution and behaviour. In fact, that is exactly why there is an Evolutionary Psychology and why its proponents insist that it is not just not Sociobiology but has nothing to do with it.

Evolutionary Psychology as Mythological Science

‘Folk’ as an adjective to modify terms like Science, Social Science, or Psychology is a term I first saw in my mail exchange with Michael Turton. Since then, I have come to understand that this is an Evolutionary Psychology term for explanations of behaviour that do not reduce humans to machines. Any explanation that relies on a concept of choice in the common sense usage is ‘folk’ thought. So are explanations that does not reduce choice to a predictable and controllable variable. As such, a vast majority of what is done in Sociology, Anthropology, Economics, Geography, and History is ‘folk Social Science’. As opposed to, I suspect, ‘real’ Social Science.

But is Evolutionary Psychology really different from ‘folk Social Science’? My answer is no. It is not at all different. It can logically be a different thing, and perhaps one day will be. But in its current state, Evolutionary Psychology is so weak that it can tell us nothing of any real consequence about humans. As such, any attempt to explain human actions that have meaning is verbal play. It is an attempt to pretend that Evolutionary Psychology somehow resembles Physics or Chemistry by adopting a technical vocabulary and methodology. It is an attempt to pretend its way into the ideological power of Physical Science when it has no power of any sort. It is, in fact, the creation of a ‘mythological Social Science’.

The problem is that as I have pointed out in my earlier writing on this subject, the science behind Evolutionary Psychology has such poor predictive validity that no one can explain anything about people that has any meaning. Evolutionary Psychology is not the only scientific theory of talking about human action that does this. Sociobiology was notoriously poor at saying anything meaningful about what humans do. I will go so far as to state that every single attempt in human history to reduce human choices and actions to fundamental properties and laws independent of individual humanity has failed. There is not even one attempt that has consistently produced better predictive validity than the common sense based explanations of the type that Michael refers to as ‘folk’.

No, this is not quite true. Psychologists have identified some really cool stuff. I mean really neat stuff. You have to see some of these things to believe them. Some of the amazing optical illusions that can now be produced are mind blowing. There are observations of human pathology that are astounding, such as brain damaged people buttoning up a sweater with one hand while undoing the buttons with the other hand. If you spend time in a Psychology Department, you’ll hear enough of these stories to keep your friends rolling at the next beer party. And the truly amazing thing is that a good number of these only make sense when interpreted through theories that assume your mind can not exist without a physical brain governed by invariable natural laws.

But the truth is that outside of these neat party stories, such theories have nothing to say that has any meaning. This is the fuel of Evolutionary Psychology, Scientific Psychology, and all the other attempts to eliminate discussion of choice from our vocabulary; pathological people and party tricks. So let me paraphrase myself from my previous post on this matter,

…the fact is that Evolutionary Psychology is extremely limited in its ability to make these calculations and predictions. In fact, it is so limited that the powerful examples given by Pinker are the same ones I learned about in school more than 20 years ago. Evolutionary Psychology is still touting examples from the 1980’s as proof of the power of their explanations because that’s all they have. I am not saying that the project of Evolutionary Psychology is wrong. I am not saying it is impossible for this thinking to overwhelm common sense or free will-based theories of human action. I am saying that Evolutionary Psychology simply does not have the power to be making statements on the level of historical, political or policy analysis.

And as a result, computational models of mind, theories of Evolutionary Psychology and Sociobiology have failed as policy science. There are no computational psychologists or evolutionary biologists on the National Security Council. If you study Public Administration or Government at the graduate level, you won’t be learning about these theories either. How many leading public figures have been trained in the disciplines that assume a human choice along the lines of common sense? All of them: Al Gore (Government), Bill Clinton (Law), John Kerry (Political Science), John Edwards (Law) Condoleezza Rice (Political Science). There are no politicians who have stated as their background or have as their qualification that they have studied computational models of mind or evolutionary biology. and if someone did, you would laught at them, even if you thought Pinker’s book was great. The disciplines of a scientific psychology simply lack the power to meaningfully explain anything beyond a few arcane examples.

It’s true that these are really cool examples, and without the explanations derived from computational models of mind, Evolutionary Psychology and Sociobiology, they are extremely difficult to understand. But these theories of human mind and behaviour do not have the explanatory power to move beyond this point. Yes, it is true that the photoelectric effect was a great party trick until it was explained by Albert Einstein and Max Plank as a key element in quantum theory. This is irrelevant. Computational models of mind, Evolutionary Psychology, Sociobiology, or whatever other elements of Scientific Psychology you want simply do not have the power to move beyond their current state. And unlike other Social Sciences and Humanities, they do not have much to offer any official policy making body.

I know that I am making this point over and over and over, but I have to. As soon as you stop saying this the proponents of Scientific Psychology are ready to take over with their banter about the evolution architecture of this and the social learning of that. As I have said, the day may one day come when they can talk powerfully without referring to choice about why people smoke even knowing it is extremely dangerous, but that day is not today. Today, Scientific Psychology is so far away from this goal and how to achieve it that no one knows whether it really is possible with the theories and methods being used or if some all together different technology will be necessary. Perhaps it will work; perhaps it will not. But today, the dream of a Scientific Psychology is not a scientific fact. It is science fiction.

The Bizarre World of Experimental Social Psychology

I am not widely read in Evolutionary Psychology, but the research listed on the pages of the Center for Evolutionary Psychology points to another significant problem for the field. At least some of their conclusions are based on work in Experimental Social Psychology.

Make no mistake of it, Experimental Social Psychology is a very powerful tool. I highly recommend that anyone interested in experimentation and control combine a methods course with one in Social Psychology. These techniques have great applicability in fields ranging from Education to Medicine to Biology. But like any thing else, you have to know its limits.

The Center for Evolutionary Psychology at the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB) lists a number of studies based on observations in Experimental Social Psychology that examine the issue of race (1), (2). One of the findings considered central to this study is that sex, age, and race are the characteristics of every person we meet that our brain naturally “encodes”. How has this ‘fact’ been ‘discovered’? Social Psychologists have been incredibly ingenious. The methods they use are so complex and contrived that I can not even begin to describe them here. If you are interested, I recommend you take a look at this link focusing particularly on the methodological explanations contained in the 4 yellow boxes distributed throughout the article.

This research is ingenious. It is creative to a degree I am not sure I could replicate. It is bizarre, and has no relationship at all to the actual manner in which humans experience ‘race’ as a social category.

Race is a strange category in the disciplines of Sociology and Anthropology. I would say it’s one of those labels used less and less frequently among recently trained specialists. Personally, I avoid the term when I am speaking about these issues in a technical fashion. I don’t believe it has any meaning and instead I use terms like ‘ethnicity’ or ‘nationality’. The discussion of how these terms are manipulated by the interests of elites and other groups is now well developed. The authours of this article go to great lengths to point out that their study is about something like my position that ‘race’ is not a meaningful category. I believe that this is what they are referring to when they conclude that ‘race’ is not the characteristic our brain is encoded to detect. Rather, they tell us, our brains are looking for indicators of ‘coalitional alliances’ they suggest evolved when we lived in close knit kin groups. So the scholars of Evolutionary Psychology could say they agree with my statement that race is not a meaningful category. Instead, the meaningful category is a different characteristic (but keep in mind that this conclusion would not be universally agreed upon by Evolutionary Psychologists). The struggle now is to find the primordial aspects of human cognition that our brain is searching for. And to keep in mind that evolutionary psychology has reduced the concepts of choice and will to a more basic task performed in brains – feature detection. That’s right. Our brains, our psychology, our very lives have now been reduced to the classical aspect of evolutionary based theories of human behaviour – feature detection.

But all this has little to do with our folk understanding of ethnicity and nationality. The seminal work of Benedict Anderson on the way that print culture and literacy define nationality is as good a place as any to start. Nationality is an invention. In fact, it is a fairly recent one. The consciousness of nationality, what it means to be different peoples and the way in which nationalism evolves from this identity has changed radically since its invention. Sometimes, as in the case of nations like Germany, Japan, Korea, or Taiwan, it has been done intentionally with a plan in mind. Being a citizen of a nation means a very different thing to a Taiwanese of mainland descent than it does to a liberal, White Canadian man. It is not clear to me what a study of ‘race’ based on the form of experimental manipulation described above would mean for anyone.

It may be that one day, the naturalistic feature detectors of Evolutionary Psychology will be able to explain in a formula or a flow chart why print culture can lead to national identity, why nationalism was invented, and how nationalism leads to the invention of nation states. It may be. But that day is a long way from this day, and as it stands right now, explanations that talk about why people make these choices are much, much more useful.

More Problems with Experimental Social Psychology

In spite of this serious problem, it is hardly the major obstacle faced by Evolutionary Psychologist in their use of Experimental Social Psychology. No one ever tells you this, but I am certain that the subjects used in the race studies above are undergraduates at UCSB. My guess is that most of them are White, but some may be African-American, Hispanic, or even Asian.

The vast, vast majority of Social Psychology is based on the responses of affluent, young, liberal, college students, most of whom are White. You do a study on race and all you use are White boys from California? Do you think the results might be a bit different with working-class White men from North Carolina? Social Psychologists will tell you that they know about the problems of their research, and that they have to start somewhere in their search for the truth about human nature. And this is true. But I ask you, given the limitations I have discussed above, what conclusions of any meaning can you possibly derive from this kind of work?

Evolutionary Theory as Racist Theory

My point is not that the search for a scientific, reductionist explanation of human action is impossible. I am not even saying it is a ridiculous, stupid idea that can never succeed. I am saying that at its current state, it is speculation. It is speculation on par with what alien life will look like. It is speculation on par with discussion of time travel. Talk about space colonies and genetic hybrids of humans and animals are less speculative than a truly Scientific Psychology. The techniques and explanations developed have absolutely no power at all to meaningfully explain, much less predict, anything that anybody would want to know. I am saying that explanations derived from what Michael Turton has referred to as ‘folk science’ have much more power, much more meaning, and much more effect on our ability to understand and manipulate the world around us. I am also saying that any attempt to make a claim about the world based on these ‘scientific’ models, because they are so weak and only scientific in form, is an attempt at a ‘mythological’ social science.

I will go one step forward. Because they are so weak these theories can be incorporated into any type of explanation; left-wing, right-wing, libertarian, communist, you name it. And because they have the form of science, which holds great political credibility in contemporary society, they are the chosen style of explanation for racist political organizations.

I am not saying that racist organizations choose theories with scientific form more than say communist organizations. I am aware of no such study. In fact, there are racist organizations that rationalize their beliefs from an interpretation of The Bible. But it is hard not to notice that racist organizations that appeal to science, universally appeal to evolutionary models.

Not only do racist organizations that appeal to science universally appeal to evolutionary models, there appear to be some number of highly trained evolutionary scientists who have publicly proclaimed their racist beliefs. Arthur Jensen holds a PhD in Psychology and was at one time one of the most prominent Psychologists of our time. Apparently, Edward O. Wilson of sociobiology fame has called him, “an honest and courageous man.” Yet he is probably the individual most responsible for the idea that scores on IQ tests are largely influenced by genetic factors. While Jensen himself is reputed to have been a very liberal person, the uses of his work have not always been so fair, and he is a preferred reference for writers stating that people of African descent are less intelligent than Whites and that this difference is genetically-based. Far more controversial is the work of Philippe Rushton. Rushton is a professor at the University of Western Ontario in Canada. His racism is frighteningly open and during the summer of 1988, it was revealed that he was involved with racist organizations in Toronto. I have studied the academic work of Philippe Rushton on altruism in Social Psychology classes I took with Dennis Krebs in the early 1980’s. I personally have never liked his work and once called it “bad research”. On the other hand, there is no questioning his credentials or knowledge of evolutionary thought.

Rushton is part of a network of legitimate scientists whose work is aimed at defining genetic influences on personality and intelligence. Many of the people in these groups, while holding unquestionable scientific credentials and knowledge, are also affiliated with racist and Nazi organizations. Wikipedia states that Rushton is associated with the peer review journal, Mankind Quarterly. “The journal Mankind Quarterly is currently headed by psychology professor J. Philippe Rushton” says Wikipedia, but the journal has no Webpage and I am not certain if it is still being published. Regardless, Mankind Quarterly is widely regarded as a racist forum. Among its editors has been Roger Pearson who established the neo-Nazi Northern League in 1958. Mankind Quarterly is also associated with the Pioneer Fund.

The Pioneer Fund was incorporated in 1937 by two American scientists: Harry Laughlin, who received an honorary doctorate from inhonor of his contribution to Nazi eugenics, and Frederick Osborn, who wrote in 1937 that the Nazi sterilization law was ‘the most exciting experiment that had ever been tried’

And has been heavily involved in promoting research aimed at promoting humanity through selective breeding. Despite this, there is no doubt that both Mankind Quarterly and the Pioneer Fund support legitimate genetic and evolutionary human science.

But who cares? My point is not that work on Evolutionary Psychology and related subjects are inherently racist. My point is that they are so weak as to be inherently nothing. It is extremely difficult to discard bad work done in this field in the same way one could discard Scientology or Creation Science, no matter who was making the claim. The Pioneer Fund can legitimately be involved in some of the largest twin studies projects ever undertaken without danger of jeopardizing the reputation of the results. The Church of Scientology could not be. There is very little standard of what constitutes ‘good work’ in the field and therefore what constitutes pseudoscience. The primary reason for this is that Evolutionary Psychology can not predict anything, so who is to say what is good or bad? The E-meter is just a fancy voltmeter and no one has ever become clear. But whether or not ‘race’ really is a feature detector looking for ‘coalitional alliances’ is something we can only speculate on. Perhaps ‘race’ is a feature detector looking for skin colour. Perhaps it is something else completely different. Today, we have absolutely no idea how to reconcile the concept of ‘race’ with Evolutionary Psychology. And until we do, the speculations of Evolutionary Psychology and a Scientific Psychology can be used to explain anything.

Why Evolutionary Psychology?

Let’s take a look at all I have said here.

Evolutionary explanations of human action have a long history. The power of these explanations was initially limited by an understanding of evolutionary mechanisms. Chronologically older theories used concepts that are no longer consistent with our understanding of evolution. The most current form of thinking is referred to as Evolutionary Psychology and is intellectually descended directly from these other forms of thought, including Sociobiology.

Despite this, Evolutionary Psychology can make absolutely no meaningful contribution to policy, governance, or everyday struggle. Folk explanations that rely on a common sense understanding of decisions, choice, and action provide a much more useful way to handle the problems of everyday life. Any explanation of human action that reduces this meaning into further terms is relying on the moral force associated with these terms and their ability to influence people’s thinking. Racist political groups have a tendency to use these terms.

So we are left with one final question; why is anyone doing this research? This is the easiest question of them all. This is cool research. And I mean really cool. Doing it is so fun, it’s better than drinking tequila shots (Actually, I hardly drink and don’t like tequila, but you get my point).

This is the best research that’s going on right now. In terms of the methodology being used, the theoretical organization of the field, and the people involved, there is probably nowhere you can find a more dynamic and intelligent crowd. Cracking the code of human nature; who wouldn’t want to do it?

But that’s the problem. It’s like a big puzzle, and I mean the kind that comes in pieces and you put together with your kids. It’s just a big game. A big Sodoku puzzle that’s so hard, no one can finish it, but even solving one piece makes you feel great.

Having said all this, I suppose I have to finish on a harsh note. Don’t listen to these people. They maybe cool. They may be hip. They may have the best stuff to talk about at the cocktail party. But they can not tell you one single iota of information that you need to know about what influences your life. Maybe one day they will, but that day is not today. They can tell you a bunch of stuff that sounds really ‘scientific’ and informed. But it’s not. It’s a myth. It’s a story. It’s a ritual that makes a certain kind of sense among a particular group of scientists. And until that day is when they have a really powerful theory, there are no ideas, concepts, or theories in computational models of mind, Evolutionary Psychology, or Sociobiology that can even begin to challenge the common sense judgments of someone with a little bit of life experience.

June 26, 2006 | Permalink

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I haven’t check all your links, but it seems to me that you might be missing one important source of public (i.e. non-specialized) discussion of these issues by leading thinkers in the field: The New York Review of Books (not to be confused with the NY Times Book review). I highly recommend searching with these terms in their archives. Some articles may cost a few dollars to download, but it is worth it:

For instance, this debate between Pinker and Searle.

Posted by: Kerim Friedman | June 26, 2006 at 20:30

Here is another one.

Posted by: Kerim Friedman | June 26, 2006 at 20:31

Kerim, thank you for thes addition references. My intent was not to post a thorough review of the literature. The main focus of my posting is to contrast ‘scientific’ explanations for a human action with ‘folk’ explanations – like the kind used extensively in most Social Sciences. My main point – which I will continue to make ad naseum – is that explanations derived from what is now called Evolutionary Psychology lack pretty much usefulness to policy makers but probably also to Social Scientists in other disciplines.

Can you image doing an ethnography that reviews the literature on Evolutionary Psychology in a way that sheds light on a cultural phenomenon? Can you image a research-based policy based on Evolutionary Psychology that makes recommendations that could not be derived from ‘folk’ Psychology? I notice that nowhere in your own dissertation do you cite research from this body of literature.

Until someone proves to me otherwise, I will continue to view this research as about as useful as a science fiction novel. I will continue to discuss policy in terms of personal choice. And I will continue to believe it is this imprecision of prediction that allows this particular genre of research to be manipulated for a wide range of contradictory political beliefs.

Posted by: Scott Sommers | June 27, 2006 at 06:33

The point that you are making is that they are not adding anything new to psychology.

The point that Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin are making is that Evolutionary Psychology fundamentally misunderstands evolutionary theory.

I think Gould and Lewontin’s argument is important for understanding why EP is bad science. It isn’t bad science because it fails to be predictive. There are many sciences that are not predictive: Linguistics and Economics among them. Now, as an anthropologist I abhor the many problematic assumptions of these disciplines, but at the same time I admit there is some value to providing simple explanations for complex phenomenon. Moreover, as Gould says:

“Evolutionary psychology could, in my view, become a fruitful science by replacing its current penchant for narrow, and often barren, speculation with respect for the pluralistic range of available alternatives that are just as evolutionary in status, more probable in actual occurrence, and not limited to the blinkered view that evolutionary explanations must identify adaptation produced by natural selection.”

Similarly, in Searle’s piece on Pinker’s earlier book – where he takes on computational psychology/linguistics, Searle makes a very useful argument:

“But I do insist that we need to distinguish between the sense of such notions as “information processing” and “computation” where they are dependent on outside observers, as when we say for example that my computer is processing information right now when I type into it, or the medulla processes information when it regulates my breathing, from the sense of these notions which is independent of observers, as when I am consciously computing my income tax or consciously processing information when I think about how to explain my views in a letter to The New York Review.

In the observer-relative sense just about any system can be described as computing and processing information. The stomach computes and processes information during digestion, and trees process information when they take in information about the cycle of the seasons and print it out in the form of rings in the trunk. Unless you keep clear about these two senses of these and related notions you are going to make some serious mistakes.”

Posted by: Kerim Friedman | June 27, 2006 at 07:15

In fact, I agree with Pinker’s assessment of Gould’s research. I never much liked the Mismeasure of Man and saw it more as a statement about how bad research methodology used to be. Experimental methodology is far more powerful these days and results far more consistent. That’s the problem with Evolutionary Psychology. Despite this, the findings don’t mean anything. There is something inherently flawed in the theoretical system that makes it impossible to develop useful results. Sure, this is what Searle is getting at, but the real problem is much deeper. The state of the science is so primitive that even correcting for the overt problems, it will still tell you nothing. It’s like talking to Aristotle about space travel. While he may have some great ideas, since he isn’t arguing from an empirically consistent, he has no ability to even imagine what gravitation is. Any theory he suggest, such as attributing consciousness to inanimate objects, has such poor robustness anyone can make it say anything they want – and this would include the unscrupulous. .

I disagree that Linguistics and Economics are not predictive. Certainly in Linguistics, there are many useful predictions we can make, and as a language teacher, I make them all the time. My course design is a prediction and I do formal assessments of the results. The tests we wrote when I was Test Coordinator are systematically rewritten based on results of analysis of their outcomes. Sometimes our rewrites work, sometimes they do not. But we do have a systematic and very powerful method to assess whether or not the outcomes are what we want. Not only that, but the predictions we derive from this analysis are so robust and powerful that we can know whether or not our evaluations and teaching methods are working.

Evolutionary Psychology has no such derivable technology, and as such, it is far more effective to stick with ‘folk’ science that attributes autonomy and spirituality to choice and decisions.

Posted by: Scott Sommers | June 27, 2006 at 09:42

I am not sure if this post or the previous post is more appropriate place to ask this but where would you place the theories of Pierre Bordieu in this? On the folk side?

My own inclinations lean toward proces thought which shares characteristics of the evolutionary position but admits there can be regression as well as progress.

Posted by: Jerome | June 27, 2006 at 10:10

Good descriptive science can be predictive in a limited sense – as long as new behavior is roughly the same as the previous behavior being described. Thus, economics can tell us what a business cycle looks like, and we can use that information as long as the next one looks like the last one – but it cannot predict changes to that cycle. The people who beat the stock market are those who have the best inside information, not those with the best economic theory. Economics is doomed to not be predictive because it’s models depend on a reductionist model of human behavior which has little to do with how humans actually behave. However, economists are unwilling to adapt their model because doing so would make it difficult to apply the same mathematical tools that they currently use. I’m saying that this is fine, as long as the limits of the model are understood and accepted. And they are – by most economists – just not by the politicians and mainstream media who wish to use economic theory to justify social policy. (Or judges. My college thesis was a sociological critique of the Law and Economics movement as applied to tort law.)

You yourself make a stinging criticism of linguistics above, although you claim to be talking about evolutionary psychology. Language, like economics, is a fundamentally social behavior, and while it is useful to ignore that to create mathematical models of linguistic behavior, we must remember what is lost in making such assumptions.

Finally, whatever you think of Gould’s earlier research, the argument about what constitutes an adaptive behavior is pretty solid. There is no reason to assume that every observable psychiatric behavior is mappable on to a specific adaptation.

Posted by: Kerim Friedman | June 27, 2006 at 12:43

There is no reason to assume that every observable psychiatric behavior is mappable on to a specific adaptation.

Yes, but since the ev psych crowd doesn’t claim this, it’s a non-criticism. Ev psych argues that our brains are wired for the environment we grew up in in Africa, and that human cognitive processes can only understood against that background.

See this primer on ev psych for starters.

In fact, I think there is little to distinguish the 2 models.

They are fundamentally different approaches to understanding human behavior. There’s a long article in Tooby and Cosimides’ _The Adapted Mind_ that you should read on this very topic.

I am saying that explanations derived from what Michael Turton has referred to as ‘folk science’ have much more power, much more meaning, and much more effect on our ability to understand and manipulate the world around us.

“folk psychology” not “folk science.” And it is precisely those folk psychological explanations that ev psych attempts to exploit and explain. One question that dominates ev psych is why do we hold these folk beliefs?

I think there are quite a lot of misunderstandings here that can be straightened out with a little reading.

And as a result, computational models of mind, theories of Evolutionary Psychology and Sociobiology have failed as policy science. There are no computational psychologists or evolutionary biologists on the National Security Council.

The absence of particular groups or representatives of those groups means nothing as far as their ability to explain human behavior is concerned. Statistical and logical theories about mate selection, cheat detection, and so on, have little application to national policy matters — no model of the mind is ever going to tell us the proper way to site incinerators — because such questions — as are most public policy questions — are questions of values that cannot be solved by greater knowledge of the human mind and its vagaries. The proper role of scientists in public policy is advisory, not decision-making. But that does not mean that at some level evolutionary explanations lack explanatory power. There are no gravitational experts on the NSC or other major policy bodies either, but nobody cites that as a reason to disbelieve in the work of gravitational physicists.


Posted by: Michael Turton | June 27, 2006 at 13:53

Jerome, Bordieu is definately ‘folk’. He assumes that people make choices that are not reducable to neural networks in your brain. Or at least he doesn’t talk about them..=

Kerim, the fact that the predictive power of economics or linguistics does not detract from the fact that this is possible. My point is that the predictions made in Evolutionary Psychology are so trite as to have no meaning.

Michael, you’re going to have to do more than say Kerim and I need to read more to convince there is ANY practical knowledge to be gained from Evolutionary Psychology.

It is a common for participants in academic debates to perceive theoretical advancements as dramatic changes. It is fashionable now to call such advancements ‘paradigm shifts’. My point about Sociobiology and Evolutionary Psychology is not that the shift has not had significant effect on the scientists in this field. Rather, my point is that Evolutionary Psychology is merely the reflection of developments in Sociobiology and not something quantitatively different.

Even back as a student, there were many Sociobiologists interested in the issue of proximate causation. The discussions of Evolutionary Psychology are hardly novel in this respect. One of the main theorists of that time, Donald Symons, is now being called a pioneer of Evolutionary Psychology. But I have met Dr. Symons personally, and back in 1985, he WAS called a Sociobiologist. What else could he have called himself back them?

As I pointed out, how many people would call themselves a Sociobiologist anymore? to do so is to invited attack. Besides, the study of evolution and human behaviour has moved on.

It is not so easy to dismiss the fact that no practical knowledge has ever come from these theories. If they truely are powerful models of human behaviour, they can be applied to other problems.

Your example of gravitational experts on the NSC seems to miss my point about policy. Policy questions address valued problems, but they themselves are merely the engineering of a solution to that problem. The bureaucrats in the MOE are not there to judge the orders of the Premier’s office, but to carry them out with their vast knowledge of the field. The fact that such people are NEVER Evolutionary Psychologists, though sometimes they are Psychologists, says to me something about the value of their science. In fact, as far as I know, there has NEVER been a policy suggestion derived from Evolutionary Psychology that would not have been derived from common sense, not in governance, not in business, not in counseling, nowhere.

Posted by: Scott Sommers | June 27, 2006 at 14:19

Hey guys,

I’ve been following these two posts and the comments with great interest; I am reluctant to comment as I think I am out of my depth.

However, I would like to comment on/inquire into two matters. Firstly, common sense. I was surprised and impressed when Searle commented that he didn’t know what common sense was. It bears considering, what the content of common sense is. Perhaps it can be defined as the general and practical functioning of the mind. It might include what philosophers used to call (or maybe still do call) the laws of thought, which (I am assuming) are represented in the grammar of all languages; common sense would also include knowledge and classifications, which would vary from “culture” to “culture”; it might include our sense of degree, of someone being somewhat bodacious and another being very bodacious; it might also include a sense of whether something makes sense in context; and finally it would include our decision making and choice processes. I apologize if this list is too ad hoc. My point is that Pinker and the cognitive scientists are trying to understand how common sense works, how do we get it, and their explanations are in scientific terms. Pinker says somewhere, I think in How the Mind Works, that the task of cognitive science is to explain something that seems so natural and normal but is in fact extraordinary, namely the nature and function of common sense. (This is not to say common sense is always or usually right. It’s one of the missions of science to correct common sense, the issue of “race” being only skin deep being a good example). I suspect that explaining common sense is going to have to be a multidisciplinary enterprise, with the participation of epistemologically conservative (not brainlessly reductionist) evolutionary psychologists, linguists, economists, anthropologists, archeologists and men and women of good sense and practical experience. Pinker can’t set himself up as an expert as the field is too vast and preliminary. However, I think it unwise to suggest that one of these fields has nothing to offer. Every field (I assume) has something of relevance to offer, though what is offered will be on a different level depending on the discipline. A focused sociological study on the increase in smoking will be the best place to turn for a policy maker in search of a scientific opinion on the issue. But the person doing or evaluating research on the phenomenon would, I think, be wise to cast their hermeneutic net as widely as possible.

To get back to my first point, I’m simply saying that we cannot simply praise common sense or explain our functioning by appeals to “common sense.”

Second, the issue of “choice” and “spirituality”. I did not get the sense from Pinker that he wishes our thinking and decision making to be seen as automatic and deterministic. He says somewhere (sorry, I haven’t read this stuff in a long time) that deterministic has become a term of abuse with little meaning. Perhaps “causal” would have been less contentious term to use. Our thinking, our choices are set within the continuum of cause and effect. This is not to say every cause has a single effect like billiard balls. Effects which we perceive as distinct from the rest of the continuum might have multiple causes, multiple to the point where our tools of analysis cannot tease them all out. I suspect that human behaviour is one of these overdetermined phenomena that is beyond our science. My point is that I’m still curious what the cognitive scientists have to say about how I think; I don’t feel comfortable appealing to “choice” and “spirituality,” as if these terms explain anything. They’re not explanations, they’re ad hoc assumptions. How do I make my choices, when do I decide to just make the goddamn choice instead of mulling it over for another several minutes or months? I think the neural networks people have something to say about this process, even though they may be getting their inspiration from logicians and philosophers, and even though, as Scott has argued powerfully, their results are at present uninspiring. I suppose in our daily lives we do have to appeal to ad hoc ideas like free will and choice and spiritual freedom; but at the same time I am interested in causal explanations of thought and human behavior. I might still want to cling to the idea of free choice (with the constraints imposed by human existence in specific situations), but even in that case Pinker and his ilk have something to tell me about the tools at my disposal, the unconscious processes I exploit while I make my decisions.

I was quite amazed at the level of misunderstanding in the Book Review articles. Is this typical of progress in knowledge? I certainly hope I have not misunderstood to such an extent.

Sorry to ramble on so much. Thanks.

Posted by: Darryl Sterk | June 27, 2006 at 16:45

Rather, my point is that Evolutionary Psychology is merely the reflection of developments in Sociobiology and not something quantitatively different.

Scott, please track down and read a copy of _The Adapted Mind_ (you can start with this (Is ev psych sociobiology?) I’m not arguing further on this point. Confusing the two is a common error; many people do it deliberately because they dislike the implications of being evolved organisms in an indifferent universe running on selection processes.

There is an ev psych FAQ by Hagen here

Happy reading.


Posted by: Michael Turton | June 27, 2006 at 19:14

Michael, Do I seem to you to be uninformed about evolutionary principles or their application to human behaviour? I can only assume that’s your impression since your arguments are turning toward the stock defenses of the field. To imply that I do not understand the distinction you are making would be wrong. I just don’t think it’s as important as you seem to think it is. I can also assure you that I have no problem with the idea of humans being evolving organisms in an indifferent universe running on selection processes.

My problem is and always has been that Evolutionary Psychology does not work and in its current state is merely cocktail party conversation. It does not tell you anything of consequence, and that this has significant implications. Whether or not there is an historical connection with Sociobiology is a question that should be left to historians of science and not the actual scientists doing the research. Besides, it’s really not a very important question in all of this.

I can only presume that you have not read Lionel Tiger or Donald Symons’ early work. While it may seem very clear today who is and isn’t a Sociobiologist, this is a recent theoretical innovation. At least some of the people that Evolutionary Psychologists are calling Evolutionary Psychologists used to be called Sociobiologists. If the distinction is so clear, how did this happen? Or am I just wrong?

Posted by: Scott Sommers | June 27, 2006 at 21:24

Darryl, Perhaps you are right that ‘determinism’ is the wrong concept to frame Pinker’s discussion in. In fact, I referred repeatedly to the concept of prediction in my first post. If we are not talking about prediction and its sister concept control, then we are only talking about explanation. And in that case, why should or even would there be any merit in choosing scientific terms and not other more ‘folksy’ terms for this explanation? It would seem to me that to justify the use of scientific methods and terminology in this discussion, prediction and control would have to be the ultimate goal.

There have been for centuries other directions of inquiry into ‘common sense’. In fact and, as I have pointed out repeatedly, these other avenues have been much, much more productive. Scientific attempts at answering these questions are relatively new and may one day produce powerful results. One of my criticism is the presumed advantage of a poorly formed incorporation of evolutionary theory. A more significant problem though is the justification of a scientific approach. Since we all agree that predictive power is not the advantage that this direction is bringing to the discussion, what is that advantage?

Posted by: Scott Sommers | June 28, 2006 at 09:41


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