Tuesday, September 16, 2014
There is a rambling and imperfectly critical, but nonetheless interesting article on the history of evolutionary psychology (EP) at The Nation.
In each case, we are presumed to believe in the phenomenon under analysis already. All we require is an explanation, a story that tells us why we are the way we are. Ultimately, the explanation is always the same: evolution—i.e, reproductive advantage. Click on one of these stories and you will find two things: first, the results of a recent psychological study that verifies an observation about a common human behavior; and second, an evolutionary explanation for why that behavior was advantageous for our ancestors. Because their standard operating procedure is to begin from behaviors that they perceive as universal (despite the fact that blond hair, for example, could hardly be considered universally valorized), evolutionary psychologists tend to confirm received wisdom. Many EP studies tautologically assert that widely held social values are... well, widely held. Study finds that most men are attracted to women who are deemed conventionally attractive by society!The authors do well to show that EP is used to "explain" things many of us wish we understood better, and that many people buy these "just so stories", but I think they fall short in addressing the larger picture of why such claptrap seems to fill the void for so many.
It would take volumes to fully explain the disturbing popularity of EP, but I'll try a quick stab at it in the form of a question and an answer, followed by some relevant quotes I turned up: In an age of militant skepticism, and in a society that respects reason as if it were an occult art (because so many have become unable to practice it), what will people turn to to explain phenomena they want to understand? Something they are told is "science", and that has surface credibility would be a strong candidate. (Additionally, since we can't expect everyone to be professional philosophers, we can see the failure of professional intellectuals -- like that of journalist John Tierney -- permeating this story.)
Interestingly, three consecutive quotes on science appearing in the Ayn Rand Lexicon are also relevant to this question. (Please follow links for citation data.) These point to the rest of the picture.
First, we have this:
Science was born as a result and consequence of philosophy; it cannot survive without a philosophical (particularly epistemological) base. If philosophy perishes, science will be next to go.And this decline is because...
It is not the special sciences that teach man to think; it is philosophy that lays down the epistemological criteria of all special sciences.Centuries of bad philosophy have permeated the culture, causing people understandably not to rely on it, or to use it to evaluate propositions, whether or not they purport to be scientific. But, as Ayn Rand famously pointed out in "Philosophy: Who Needs It", human beings need guidelines to think and will end up finding (or absorbing from the culture) substitutes, like religion or pseudoscience.
And so we see science collapsing, even as people turn to it for answers instead of (and/or without the aid of) philosophy:
The disintegration of philosophy in the nineteenth century and its collapse in the twentieth have led to a similar, though much slower and less obvious, process in the course of modern science.Evolutionary psychology explains human behavior no better than any religious creation myth, its lip-service to psychology, biology, and other sciences notwithstanding. Its popularity is a sign of cultural collapse, rather than of merit.
Today’s frantic development in the field of technology has a quality reminiscent of the days preceding the economic crash of 1929: riding on the momentum of the past, on the unacknowledged remnants of an Aristotelian epistemology, it is a hectic, feverish expansion, heedless of the fact that its theoretical account is long since overdrawn—that in the field of scientific theory, unable to integrate or interpret their own data, scientists are abetting the resurgence of a primitive mysticism. In the humanities, however, the crash is past, the depression has set in, and the collapse of science is all but complete.
The clearest evidence of it may be seen in such comparatively young sciences as psychology and political economy. In psychology, one may observe the attempt to study human behavior without reference to the fact that man is conscious. In political economy, one may observe the attempt to study and to devise social systems without reference to man.
It is philosophy that defines and establishes the epistemological criteria to guide human knowledge in general and specific sciences in particular. [bold added]