Pseudo-Psychological Creation Myths

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.

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]
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.

-- CAV


Steve D said...

I agree. In reference to this quote:

'In psychology, one may observe the attempt to study human behavior without reference to the fact that man is conscious'

The apparatus capable of supporting consciousness evolved by natural selection; consciousness itself may have (depending on the theory you support) but what we do with it is our choice.

Evolution by direct effect or side effect created a conscious being with free will and capable of language and reason. It lost control after that. (pardon the anthropomorphism in the last sentence but it seemed the best way to express the thought:) We can build fantastic societies, spreading our memes and genes or go celibate in the desert, or knock ourselves off with nuclear weapons – our decision and each of us make them individually.

Gus Van Horn said...

I have noted here in the past (several times, I believe) that, apart from the silly appeals to evolution that EP, as a form of determinism, is wrong.

Steve D said...

Furthermore, many of these so-called mental modules would necessarily involve dozens, if not hundreds of genes. Can you imagine how many genes we would need if even a small percentage of EP claims were true? Exactly what is the genetic mechanism? To believe in EP you have to believe that genes are magic - that they can do absolutely anything you ask of them including making us wear high heels or overriding our common sense and freewill if selection pressures dictate.
The theory of EP doesn’t make sense even if there weren’t reams of evidence against it. Here is an example: when female chimpanzees are raised in isolation are artificially inseminated and then give birth, most of the time they have no clue what that baby chimpanzee is much less how to care for it. They generally just drop it and walk off. So much for the so called motherly instincts; I’m pretty sure if chimps don’t have it; humans don’t either.

Gus Van Horn said...

"To believe in EP you have to believe that genes are magic - that they can do absolutely anything you ask of them including making us wear high heels or overriding our common sense and freewill if selection pressures dictate."

This illustrates two aspects of the crux of the problem.

(1) Philosophically, most people have no idea of how one would defend free will, or that a theory espousing determinism needs defense, or even that the contradiction of determinism with evidence (available from introspection) of free will should make them seriously doubt EP, or at least give them pause about it.

(2) And so, to laymen, who have no clue how genes operate, either in terms of evolution or what it would take for them to affect behavior, genes might as well be magic.

Laymen are stuck with having to take experts' words on things, and aren't even armed against silliness like this with so much as a suspicion that it's a bunch of hot air.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post Gus. I found EP to be loaded with determinism. You rightly point out that with the disintegration of philosophy, science would follow. I'm reminded of Neil DeGrasse Tyson, a scientist who eschews philosophy. The guy does not realize he is undermining his own profession. Is it any wonder we see so much pseudo-science permeating our culture? I know I am sick of it.

Bookish Babe

Gus Van Horn said...


A quick look at the Wikipedia entry on Tyson demonstrates the power of philosophy that Rand argued for, but he denies.

Tyson holds that "[S]cience literacy [is] kind of a vaccine against charlatans who would try to exploit your ignorance," and yet he held, in a PSA for PETA, that "You don't have to be a rocket scientist to know that kindness is a virtue."

You needn't be a scientist to see what is wrong with the notion of animal "rights", but without an explicit philosophy, you can be an eminent spokesman for science and fall for the notion. Worse, you can lend the prestige of science to a cause that demonstrably deserves ridicule.

Thanks for bringing up such a good example.


Steve D said...

Nature versus nurture? And the winner is…free will.

You don’t even need introspection. One need only glance around to see that determinism does not and could not possibly explain human behavior; neither in its nature nor nurture version. The nurture version of determinism may partially explain other advanced mammals such as apes and the nature version may well describe lower forms of life. For example, given enough data you might be able to predict the behavior of a bacterium completely and much of my job assumes we can at least in principle predict how a plant will behave. However, if there is a causal relationship in humans, it would have to work the other way. It is possible that given a long enough time span, human volition and behavior could drive human evolution; the other way around is not possible. Call it the inverse of EP (PE) if you will.

The reason humans went to the moon and dolphins did not is not our opposable thumbs; although they did come in handy to get that Lunar Lander down in the right spot.

I’ve often thought Gus; that one reason concepts like free will and the efficacy of our senses are so bitterly opposed is because they are almost self-evidently correct (just need a little introspection as you say). But the arrogant professor can launch into a long condescending spiel of nonsense to “refute” them, and then in pure Socratic style say; “See, you don’t know as much as you think you know.”
Unfortunately the ‘gene is magic’ meme is to some degree even held by some experts who should know better; people I know and have worked with in the past. If not; ‘gene is magic’, then the more moderate version; ‘well I’m sure the gene could at least do this, right?’ even if to do so would make it near miraculous.

Gus Van Horn said...


A quick note on introspection...

I'd have to think a bit to conclude one way or the other whether I agree with your contention that you needn't use it to defend free will, but at minimum, I am stressing that it is a valid line of evidence. I learned some time back that many people do not consider it, and so I find it worth mentioning it, particularly in discussions of determinism vs. free will.


Steve D said...

I certainly do not disagree with that point. However, multiple lines of incontrovertible evidence are no doubt possible. My question is; is it possible for humans to have accomplished everything they have without free will?

OTOH, (self)consciousness and freewill may simply be different terms for essentially the same thing.

Gus Van Horn said...


Yes, there could be more than one line of incontrovertible evidence.

I'd say that free will and self-awareness are different phenomena, with the latter being a necessary, but not sufficient condition for the former, which is, as I believe Harry Binswanger has called it, cognitive self-regulation.


Snedcat said...

Yo, Gus, my first thought about that article is, yep, trying to tie scientific trends to the character of the economic system (and in such a bastardized manner, no less) immediately discredits the intellectual independence of the authors. When they write, In each case, we are presumed to believe in the phenomenon under analysis already. All we require is an explanation..., we can see they are guilty of the same crime, only they take bastardized Marxism as providing the putative explanation. (Note too that it takes only one aspect of the economic system, and that mostly based on stereotypes among lefty radicals, as explaining scientific discourse. It is exactly as ill-founded as the science studies crowd trying to explain all of the history of science by socio-economic factors, and it is as arbitrary, silly, and typically utterly ignorant of history as that crowd.)

However, the quote is still true. I've read a fair amount of EP, and lots of EP-inspired Internet chatter. What amuses and bemuses me is the tendency of certain lumpen-EPers to attack Freudianism as a criminal affront to science and the truth that's wrong from head to toe, then turn right around and offer EP "explanations" for quintessentially Freudian ideas--penis envy, for example, or different kinds of female orgasm. They're nonsense, yet they're nonsense so deeply imbedded in the thought of our benighted age that these particular EPers accept them as scientifically established phenomena.

Gus Van Horn said...


You make two incisive observations that threaten to cause me to pull my hair out of my head:

(1) On the authors: "[W]e can see they are guilty of the same crime, only they take bastardized Marxism as providing the putative explanation..."

(2) On EPers vs. Freudians: "[C]ertain lumpen-EPers to attack Freudianism as a criminal affront to science and the truth that's wrong from head to toe, then turn right around and offer EP "explanations" for quintessentially Freudian ideas..."

There is truly a misunderstanding on the part of many people out there as to what counts as an explanation these days, isn't there?


Steve D said...


So basically they explain a non-existent phenomenon with an incorrect theory. Ha!


Snedcat said...

Steve D writes, "So basically they explain a non-existent phenomenon with an incorrect theory." Yep, exactly. Another sad example of that that comes to mind is the feminist SF writer Joanna Russ. In one of the essays collected in a famous book on women and SF, she made quite good comments about feminist psychologists who start with Freud and just try to flip his views of women, despite the fact that the whole theory is dubious. Then, in another of her essays, she takes a heavily Marxist view of things to conclude that the worries so often expressed over the dangers of technology are really just expressions of a deep-seated fear of capitalism.

It's a perfect example of the fact I often point out that despite the claims of its theorist adherents, feminism is not a fundamental alternative to the mainstream--it's a grab-bag of philosophical approaches with the fundamental contradictions between them smoothed over by the broad claim that feminism is just the belief in the equality of the sexes (never mind the raving loony misandrists whom mainstream-ier feminists sort of chuckle at with embarrassment like crazy cousins--part of the family, you know, so we have to put up with them...). You can see that it's not a fundamental alternative, however, if you just consider the simple question, equal in what way? More deeply, even if men and women are equal in the view of a particular feminist, that says nothing about the nature of those equal beings, and there you get into fundamental philosophical questions...questions that are usually begged or ignored by feminists, who instead peddle shopworn, unexamined intellectual goods.