Sunday, October 15, 2006

A Critique of Evolutionary Psychology

HT: J. D. Walters


Edwardtbabinski said...

"Evolutionary Psychology" is one thing, but hypotheses concerning the moral sense in general seem on increasingly solid ground, as even Mary Midgley has admitted (and she is no friend of evolutionary psychologizing).

Has anybody here read Marc Hauser's book, Moral Minds? or at least read reviews that synopsize that author's research and points? Dawkins included several good points from Hauser's book in his own recent work, The God Delusion, as did Frans de Waal in his recent debate book, Primates and Philosophers.

Ben Z said...

I'm surprised no one ever seems to discuss Kohlberg's stages of moral development in these kinds of discussions.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Unfortunately, that paper is sort of confused and excessively overstates its claims. Most of it would have easy answers from the Dawkins types. It reads like it was by someone who recently learned a little developmental biology, realized that Dawkins and the like are ignorant of developmental biology, and just spouted some facts from the science. Unfortunately, most of these facts could be addressed by Dawkins (e.g., a mother caring for rat pups changes gene expression in the pups' brains: Dawkins can just say that the genes that regulate these genetic responses in pups were selected in evolution because [plug in evolutionary scenario here].).

(You might suggest that we instead focus on the hormonal bath that developing fetuses are exposed to: e.g., perhaps a stressed-out mother can produce offspring with different brains than a content mother because of all the 'adrenaline' being pumped into its developing body. This would be interesting, but the hormonal bath and the embryonic response is analogous to the mother's behavior and the pup's genetic response so again it isn't an obviously good attack on Dawkins.)

The one bit he points out that Dawkins etc would have trouble with is the fact that the oocyte (egg) contains proteins and mRNA that plays a strong role in directing embryogenesis, but these molecules are not part of the genome of the progeny. However, this isn't enough to damn the whole project, and until we know how much such oocytic molecules influence psychological development, we can't say how it influences the Dawkins types. Also, he is wrong to say that this is evidence of Lamarckian evolution (this would only be true if these molecules were acquired characteristics, which they aren't).

The weakness of this paper is unfortunate, as a good case against overconfident evolutionary psychologists can be made. For one, as the author points out, most evolutionary psychologists know little about the development of phenotypes. The thing is, it isn't enough to just shotgun these facts out there and pretend they are all relevant: many of them, such as the one I mentioned above, can easily be incorporated into panselectionism. A more cautious, detailed analysis of a single claim needs to be made, and thoroughly argued: I'm sure this shotgun approach will intimidate some philosophers into being impressed, but it is a house of cards.

More damning for evo psych is that they illicitly assume that modules exist, and (worse) that if modules exist they can be independently modified by evolution (when a quick review of developmental neurobiology reveals that this is speculative at the very best).

Anonymous said...

I agree with you on this one, BDK. I posted that paper a long time ago and, after thinking about it a little more, subsequently forgot about it. I found a much more rigorous critique in Kenan Malik's "Man, beast and zombie", which I highly recommend.