Never Is A Long Time

Johan Bolhuis in a recent Science book review:

Richardson … follows arguments by Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin that natural selection, although of crucial importance, is not the only factor in evolution. The main problem with evolutionary psychology is that it usually does not consider alternative explanations but takes the assumption of adaptation through natural selection as given. … Richardson concludes that we simply lack the historical evidence for a reconstruction of the evolution of human cognition. … Richardson rightly suggests that paleontologists are unlikely to unearth the evidence that can inform us about the social structure of our ancestral communities.

I think one can go a step further. Even if we would be able to muster the evidence needed for an evolutionary psychological analysis of human cognition, it would not tell us anything about our cognitive mechanisms. The study of evolution is concerned with a historical reconstruction of traits. It does not, and cannot, address the mechanisms that are involved in the human brain. Those fall within the domains of neuroscience and cognitive psychology. In that sense, evolutionary psychology will never succeed, because it attempts to explain mechanisms by appealing to the history of these mechanisms.

What is the implicit time scale for these claims?  We are "unlikely to unearth the evidence" in – a decade?  A century?  Never?  And what should we believe until then?  Bolhuis may seem to advocate the "rigorous" position of for now acting as if we knew nothing about the origins of our mental tendencies.  But in practice I think this reduces to the far-less-rigorous position of retaining our ordinary intuitive presumptions about this topic until we face overwhelming contrary evidence.

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  • gmlk

    Why “overwhelming evidence”?

    Shouldn’t any and all evidence which conflicts with our naive uninformed culturally biased intuition be used to adapt; To overcome the limitations of our intuition and gain a clearer view of reality?

  • Micke

    Richardson says that “paleontologists are”, whereas you say that “We are”. Unless you have become a paleontologist without telling us, I can only assume that you by “we” mean mankind. It would indeed seem ignorant to me to claim that mankind can’t ever find something out. It seems less ignorant to suggest that some particular branch of science can’t figure something out (because the solution is to be found elsewhere).

    You are simply not talking about the same thing.

  • poke

    Bolhuis’ “step further” is spot on and is all you need to know about the pseudoscience that is evolutionary psychology. It’s a straightforward confusion of explanation of a trait and explanation of the origin of the mechanism producing that trait. The two things are (apparently) easy to confuse because they can both be glossed in the language of intentionality. We could unearth all the available evidence of human evolution and it still wouldn’t amount to an explanation of human behavior.

  • Aaron Boyden

    Certainly the claims you quote about what will never be found are silly, but one thing anyone who investigates bias already knows is that little information can be worse than no information. We tend to greatly over-value evidence which agrees with our existing biases, and ignore evidence which conflicts with our existing biases, and so evidence which objectively amounts to little can end up being interpreted as strongly supporting our existing biases. Quite a lot of that seems to go on in evolutionary psychology. I am not one of those who thinks the solution to the problem is to stop looking at psychology from an evolutionary perspective, but I do think it’s a very serious problem which requires lots of attention.

  • Z. M. Davis

    Poke, re the “step further”: of course neuroscience and cognitive psychology are necessary for understanding human behavior, and of course a trait and its origin are different things. However, I don’t see how this makes evopsych an illegitimate endeavor. Evolutionary psychologists don’t work in ignorance and isolation of other fields. Using our knowledge of cognitive psychology, evolutionary biology, and the like, don’t you think it should be possible to come up with some useful ideas about how humans function, or how we came to be?

    Aaron is right. There’s a lot of crap out there. A lot of people just use evopsych as an excuse for their sexism. Yet I don’t think we should damn the entire field, just because of the foolishness and bias of a few–or many.

  • Q the Enchanter

    “evolutionary psychology will never succeed, because it attempts to explain mechanisms by appealing to the history of these mechanisms”

    And knowing the history of a mechanism is never any help in explaining that mechanism. Which is why, for instance, if you found an ancient, human-engineered artifact of unknown function, expertise in the history of science would be completely irrelevant to the reverse engineering project.

  • poke

    Z. M. Davis,

    Evolutionary psychology positions itself as an alternative to traditional psychology and sociology, i.e., a field that’s important to understanding human behavior rather than the origins of human behavior. I think we can talk about the evolution of neurobiology and evolution can inform neurobiology and therefore cognitive psychology and so forth. That’s all unproblematic. But systematically conflating the two is a real problem and appears to be what Toobey and Cosmides, Pinker, et al, have in mind.

  • anomdebus

    One way of determining some information about social structures of fossils would be to analyze how the fossils are found relative to each other.
    Solitary animals are more likely to be found alone. Pack animals are more likely to be found in bunches.
    Animals who care for their young would be more likely to be found near nests with young-lings.

  • spacenookie

    Brain mechanisms are coded for in the genes which *are* evolutionary history.

    The big difference between ev psych and cognitive psych is that cognitive psych started from the assumption that the brain is a beautifully designed computer and has only a few, high-level, modules (like modules in a computer system). Ev psych split off with the idea that the brain has many, many modules (modules in this case being individual genetic changes, each of which was advantageous in whatever environment it arose in).

    Ev psych includes the idea that there are a lot of social modules (adaptations) built into the brain, which you would naturally conclude if you think of the brain as a kluge built from thousands of adapted mutations. Whereas classical cog psych postulates the brain as a computer where you can put any program in there you like (i.e., blank slate).

  • Eliezer Yudkowsky

    The main problem with evolutionary psychology is that it usually does not consider alternative explanations but takes the assumption of adaptation through natural selection as given.

    For the benefit of those in the audience who may be less familiar with evolutionary psychology, I should translate this statement in plainer language:


  • Cyan

    Eliezer, I am a member of the audience who is less familiar with evolutionary psychology. Are you saying that taking the assumption of adaptation through natural selection as given is not a problem (or at least not the main problem), or are you saying that evolutionary psychology does in fact consider alternative explanations? (Or something else again?)

  • Frank Hirsch

    So this guy is actually saying that our knowledge about the processes that formed the receipe for our brain is in no way relevant to the formation and evaluation of hypotheses about the inner workings of said organ?
    If that’s the case he’s throwing potentially valuable evidence right out of the window…

  • Caledonian

    Cyan, the philosopher says field of inquiry X fails because it does not do Y, and then Eliezer mocks the philosopher as being an ignorant fool. Let us assume for the sake of argument that Eliezer has a good reason for doing so.

    Given that information and that assumption, what is a likely and relevant conclusion we can reach about X?

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    I don’t know the quality of the field of evolutionary psychology, by they have some cool journal article titles, judging by this list of recent Pinker publications:

  • Eliezer Yudkowsky

    What serious academic evolutionary biologists spend pretty much all day doing is asking how they can show that something is an adaptation for some specific purpose P. As opposed to being an adaptation for some other purpose, or a side effect of an adaptation, or a coincidental property, or a result of pollutants in the drinking water, etc.

    Academic evolutionary psychologists are a special case of academic evolutionary biologists.

    Stephen J. Gould and Richard Lewontin systematically misrepresented the nascent field of sociobiology to the public because it got in the way of their Marxism. Roughly, quoting Gould and Lewontin about how evolutionary psychology doesn’t consider alternatives to adaptation, is on the order of trying to refute evolutionary psychology by citing Margaret Mead on how the Samoans lack sexual jealousy.

  • Senthil

    There’s another way of looking at evolution which is explained in Darwin’s blind spot. It stresses on coevolution of species rather than natural selection. If what this book says explains the evolution of one or more species better than natural selection, a similar approach may be taken in evolutionary psychology as well.

  • Caledonian

    It stresses on coevolution of species rather than natural selection.

    Um, natural selection is a process or method, coevolution is a result. One is not an alternative for the other.

  • Frank Hirsch

    Senthil, you’re right that evolutionary psychology could adapt to any new findings in the field of evolution.
    But all confirmed biological phenomena are fully explicable by modern evolutionary theory. To swallow fictions a la Gaia theory you’d have to prefer consoling falsehoods to the uncaring truth, as people like Mary Midgley do.

  • wolf

    First time commenter. I believe there is a straw man in Bolhuis quote — the one Eliezer repeated and mocked appropriately: Bolhuis puts up the evolutionary psychologist as a fanatic, blind to alternative explanations. That is weak. There may be ignorant fools among evolutionary psychologists — but you will find those in any other field.

    But on the other hand, some evolutionary psychologists and sociobiologists (EP/SB) have made fools of themselves, thereby really endangering the discipline’s reputation as a whole. I mean those EP/SBs who fail to recognize that humans are not only driven by primitive evolutionary pressures, but that culture, education, societal values and the like may sometimes e.g. produce a male capable of being faithful or whatever other primitivisms the earlier EB/SBs have ascribed to us.

    Dawkins has argued that evolution is really acting blindly — it may produce something that has consequences beyond promoting the welfare of the genes as an “unintended” consequence (QMs because evolution is not an entity — it does not have any intentions, not even promoting the survival of the fittest). Thus, natural selection in the direct survival-of-the-fittest-way is surely not the only thing that shaped our cognitions. We humans may take the opportunity to act against the blind adaptionisms incorporated in our brains, because our brains are able to that. Still, that our brains are able to do that is surely also a consequence of evolution.

  • Frank Hirsch

    100% agree with your analysis.
    Our brain is shaped to provide evolutionary advantage. The ability to learn the things good and well, which happen to be crucial for the survival of our (individual, both ways) genes at large. There’s good slack in that requirement. Humans have gone the way of understanding (everything they can do, we can do meta 🙂 in a way probably unparalleled by any other species in our biosphere. We are better at abstracting than all our relatives (the rest of live on earth). But all the reflection we’ve got only allows us to intellectually transcend our evolutionary past. With a bit of education, that one’s quite easy (well, for us). So far, so good. The problem lies in emotionally transcending our past. That one is nigh impossible, I fear. But we are working on the problem… =)

  • Kenny Easwaran

    in practice I think this reduces to the far-less-rigorous position of retaining our ordinary intuitive presumptions about this topic

    Maybe that’s true for parts of the general public. But not at all for psychologists. Cognitive psychology has made huge advances in understanding how the mind works – but for some reason, the public only ever wants to hear about brain scans and evolutionary psychology.