Sad Hominid Arguments

by Henry on April 3, 2004

Via Tyler Cowen , a rather wonderful example of the absurdities of gung-ho evolutionary psychology. Edward H. Hagen, Paul J. Watson and J. Anderson Thomson Jr. propose that severe depression is adaptive – it serves a functional purpose. It compels others to help the victim and thus redounds to his or her long term advantage. In short, depression is “an unconsciously calculated gamble to gain greater long-term benefits.”

This is a near-perfect example of what might be dubbed (with no apologies whatsoever to Cosmides and Tooby) the Standard Evolutionary Psychology Model. First, take some human trait or behaviour. Bonus points if it’s something weird like slash fiction that’s likely to attract the interest of the Sunday supplement editors. Second, construct an ad hominid argument claiming that this trait or behaviour served some functional need for hunter-gatherers on the veldt. Third, use your findings to justify some right-wing shibboleth or another, showing that hunter-gatherer societies hardwire us for perfectly competitive markets or the like (in fairness, Hagen, Watson and Thomson jr. don’t do this). Fourth, write article. Repeat as often as necessary to get tenure and/or the attention of the popular press. Of course, at no stage of the process need you deign to provide convincing empirical evidence that might sully the clarity and vigour of your argument. It’s wretched stuff, that doesn’t do any favors to Darwinian theory. That our minds are undeniably the product of evolutionary forces doesn’t and shouldn’t provide a license for half-baked functionalist explanations of the psychology of everyday life.

{ 67 comments }

1

keef 04.03.04 at 7:02 pm

Whatever you do, don’t try to persuade one of these ev psych types (or their vile brethren, the memetics monomaniacs) that they are blowing hot air.

And pointing out that they should adduce some actual empirical evidence generally shows that you “just don’t get it.”

Well, no I don’t “get” armchair pseudo-scientists pumping out theories left and right and “explaining” everything and its opposite with whatever methane flies into their brains.

I am not a fan of this brand of idiocy.

k

2

grubstreet 04.03.04 at 7:09 pm

Another “just-so” story, this one of a particularly pernicious kind (anyone who thinks that severe depression gains you friends has been lucky enough never to suffer it). The “recipe” is spot-on, except it neglects the element of adolescent male fantasy that characterizes most of this stuff.

3

bill carone 04.03.04 at 7:26 pm

“Third, use your findings to justify some right-wing shibboleth or another, showing that hunter-gatherer societies hardwire us for perfectly competitive markets or the like (in fairness, Hagen, Watson and Thomson jr. don’t do this).”

The whole “right-wing” thing was just a cheap shot, right? Or are there actually more right-wing evolutionary arguments than left-wing?

“That our minds are undeniably the product of evolutionary forces”

This isn’t undeniable yet, is it?

4

Ophelia Benson 04.03.04 at 7:34 pm

“This isn’t undeniable yet, is it?”

As so often – depends how you define ‘undeniable.’ Of course anyone is at liberty to deny it. But the denials may not all that convincing. For example the question then becomes, if our minds are not a product of evolutionary forces, what are they a product of? Some sort of force that is immune to change? What would that be?

5

rilkefan 04.03.04 at 7:57 pm

This post is a nearly perfect example of the Science I Don’t Like Post – find someone working (perhaps dumbly) in a field that once had bad political associations and currently might support those whose politics you disagree with (say, global warming); rail against the political use of science (even if the current example isn’t political); then react in horror to the idea that scientists have careers.

6

asg 04.03.04 at 8:11 pm

The “right wing” comment made my jaw drop too. In my experience evolutionary psychology nonsense has been marshalled primarily to justify things like cultural and moral relativism, worldviews not typically associated with the right.

7

bill carone 04.03.04 at 8:22 pm

Ophelia,

“As so often – depends how you define ‘undeniable.’”

Proven beyond reasonable doubt (that is what I mean by “proof” from now on). For example,

– someone actually building a computer with the power of conceptual thought (I think the Turing test would be sufficient, but not necessary),
– massive evidence about the material process of conceptual thought i.e. how to build such a computer, even if it would be too expensive to actually do it,
– a proof of materialism.

None of these have happened yet, have they? If so, I’d like to know.

My understanding is that even the hard-line materialists (Dennett and Dawkins are the ones I’ve read the most of) haven’t claimed proof that the mind was evolved (as opposed to the brain/body). Their arguments have convinced me, but not beyond all reasonable doubt.

I would say that the evolution of the body and brain is undeniable. The mind is still under huge discussion, isn’t it (and I mean hugely huge, not just IDers)?

“Of course anyone is at liberty to deny it. But the denials may not all that convincing.”

Not being able to convince someone of X does not mean that X is false. To prove that X is false you need to show that X doesn’t match reality. It is smart to ignore people who can’t convince you, but you can’t say that they are wrong because of it.

“Some sort of force that is immune to change? What would that be?”

And, of course, you know the answer that a lot of people give: God (immaterial, eternal) endowed high-level primates with an intellect. The intellect is directly tied to the brain; it can’t function without it (e.g. purely physical brain damage affects the functioning of the intellect), so it isn’t some dualistic demi-angel, making the brain do things. (This is all from Aristotle and Aquinas; any mistakes are my own :-).

Do I believe this? No. Do I have many reasons not to believe it? Yes. But I certainly can’t disprove it yet, although we may in the future: the creation of the mind may go the way of creation of lightning, creation of stars, creation of animals, etc. But I don’t think it has yet.

8

John Quiggin 04.03.04 at 8:27 pm

Rather than right-wing, a more exact description would be “realist”. This is the kind of style of economic and political analysis that purports to strip away the illusions of idealistic rhetoric and reveal the underlying self-interest. The only question is to nominate the “self” that is interested.

For EvPSych theorists it’s supposedly the genes. However, they slip up surprisingly often and cite individually self-interested behavior in support of their model and against its putative enemy the Standard Social Science Model.

The results of this are normally, as Henry says, supportive of the free-market right, but the style of analysis is unappealing to the traditionalist right [most obviously to the majority of the US right who reject the theory of evolution in the first place]

9

Stephen 04.03.04 at 8:36 pm

Well, you do know that CRNA programs select for, among other things, mild OCD? Not too much (if you are on any active meds, you can’t get in, forget the usual laws prohibiting such discrimination), but enough (you need to have the concentration that you stay focused on the anesthesia for 8+ hours some times).

I’m at a loss to see the trait as beneficial in the stone age, but it is important in a number of professions now.

10

poster denied 04.03.04 at 9:10 pm

Well, I wanted to post a response to a comment, but the comments were closed:

“No, impossible. We all know that Vincent Foster was murdered by Hitlery, after Bill fathered a child by a black mother, “

Actually, I think everyone is pretty sure that Vincent Foster committed suicide and that Bill Clinton may have paid child support, but the poor kid flunked the DNA test he was talked into by a tabloid.

That whole tangled mess says many things.

11

Joe Carter 04.03.04 at 9:53 pm

That our minds are undeniably the product of evolutionary forces…

If it is undeniable then what warrant do you have for believing that statement (or any other ones) are “true.” As Alvin Plantinga explained over ten years ago, if evolutionary processess really produced our brains then it becomes its own defeater for the idea that our cognitive faculties can produce true belief.

12

Ophelia Benson 04.03.04 at 10:06 pm

Hmm. Did Platinga really explain it? Or did he just purport to. Or are you just claiming that he did.

13

Nat Whilk 04.03.04 at 10:27 pm

Ophelia Benson wrote:

“Hmm. Did Platinga really explain it? Or did he just purport to. Or are you just claiming that he did.”

Check out Cornell University Press’s _Naturalism Defeated?: Essays on Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism_ and decide for yourself. (Or check out C.S. Lewis’s _Miracles_, which seems to anticipate the crux of Plantinga’s argument.)

14

Keith M Ellis 04.03.04 at 10:45 pm

Evolutionary psychology is an empirical science, and Cosmides and Tooby’s Wason selection task experiments are a nice example of this.

The knee-jerk antipathy against evolutionary psychology/sociobiology is getting very tiresome to me. It’s clearly ideological and politically motivated, as Henry inadvertantly demonstrates. I’m just not seeing the sinister social darwinism from the majority of actual scientists in this field that Henry claims above. And not all its lay proponents are thus fairly characterized, either. I can say that I’m a leftist and someone that finds evolutionary psychology persuasive who has zero—zero—interest in using it to justify or further a right-wing social agenda.

What I do strongly suspect, though, is that the overwhelming majority of people on this planet are either explicitly or implicitly dualists, leftists included. Leftism has long been associated with a dualist “clean slate” position on mentality, and this is the real implicit political conflict. Similarly, many disciplines and intellectual traditions have a lot at stake in holding to an implicit or explicit dualist position on mentality.

Most everyone believes that the human mind is qualitatively exceptional or even unique in the universe. It’s my long-considered opinion that this is just stupid. Get over ourselves.

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DJW 04.03.04 at 10:59 pm

I don’t spend an awful lot of time reading defenses and attacks on Ev Psych/Sociobiology, but what I never see from the lay defenders is a methodological defense of functionalism. Most smart historians and social scientists figured out functionalist moves were fallacious decades ago, so I can’t figure out for the life of me why so many smart people are so willing to readily accept it when it comes to our brains.

16

chun the unavoidable 04.03.04 at 11:00 pm

Mutual Aid, Keith. Check it out. There’s more to life than Pinker.

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Ophelia Benson 04.03.04 at 11:24 pm

“The knee-jerk antipathy against evolutionary psychology/sociobiology is getting very tiresome to me.”

Yeah. There are quite a lot of entries relevant to this stuff in the cod dictionary my colleague and I have just finished writing. I kept asking if he wasn’t exaggerating and he said Nope, and I’m beginning to believe him.

(It will be out in October.)

18

Henry 04.03.04 at 11:52 pm

rilkefan – you don’t seem to have an argument as far as I can see – merely a claim (with no stated justification) that my motivation is a dislike of the politics. Wrong. If people came up (as a couple do, I believe) with sociobiological justifications for socialism, I’d find them equally unconvincing. My objection is to sloppy functionalism and ad-hoc explanations.

Keith – you’re attacking a bit of a straw man here mate. Indeed, it’s a _standardized_ straw man – a variant on the usual evolutionary psychology retort that any critics are blank-slater Luddites. Not so. The claims that (1) the human mind is the product of evolution, (2) that this is amenable to scientific study, and (3) that large portions of evolutionary psychology are pseudo-scientific nonsense are entirely compatible with each other. It’s an approach with low intellectual and evidentiary standards – some useful work, but also an awful lot of rubbish. As for your claim that “many disciplines and intellectual traditions have a lot at stake in holding to an implicit or explicit dualist position on mentality,” I presume that you’re referring to the notorious Cosmides and Tooby “Standard Social Scientific Model,” which is neither standard, nor social scientific, nor much of a model – it’s a convenient whipping boy that has absolutely nothing to do with social science as it is practiced in real life. There just aren’t many (or perhaps even any) real, mainstream social scientists who make these kinds of claims, or who make arguments that rest even implicitly on a blank slate model. Cultural anthropologists don’t count as social scientists by the way – they tend not to buy into the scientific enterprise at all.

DJW – I think that your claim that functionalist moves are fallacious is a bit too strong. There are legitimate functionalist explanations – it’s hard to explain the eye without reference to its functions of seeing, finding food, avoiding predators etc. The problem as I see it is when functionalism becomes an excuse for lazy, sloppy, ‘just so’ arguments, which are more grounded in the prejudices of the ‘scientist’ than in testable arguments, or in any real attention to the likely mechanisms of causation. I’ve read an awful lot of evolutionary psychology over the last few years (mainly where it touches on economic theory) that consists entirely of ‘just so’ arguments, and nothing else.

19

john c. halasz 04.03.04 at 11:54 pm

It seems to me that one should be wary of any identification of- or even parallelism between- so-called “mind” and the brain. “Mind”, in the fuller sense of the word, is largely a function of linguistic communication between brains, which maps out the world between them and permits the drawing of inferences and implications beyond any immediate or sensory context, and of the internalization thereof. So-called “mind” then would be more or less open-ended, irreducible to evolutionary or natural origins, though dependent on the processing substrate of the brain that sustains language and everything that feeds into it. (Brains themselves, furthermore, are analog pattern-matching devices, not digital computational devices with fixed curcuits; the analogy between computers and wet-ware is a bad one. Actual empirical research into the brain has, to an as yet uncertain extent, shown its “plasticity”, its remarkable capacity to “rewire” itself in an ongoing, evolving way.) Inquiry into the constraints, limits and biases, deriving from natural history, that inflect our mental operations or functionnings, can be a legitimate project. But such inquiry is a secondary matter: it does not amount to a definitive establishment of a pre-given “mind”. Furthermore, a ubiquitous appeal to adaption begs the question: adaption to what? As if cognition must necessarily be adaptive, else it wouldn’t exist at all, and as if adaption could criterially define cognition. And if one claims that what is adapted to is interaction with others, not an unreasonable supposition in the hominid case, then would not such interaction precisely tend to spiral out of a pre-given orbit?

For the rest, I would endorse djw’s point as to the poverty and dogmatism of purely functionalist constructions.

20

chun the unavoidable 04.03.04 at 11:56 pm

Deserving of further sociological study is the affinity the cultural right has for EP–the cruder, the better. I should clarify that by “cultural right,” I mean here the science warriors of the Gross & Levitt generations and assorted hangers-on. Note the shocking ineptness of Pinker’s Blank Slate book and Wilson’s Consilience.

Primitive anti-Freudianism explains part of it, as cultural criticism is always ultimately psychological, and EP might offer a more easily graspable and ideologically convenient model than Freud’s (or of the prevalent Freudo-Marxian syntheses).

21

Neil 04.03.04 at 11:59 pm

Is Evo psych right-wing? Not inherently (few research programs are inherently supportive of any ideology). Peter Singer has written a (spectacularly out of date) book recently called ‘A Darwinian Left’. Nevertheless, the left hates Evo psych for a reason: the majority of its prominent practioners (probably in order to gain publicitly, primarily) spend a lot of their time dreaming up bad arguments aiming to show that various inequalities are unavoidable, or avoidable only at unacceptable cost. Evidence: EO Wilson in ‘On Human Nature’ argues that greater equality for women than we have now (1978, actually) would imposed unacceptable costs on society. Buss (1984 and 2002) argues that men seek attractiveness in a partner (correlated with fertility, since you ask) while women seek wealth, and that this is hard-wired and unalterable. Pinker (2003) repeats the Murray and Herrnstein claim that Western society as we see it today is increasingly a meritocracy stratified on the lines of (heritable) intelligence. Baron-Cohen (2003) argues that with very rare exceptions women are incapable of understanding systems. Not to mention Singh influential work on waist-to-hip ratios, Daly and Wilson on infanticide, Thornhill and Palmer on rape…

These are leaders in their field. They expend a considerable amount of energy and ingenuity defending the status quo (or a former status quo). Their tools are not to blame; their bad arguments are (largely bad arguments, I should add: some of these folks are competent and interesting, esp. Daly and Wilson. As for the rest, they’re either real hacks, and the EP community should be ashamed for not distancing themselves from their work. or they’re comptent thinkers who inexplicably abandon all attempt at sensible argument when they get onto topics like sexual difference – Pinker and Baron-Cohen fall into this category). Darwinism is not right-wing (obviously, since its true, and the right is wrongheaded). EP is not inherently right-wing. But as it is actually practiced, it certainly has a strong conservative bias.

22

loy 04.04.04 at 1:20 am

Just read the original Hagen, Watson & Thomson piece. It seems so… modest. Consider:

“…a person suffering a major negative life event frequently needed help from social partners. Such events might have included death of a spouse, a relationship gone bad, or a failed project that degraded socioeconomic standing or reputation.” (p. 2) “Our theory is in accord with the common perception that depression and suicidality are ‘cries for help.'” (p. 3)

In other words: sometimes, people have it really bad in life, and need help from others. Their becoming depressed and even suicidal are often signals (intentional or otherwise) of this need for help. Nothing to dispute here. Onward to conclusion (skipping the ‘testing’ of the hypothesis itself):

“Our hypothesis suggests that when one’s usual labors run aground, depression leverages one’s value to others to overcome social barriers to future success.” (p. 5)

It can’t be that difficult to come up with an interpretation of this sentence so that it comes out commonsensically true. Next sentence:

“Depression’s communicative and extortionary powers depend on the interdependence of the depressed person and group members.” (ibid.)

Absolutely…how much help a person in trouble can expect to get or will get depends on the sorts of people he is in contact with and the sorts of ties he has with them. Next sentence:

“Today, many people live in large, anonymous cities, often far from families and close-knit support groups. People have jobs and even marriages where they can be more easily replaced than in the human EEA [environment of evolutionary adaptedness; i.e., think huntergatherers].” (ibid.)

That sounds right…Ceteris Paribus. So I can expect the grand conclusion:

“The intensity and incidence of MDD [Major Depressive Disorder; i.e, depression big time] may be increasing to overcome the weaker
inter-individual fitness ties of modern societies.”

When help is far away, or hard to get, the person in need of help gets more depressed…and finally:

“Medicine accepts that treating symptoms alone is a stopgap; identifying the underlying etiology, and treating with that in mind, is far preferable.”

So: If the reason why Bob is depressed is because his wife left him, pumping him full of drugs may not be the best solution…

I hate to say it but I’m at a loss here: is there something here that is actually controversial? Do people who, say, believe in Biblical Creationism disagree with the substance of the above? Conversely, do we really need “Darwinism analysis” (p. 6) to accept some version of the truth of the hypothesis proposed?

23

Neil 04.04.04 at 1:51 am

“In other words: sometimes, people have it really bad in life, and need help from others. Their becoming depressed and even suicidal are often signals (intentional or otherwise) of this need for help. Nothing to dispute here.”

Nothing to dispute here? Well, that depends on the interpretation of ‘signals’. One thing you could mean is that we take someone’s being depressed as a sign that something is wrong in their life. That’s commonsensical. But that’s not what is meant. EP holds that behaviors become genetically entrenched because our ancestors who exhibited them outperformed those who did not. On this view, depression would be a facultative adaptation to regularly occurring environmental situations. There is a great deal to dispute here. First, clinical depression is sadness out of proportion to, and sometimes with no relationship at all, to life events. What would trigger that that could be fitness-relevant? Second, there is an empirical question (on the supposition that we can answer the first question and show that there is a relationship between depression and environment): are the costs of depressions really outweighed by the gains in aid from others. Not here and now, but in the environment of evolutionary adaptation where the behaviour would have been laid down. Its extremely hard to see how the gains from being suicidal, in particular, can be outweighed by the costs.

Depression could be an adaptation. But the claim that it is is far from commonsensical. Its far more likely to be a by-product of adaptations. And I’m extremely sceptical that its evoutionary origins, no matter how direct, can enable us to treat it. There’s a simpler explanation for why depression might be more common in big cities, than the speculation that when the signal is not so easily received you need to pump up the volume. It may be that people are living worse lives.

24

Keith M Ellis 04.04.04 at 2:29 am

Buss (1984 and 2002) argues that men seek attractiveness in a partner (correlated with fertility, since you ask) while women seek wealth, and that this is hard-wired and unalterable.“—Neil

There’s little guarantee (anthropic principle silliness aside) that the universe will conform to one’s wishes or expectations. A bone of contention in that sentence would be what you mean by “unalterable”; but if we put aside the strongest and widest usage of that term, I’ll say that I think this claim is likely true.

I’m an old-school feminist (not a difference feminist) and anti-sexist. Particularly in regards to sexism, my views strongly originated from the nurture side of the nature/nurture debate. In 1982, I asserted that sex differences, other than the grossly physiological, were cultural and not biological. Over the intervening 22 years, I’ve been forced to reluctantly concede that male and female brains differ in significant ways and that male and female minds are likely to similarly differ. I am not the least happy with the sociopolitical implications of this, particularly as it provides ammunition to anyone (left or right) who have a vested ideological interest in making arguments from nature. (That is, arguments from nature are almost always quite conservative or quite radical—their telos is ideological.)

The nature/nurture conflict annoys me enormously because A) it’s obvious that the reality of the situation is not either/or; and B) I don’t feel morally constricted by either and certainly not both in combination. For example, biological determinism is self-evidently absurd since, as a matter of practical fact, no one actually believes it. No one could believe it—which, for most purposes, is the same as it not being true. Similarly, a nurturist point of view doesn’t threaten me—I’m not discombobulated by the implied relativism or the strong emphasis on culture.

These are not, to my mind, inherently political ideas in the sense that it’s the ideas that shape reality and not the other way around. I’m an empiricist, reality is what it is. Often, it won’t be what we want it to be. And so, perhaps, this is another battlefront in the Science Wars. Cue Ophelia.

If there weren’t the very unfortunate historical context of deterministic, positivist thought playing a role in a variety of grandiose, bigoted, simple-minded and sometimes fascist ideas in the early and mid-twentieth century, this discussion wouldn’t be so damn politically charged. The contemporary critical response to evolutionary psychology seems to me to be very reactionary in the most literal sense of the word. It’s your side that’s setting up and knocking down a strawman, though the historical context makes this understandable—I’m sympathetic with the suspicions and motivations but ultimately disagree with the conclusions. The bottom line is that there is no good reason (Mr. Halasz’s thoughts notwithstanding) not to examine human behavior using the exact same methods and paradigms we use to examine animal behavior in general. (This isn’t to say that examination of human culture doesn’t create a contextual layer that rides atop and requires its own vocabulary and methods.) And everything we know about evolutionary biology would indicate that sexual attraction in humans, more than anything else, would be amenable to an evolutionary, behavioral, analysis. And this is an example you are using of egregiousness.

Finally, the “just so” criticism recalls too strongly for my taste Gould, which makes it inherently suspect. Gould was not, by expertise, an evolutionist and often exceeded his professional competence in his popular writings.

25

loy 04.04.04 at 2:35 am

But, neil, my point is really a much simpler one: there are actually very commonsensical interpretations of what Hagen et al are saying such that their claims comes out banally true, and known to be true prior to the introduction of any “scientific” analysis or theorizing. In the spirit of your last paragraph: one could in principle agree with all the observations made (e.g., depression is more common in big cities) but easily come up with much more commonsensical explanations (people are living worse lives).

By the way, their conclusion is not, as you suggested, that knowledge of the “evolutionary origins” of MMD “can enable us to treat it”, not quite, anyway. Look at what they say under “clinical applications” (p. 5):

“We believe that the adaptationist hypothesis directs new research and supports multiple treatment modalities, and would encourage physicians to inquire about a patient’s social conflicts and become tenacious advocates for their resolution.” (p. 5)

Surely this much (the second half of the sentence) has to be right at least some of the time. Minus the eloquence, I could have said as much…and I don’t even believe in evolutionary pschology.

Obviously, Hagel et al intend to say a lot more than what the interpretations I proposed–and on that score, i.e., the said very commonsensical set of observations has an evolutionary origin–what they say are very controversial. But even then I really wonder because the paper is so hedged and qualified.

By the way your definition of “clinical depression” as “sadness out of proportion to, and sometimes with no relationship at all, to life events”, if taken strictly, a prior rules out the sorts of cases Hagen et al are considering.

26

john c. halasz 04.04.04 at 3:00 am

keith m. ellis:

I did not say that biological roots of human behavior could not be meaningfully investigated. I merely implied that that would be something less than half the story and that I do think that the “added contextual layer” accounts for quite a lot. (For an basic example of “social scientific” explanation, I would refer to the account of “double contingency”, in Niklas Luhmann’s “Social Systems”, a functionalist, too boot, though not a simple-minded one.) Further, I also think a nature/nuture dichotomy is fruitless, as there is a considerable area of their interpenetration, cultural structuration taking up where strictly biological definition proves insufficient, while responding to and channeling underlying biological pressures. (The example of sexual desire would do fine here, for it is all the more provoked and stimulated by its cultural channeling: strictly speaking, the notion of “wealth” would make no sense in a purely natural context.) Questions about so-called “human nature” are most fruitfully address in this third zone of interpenetration. But that precisely does not invite highly reductive approaches.

27

john c. halasz 04.04.04 at 3:07 am

add to the last parenthesis: and nakedness, unto itself, is hardly erotic, but for the concealment/revealing of clothing that fetishizes its value.

28

Neil 04.04.04 at 3:10 am

Keith wrote (sorry, I don’t know how to italicise or bold using this thing).

“There’s little guarantee (anthropic principle silliness aside) that the universe will conform to one’s wishes or expectations. A bone of contention in that sentence would be what you mean by “unalterable”; but if we put aside the strongest and widest usage of that term, I’ll say that I think this claim is likely true.”

There’s no guarantee that the universe will conform to one’s wishes. The conclusions for which Buss (and so on) argue are unpalatable, but that doesn’t show they’re false (though that is a reason for them to have taken much greater care than they did in constructing their arguments). I don’t have proof that men and women have the same cognitive potential. What I can show is that Buss, et al., do not establish that they don’t. Their arguments suffer from major flaws. Hone in on the points at which they attempt to explain apparent exceptions to their claims. They soon get themselves in a terrible tangle. For instance, Buss can’t explain female preferences for younger males in parts of China, or the growing emphasis that women in the West place on looks, or the complete disregard for female virginity in desirable marriage partners in many Western countries. All of these falsify his predictions, as he recognizes. He needs to explain them, but he fails. Similarly, Alcock can’t explain the preference for the “wrong” WHR in some tribes. These people think that culture is a thin veneer on a genetically entrenched base, and need to explain away cultural variations. They fail miserably.

Keith: “For example, biological determinism is self-evidently absurd since, as a matter of practical fact, no one actually believes it. No one could believe it—which, for most purposes, is the same as it not being true”

Well, that depends on what you mean by biological determinism. Plenty of folk – Pinker, Wilson, Buss, Cosmides and Tooby – hold that all well-functioning (where we give well-functioning a relatively uncontentious reading: able to live a life at subsistence level or above which isn’t entirely miserable or grossly dysfunctional) human being will display certain behaviors, selected from a very narrow range. Come to think of it, I believe that too. I just think they’re far fewer and more abstract then these people think.

This shouldn’t be a battle in the science wars. EP, when its bad (and its not always bad) is bad science, not just bad politics.

Keith: “The bottom line is that there is no good reason (Mr. Halasz’s thoughts notwithstanding) not to examine human behavior using the exact same methods and paradigms we use to examine animal behavior in general. (This isn’t to say that examination of human culture doesn’t create a contextual layer that rides atop and requires its own vocabulary and methods.) And everything we know about evolutionary biology would indicate that sexual attraction in humans, more than anything else, would be amenable to an evolutionary, behavioral, analysis. And this is an example you are using of egregiousness”

I’m not sure I disagree with any of that. Of course tastes and preferences have biological bases. I’m certainly not saying we ought not to study X because we might like what we find. I’m saying that study of (in this case) sexual behavior in human beings has been, apparently, politically motivated and prejudiced: it has sought to establish a certain conclusion at any cost to the evidence. The arguments just don’t stack up. My own view is that our (once again, biologically based, in some sense) preferences are amenable to all kinds of cultural reshaping. We human beings come into the world radically incomplete: we’re not anything in particular before culture fills in the details (which isn’t to say that there might not be fixed points here and there, which all cultures will have to accommodate). But that view is independent of my criticisms of EP.

Keith: “Finally, the “just so” criticism recalls too strongly for my taste Gould, which makes it inherently suspect. Gould was not, by expertise, an evolutionist and often exceeded his professional competence in his popular writings.”

I think that’s unfair. His last, massive, work is a theory of evolution. Many evolutionary biologists disagree with him, but none of them think he’s not competent to comment. There’s a sense in which all good biologists are evolutionists (Theodosius Dobzhansky: “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”). Gould’s punctuated equilibrium theory is taken seriously, as is the “spandrels” essay. I think the consensus view is that he made a genuine contribution to evolutionary theory, even if it is was less important that he thought.

Loy: Maybe we can give these claims a commonsense reading (I, too, believe that depression is a reaction to life events). But that seems to strip them of their interest.

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Carlos 04.04.04 at 3:48 am

Just a question ¿where is the falsability of EvPsy
affirmations? Often the behavioral evidence is only partial (many people exhibit the behavior but some don’t) and of course there is no biological evidence. ¿How could some of these claims be proved false?

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Neil 04.04.04 at 4:22 am

I got so caught up with defending Gould I forgot to reply to Keith’s criticism of me. Where is the just so story in what I say, Keith? I take it that the JSS criticism of EP is this: anyone can make up a story according to which some behavior is an adaptation. Its too easy, so not explanatory. I said the exact opposite: there isn’t a plausible story you can tell which has as its upshot the range of adaptations claimed by EP (eg, a preference for WHR of 0.7 except in certain conditions, or for virginity except where is there contraception, or for depression as an adaptation). This isn’t imposing a condition on EP from on high: this is how – as they agree – the game is played. A behavior counts as an adaptation iff it was laid down in the EEA because it enhanced fitness.

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JimJ 04.04.04 at 5:05 am

Re: “Just So Stories”

The importance of the Gould and Lewontin paper (Gould, S. J. and Lwtwontin, R. C. (1979). The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm: A critique of the adaptationist programme. Proceedings of the Roal Society of London, Series B 205:581-598) in evolutionary biology is undeniable. In the 1950s and 1960s it had become commonplace to propose sort of plausible explanations of how the various features of organisms might be adaptations to various problems. These plausible stories were often not rigorously tested and people failed to realize that specific traits may not be adaptive at all or might not be adaptive for the current use. One has to remember that organisms evolve as wholes not simply as collections of individual parts.

I’m not an evolutionary psychologist, but this hypothesis regarding the evolution of depression as an adaptation looks a lot like the adaptational storytelling in the 1960s. What appears to be lacking is specific tests showing increased fitness in specific environments for people with depression. Just beause some broadly general expectations match your expectations again doesn’t demostrate adaptiveness of a character.

Adaptations are traits that provide increased Darwinian fitness for the individuals that possess them in a particular environment over those that lack them. Again they need to show increased Darwinian fitness due to depression in order to claim it as an adaptation.

One way in which they could test this is to look at chimpanzees and other primates. Do they show evidence of depression? If they do depression is not an adaptation to the conditions described, because the conditions described don’t exist in these other primates. In this case, depression would be a pleisiomorphy (ancestral characteristic) which still might be an adaptation, just not one that arose in humans and not to the condiations described.

My intuition is that something like depression is much more likely to be a malfunction in development or genetics rather than an adaptation, but there should be ways to test this hypothesis which make it an interesting scientific question. However, I don’t think the idea that depression is an adaptation will be any comfort to the people that suffer from this condition.

What I’ve read of evolutionary psychology (mostly popular accounts) makes me believe that there is some potential there to understand something about the evoution of the human brain and human society. However, there does also seem to be a lot of fluff that would be shot down in the major evolutionary biology journals. Criticism is good because it makes people think about the issues raised, and I think the authors of this paper should read Gould and Lewontin.

BTW, Gould was trained as a paleontologist and was part of the movement that changed paleontology from a highly descriptive science to one which includes lots of theory and hypothesis testing. Sure, there was a lot to disagree with Gould about, but he certainly was an evolutionary biologist.

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DJW 04.04.04 at 5:17 am

It makes sense to try and uphold the ideal of nominating people who would actually excel at their job.

This is, of course, the crux of my complaint regarding functionalist explanation. It’s as if these hardened science warriors never read Popper.

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DJW 04.04.04 at 5:21 am

Um, that post ought to be disregarded. I failed in my effort to cut and paste.

I was trying to quote Carlos above–evpysch in its commonplace functionalist mode is unfalsifiable.

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rilkefan 04.04.04 at 8:49 am

“rilkefan – you dont seem to have an argument as far as I can see …”

Henry, I don’t think you have an argument either – I guess you didn’t pick up the (intended) parodic function of my comment. I read your post as: you don’t like A because you don’t like it, then you say it’s an example of blah, except that it isn’t – well, see my post. The set of links would have been more convincing without the commentary.

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loy 04.04.04 at 9:47 am

Neil: “Loy: Maybe we can give these claims a commonsense reading (I, too, believe that depression is a reaction to life events). But that seems to strip them of their interest.”

But isn’t that my point? –that the particular paper by Hagen et al managed to say so little. I’m sure this is not the best of what evo pscyh produces (I certainly hope not), but all that this particular paper managed to do is to ‘analyse’ a perfectly well known series of facts which admit of perfectly ordinary explanations using (supposed) heavy duty evolutionary scientific theory. And to add to the insult to the reader’s intelligence, propose “clinical applications” that any doctor, counsellor or social worker–or just my uncle–could have thought of without appealing to any evo psych at all.

I hope I’m not being unfair, but that’s really how the paper struck me.

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john c. halasz 04.04.04 at 2:33 pm

The domain claimed by ev psych is hardly a “solid” reality whose provenance and import are incontestable, such that it must be grappled with by compelling reasons so as to establish a sense of orientation in the world and of our disposition to the world that orients us- or, at least, some such account belongs to the integrity and obligatoriness of natural science proper. To the contrary, it is a rather sketchy and adventitious affair. This is not to deny that we are bodily beings of a given species, that has emerged from natural history, and that we bear with us something of the predilictions and tendencies of our evolutionary origins. (The thesis that I would offer is that it is precisely our organic insufficiency as biological beings that requires socio-cultural structuration to compensate for and functionally extend this biological lack, which is itself a result of our evolutionary emergence.) The oddity of ev psych is not just its ad hoc and frequently obtuse speculations, but its peculiarly historicist insistence that, were its program to be completed, it would arrive at an explanation of broadly aggregated human behavior that is not highly partial, incomplete and even rather ghostly. The fact of the matter is that, in the absence of any compelling reasons and obligatory claims, adherence to the perspective of ev psych amounts to nothing more than an existential choice, an identification “downwards”, as if human existence could be entirely confined to its bodily nature and its possibilities and potentials truncated by such terms of reference. It would seem that such a self-reification would require its own justification, an account of what motivates, if not argues for, it. The need to confine human existence to a pregiven reality and to present it as compelled by some prior necessity obviates the anxiety of exposure to the world and its complexity. Further, the really embedded conventions of extant social arrangements are defensively re-enforced by recourse to such a pre-given “reality”. But, most of all, any sense of the alterability of social arrangements or of the possibility of ethical transformation is occluded by the unalterable fixity of “human nature”, allevitating any responsibility for the burden of one’s nature and removing the threat of any response, other than adaption to the given reality. Indeed, any demand or suasion to the contrary becomes a morally outrageous imposition. (For all the genuine advances of empirical science that ev psych would like to co-opt into its program, such biologism is not exactly new or original; one might consider the work of the German reactionary philosophical anthropologist Arnold Gehlen, with his concept of “disemburdenment”, to realize that it is old wine poured into new bottles.) None of the forgoing criticism presupposes a leftist vantage point, to which I myself am partial, nor a humanist brief, to which I am indifferent. It merely asks for the conditions of honest inquiry.

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Gavin 04.04.04 at 4:16 pm

Well, it certainly sounds as though Hagen et al are charlatans. After all, consider what they did:

1. Found some interesting real-world phenomena
2. Built a theoretical model based on some set of postulates to explain that phenomena
3. Published it as an article!

Err… that’s just academia baby, no more, no less. And certainly not restricted to just ev psych. Theorists build models, and at some point people come along and test the models, either against other theories or against evidence. What’s so wrong with that… unless you disagree with the conclusions of course… but that’s another matter!

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Ophelia Benson 04.04.04 at 6:19 pm

By the way, I specifically asked Steven Pinker about “Just So stories” and falsifiability, both of which have been mentioned in this thread, in the email interview I did with him for B&W when The Blank Slate came out. I think his replies are well worth reading.

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Stentor 04.04.04 at 6:26 pm

The way Henry describes the standard procedure for EP sounds a lot like the standard procedure for cultural ecology back in its heyday. Pick a phenomenon, bonus points if it’s something weird like pig rituals in New Guinea. Then come up with an explanation of how it’s — unbeknownst to the people involved — a necessary part of the ecological balance of the system.

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Keith M Ellis 04.04.04 at 8:56 pm

Hey, let’s have an argument about scientific method again. That’d be fun. I mean, as long as we’re making claims of scientific validity on the basis of simplistic analysis of method.

John, my criticism in the other thread may well apply to many evolutionary psychologists—it’s not hard to find intellectuals of all schools and persuasions who are, shall we say, “totalitarian” in their thinking. But I can’t help but feel that the critics of evolutionary psych are similarly over-reaching.

I am (more) deeply suspicious of all other models of human behavior because they are almost invariably ideologically motivated and are, essentially, contemporary moral fables. Evolutionary psychology is an infant science, at a stage of its development not unlike nineteenth and early twentiest century Darwinism. It’s naive, it over-reaches, etc. But it looks like contemporary science to me because it sees humans as part of the natural world, not as qualitatively distinct.

My “appropriate level of description” is related to my thoughts on complexity theory and I should say that I believe that with the advent of written language, human culture became distinct from human “nature” and requires its own appropriate level of description and method. As individuals, we exist both in the realm of evolutionary psychology and in the realm of culture and I do not expect a single theory to be sufficient for both realms. Because I’m not an ideologue, I don’t have a stake in this game. But I will defend various players from wrong-headed ideological attacks.

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bill carone 04.04.04 at 9:40 pm

Dr. Quiggin,

“most obviously to the majority of the US right who reject the theory of evolution in the first place”

Again, I’m not sure if this is a cheap shot or just a true statement of fact.

Most people in the US don’t understand the theory of evolution, whether or not they “accept” or “reject” it. I wouldn’t be surprised if the right has been indoctrinated in one way and the left in another.

There are also people who accept part of the theory but not others: the Catholic Church (I believe) accepts evolution of everything except the human intellect; they reject only the idea that the human mind is an epiphenomenon of the physical workings of our evolved brain (contra e.g. Dennett and Dawkins).

If one has this not-yet-disproven view, how does one respond “yes” or “no” to “Do you accept or reject the theory of evolution?”?

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Nat Whilk 04.04.04 at 9:48 pm

Chun the Unavoidable wrote:

“I should clarify that by ‘cultural right,’ I mean here the science warriors of the Gross & Levitt generations and assorted hangers-on.”

Why is “culutural right” an appropriate label for, say, Norm Levitt? I read his _Prometheus Bedeviled_ a few years ago, and I don’t remember anything “rightist” about it. He dismisses the U.S. Republican party as being essentially plutocratic, so he certainly isn’t a political rightist. Is it because he said he’d rather share an elevator with a crazy creationist than a deluded Deluzian? Does the modifier “cultural” mean that he prefers opera to hip-hop? What?

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Ophelia Benson 04.04.04 at 10:17 pm

Well spotted, Nat. That is, of course, pure rhetoric. Norman Levitt is in fact on the left politically. That interesting phrase “I should clarify” actually means “I should warn you that I’m doing a Humpty Dumpty and using words to mean whatever I decide they mean.” It’s just a smear tactic, that’s all.

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chun the unavoidable 04.04.04 at 10:42 pm

“Pure rhetoric” is a wonderfully descriptive phrase. Is that from The Simpsons, or am I thinking of “partisan rhetoric?”

You should check out the wonderful passage from Higher Superstition where they argue that–just hypothetically, mind you–the science faculty at MIT could do a better job at teaching the humanities classes than vice versa, if it came down to that somehow. It helps, when considering these absurdities, to realize that all of these books are symptoms of 90s funding anxieties for many big science projects in the U.S. Weinberg is at least explicit about this.

I certainly would feel better about the future with an English professor teaching differential equations than with Pinker teaching literature or philosophy. At the least the former would be humble enough to try to learn something about what they were doing beforehand, which Pinker rather plainly would not.

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Keith M Ellis 04.05.04 at 12:34 am

Chun, have you ever noticed that everything you write is both (in context) somewhat contrarian and always supercilious? I have. It’s a character flaw that afflicts my writing, though, I hope, not as badly. It reduces yours to mere cocktail party one-upmanship. A lot of posturing, but little content.

“Pure rhetoric” is a nice phrase—but I suggest you look to the Gorgias for a reference, not The Simpsons. Is that a sufficiently credible citation for you, Thrasymachus?

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chun the unavoidable 04.05.04 at 12:44 am

Keith, if it’s contrarian for a humanist to defend his field against philistines, then I’m proud to be a “contrarian.”

Just because there may be free will (what’s the EP line on this, btw?), and some permissive dictionaries allow it, does not mean that you should confuse “rhetoric” and “sophistry.” The former is a generic term; it does not mean “twisting words around in a way I find disagreeable.”

I will not respond to ad hominem remarks about my eyebrows, which my family assures me are well formed and dignified.

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Ophelia Benson 04.05.04 at 1:29 am

Just because there may be free will (what’s the EP line on this, btw?), and some permissive dictionaries allow it, does not mean that you should confuse “rhetoric” and “sophistry.” The former is a generic term; it does not mean “twisting words around in a way I find disagreeable.”

Nor did I say it did. But it does mean language designed to persuade. Persuade, if necessary, at the expense of straightforwardness. Keith is right, the Gorgias is good on the subject. I’m not keen on Plato, and I think he painted an unfair picture of the Sophists, but I always have a hard time resisting his…well, rhetoric, about rhetoric, in the Gorgias.

The EP line on free will has to do with fruit flies.

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Keith M Ellis 04.05.04 at 1:36 am

…does not mean that you should confuse “rhetoric” and “sophistry.”“—Chun

I didn’t, as I think you well know. Or maybe you don’t and you should re-read Gorgias.

My “Thrasymachus” crack was meant to imply that in addition to being highly rhetorical, you’re also being sophistical.

The argument here seems to be that evolutionary psychology, as a field, should rightly be attacked…by those outside the field, clearly. Are you implying that your field should not be similarly subject to criticism from non-practitioners? Perhaps not; and certainly evolutionary psychologists and yourself have a moral right to defend your liveliehoods. But that sheds no light on the question of whether or not any of you are full of shit.

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chun the unavoidable 04.05.04 at 2:08 am

So let me get this straight: “pure rhetoric” means “pure language designed to persuade” as opposed to what, exactly? Are you claiming that language which persuades and language which informs are mutually exclusive? No. You meant to write that’s “only sophistry,” or “that’s only a rhetorical trick.”

But this is ok. Having read the Parmenides in the original Aramaic, I can only amused by your World Book citations of Plato. And I don’t care whether the EP people are right or wrong in any “real” sense; I’m only concerned with their aesthetic value. And it’s disappointing thus far. Spencer at least amuses.

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john c. halasz 04.05.04 at 2:09 am

Chun:

“philistine”- is that a technical term?

Ophelia Benson:

“straightforwardness”- Which is not a rhetorical mode? At least, it’s good that you’re so straightforward as to insist that arguments are designed to prove matters without persuading.

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Ophelia Benson 04.05.04 at 2:39 am

Oh no, it wasn’t the World Book, that’s way over my head. No no. Nor was it one of the Harvard Classics nor the nice Britannica edition with the double columns and the thin paper. No, it was an old Classics Illustrated version I found in a $1 surprise box at a garage sale in Fresno a few years ago.

As for rhetoric, and straightforwardness, and trying to persuade – in fact I’m being euphemistic. Or to put it another way, minimally polite. I could put it another way, but chose not to. But since you insist –

It’s bullshit, intended to deceive.

That better?

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bill carone 04.05.04 at 2:51 am

“Just because there may be free will (what’s the EP line on this, btw?)”

I did like Dennett in _Freedom Evolves_, but still can’t quite get my head around it.

One of his points is that we have the kinds of free will that actually matter to us; the other kinds, the ones that we don’t have, we shouldn’t care much about anyway (as I said, can’t quite get my head around it).

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Keith M Ellis 04.05.04 at 3:38 am

Aramaic? Excuse me? You’re being idiotic on purpose, right?

I can’t speak for Ophelia, though I’m sure she’s read Gorgias several times, but I’ve learned Homeric and Attic Greek and have translated Aristotle, though not much of Plato. I have read all the dialogues in translation.

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roger 04.05.04 at 5:12 am

I’m not sure I understand the argument about depression. From the way it is stated, it seems a surprisingly Lamarkian argument – one gets depressed, depression brings about help, therefore one breeds other depressives? Surely it has to be different than that.

It seems to me that if this isn’t the argument — rather, that depression is such that it creates, within a given landscape, adaptive possibilities, like getting help — then we are certainly talking about something like Gould’s spandrels — the depression itself is a disposition dependent on trauma — filling in the post traumatic behavioral space, it fullfills a self-erasing function by getting help. But why not just — call for help? Or is the argument that depression is the effect of a deeper adaptive agent, one that signals for help and uses depression, so to speak, as a signal mode?

From what I know about depression, real, clinical depression, to reduce it to a call for help is extremely superficial. Depression, after all, requires an enormous expenditure of energy, much of which is spent in keeping away from people — the so called helpers. The whole ethology of depression would seem to be the opposite of a call for help. It is like saying that a caterpillar’s cocoon is a call for help – except in the case of depression, the cocoon yields a dead butterfly.
This whole theory sounds unlikely.

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roger 04.05.04 at 5:12 am

I’m not sure I understand the argument about depression. From the way it is stated, it seems a surprisingly Lamarkian argument – one gets depressed, depression brings about help, therefore one breeds other depressives? Surely it has to be different than that.

It seems to me that if this isn’t the argument — rather, that depression is such that it creates, within a given landscape, adaptive possibilities, like getting help — then we are certainly talking about something like Gould’s spandrels — the depression itself is a disposition dependent on trauma — filling in the post traumatic behavioral space, it fullfills a self-erasing function by getting help. But why not just — call for help? Or is the argument that depression is the effect of a deeper adaptive agent, one that signals for help and uses depression, so to speak, as a signal mode?

From what I know about depression, real, clinical depression, to reduce it to a call for help is extremely superficial. Depression, after all, requires an enormous expenditure of energy, much of which is spent in keeping away from people — the so called helpers. The whole ethology of depression would seem to be the opposite of a call for help. It is like saying that a caterpillar’s cocoon is a call for help – except in the case of depression, the cocoon yields a dead butterfly.
This whole theory sounds unlikely.

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Keith M Ellis 04.05.04 at 5:31 am

A fair criticism of both HWT and their critics is that “depression” is so poorly defined. Insofar as depression is (sometimes, in some ways) what HWT are supposing it is, then their ideas may have merit.

I should say that this particular argument in this context has personal relevance—I suffer from severe, chronic depression and I am quite well aware of and struggle with the point of view that it’s “really” just a way of getting someone else to care of you. Or whatever possible personal moral failure is implied—or that Henry possibly thinks is implied—in HWT’s supposition. But I’m personally not threatened by this or take offense because “depression” is more than one thing and certainly complex and thus HWT’s ideas are interesting in that they may explain a part of it, but not all of it, and the supposed implied moral judgment against people that are depressed I either don’t agree is actually implied or, even if it is, I don’t agree that it applies to me or quite a few other people.

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John Humphreys 04.05.04 at 6:40 am

bill – the freedom that evolves in Dennett’s world is not free will. It amounts to an explaination how a being with an evolutionary mind can “learn” take control of it’s environment.

I have a theory on free will – as far as I know the theory is stupid and nobody else agrees. :) Besdies my tyipcal hayek rant about the existence of free will being irrelevant so long as we percieve it to exist – I like the idea that humans may have ‘evolved a soul’. Some small part of our mind that is not held hostage to the remorseless forces of cause and effect – answerable only to it’s own perception of itself. And yet not put there by God.

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Keith M Ellis 04.05.04 at 9:49 am

Man, that’s my rant. I wasn’t aware the Hayek said something similar.

At the level of description at which the concept of “free will” is useful, it exists necessarily because we must believe that it does. Any other level of description is irrelevant.

It’s a prime example of a badly formed question that far too many people grapple with.

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john c. halasz 04.05.04 at 10:43 am

Actually, such a rant about freedom as a necessary illusion is reminiscent of Kant, though Kant only claimed to demonstrate the possibility of human freedom. I myself would derive “free will”- or, as I prefer to call it, volitional agency,- from language, since it is only symbolic language that allows for the consideration of counterfactual possibilities. I would criticize traditional notions of “free will” for their emphasis on a mastery of causality, as opposed to working with causality, and for their failure to differentiate areas of causality. But my account would mean that human agency, though real, is always a finite and conditional “thing”.

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Keith M Ellis 04.05.04 at 2:02 pm

…since it is only symbolic language that allows for the consideration of counterfactual possibilities.“—JH

I very strongly disagree with this if (as it seems) you are equating “language” with “symbolic language”; but it’s becoming apparent to me that you hold to a language-primacy view that is very much in opposition to my view. I think we have radically different starting assumptions about the nature of reality, or something thereabouts.

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Keith M Ellis 04.05.04 at 2:04 pm

(Just making sure the blockquote tag is closed.)

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john c. halasz 04.05.04 at 10:28 pm

I would have very much trouble construing what “non-symbolic language” would be. Even the most literal, “picture-theory” type of language is symbolic, no? And only a recombinant symbolism allows for the persistent consideration of counterfactual possibilities.

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Anna 04.06.04 at 7:53 am

The advantage of being late to the party is that you get to have the last word…

“gamble to gain greater long-term benefits.”? ” influence their social groups, focus on problem-solving”? Not in this species, not on this planet.

More on the money, and making a lot more intuitive sense – last year’s Boston Globe article:

depression has evolutionary roots: It is a survival mechanism for an individual whose status has dropped dramatically. Depression suppresses a person’s desire for food, companionship, or other basic needs — an accommodation that makes sense for someone with a low social status.

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sennoma 04.07.04 at 3:56 am

depression has evolutionary roots: It is a survival mechanism for an individual whose status has dropped dramatically. Depression suppresses a person’s desire for food, companionship, or other basic needs — an accommodation that makes sense for someone with a low social status.

Speaking as someone (else in this thread) with Major Depression, that makes almost no sense. Depression can and often does alter desire, but not need: one still needs food, even if one is too depressed to get any, and one is still damaged by the absence of companionship even as one’s perceived desire for same dwindles. In fact, such damage can worsen the depression and set up a particularly unpleasant catch-22, the adaptive value of which I cannot for the life of me imagine.

(Sorry to swipe the last word!)

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mc 04.08.04 at 10:39 am

Great, a new and cleverer way of saying that if you’re depressed you’re really just faking it to get attention. That’s such a beneficial and useful way of addressing mental illnessess and disorders, for sure.

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mc 04.08.04 at 10:59 am

loy – yes, you’re right there about it being a poor recycling of common sense stuff (and stereotypes and prejudices, also), but so is neil. The intent of these studies seems to go beyond common sense things and posit a whole theory that is just forced into the topic. And using words like “extortionary” to describe depression is not exactly the same as talking about it as a “cry for help”, is it?

I don’t know what they’re getting at by calling depression an extortion, but I too like neil cannot see how the ‘advantages’ in severe depression and suicidal tendencies. In fact, most people who are severely depressed and suicidal do refuse help or make it very hard to be helped.

Evolution seems to me kind of brought in with no real justification here. “Adaptation” is another matter, no? And if there’s anything adaptive in those behaviours, it seems a very dysfunctional way of adapting. It’s about things failing and going wrong and falling apart, not people just longing for help.

Depression can have so many causes, and does involve so many things from physical factors to behaviour and cultural or mentality factors so this kind of reading sounds very very reductive and poor. And useless. Except for intellectual debates and publishing books, probably.

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mc 04.11.04 at 9:26 am

I just stumbled on this article in Reason and thought a few points were rather relevant, and do point to one of the things that I find fundamentally wrong with this kind of theory of depression as “adaptive”:

I used to think that we’d made great strides in treating serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, and that we are now making progress with anxiety and depression. Not any more; the history of the treatment of mental illness is an appalling one, up to and including the present day. …

… I’ve also read the academic literature on how the treatment of mental illness is actually a form of social control for deviant or disruptive behavior. I find these accounts convincing, especially in relation to women. …

… I think there is at least some value in constant skepticism about the importance of being “normal” if “normal” means being docile and tractable. …

… There is something enlivening about being a crank, and something scary about how easily difference is labeled pathology these days. *The relentless emphasis on “adjustment” that sociologists criticized in the 1950s is now so commonplace as to be almost invisible*. But what’s so great about being adjusted to systems I don’t always believe in or support?

Seems to me that reducing depression and the like to an adjustment, an adaptive reaction, a simple “cry for help”, of an “extortionary” nature to boot, is just another way – like excessive reliance on medication – of sanitizing and neutralizing the anger and conflict that is at the root of depression and suicidal tendencies and the like. We turn the heaviest psychological unease into something functional to evolution and social structure, so we can safely look away from the problems it brings to the fore.

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