Hazards of Evolutionary Psychology, Royalty Edition

by John Holbo on November 26, 2016

I promised a follow-up post on Baboon Metaphysics, but I haven’t had time. I’ll stop-gap with stray passages that struck me as deserving juxtaposition. (They have nothing to do, really, with my questions about questions.)

A few years ago, a member of the British royal family visited us in the field and spent a morning following the baboons. On being told the details of the baboons’ inherited, rank-based society she became both excited and relieved, as if a longstanding dilemma had at last been resolved and an onerous weight lifted from her shoulders. “I always knew,” she declared, “that when people who aren’t like us claim that hereditary rank is not part of human nature, they must be wrong. Now you’ve given me evolutionary proof!” Shortly thereafter she returned to her entourage, spirits uplifted, leaving us to ponder the wider implications of our work.

Another passage:

The brains of queen ants are significantly smaller than those of virgin females during their nuptial flight. Queen ants are also much less socially active and much less reliant on vision.

{ 258 comments }

1

Peter Westwood 11.26.16 at 10:51 am

Interesting that Royalty requires confirmation of their right to rule from Baboons. I guess that’s pretty much how they view us ‘subjects’, monkeys stupid enough to pay for refurbishments to their big house even though they’re as rich as rich things.
Pah.
Can we get out of this endless cycle?
http://olivefarmercrete.blogspot.gr/2016/11/conscious-collective-will-to-good.html

2

ZM 11.26.16 at 11:02 am

But what are the Republican apes and ants like?

3

Saurs 11.26.16 at 11:03 am

Lucky, then, that the long-term viability of various twenty first-century nominal kingdoms no longer relies upon the fecundity of its female royalty.

Let all evpsych bros goin’ their own way rejoice in the juxtaposition that positions (incorrectly) female sexual experience as a one-way path towards degradation and sloth, where, to paraphrase that aged Isle of Wight looker-on, consensual, recreational fucking in bushes is not good for the body politic. Of course, any old human, even the inbred, toff-nosed crypto-German types, can theoretically conceive, whereas the queen ant really is, by definition, the fittest of her hundreds or thousands of peers. Adapting to coal mine conditions has its downfalls, I suppose, but a dark, quiet, and ample room of one’s own isn’t one of them. Indeed, achieving precisely that appears to actually make them fitter, still.

4

Gabriel 11.26.16 at 11:40 am

Peter:

Now that sciencism is the de facto religious stance of the elite, who else but scientists to give out the proper credentials? I’m sure they’d rather’ve stuck with God, but times being what they are, etc etc.

5

oldster 11.26.16 at 8:06 pm

The British royalty have long based their sovereignty over Gibraltar on the opinion of macaques.

6

soullite 11.27.16 at 9:27 am

Strange, you never consider the hazards of the weird gender theories sociologists cook up.

Opposition to evolutionary anything ( psychology or biology) seems primarily ideological in nature, not about rigor. It mostly comes down to which groups completely unscientific theories you want to accept.

7

oldster 11.27.16 at 2:03 pm

You’re seriously attempting to defend evo-psych, by saying that anyone opposed to evo-psych must be opposed to evo-bio as well? When counter-examples to this claim are all around you through the scientific world? I mean–every well-educated person who is not a christian fundy accepts evolutionary biology. Whereas only cranks think that evo-psych is producing useful results yet.

“Opposition to astro anything (-logy or -nomy) seems primarily ideological in nature, not about rigour.”

Uh, no: many people oppose astrology, while being fully on board with astronomy. Because the second is a science, while the first is rubbish.

8

John Holbo 11.27.16 at 3:14 pm

“Whereas only cranks think that evo-psych is producing useful results yet.”

I must say I disagree strongly with this statement, but first let me clarify: do you include non-humans animals in your crank ban, oldster? That is, no cognitive abilities of any species can be credibly explained with reference to evolutionary history/natural selection pressure – nothing of the sort? That seems highly implausible to me. But the alternative is equally implausible: human cognitive and non-human cognitive capacities are radically discontinuous. What explains one does not explain the other. I guess it also depends what you mean by ‘useful’.

9

John Holbo 11.27.16 at 3:22 pm

Putting it another way: if you are right, oldster, then the book I linked in the post is pseudoscience trash and its authors are cranks – although, to the world, they are respected primatologists/ethologists. Is that your position? Just curious.

10

Bill Benzon 11.27.16 at 3:29 pm

How “evolutionary” is Baboon Metaphysics, John? I haven’t looked at it in awhile but it struck me as being more or less standard-issue primate ethology, in line with papers and monographs I’ve been reading off and on since my undergraduate days.

11

oldster 11.27.16 at 3:36 pm

I had in mind the case of humans, JH, where the claims are broadest, most speculative, and most clearly ideological.

Human psychology is more complex than the psychology of other animals–any piece of human behaviour is more susceptible to influence from culture, language, society, literature, fads, economics, youtube, etc.. There are simply more moving parts, and our evolutionary past plays a correspondingly smaller role.

That is the sphere in which I think it is premature to claim that evo-psych has produced any useful results (as opposed to back-patting confirmations of our prior biases, cf. British royals in original anecdote).

In animals whose psychology is more directly the result of their genes, it is going to be easier to filter out evolutionary signal from environmental noise of various kinds, and we can expect useful results sooner.

Notice that I am not claiming evo-psych can *never* be a science. I have hopes for it, some day. My claim was that it ain’t there yet.

And my more central claim was: scepticism about claims in evo-psych is entirely justified, where scepticism about evolutionary biology is not. I was responding to a poster who wanted to conflate the two.

12

John Holbo 11.27.16 at 3:36 pm

“How “evolutionary” is Baboon Metaphysics, John?”

Well, the authors are operating on the assumption that the cognitive capacities of baboons have evolved so I guess the answer is: completely. Then again, as you say it is standard-issue primate ethology. I’m just trying to get a handle on whether oldster thinks standard-issue primate ethology is obviously rubbish. (I’m curious whether that opinion is at all widespread.)

Open more or less at random and read:

“The coevolution of behavior and brain morphology can also be seen when we compare males and females in certain species. In North American and European songbirds, where males do most of the singing, males also have much larger song control areas in their brains than do females (reviewed in Brenowitz and Kroodsma 1996). But in many tropical songbirds, where males and females sing equally, the sizes of male and female song control areas are more alike (Brenowitz and Arnold 1986). Song control areas in the brain have thus coevolved with behavior. Male baboons, who can increase their reproductive success by winning aggressive contests with rivals, have evolved large body size, large canines, and competitive vocal displays. Female baboons, whose reproductive success is much less influenced by fighting, have evolved neither the same morphology nor the same behavior. Applying this logic to the social intelligence hypothesis, we might predict that species living in large, complex societies should exhibit both more sophisticated social knowledge and bigger brains than solitary species or species that live in small, monogamous groups. Alternatively, if large brains have evolved for some other reason, there should be no predictable relation between brain size, group size, and social intelligence. So why have large brains evolved? What are big brains for? Across the animal kingdom, brain size increases with body size. Despite this common scaling principle, however, brain size-to-body weight ratios differ from one taxonomic group to another. Among mammals, primates have brains that are larger, on average, than the brains of similar-sized, nonprimate mammals.”

Does all this seem patently cranky, since it relates evolution to animal cognition? Not to me.

13

John Holbo 11.27.16 at 4:00 pm

I am not defending Soullite, oldster. And sorry that our last comments crossed. I just find a lot of animus to ev psych to be implausibly broad. I quite appreciate that people tell speculative just-so stories. But it seems a big leap from that to dismissing it tout court. I am glad to hear you do not dismiss it tout court.

14

Bill Benzon 11.27.16 at 4:17 pm

I think the term “evolutionary psychology” was coined specifically to designate an approach to human psychology, one grounded in evolutionary considerations and, among other things, referencing the ethology literature. But students of human behavior were certainly reference animal ethology decades before the evpsych term was coined. Specifically, John Bowlby’s work on attachment behavior and researchers strongly influenced by him (e.g. Mary Ainsworth, with whom I took an independent study in my undergraduate years). Bowlby was coming from a psychoanalytic tradition, and the psychoanalysts didn’t want to have anything to do with him, though some of them have reconsidered in recent years. FWIW, Bowlby is the one who coined the term “environment of evolutionary adaptedness” (EEA), which has become standard.

All hell broke loose in the mid-1970s with the publication of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, which had a final chapter on human behavior. I’ve never read the book, and never really followed the controversy as it didn’t seem relevant to my interests at the time. The evpsych term came somewhat later and, as I recall, the controversy really got going in the 1990s. Tooby and Cosmides published their anthology, The Adapted Mind in 1992. Pinker’s The Language Instinct came out in 1994. That, as similar stuff, is what kicked up all the ruckus. And the ruckus was mostly about posturing and over-reaching on the EP side. I do think there are ideological components to this mess, both on the EP side and the various oppositions. But, really, there’s a lot of interesting stuff and positions vary all over the map.

On the specific topic at issue in your newest quote, which I realize is just a random example, an important new book has come out about brain size: The Human Advantage: A New Understanding of How Our Brain Became Remarkable, by Suzana Herculano-Houzel. Steven Mithen reviews it in the NYRB. A couple paragraphs:

But even though the human cerebral cortex constitutes 82 percent of the total brain mass, the largest when compared to all mammals, it was found to contain only 19 percent of the total number of neurons in the brain, the same percentage as in the guinea pig and capybara, and midway in the 15 to 25 percent range found in most mammals.

How can the human cerebral cortex have expanded so greatly in comparison to the rest of the brain while maintaining a proportion of neurons equivalent to that found in the cerebral cortex of other small-brained primates? Herculano-Houzel’s answer lies partly in the absolute number of neurons in the human cerebral cortex and partly in the fact that different scaling rules apply to the cerebral cortex and the cerebellum.

These rules are constant across all primates: when additional neurons are added to the brain, the cerebral cortex increases in mass at a much faster rate than does the cerebellum. This is because the cerebral cortex requires larger neurons than the cerebellum—neurons that have long-range connections of several centimeters to link different cortical areas; neurons in the cerebellum need to span no more than a few millimeters. As a result, the cerebral cortex becomes proportionally larger even though the ratio of cortical to cerebellar neurons remains the same. So with humans, the 16 billion neurons in the cerebral cortex result in its forming 82 percent of the total brain mass, despite the human brain’s remaining entirely typical for a primate with regard to the proportions of neurons in the cerebral cortex and in the cerebellum.

15

Z 11.27.16 at 4:45 pm

Personally, I take the the broad tenets of evolutionary psychology to be quite obvious but I give a pretty bad average grade to its typical proponents: they often seem unwilling to acknowledge (or completely unaware of the fact) that ev. psych. predicts that the most extreme social constructionists (supposedly their bitter intellectual enemies) should be descriptively right (to be more explicit, what we do know about the interactions between human sexuality, social development and cognitive development strongly suggests that the main evolutionary invariant to be found in human psychology is plasticity and amenability to the influences of social forces).

So that funnily, the first reaction I have to “Strange, you never consider the hazards of the weird gender theories sociologists cook up” is “that’s someone who would benefit from learning some evolutionary psychology.”

16

DrDick 11.27.16 at 5:01 pm

As an anthropologist, I have to say that for the most part evo-psych is psuedo-science by people who know nothing about human evolutionary history, the wide range and diversity of human behavior documented around the world, or human neurobiology.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9496621:

“Brain plasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change structure and function. Experience is a major stimulant of brain plasticity in animal species as diverse as insects and humans. It is now clear that experience produces multiple, dissociable changes in the brain including increases in dendritic length, increases (or decreases) in spine density, synapse formation, increased glial activity, and altered metabolic activity. These anatomical changes are correlated with behavioral differences between subjects with and without the changes. Experience-dependent changes in neurons are affected by various factors including aging, gonadal hormones, trophic factors, stress, and brain pathology. We discuss the important role that changes in dendritic arborization play in brain plasticity and behavior, and we consider these changes in the context of changing intrinsic circuitry of the cortex in processes such as learning.”

17

DrDick 11.27.16 at 5:15 pm

Found a better quote to make the same point about behavioral and neuralpalsticity:

From the National Institutes of Health:

“The development of the brain reflects more than the simple unfolding of a genetic blueprint but rather reflects a complex dance of genetic and experiential factors that shape the emerging brain. Brains exposed to different environmental events such as sensory stimuli, drugs, diet, hormones, or stress thus may develop in very different ways.”

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3222570/

18

Peter Westwood 11.27.16 at 8:11 pm

Spiders, deserted by their mothers, know how to spin the complex engineering miracle that is the web. Different spiders, different webs. This would seem to indicate that spiders are born with a large amount of data. The human brain seems to be a computer with little software installed by the manufacturers. The required software is downloaded, through the process we call life. This depends upon which reality one is born into, moderated by the expression of will. The zeitgeist also impacts greatly upon the experience of life, that determined by who or what is shaping the zeitgeist during the experience.

19

John Holbo 11.27.16 at 11:51 pm

“The development of the brain reflects more than the simple unfolding of a genetic blueprint but rather reflects a complex dance of genetic and experiential factors that shape the emerging brain. Brains exposed to different environmental events such as sensory stimuli, drugs, diet, hormones, or stress thus may develop in very different ways.”

But evolutionary psychology doesn’t deny neural plasticity. To the contrary, everyone tries to cook up evpsych explanations of it. Look, we all know about the overreaching claims of evolutionary psychology – my post is sort of premised on the pitfalls being common knowledge. I trust Bill Benzon’s comment, @14, was news to no one – in broad outlines. “Sociobiology” very controversial when it comes out, and Pinker guilty of posturing. Even so, these days, the plastic shoe seems to me to be very much on the other foot. In order for neural plasticity to be an in-principle challenge, as DrDick would have it, it would need to be perfect plasticity. Or nearly. Which it clearly ain’t. That’s like saying that arms, just because they are highly bendable and can reach things from all angles, must have no fixed structure. A fallacy.

It seems pretty unobjectionable (to me) to say that, although there are surely lots of strong, true claims about evolutionary psych, in principle, we typically can’t – or at least don’t – know which ones are the true ones. But it’s weird to express that by saying ev psych is false. Also, it doesn’t seem to me right that no ev psych explanations of human cognitive features are credible. It’s not all transparent confabulatory nonsense.

20

DrDick 11.28.16 at 12:16 am

John Holbo –

I do not deny that we have evolved a specific range possibilities, but as the piece I link to indicates, human beings evolved to be flexible and adaptable along as much of our behavior as possible. Evo-psych is grounded in the idea that we have evolved to behave in specific kinds of ways. Those two things are mutually exclusive.

21

John Holbo 11.28.16 at 12:49 am

“human beings evolved to be flexible and adaptable along as much of our behavior as possible”

This is an extremely speculative evolutionary just-so story, DrDick. (Think about it.) How could it be strictly true? Surely we evolved to be flexible. Being adaptable is itself adaptive. But ‘maximal’ adaptiveness (in a completely open-ended sense) is not something I can imagine being selected for, per se. It’s not a well-defined notion. And it’s almost a contradiction in terms to imagine it could be selected for. You’d have to have actual organisms actually living and dying in a ‘maximal’ number of actual environments. And that surely is not our evolutionary history. Which brings us to:

“Evo-psych is grounded in the idea that we have evolved to behave in specific kinds of ways.”

This is ambiguous. If it says that evo-psych denies neural plasticity on a priori grounds, then it is false. Evo psych proponents do no such thing. (They say enough foolish things that there is no call to go hanging them up for things they don’t say.) On the other hand, if it says merely the brain is not an infinitely flexible organ – i.e. it evolved to behave in specific kinds of ways – then it seems to me that it is true. And now, per the terms of the old joke, we know who we are, and we are just haggling over the price. Of ev psych being true, broadly. But you can go right on complaining about sloppy ev psych Just-So stories! I won’t stop you!

22

Bill Benzon 11.28.16 at 12:59 am

Just toss out the term “evolutionary psychology.” Who cares?

What’s important is whether or not biology has something important to tell us about human behavior. Surely the answer is “yes”. Just what, well, that’s an open question. But we can’t ignore it as though it didn’t exist, as though it’s “all culture.” What does that even mean, “it’s all culture”?

23

John Holbo 11.28.16 at 1:23 am

I am happy to drop at the very least ‘ev psych’ as it is mostly associated with polemics on both sides, and we don’t need that.

24

Z 11.28.16 at 1:16 pm

Just toss out the term “evolutionary psychology.” Who cares?

Great idea! Any discussion on the topic between people of good faith (like us! because we are totally of good faith!) better stick to specific claims.

25

stevenjohnson 11.28.16 at 2:25 pm

The problem with dropping the phrase “evolutionary psychology” is the implication there must be a biologically given human nature, because, evolution. There is no evidence that the differences between cultures/societies are biological. Instead there is much evidence to the contrary that all significant differences are indeed learned/historical/”cultural.”

And if you try to specify what the universal human nature is (the ostensible topic of EP,) there’s no consensus on what that may be. There is practically nothing left to be universally human. Most allegedly universal human traits, like “religion,” are indiscriminately lumped phenomena arbitrarily labeled.

Moreover, EP presumes the notorious EEA, which would be no problem if anyone had any reasonable grounds for identifying the characteristics of the EEA. They don’t, which is indeed a grave problem that justifies dismissing EP in toto. The panadaptationism of EP is bad enough biology, but a panadaptationism without a specific environment is madness.

EP also has fundamental conceptual problems dealing with variation between individuals of the same culture, notoriously homosexuality. In principle, EP could actually accept such things as biological variation even when it causes variations in individual psychology. In practice, the panadaptationist perspective functions as a way of seeing “human nature” as something ordained by the god of evolution, who is very hard to distinguish from a liberal/Spinozistic God who creates through the operation of natural selection.

Popularizations of evolution will give lip service to the notions of random genetic drift and neutral/nearly neutral evolution, but thus far EP follows them in assuming things like homosexuality must somehow be actually be adaptive. No doubt when the times change sufficiently the bolder thinkers in EP will conclude homosexuality is a developmental disorder.

The assumption of EP that human psychology must be molded in detail by natural selection may seem to be an obvious necessity of biology. But EP is so far from being scientific in its approach it doesn’t even ask when natural selection occurs, nor how much. I’ve discovered that it is nearly impossible to find good statistics on the number of human conceptions that fail in utero. A cautious estimate would be fifty percent as near as I can tell, but it may be higher. EP cannot ask the obvious question, is natural selection in humans primarily intrauterine? And if so, how effective by comparison can, for example, differential reproduction by homosexuals and heterosexuals be?

Accepting something like EP, even without the phrase, is not good judgment, much less common sense. It is merely conventional wisdom.

26

Jake Gibson 11.28.16 at 3:18 pm

I think there is something to Evo-Psych. But, I don’t think anyone has a clue
about what there is to it. It can make for interesting speculation, but falls into
the category of the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin.

Best left to stoned sophomores in their dorm rooms.

27

Bill Benzon 11.28.16 at 4:25 pm

The problem with dropping the phrase “evolutionary psychology” is the implication there must be a biologically given human nature, because, evolution.

No, it just means not making arguments in the name of something called “evolutionary psychology” as though it were some one internally coherent thing. There isn’t.

28

DrDick 11.28.16 at 7:11 pm

John Holbo –

stevenjohnson @ 25 saved me the trouble of responding (and did it much better than I could have). He perfectly encapsulates the anthropological critique of evo psych.

29

WLGR 11.28.16 at 8:46 pm

Thirded on stevenjohnson’s critique — but with apologies for the textwall, we should probably just go straight to the horse’s mouth, the public intellectual critic par excellence of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, Richard Lewontin. This is from his Biology as Ideology, itself adopted from a set of radio lectures from 1990:

Ants are described as making “slaves” and having “queens. ” But the slavery of ants knows nothing of the auction block, of the buying and selling, of the essentially commodity nature of the slave relations of human society. Indeed, ant slaves are almost always of other species, and ant slavery has a great deal more in common with the domestication of animals. Nor do ants have “queens”. The force-fed egg factory encased in a special chamber in the middle of an ant colony that is called a queen has no resemblance to the life of either Elizabeth I or Elizabeth II or of their different political roles in society. Nor are the words “slave” and “queen” simply convenient labels. Ant “slavery” and ant “royalty” are claimed to have important causal continuity with their human counterparts. They are said to be products of the same forces of natural selection.

This confusion between qualities of animals and qualities of human society is an example of the problem of homology and analogy. By homologous traits, biologists mean those properties of organisms that are shared by different species because they have a common biological origin and some common biological genetic ancestry, and they derive from common features of anatomy and development. Even though they look very different and are used for very different purposes, the bones of a human arm and of a bat’s wing are homologous because they are anatomically derived from the same structures and influenced by the same genes. On the other hand, a bat’s wing and an insect’s wing are only analogous. That is, they look superficially alike and they seem to serve the same function, but they have no origin in common at the genetic or morphological level. But analogy is in the eye of the observer. How do we decide that slavery in ants and ant queens are like human slavery and like human royal families? How do we decide that the coyness we see in people is the same as the behavior in animals called coyness? What happens is that human categories are laid on animals by analogy, partly as a matter of convenience of language, and then these traits are “discovered” in animals and laid back on humans as if they had a common origin. There is in fact not a shred of evidence that the anatomical, physiological, and genetic basis of what is called aggression in rats has anything in common with the German invasion of Poland in 1938.

The third kind of evidence that is presented for a genetic basis of human social behavior is the report of heritability of human traits. Such characteristics as introversion and extroversion, personal tempo, psychomotor and sports activities, eroticism, dominance, depression, and even conservatism and liberalism are said to be heritable. But the evidence for the heritability of these traits is totally absent. We must remember that genetics is a study of similarity and difference between relatives. We judge things to be heritable if close relatives are more alike than distant relatives or unrelated persons. But the problem in human genetics in particular is that similarity between relatives arises not only for biological reasons but for cultural reasons as well, since members of the same family share the same environment. This has always been the problem of human genetics whether we are talking about traits of personality or anatomy. Most reports of the heritability of personality traits are simple observations that parents and children resemble each other in some respect. The highest similarity between parents and offspring for social traits in North America is for political party and religious sect, yet no serious person believes genes determine these attributes. The observation of similarity of parents and offspring is not evidence of their biological similarity. There is a confusion between the observation and the possible causes. The fact is, not a single study of personality traits in human populations successfully disentangles similarity because of shared family experience and similarity because of genes. So, in fact, we know nothing about the heritability of human temperamental and intellectual traits that are supposed to be the basis for social organization.

There is a deeper problem. To carry out a heritability study, even a correct one, we require differences between individuals. If everyone is identical in some respect, that is, if everybody has exactly the same genes for some characteristic, then there is no way to investigate its heritability, because genetic investigations require contrasts between individuals. Sociobiological theory claims that all human beings share genes for aggression, for xenophobia, for male dominance, and so on. But if we all share these genes, if evolution has made us all alike in this human nature, then in principle there would be no way to investigate the heritability of the traits. On the other hand, if there is genetic variation among human beings in these respects, then on what basis do we declare that one or another manifestation is universal human nature? If it is genetically determined human nature that we are aggressive and like to go to war, then we must suppose that A.J. Mustie, the famous pacifist, lacked this gene and was, therefore, in some sense less than human. If, on the other hand, he possessed the gene but was a pacifist, the genes seem somewhat less than all-powerful in determining behavior. Why are we not all like A.J. Mustie? There are deep contradictions in simultaneously asserting that we are all genetically alike in certain respects, that our genes are all-powerful in determining our behavior, and at the same time observing that people differ.

Obviously there’s no way to draw 100% immutable lines here, but I think it’s reasonable to interpret the lion’s share of “evolutionary psychology” and/or “sociobiology” as ideological gloss on the intellectual output of “evolutionary biology”, “social psychology”, “anthropology”, “sociology”, and so forth, not really rising to the level of a true academic/scientific discipline in the same way as those do. (Pay particular attention to how many of the keystone publications by people like Wilson and Pinker and so on are written for popsci bestseller audiences as opposed to fellow scientists in their own fields.) If nothing else, especially at the present political moment, the overlap between these folks’ arguments and the race/IQ proto-eugenics stuff that forms the “scientific” kernel of alt-right neo-Nazism should be reason enough to hesitate before embracing it too uncritically.

30

steff 11.28.16 at 8:51 pm

@post 25:
“And if you try to specify what the universal human nature is (the ostensible topic of EP,) there’s no consensus on what that may be. There is practically nothing left to be universally human”

Donald E. Brown claims, at least, to have identified a rather large group of behaviours, etc. shared by all humans:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_Universals

(and as a set perhaps exclusive to humans).

31

Bill Benzon 11.28.16 at 8:52 pm

DrDick & stevenjohnson: While you’re fending off the evils of EP take a look at Holbo’s title for this post and consider the possibility that it is ironic. Then look at the two quoted passages in the OP and continue thinking about irony.

32

John Quiggin 11.28.16 at 11:34 pm

@steff I reviewed Pinker’s book when it came out, and had this to say about alleged human universals

Thus, Pinker, following Donald Brown, posits a Universal People as a parallel to Chomsky’s notion of a Universal Grammar. This idea is backed up by a long list of cultural universals. The length of this list might seem to refute older claims that with the exception of taboos on incest, rape and murder, there are no cultural universals.

The problem is that it is full of items such as ‘decision-making’ and ‘ambivalence’ that seem to be directly implied by the fact of human intelligence, and others such as ‘childcare’ which are obviously necessary to species survival. If items like this are to be considered as cultural universals, why not, as Gould and other critics have suggested, include eating and excretion as well? Pinker disarms criticism in advance by conceding that ‘not every universal behavior arises from a universal component of human nature – many arise from an interplay between universal properties of the mind, universal properties of the body, and universal properties of the world.’ But after all items of the latter class are deleted, a cynic might conclude that the only specifically cultural universal added to the traditional set of taboos is ‘tickling’.

33

John Holbo 11.28.16 at 11:56 pm

stevenjohnson: “The assumption of EP that human psychology must be molded in detail by natural selection may seem to be an obvious necessity of biology. But EP is so far from being scientific in its approach it doesn’t even ask when natural selection occurs, nor how much.”

DrDick: “stevenjohnson @ 25 saved me the trouble of responding (and did it much better than I could have). He perfectly encapsulates the anthropological critique of evo psych.”

OK, sorry for being picky about this but I think it’s a good thing to get very clear about. stevenjohnson is not encapsulating anything like the thing you said, DrDick. Indeed, his major premise denies your major premise. So there is no way that ‘the anthropological critique of evo psych’ can be both of your views. He is saying (I take it) that “human psychology must be molded in detail by natural selection” is obviously true (or at least eminently plausible). Your major premise is that this is obviously false (or eminently implausible?) You maintained that humans have evolved for maximal flexibility and that this undercuts the evo-psych view “that we have evolved to behave in specific kinds of ways.” You and stevenjohnson agree in your conclusion – namely, current evo psych arguments aren’t scientifically rigorous. But you get there on the basis of opposed views of the human organism. stevenjohnson thinks (he can correct me) that probably some version of evopsych is true, but we don’t have the evidence to presume to say which one. So advancing particular evopsych theses is not scientific. You are saying, to the contrary, that we positively know that all versions of evopsych are false, since all versions of evopsych imply a lack of flexibility in the human brain that is inconsistent with known truths about neuroplasticity.

Does that seem fair?

34

John Holbo 11.28.16 at 11:59 pm

“should be reason enough to hesitate before embracing it too uncritically.”

Well, I am all for hesitating before embracing things too uncritically!

35

John Holbo 11.29.16 at 12:06 am

More later. Gotta work.

36

The Temporary Name 11.29.16 at 12:13 am

Interesting that Royalty requires confirmation of their right to rule from Baboons.

I wonder if it also serves as notice that dominant families are fulla jerks.

37

John Holbo 11.29.16 at 12:43 am

OK, one more comment, sort of in response to WLGR. I agree – obviously I agree: just read the post! – that evolutionary psychology is a magnet for ideological wish-fulfillment fantasies. It’s a perfect storm combination of uncertainty and people wanting confirmation that their picture of human nature – their values – are somehow ‘natural’. But, to be fair, this is true on both sides. WLGR is right that Pinker is a popularizer. “Wilson and Pinker and so on are written for popsci bestseller audiences as opposed to fellow scientists in their own fields”. But the same thing is true of Lewontin, “the public intellectual critic par excellence of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology”, as WLGR says. Lewontin – and Gould and others – obviously find certain conclusions disturbing/distasteful/dangerous. As WLGR says: “the overlap between these folks’ arguments and the race/IQ proto-eugenics stuff that forms the “scientific” kernel of alt-right neo-Nazism”. Now there, for accuracy, we should modify ‘overlap’ to ‘non-overlap’, because … srsly. But, fair enough: if you think something is wrong, and you also think it’s dangerously wrong, because it will console and encourage the very worst political elements, that’s bad. Of course you will be more quick to snap at errors that you think are ideologically dangerous errors. As Lewontin clearly does think they are. Now connect that point to this comment:

“I think it’s reasonable to interpret the lion’s share of “evolutionary psychology” and/or “sociobiology” as ideological gloss on the intellectual output of “evolutionary biology”, “social psychology”, “anthropology”, “sociology”, and so forth, not really rising to the level of a true academic/scientific discipline in the same way as those do”.

As long as we are willing to say the same of Lewontin – namely, that he is providing ‘ideological gloss on the intellectual output of evolutionary biology’, I’m borderline ok with that. But that seems excessively rhetorically harsh towards Lewontin. It implies that he is ONLY a hack ideologue. Which he isn’t. But the same is true of EP folks. They are ideological. But they also have arguments. However tempting to dismiss on the grounds that they are ideological, the right thing to do is note the ideological red flag and engage the arguments on the merits.

At the end of the day my view is the one I articulated above: some version of EP is true. That is, flexible as the brain is, it isn’t general purpose computer on which you can install any old software you like – not by a longshot. But the hell of it is: we aren’t empirically in a position to know which version of EP is true. We are able to tell plausible stories, but all that just gets swamped by the tendency to confabulate. Everyone has things they WANT to be true here, and there are plausible arguments for every position.

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J-D 11.29.16 at 12:55 am

There is a deeper problem. To carry out a heritability study, even a correct one, we require differences between individuals. If everyone is identical in some respect, that is, if everybody has exactly the same genes for some characteristic, then there is no way to investigate its heritability, because genetic investigations require contrasts between individuals. Sociobiological theory claims that all human beings share genes for aggression, for xenophobia, for male dominance, and so on. But if we all share these genes, if evolution has made us all alike in this human nature, then in principle there would be no way to investigate the heritability of the traits. On the other hand, if there is genetic variation among human beings in these respects, then on what basis do we declare that one or another manifestation is universal human nature? If it is genetically determined human nature that we are aggressive and like to go to war, then we must suppose that A.J. Mustie, the famous pacifist, lacked this gene and was, therefore, in some sense less than human. If, on the other hand, he possessed the gene but was a pacifist, the genes seem somewhat less than all-powerful in determining behavior. Why are we not all like A.J. Mustie? There are deep contradictions in simultaneously asserting that we are all genetically alike in certain respects, that our genes are all-powerful in determining our behavior, and at the same time observing that people differ.

If there is any biological characteristic which is genuinely universal to any taxon, then the absence of variation indicates that there can be no identifiable gene for that characteristic in that taxon now; but since that characteristic must be a product of the evolutionary history of that taxon, it follows that there must have been a gene for that characteristic (or more than one) at some point in the evolutionary history of that taxon. If featheredness is a biologically universal characteristic of birds, it follows both that there is now no identifiable gene for featheredness in birds and that there must have been a gene for featheredness (or more than one) at some point in the evolutionary history of birds. If bipedalism is a biologically universal characteristic of humans, it follows both that there is now no identifiable gene for bipedalism in humans and that there must have been a gene for bipedalism (or more than one) at some point in the evolutionary history of humans. The reasoning applies to psychological characteristics in the same way as to any other biological characteristics. For example, if the capacity to experience disgust is a psychologically universal characteristic of humans, it follows both that there is now no identifiable gene for disgust in humans and that there must have been a gene for disgust (or more than one) at some point in the evolutionary history of humans. You can’t identify in modern humans genes for homoiothermy, or triploblasty, or multicellularity, but all those characteristics are products of evolution and there were genes for them once.

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John Holbo 11.29.16 at 12:58 am

In case you think I am just ideologically opposed to Lewontin, I would seriously encourage people to reread the OP and see that it is, literally, a capsule version of the Lewontin passage WLGR quotes. My two passages make Lewontin’s two points: 1) the evidence is obviously equivocal; 2) dubious homologies beguile us into telling Just So Stories.

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John Holbo 11.29.16 at 1:05 am

“If there is any biological characteristic which is genuinely universal to any taxon, then the absence of variation indicates that there can be no identifiable gene for that characteristic in that taxon now;”

I find this argument puzzling, J-D. I take it the correct response is that: strictly, there are no biological characteristics that are genuinely – strictly – universal to any taxon? Because there’s always at least potentially some mutant – possibly a non-viable one – that lacks the characteristic? (I’m not sure that’s right.)

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J-D 11.29.16 at 3:39 am

John Holbo

The point I was making in the sentence you quote is essentially equivalent to one from the passage from Lewontin quoted earlier by WLGR: ‘If everyone is identical in some respect, that is, if everybody has exactly the same genes for some characteristic, then there is no way to investigate its heritability, because genetic investigations require contrasts between individuals.’

In human beings it’s meaningful to refer to a gene for Rh+ blood because people with that gene have the Rhesus factor in their blood, whereas people with an allele don’t. But there’s no such thing, in human beings, as a gene for blood, because everybody has blood. The heritability of the Rhesus factor can be investigated because there is genetic variation; the heritability of blood can’t be.

Do you know of any instances of mutant human beings with no blood? or, to use the examples I’ve already given, do you know of any mutant human beings that are not homoiothermic, or not triploblastic, or not multicellular?

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John Holbo 11.29.16 at 4:17 am

“genetic investigations require contrasts between individuals”

But you can have genetic contrasts between members of different species, right? I don’t have technical genetic expertise – or even competence – so feel free to take me to school. Logically speaking, all members of species A could lack some gene that is found in species B. Right?

“Do you know of any instances of mutant human beings with no blood?”

Clearly no viable ones. But I don’t know, a priori, that there is no such thing as a human fetus that miscarries more or less instantly, due to a severe mutation that basically involves never developing any blood.

“if everybody has exactly the same genes for some characteristic, then there is no way to investigate its heritability, because genetic investigations require contrasts between individuals”

I agree that this is definitely an argument worth thinking about. But I’m not immediately convinced that there aren’t ways to talk about genetic features all humans have that all other species lack. This has to do with my – confessed! – lack of technical competence to understand what it really means to say, for example, that chimps and humans share 99% of their DNA. That oft-tossed-about figure. Obviously that doesn’t mean we have the ‘human gene’ and they lack it. But I don’t really know what it does mean.

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Another Nick 11.29.16 at 4:55 am

John Holbo: “I agree that this is definitely an argument worth thinking about. But I’m not immediately convinced that there aren’t ways to talk about genetic features all humans have that all other species lack. This has to do with my – confessed! – lack of technical competence to understand what it really means to say, for example, that chimps and humans share 99% of their DNA. That oft-tossed-about figure. Obviously that doesn’t mean we have the ‘human gene’ and they lack it. But I don’t really know what it does mean.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X4bVqcsuOi0 (7:38 – onwards)

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J-D 11.29.16 at 5:35 am

Since I’m doubtful about how much there is to gain from diving into genetic technicalities (and I claim no special technical competence), I approach from a different direction.

Lewontin writes: ‘There are deep contradictions in simultaneously asserting that we are all genetically alike in certain respects, that our genes are all-powerful in determining our behavior, and at the same time observing that people differ.’

Is there a contradiction (deep or shallow) in asserting that we are all alike in certain respects and at the same time observing that people differ? Surely not. Human beings are both similar and different. For that matter, living things in general are both similar and different. The subject matter of evolutionary biology embraces both individual similarities and individual differences; evolution should provide explanations for both similarities and differences. If humans are similar in their anatomy, shouldn’t we expect those similarities to be partly the result of genetic similarities; if humans are different in their anatomy, shouldn’t we expect those differences to be partly the result of genetic differences? and why should we expect human behaviour to be different, in this respect, from human anatomy?

If Lewontin is saying that human differences in aggressiveness can’t be explained by similarities in our genes, and that human similarities in aggressiveness can’t be explained by differences in our genes, that’s obviously correct; but that argument is insufficient to exclude the possibility that human differences in aggressiveness can be partly explained by differences in our genes, and human similarities in aggressiveness partly explained by similarities in our genes.

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John Holbo 11.29.16 at 5:54 am

Thanks for the link, Another Nick.

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Bill Benzon 11.29.16 at 9:22 am

For example, I quote an anthropological study HERE (p. 36):
Raoul Naroll (1983, pp. 305 ff.) reports a small study (14 cultures) of aggressive behavior among young boys and girls (aged 2 through 6). The children were rated on aggressive behavior, with girls scoring from 3 to 10 and boys from 4 to 12. In four of the societies boys and girls were equally aggressive while boys were slightly more aggressive in the other ten. There were no societies where girls were more aggressive than boys. The major differences were between societies, with American boys (4) and girls (3) the least aggressive and Colombian boys (12) and girls (10) the most aggressive. Since the aggression scores for boys and girls were close within cultures, but the variation between cultures was high, Naroll concludes that culture is a stronger influence on aggressive behavior than genetics (p. 307). That is to say, while the pattern of male-female difference is the same from one culture to another, the general level of aggressive behavior is strongly determined by culture.

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Z 11.29.16 at 10:35 am

That is, flexible as the brain is, it isn’t general purpose computer on which you can install any old software you like – not by a longshot. […] Everyone has things they WANT to be true here, and there are plausible arguments for every position.

That’s why one should stick to specific claims. For instance, regarding “since all versions of evopsych imply a lack of flexibility in the human brain that is inconsistent with known truths about neuroplasticity.” (by the way, with the usual caveat that steven johnson knows best, I took his “human psychology must be molded in detail by natural selection may seem to be an obvious necessity of biology” to suggest that it is in fact wrong to believe so and at the minimum to be severely qualified by the rest of the paragraph so that I disagree with you that he expressed a significantly different position from DrDick).

Back to neuroplasticity. What are we arguing? That human learning especially in the infant and child period is heavily biologically determined (passing through the usual stages of mutual gazing with, point-and-tell to and emotionally driven imitation of complex behaviors of the primary affectionate caregivers)? I don’t think anybody here (or in the world, provided they have met a child once) dispute this. That the range and form of cognitive and emotional abilities so acquired is severely biologically constrained (so that for instance a normally developing human child will acquire the ability to form questions, to express a complex range of emotions, to decode and empathize with emotions of others, to reason on what others know and think mistakenly they know, to reason arithmetically…)? Very few people also seriously dispute this. That the object of such cognitive capabilities and particularly the social behaviors that flows from them are severely biologically constrained (so that for instance the propension to compete and aggress is plausibly severely biologically constrained or, much less plausibly, the propension to occupy competitive professions is severely biologically constrained)? I think that this is what DrDick and stevenjohnson dispute, and I believe that not only science is inconclusive on the precise questions (even the assertion I ranked as plausible above is in fact far from being well established) but also that if we take seriously what we actually know about the first two stages, we should expect wide culturally and socially driven variations, because the “software” in our social brain that normally develops instructs us to decode the social relations around us and to act strategically in accordance to them.

“One may suppose that, to obtain the sacrifice of ‘self-love’ in favour of a quite other object of investment and so to inculcate the durable disposition to invest in the social game which is one of prerequis­ite of all learning, pedagogic work in its elementary form relies on one of the motors which will be at the origin of all subsequent invest­ments: the search for recognition” as Bourdieu would write or “No doubt Wagner wished to impress potential mates; who does not? It is a long way from there to “Parsifal”” and “The mere fact of having “the gene for anxiety” determines nothing, which is why some anxious people become opera buffs, some become water-skiers, and some just sit and stare out the window, brooding on the fact that their parents did not read them enough bedtime stories” as would (less rigorously but more entertainingly) Louis Menand.

(As an aside, John, I had nothing at all to do with Ginzburg contacting you; he must have heard about this CT thread from another source-meaning you guys are famous. In fact, I hadn’t even quite consciously realized that he was so geographically close to me, I know him strictly through is work.)

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DrDick 11.29.16 at 3:51 pm

John Holbo @33 –

Actually, that is a complete misreading of stevenjohnson @ 25, who simply argues that even if human psychology/nature is shaped by natural selection evo-psych as currently constructed in practice fails. He explicitly states at the end of the very first paragraph:

There is no evidence that the differences between cultures/societies are biological. Instead there is much evidence to the contrary that all significant differences are indeed learned/historical/”cultural.”

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John Holbo 11.29.16 at 4:02 pm

I don’t see how I am misreading him, DrDick. Perhaps he will return and enlighten us one way or the other.

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John Holbo 11.29.16 at 4:07 pm

Hmmm, Z thinks I am misreading, too, so perhaps I am. I took stevenjohnson to be implicitly affirming “human psychology must be molded in detail by natural selection may seem to be an obvious necessity of biology” as at least plausible. But perhaps not.

I guess one thing I would dispute are statements like this (by Z), read as implicit critiques of ev psych: “we should expect wide culturally and socially driven variations, because the “software” in our social brain that normally develops instructs us to decode the social relations around us and to act strategically in accordance to them.”

I think most ev psych proponents would also take this expectation to be fairly obviously correct. They don’t deny flexibility, after all. But it all depends, perhaps, on how wide ‘wide’ is.

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WLGR 11.29.16 at 4:15 pm

Fair enough, John. I certainly didn’t mean to imply that you would disagree substantively with Lewontin’s critique, let alone that you’d continue to disagree with him if someone put a gun to your head and forced you to pick between him and someone like Charles Murray. (I do suspect that plenty of allegedly liberal evopsych folks would pick Murray over Lewontin, wrapped up as they often are in the exact same “it may not be ‘politically correct’ but golly gee willikers it’s just the hard-nosed scientific truth!” game also being played by the “race realist” crowd, with the former legitimizing the rhetorical frames of latter and the latter providing a passionate ideological kernel for the lay audiences of the former.) At the same time, I don’t think this:

As long as we are willing to say the same of Lewontin – namely, that he is providing ‘ideological gloss on the intellectual output of evolutionary biology’, I’m borderline ok with that. But that seems excessively rhetorically harsh towards Lewontin. It implies that he is ONLY a hack ideologue. Which he isn’t. But the same is true of EP folks. They are ideological. But they also have arguments. However tempting to dismiss on the grounds that they are ideological, the right thing to do is note the ideological red flag and engage the arguments on the merits.

…cuts quite deep enough at evopsych. Lewontin does do a lot of popsci writing and speaking, but he’s also a renowned evolutionary biologist and geneticist with a record of important scientific contributions dating back to well before he became famous as a public intellectual. Contrast this with Pinker, who casts a similarly broad shadow within generative linguistics and cognitive psychology, but who doesn’t have much of any substantive background as an empirical research scientist in any field that might touch on evidence gathered in evolutionary biology or human anthropology — and predictably enough, his research methodology when he tries to aggregate empirical evidence about human societies is fumbling and shoddy. But if you’ve sworn off the empirical tools you might use for rigorously studying the history of human development, and if you don’t have a worked-out theory of how development works in order to understand how different genetic and environmental influences might affect it (see J-D’s musings about a “gene for bipedalism”), you’re left with basically no rigorous theoretical core beyond whatever ideologically convenient Just So stories might serve as suitable raw material for P-hacking and other ad-hoc methodological sleights of hand.

To be fair, this tendency is much bigger than someone like Pinker, in that his home disciplines have a legacy dating back to Chomsky himself of dismissing social science outright and trying to annex social scientists’ intellectual terrain on behalf of hard-nosed quant-happy physics envy. (The anthropologist Chris Knight has an established critique of Chomsky’s relationship with social science and left politics that he recently published in book form, much of which applies even more to those who follow in his scientific footsteps but reject the far-left-leaning ideological supplement.) Combine this tendency with the baseline scientism of mainstream Western ideology that also nourishes STEM-worshipping yet intellectually unsophisticated movements like “New Atheism”, and the result is someone like Pinker being able to write books on topics he has no real authority to speak of as an actual working scientist without being immediately dismissed as a crank by people outside the relevant disciplines themselves. But the fact that a figure with this attitude toward the empirical study of human development (both biological and cultural) can be perceived as an authority in something called “evolutionary psychology” by running on the fumes of his cognitive-psych reputation to power a factory for popsci books and TED talks, seems to me like a good indicator of the field’s hollowness as a discipline.

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Kiwanda 11.29.16 at 4:23 pm

WLGR:

I think it’s reasonable to interpret the lion’s share of “evolutionary psychology” and/or “sociobiology” as ideological gloss on the intellectual output of “evolutionary biology”, “social psychology”, “anthropology”, “sociology”, and so forth, not really rising to the level of a true academic/scientific discipline in the same way as those do

Since the broad brush is out: in view of e.g. the “replication crisis”, it’s not entirely obvious that social psychology, anthropology, and sociology are any more scientifically disciplined than evolutionary psychology.

I would guess that all of these are pretty limited with respect to their ability to make general claims with strong evidence, and in their ability to build general theories study by study. Are there no claims, however small, from evolutionary psychology with strong evidence? Are there no bodies of work in psychology that have been found to be built on air?

J-D:

The heritability of the Rhesus factor can be investigated because there is genetic variation; the heritability of blood can’t be.

It’s hard to know what the “heritability of blood” is intended to mean, but a little googling reveals that there’s substantial scientific studies of the genetics of blood. (Curiously, that study mentions zebrafish, of which PZ Myers is a renowned avid amateur keeper.) The quote from Lewontin gives a remarkably narrow view of what the study of heritability could include.

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Bill Benzon 11.29.16 at 5:21 pm

On evpsych as a discipline: It’s no more a discipline than cognitive science is (or, for that matter, semiotics). Cognitive science is a crossroads of themes and topics from a variety of disciplines as is evpsych. These are intellectual movements, no more, no less. So, when you guys (stevenjohnson, DrDick, WLGR) are rejecting this evpsych thing, are you implying that John can put Baboon Metaphysics aside because it is, eww! primate ethology (a kind of biology), and so of no possible relevance to human behavior and psychology?

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WLGR 11.29.16 at 5:43 pm

Kiwanda, absolutely there are similar problems in many disciplines, especially those occupying some boundary zone between “hard” sciences (e.g. molecular biology) and “soft” ones (e.g. cultural anthropology). The question is whether there’s a standardized methodology for studying one’s problems of interest and building on the resulting insights to study next-level problems of interest; to use Zwaan’s example, how would a knowledge of the relationship between seeing a filled/emptied glass and feeling optimistic/pessimistic inform one’s understanding of this as a general mechanism that could be studied in its own right? (The social priming and metaphor stuff has been cliche for a while now, but figuring out where to go from there as a scientist is tricky, which is probably why George Lakoff no longer does much actual research and has been marketing himself to popsci audiences for the past 15-20 years as a “how to use metaphors in electoral politics” guy.)

At the very least it’s hard to imagine an easier scientific terrain for these problems to run rampant than evopsych: stories about evolutionary adaptation can be literally whatever you want it to be, the datasets can as vague and pliable as anything in the softest social psych and often downright impossible to replicate, and our developmental understanding of processes like embryology is nowhere near sophisticated enough to falsify any but the narrowest molecular claims about how particular genes influence cognitive dwvelopment. But since evopsych is often framed as validating some of the farthest-reaching abstract theoretical claims about human nature on the “harder” side of cognitive science (e.g. generative linguistics), and since these claims themselves often mesh well with lay ideological prejudices about “human nature”, it gets depicted as some kind of hard-nosed STEM reality check on the inveterate wishy-washiness of the social sciences and humanities and “[blank] studies” when in fact it’s absolutely nothing of the kind.

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Z 11.29.16 at 5:47 pm

I think most ev psych proponents would also take this expectation to be fairly obviously correct

And this is why I wrote that @15 above that I take the basic tenets of ev. psych. to be quite obvious and also why I think it is more productive to discuss specific statements than general ones (so my statement about variability is not a criticism of ev. psych. in general, implicit or otherwise, it is a criticism of some specific claims). Considering how ideology laden the pop-version of ev. psych. is, there is in my opinion no point in discussing something like “what most proponents believe” or “how wide ‘wide’ is.” We should specify at the very least what is the scale and nature of the psychological phenomena of interest (are we talking mainly about core cognitive functions? emotional responses? theory of the mind? pro-social behavior? social behavior? mating strategies? sexual mores? esthetic preferences? etc. etc.).

But I guess, yeah, if you want a blanket condemnation, I believe that any ev. psych. argument about anthropologically significant behavior (so anything beyond core cognitive and emotional functions) which jumps directly from evo-devo reasoning to actually observed human behavior while ignoring the anthropological level fails (and I couldn’t insist enough on this last point) on its own evolutionary terms.

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stevenjohnson 11.29.16 at 8:48 pm

DrDick and Z were more successful in interpreting what I meant to say. Apologies for bad writing.

“At the end of the day my view is the one I articulated above: some version of EP is true. That is, flexible as the brain is, it isn’t general purpose computer on which you can install any old software you like – not by a longshot. But the hell of it is: we aren’t empirically in a position to know which version of EP is true.”

If I understood it correctly, in computer science a “computer” which can in principle run any software/execute any program, is properly called a Turing machine. The human brain/mind certainly isn’t a Turing machine. But then, I’m not sure anyone ever thought so.

In daily life, general purpose computers most certainly cannot run just any old software you like. You have to consider processing speed, memory, even the physical nature of the inputting system, magnetic tape or floppy disk or CD-ROM. You even have to think about whether it’s a PC or a Mac. There is no knife that only cuts what you want, nor metaphor. To think that a general purpose computer can take any old program is absurd, a literary conceit purporting to describe something real, but just rearranges words.

But if you do insist on this analogy, EP is an approach that insists the human brain, because of genes naturally selected, is comparable to the kinds of computers that operate games, for instance. The hardware is adapted to a certain kind of input, and the software is designed to handle that input with a limited suite of algorithms specifically tailored to the game for great efficiency, producing an output in specific formats. The software, the game itself, changes the specific content of the output but the format of the output is going to follow certain rigid categories. The whole game, hardware and software, has for example an algorithm for counting character lives. A person’s mind, genes and culture working together, has a module for detecting cheaters. The algorithm for counting character lives has an essential role in game, and the cheating detection module has an essential role in personality.

I believe this picture cannot possibly apply to the differences in personality within a culture, or in differences between various personalities in different cultures. Certain basic emotions seem to be very similar indeed, but even then, sometimes it’s like assuming that red and green always appear the same to everyone. Even more to the point, it is not always clear that personality is causal. In an army, does it really matter whether an individual soldier is brave? As they say in military science, leadership—what we might call the culture—is everything. The bad metaphor of the general purpose computer that can’t take any old software is essential to EP.

Or another way of putting it, is there really a human nature in the sense EP insists? Tooby and Cosmides in their primer on evolutionary psychology abuse the Standard Social Science Model (what Pinker condemns as The Blank Slate.) The problem for them is that, despite their swift assurance to the contrary, this is the Gold Standard for Social Science Model. John Quiggin’s comment above caught this much better than I could.

The relatively recent discoveries of interbreeding between Neanderthal and Denisovan and more or less homo sapiens I think has provided the final blow to any notions about the dependence of cultural differences upon genetically determined mental architecture. The interbreeding shows all three variants (despite the gross morphological differences in Neanderthal and homo sapiens!) were one species. Yet, predecessors species and Neanderthal, despite having the same mental architecture, did not display the cultural change of homo sapiens. The archaeological remnants of their cultures were unchanging over millennia. This is not what human beings as we know them do.

(By the way, one of the many failings of EP is how rarely…I actually know of no efforts… the issue of the origins of language is addressed. This is curious because so far as I know of the many supposed mental modules devised by natural selection, this is the only one that actually has been associated with physical genes and identifiable locations in the brain.)

The best explanation is that “culture” is like language. Feral children do not truly master the tongue. The emergence of language when all the children are feral, so to speak, thus is a difficult problem. “Culture” in general, like the language so hard to distinguish from it, is pretty much the same. Once a full culture, like a full language (as opposed to a pidgin or a stock repertoire of signals,) did finally emerge, then the children could fully master the new tool. Then essentially the same mental architecture could begin the process of endless change, slow by a human life time, but an eye blink by evolutionary time. So, yes, culture is the most important thing. EP says, no.

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Bill Benzon 11.29.16 at 11:03 pm

I don’t know what’s being discussed here. John put “evolutionary psychology” in the title of this post; and that title is obviously ironic. He also mentioned a specific book, Baboon Metaphysics, which I’ve read, though not recently. So I asked him: How evolutionary is it? And he replied (#12):

Well, the authors are operating on the assumption that the cognitive capacities of baboons have evolved so I guess the answer is: completely. Then again, as you say it is standard-issue primate ethology. I’m just trying to get a handle on whether oldster thinks standard-issue primate ethology is obviously rubbish. (I’m curious whether that opinion is at all widespread.)

Now that didn’t strike me as signing up to full-tilt EP in the sense of e.g. Cosmides and Tooby’s EP Primer. I take it that that’s what Steven is arguing against, & DrDick & WLGR as well (?). And, while John did involve standard EP imagery the “general purpose computer” (#37) it’s still not obvious to me that he was thereby signing up to the full program, or whether he just wants to assent to some general notion that the brain (& nervous system & sense organs & muscles, etc) is the product of millions of years of evolution and so is subject to appropriate (albeit unspecified) constraints.

An example that Cosmides & Tooby gives is the Wason selection task. You can read about at the end of their primer (link above) or at Wikipedia. The task has been presented in a variety of contexts and most people have trouble with it. It turns out, however, when the task is presented in the context of social contracts, people can solve it. Hence the fabled ‘cheater detection’ module. Now, just how far this kind of reasoning will get us, that’s another question.

I note, however, that Mark Changizi has done quite a bit of work arguing that our visual and auditory capabilities reflect evolutionary constraints, but he hasn’t invoked an EP framework in so doing. I mean, really, it is possible to think about evolution and psychology without signing up to EP.

@stevejohnson #48: The relatively recent discoveries of interbreeding between Neanderthal and Denisovan and more or less homo sapiens I think has provided the final blow to any notions about the dependence of cultural differences upon genetically determined mental architecture. But it’s not supposed to account for cultural differences, it it? It’s an argument that, underlying cultural differences, there is a common ‘human nature.’ Your earlier remark (#25) that there’s no consensus on that is more to the point, though they could reasonably reply: We’re working on it.

By the way, one of the many failings of EP is how rarely…I actually know of no efforts… the issue of the origins of language is addressed. 1.) But that’s the problem that got Pinker interested, no? His 1990 article with Paul Bloom was Natural Language and Natural Selection. And Hauser, Chomsky, & Fitch weighted in in 2002, though they weren’t arguing in the name of EP. Still, the Chomsky LAD (language acquisition device) is a classic mental module and Chomsky’s nativism is consistent with EP. 2.) It does seem, however, that psychologists explicitly signing on to EP have tended to work in social behavior, not perception and cognition.

To end where I began: I don’t know what’s being discussed. If it’s “evolutionary psychology” in the Cosmides & Tooby sense or David Buss or whomever, well then it needs some focussing. If it’s the general relevance of biology and evolution to psychology, that’s a somewhat looser discussion. At the moment things are just sorta’ sloshing around.

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John Holbo 11.29.16 at 11:12 pm

“I believe that any ev. psych. argument about anthropologically significant behavior (so anything beyond core cognitive and emotional functions) which jumps directly from evo-devo reasoning to actually observed human behavior while ignoring the anthropological level fails (and I couldn’t insist enough on this last point) on its own evolutionary terms.”

I’ll buy this, but I would add that a lot of ev psych passes at least this minimum threshold test pretty handily. It’s proponents rely on studies that have been, allegedly, robustly replicated, cross-culturally. I’m not saying their results are right. I’m saying they recognize and attempt – perhaps unsuccessfully – to grapple with the methodological need to handle cultural stuff.

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CRW 11.30.16 at 12:24 am

As an undergrad psych student in the early 80s I was first exposed to EO Wilson and human ‘sociobiology’ in a senior seminar with an enthusiastically patriarchal professor and TA. At the time I couldn’t figure out why the class was so maddening. It seemed to my naive, nascent feminism that one could start at ANY endpoint and logically argue backwards to or through evolutionary inevitability, but my dear professor and TA always managed to happily find the then-current sexual and social mores genetically inevitable and at the same time the best of all possible worlds. I admit I have rolled my eyes at EP and avoided it ever since – easy to do as a clinician rather than a researcher.

Another (no doubt naive but apparently still relevant) critique of the whole endeavor is the ongoing search for the universal human, which STILL seems to be (white) het-male, with whatever femaleness/otherness as interesting variants on the norm. I guess there’s just no getting away from social/cultural context for the scientist/theorist/researcher, even in such an interesting conversation as Crooked Timber. Again, I totally admit my avoidance and lack of knowledge and apologize in advance for making a political rather than a scientific/philosophical comment.

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DrDick 11.30.16 at 12:42 am

John Holbo @ 58 –

“I’ll buy this, but I would add that a lot of ev psych passes at least this minimum threshold test pretty handily.”

As stevejohnson, Z, and I have repeatedly pointed out, it simply does not do that, not even close. I at least am a professional cultural anthropologist with 30 years professional experience.

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John Holbo 11.30.16 at 4:33 am

“As stevejohnson, Z, and I have repeatedly pointed out, it simply does not do that, not even close.”

OK, are you saying that ev psych proponents are all, or mostly, literally unaware of this problem? It doesn’t occur to them, in the course of their work, that there might be cultural variation among humans that could problematize their explanations? Or are you saying that they are aware that cultural variation exists, but their attempts to address it are insufficient?

I obviously agree with the latter and disagree with the former. You seem to disagree with me, but how exactly? Exactly how dumb – and in exactly what way(s) – do you take the ev psych people to all be? (This is a serious question!)

Also, I want to slow-walk the professionalization arguments. I appreciate that Lewontin is very well respected, and Pinker seems to be very much on the popular side – although I understand he has published technical stuff, too. (Don’t know about that.) But EO Wilson is a god among myrmecologists, so I am told. I don’t take that to imply that I definitely should trust him about consilience and all that stuff. Mutatis mutandis, I don’t grade either pro- or anti ev psych arguments on the basis of the thickness of their author’s CV’s. Arguments here are rather speculative – on both sides. That doesn’t mean only philosophers get to play. Far from it! But it does mean that a lot of people are straining their narrow, technical scientific competences. And we need to be very skeptical on all sides.

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John Holbo 11.30.16 at 4:37 am

“I guess there’s just no getting away from social/cultural context for the scientist/theorist/researcher, even in such an interesting conversation as Crooked Timber.”

Alas, blogging turned out not to provide the platform for the long sought-after View From Nowhere! Who woulda thunk it ;)

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John Holbo 11.30.16 at 4:53 am

“An example that Cosmides & Tooby gives is the Wason selection task. You can read about at the end of their primer (link above) or at Wikipedia. The task has been presented in a variety of contexts and most people have trouble with it. It turns out, however, when the task is presented in the context of social contracts, people can solve it. Hence the fabled ‘cheater detection’ module. Now, just how far this kind of reasoning will get us, that’s another question.

I note, however, that Mark Changizi has done quite a bit of work arguing that our visual and auditory capabilities reflect evolutionary constraints, but he hasn’t invoked an EP framework in so doing. I mean, really, it is possible to think about evolution and psychology without signing up to EP.”

These are good examples, and Bill B is right that we should distinguish between a more or less light evolutionary touch and more speculative reaching for positive evolutionary origin stories. All biologists assume it all evolved somehow – including the brain. You can study cognitive bias, cross-culturally, and find consistency, without going further, offering an ev psych Just So story about why. Or you can go further – like Mercier and Sperber with their argumentative theory of reason – and speculate about the evolutionary orgins, biological function, of our skewed cognitive systems. Why would humans be built to fail the Wason Selection Task? Is there any possible function to what seems like a dumb way to think? That’s interesting but … well, it’s speculative. (I kind of like to think about it.)

Changizi is another good example. The perceptual system – the eye – is obviously part of the brain, effectively. There are lots of interesting arguments about how the vision system works, whether people from different cultures/environments see differently. But I don’t think anyone doubts that a lot of how the vision system works is hard-wired in. And it seems reasonable to wonder why we would be wired this way, rather than some other way. No one thinks how the human eye works is a question fundamentally unlike how a bird’s eye works. And everyone agrees that evolutionary explanations of bird vision are probably the way to go. We look at what they are good at and figure they were selected to do that thing. Although there is room for slippage in that explanatory pattern.

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Hidari 11.30.16 at 7:41 am

@54
One thing that could be done (but rarely is) is to remember that EP is a new science, and that science is of necessity conservative when it comes to new theories, especially those which pose as being ‘revolutionary’ or ‘paradigm shifting’. There is a useful phrase from the ‘Skeptics’ which is relevant here:

‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’.

Despite what the proponents of EP seem to think, the EP hypothesis is extraordinary, as the reactions to it on many of this thread make clear (not ‘obvious’ as most of them seem to think) and so the evidence to support it must be particularly good, not just what would be required for a ‘common or garden’ scientific theory.

Another thing (and yes yes yes I k now all the problems with Popper but still) is:

is EP falsifiable? What tests, or results, or data, could disprove it, do we think, in the minds of the proponents? Do we think there is an experiment or dataset that could persuade Steven Pinker: ‘Gosh what was I thinking? It is all nonsense after all.’

If the answer to this question is ‘no’ then perhaps something else is going on, other than ‘pure’ science.

Finally, there is the problem of underdetermination (there’s also the problem of overdetermination but that’s another story).

What quantitative, falsifiable, replicable results have been produced in labs that were predicted a priori by EP (and which were ‘surprising’ in some non-trivial sense, not statements of the bloody obvious) and which could only be explained by EP?

I’m not aware of anything, but I could be wrong.

Remember: in science the burden of proof lies on the person making the claim: it is the proponents of EP who have to ‘do all the work’ , not those who oppose it.

I enjoy making these points as proponents of EP love to pose as being all ‘sciencey’ but the basic rules that would apply to any other ‘new’ or ‘controversial’ scientific theory seem to be declared null and void when it comes to EP: at least in the popular media.

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J-D 11.30.16 at 8:14 am

Kiwanda

The heritability of the Rhesus factor can be investigated because there is genetic variation; the heritability of blood can’t be.

It’s hard to know what the “heritability of blood” is intended to mean, but a little googling reveals that there’s substantial scientific studies of the genetics of blood.

As I observed above, I’m not sure how much the point is worth pursuing for the purposes of the present discussion, but since you query it, what I meant by ‘heritability of blood’ is the heritability of the phenotypic characteristic of having blood, which is a phenotypic characteristic of, for example, human beings but is not a phenotypic characteristic of, for example, boab trees. You can study the (quantifiable) heritability in humans of the phenotypic characteristic of being Rhesus positive because you have available for study a population of humans in which some have the characteristic and some don’t; you can’t study the (quantifitable) heritability in humans of the phenotypic characteristic of having blood because in the population of humans available for study the prevalence of the characteristic is 100%.

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Bill Benzon 11.30.16 at 9:33 am

@Hildari, #64: is EP falsifiable? What tests, or results, or data, could disprove it, do we think, in the minds of the proponents?

How about the somewhat weaker question: Does EP produce falsifiable hypotheses?

John Holbo, #61: Arguments here are rather speculative – on both sides. That doesn’t mean only philosophers get to play. Far from it! But it does mean that a lot of people are straining their narrow, technical scientific competences.

Yes. And a lot of the kicking and screaming is that the OTHER FOLKS aren’t playing by the rules and we want our nice comfortable rules back.

On cross cultural validity, then there’s the argument that social science, not merely EP, but social science in general, studies WEIRD subjects. “WEIRD” = “Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic.” Most social science research is done on WEIRD people, but most people in the world aren’t WEIRD. So maybe that research is rather parochial in its findings. Check out, e.g. Joseph Henrich’s work.

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M Caswell 11.30.16 at 12:36 pm

Was Darwin an evolutionary psychologist- in, say, Descent of Man? One thing that seems strange to me is that the EP stuff I’ve seen is all about natural selection, where Darwin thought rather sexual selection was the basis of various cultural phenomena. On the other hand, sexual selection doesn’t so much explain psychological facts as presuppose them- eg, the female bird finds such and such plumage beautiful. Has his approach been disowned by modern EPists?

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Bill Benzon 11.30.16 at 1:31 pm

@M Caswell: Not at all. Sexual selection is standard among EPists. Check out, for example, Geoffrey Miller: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geoffrey_Miller_(psychologist)

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stevenjohnson 11.30.16 at 2:16 pm

Bill Benzon is correct about one thing, the issue (for me at least) really is the principles advanced in the primer he links to. But those principles are shared by people like Scott Atran and Jonathan Haidt, as well as a Pinker or a Daniel Dennett. It’s not just a matter of rejecting the excesses of the “Natural History of Rape” dudes or the seeming triviality of a Buss. I’m afraid I still insist the true metaphor real social science and psychology use is the general purpose computer, one which can accept many different kinds of programs compatible with the hardware. This is compatible with the evidence from other fields of study, including history, as well as common experience.

EP is the one which actually rests upon a picture of the mind as a computer with hardware specifically designed for very detailed tasks, preset to accept only inputs delivered in a pre-designed format. And this picture is not really even compatible with the existence of so many widely disparate cultures! Forget the difficulty of explaining something like homosexuality, try explaining the adaptive value of a suicide “module.” If that seems like a crazy task, remember that it’s EP that insists on these mental modules in the first place.

Assuming that you know what human nature is, is an old pastime. The usual discovery that human nature is what you like is quite fun, which makes it popular. EP actually has difficulty in explaining why such a detailed picture of human nature somehow produces so many varied cultures. The prime clearly explains that it copes with this by rejecting the evidence from the other social sciences, which by the way, includes anthropology. Anthropology can be done wrong, obviously I think a Donald Brown or a Napoleon Chagnon have. But as a whole it’s anthropology that isn’t WEIRD. The Popperian focus on lab experiments falsifying hypotheses leads to the WEIRD, like in Haidt (and I strongly suspect the Wason tests have this problem too.) By rejecting the long experience of anthropology, it’s EP that commits to the WEIRD too.

The primer is also usefully explicit about rejecting any need to connect even with behavioral genetics. Amazing, no? The reason I think is that by arbitrarily discounting the need to explain how such a tightly engineered human mind can produce such diversity in personalities by removing the evidence, the EP project gets rather easier.

Even the primer acknowledges, with its little flow charts, that attributing this to genes involves eventually finding the genes and neural structures/processes that compose the modules “discovered” by EP by deducing the adaptive traits needed for the EEA. No one knows what the EEA is, of course, which is one reason why this project is insane. The only behavioral trait for which this kind of thing has been demonstrated at all is language.

As Bill Benzon notes, the Chomskyan language acquisition device is the classic mental module. The difficulties in generative linguistics and its revisions by Chomsky himself do not suggest the mental modules approach is the royal road to knowledge. The notion that saying the human brain evolved somehow means there must be something to EP and its diplomatic variants is just rhetoric, in the pejorative sense I’m afraid.

An aside to Bill Benzon: As to whether the origin of language is of much interest to EP? Perhaps I have been too influenced by popular writing, two instances in particular. Daniel Dennett claimed in his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, in a footnote claimed that the evolutionary origins of language had been solved, presented by someone whose name I’ve forgotten at some conference. I think I gasped as I was reading. But eager as I was to see an outline of the answer to this fascinating problem, Dennett summarily dropped it! It may seem odd that Dennett was attacking Chomsky whose module really is appropriate to EP…but let’s face it, EP is very political and it’s politics as a whole are not Chomsky’s.

Then there was the very widely touted (by prominent evolutionary biologists like Jerry Coyne) article by Pinker attacking group selection, in which Pinker basically relied on the inability of groups to replicate faster than natural selection could weed out individually maladaptive traits. It didn’t take long to wonder why a linguist (insofar as Pinker is actually qualified at anything it’s linguistics,) would neglect first of all to wonder whether there is such a thing as a group trait. It’s not clear to me that a child making a racket all the time is adaptive. Talking isn’t such a useful thing unless there’s someone to talk to. And if people didn’t talk something, even babble, however can nature select for an unexpressed trait? I conclude even a linguist EP isn’t much interested in the language instinct.

Pinker also neglected to consider that groups can form faster than by simple reproduction by splitting. Or that new groups formed by reassortment of like individuals. So he was wrong anyhow. Still, notwithstanding his article (which I haven’t heard of before) it’s not clear to he’s actually interested in the origin of language.

Nor does EP hypothesize the existence of mental modules by examination of actual behaviors of humans. It commits itself to the examination of human behavior in the EEA. Again, we don’t know what that is. This is crazy. Similarly, again, the primer explicitly rejects the well attested conclusion of real social science that the universals of human nature are minimal Sensible people have been led to compare the human mind to a blank slate. Well, you can’t write just anything even on a blank slate, starting with nothing that’s too long to fit, or the wrong color to be seen. Bill Benzon objects that EP sets itself the task of explaining universal human nature. The thing is, EP is very much like parapsychology, which sets itself the task of explaining ESP.

Bill Benzon’s feeble rejoinder that EPers could reasonably reply, “We’re working on it,” forgets that people have been working on it for centuries. They have looked and looked for human nature. It’s EP that says the way to discover human nature is to deduce what is adaptive in an EEA they can’t describe.

Hidari is probably right about the unfalsifiability but Popper isn’t a respectable philosopher of science to me. The Argentine philosopher Mario Bunge, a student of philosophy of science in particular, had a fascinating little list of markers of pseudoscience some years ago in Skeptical Inquirer. Despite the guaranteed obscurity I found it remarkably insightful. Bunge briefly characterized core principles to science. One in particular, continuity of a specific science with other sciences, is commonly overlooked in the obligatory quasi-Popperian stance. Sciences must overlap because of the unity of nature. A “science” that rejects the knowledge or arbitrarily deems itself able to ignore the results obtained in other sciences is a pseudoscience. EP, as the primer is candid enough to admit, not only cuts itself off from centuries of social science and history (which is not wholly distinct under any reasonable understanding,) it cuts itself off from behavioral genetics! Pseudoscience examines partial evidence. EP only examines part of the evidence about human nature, rejecting anthropology etc.

Bunge also notes the tendency of pseudoscience to accept religious notions. The belief that there is a human nature given by the all seeing, all powerful hand of natural selection is really hard to distinguish from the notion of a God given human nature. CRW’s experience is pretty typical I think, at least by looking at the many, many popularizations, which are dominated by EP and its variants. John Holbo asks if they are really that stupid? Ideology I think is not a matter of IQ.

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Kiwanda 11.30.16 at 2:27 pm

stevenjohnson 56:

The relatively recent discoveries of interbreeding between Neanderthal and Denisovan and more or less homo sapiens I think has provided the final blow to any notions about the dependence of cultural differences upon genetically determined mental architecture. The interbreeding shows all three variants (despite the gross morphological differences in Neanderthal and homo sapiens!) were one species. Yet, predecessors species and Neanderthal, despite having the same mental architecture, did not display the cultural change of homo sapiens. The archaeological remnants of their cultures were unchanging over millennia. This is not what human beings as we know them do.

It seems dubious and highly speculative to say that the ability to interbreed implies having the “same mental architecture”. It seems highly speculative to claim that Neanderthal culture did not change over millennia; it would be very interesting to see clear substantial evidence of such unchanging culture. Conversely, if Neanderthals had the same “mental architectures” as us, why do our cultures change but the Neanderthals’, as you claim, did not?

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Kiwanda 11.30.16 at 2:32 pm

DrDick 60:

As stevejohnson, Z, and I have repeatedly pointed out, it simply does not do that, not even close. I at least am a professional cultural anthropologist with 30 years professional experience.

Your contributions comprise two elaborate glosses on the fact that brains (human and otherwise) change, general agreement with the statements of others, and appeal to your own authority. I don’t think you’ve made your case yet.

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Kiwanda 11.30.16 at 2:53 pm

A review by Confer et al. discussed the state of evopsych in 2010, and Jerry Coyne discussed that review here. They point out the falsification of a “kin selection” claim related to homosexuality, and claims about sexual preference and rapes. They point to some positive results:

Among those [hypotheses] that have been confirmed by multiple methods in multiple samples by multiple investigators are anti-free-rider adaptations in cooperative groups (e.g., Price, Cosmides, & Tooby, 2002); cheater-detection adaptations in social exchange (e.g., Cosmides & Tooby, 2005); female superiority in spatial location memory as part of a gathering adaptation (e.g., Silverman & Choi, 2005); functional attributes of male and female short-term mating strategies (e.g., Greiling & Buss, 2000; Schmitt, 2005; Schmitt & International Sexuality Description Project, 2003); sex-differentiated deception tactics in human mating (e.g., Haselton, Buss, Oubaid, & Angleitner, 2005; Tooke & Camire, 1991); antipredator adaptations in children (e.g.,
Barrett, 2005); and dozens more (see Buss, 2008, for a recent review).

These may suffer from the same failures that have laid low the social sciences in recent years (e.g., the collapse of the beautiful “ego depletion”), but this work looks a lot different from “just so” stories to justify racism and sexism.

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DrDick 11.30.16 at 3:27 pm

John Holbo @61 –

I simply do not know whether they are aware of this or is they simply ignore (or grossly minimize) it and that really does not matter, as they never actually address it, whatever their pretenses at doing so. They produce unfalsifiable just so stories which always confirm whatever they wanted to find. Their ideas also routinely run counter to what we know about human evolution (the idea that humans are highly aggressive and that warfare has deep roots) and assume things that we do not actually know or are completely unknowable at present (such as with the division of labor, marital and sexual arrangements, etc.).

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DrDick 11.30.16 at 7:41 pm

Bill Benzon at 53 –

“So, when you guys (stevenjohnson, DrDick, WLGR) are rejecting this evpsych thing, are you implying that John can put Baboon Metaphysics aside because it is, eww! primate ethology (a kind of biology), and so of no possible relevance to human behavior and psychology?”

We are very much saying that he should not use baboons as analogs/proxies. That is because social organization, mating strategies, and many other aspects of primate behavior differ widely and baboons are very different from humans or our closest relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos (who also differ from each other in important ways). Human behavior, and what we know of our distant ancestors, represents elements similar to each of those species, as well as elements uniquely our own. Modern human behavior also differs from what we can ascertain from our more distant human/protohuman ancestors (australopithecines, Homo habilis, Homo erectus, and Homo heidelberginsis).

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Hidari 11.30.16 at 9:49 pm

@72
To be absolutely fair I just skimmed that paper and didn’t look through it thoroughly. But at a cursory glance it simply did not look to me like specific hypotheses had ‘been confirmed by multiple methods in multiple samples by multiple investigators’. Instead, to me, it looked like individual hypothesis had been confirmed by single investigators (or single investigators in collaboration with others). (I am willing to be corrected about this).

Outsiders to the field of psychology (and yes I know what I am talking about here) should really be aware of how thin the knowledge of the average psychologist is of experimental methodology and the scientific methodology per se. One of the key points of the ‘replication crisis’ to which you allude is that, if you read some of the pieces written by psychologists at the time, it’s pretty obvious that not a few psychologists weren’t really aware that experiments need to be replicable and in fact replicated, sometimes dozens of times before they should be accepted by the scientific community.

There’s very good reasons for this. Does anyone remember N-Rays? Thought not.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/N_ray

The key point about them (the Wikipedia entry does not make this quite clear) is not only were they ‘detected’, the experiments were successfully replicated. It was only with the passage of time that the unsuccessful replications began to outnumber the ‘successful’ ones.

So, one off experiments that allegedly prove something or other don’t interest me at all. Even if they have been replicated a couple of times, I’m still not very interested. Only if they have been successfully replicated a number of times, by separate researchers (preferably spatially removed from the original researchers) over a period of some time (a few years for example) do I become interested. And even then it hardly proves the phenomenon in question exists: others on this thread have referred to the ‘priming’ effect, which now seems to be illusory or at least partially illusory.

What one must keep a steely gaze on is ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’. EP doesn’t need the ‘normal’ amount of evidence to support it: given that its claims are ‘extraordinary’ (and they really are) the amount of evidence produced must also be extraordinary.

@71: ‘I don’t think you’ve made your case yet’. He doesn’t have to make a case. The burden of proof lies on those making the claim. It’s proponents of EP who have to make the case (sorry to repeat this point, but it is often overlooked in these debates).

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Kiwanda 11.30.16 at 11:06 pm

Hidari:

But at a cursory glance it simply did not look to me like specific hypotheses had ‘been confirmed by multiple methods in multiple samples by multiple investigators’. Instead, to me, it looked like individual hypothesis had been confirmed by single investigators (or single investigators in collaboration with others). (I am willing to be corrected about this).

It’s true that I’ve relied on the good faith of the authors, but: the Price, Cosmides, & Tooby paper has 355 cites; Cosmides/Tooby is a review of its topic, with 358 cites; Silverman/Choi is a review with 51 cites; Barrett 2005 is a review, with 218 cites. If you know positively that the papers /reviews themselves, together with the literature citing them, do not satisfy the “multiple methods/samples/investigators” claim, then your knowledge of this field is remarkably comprehensive. (I haven’t been able to see the papers/reviews themselves, they’re behind a paywall.)

He doesn’t have to make a case. The burden of proof lies on those making the claim.

He makes a strong claim (more or less, that all evopysch studies fail to consider the role of culture, or maybe that the role of culture cannot in principle be untangled from other conditions), that surely requires some evidence other than “The brain changes, and I’m a cultural anthropologist”.

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John Holbo 12.01.16 at 12:26 am

Sorry, too busy to weigh in today. I hope to be back later! Thank you all for an interesting and generally civil discussion so far.

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John Holbo 12.01.16 at 1:09 am

OK, can’t resist:

” ‘I don’t think you’ve made your case yet’. He doesn’t have to make a case. The burden of proof lies on those making the claim. It’s proponents of EP who have to make the case (sorry to repeat this point, but it is often overlooked in these debates).”

I’m going to push back on this one.

It’s not as if the critics of EP are pure negative spirit – some socratic force for exposing the internal contradictions of EP. Rather, these critiques are based, in part – and are certainly intellectually motivated by – positive, competing views of human nature.

Upthread, DrDick advanced what is, in effect, a competing evolutionary hypothesis. He/she posits that known facts about neuroplasticity warrant the claim that “human beings evolved to be flexible and adaptable along as much of our behavior as possible” Now, I’m pretty sure that is not, strictly, the view. This is a blog and it’s unfair to try to hang someone up on the basis of a stray comment. I mention it because it’s not entirely clear what proposition it should be replaced by, strictly. What inferences about human evolution, to truths about human nature which foil EP, ARE warranted by known facts about neuroplasticity? It does seem reasonable to infer that our very adaptability is, in itself, adaptive. But it doesn’t seem reasonable to posit that we are, simply, maximally-adaptive. Then what?

Anti-EP folks have a strong sense that EP folks are motivated by, i.e. have, highly speculative views about human nature. That is obviously true. But it’s also true of the anti-EP folks. None of us can avoid having opinions – beliefs – about human nature, which we couldn’t seriously prove. The most we can do is try to minimize the pollution effect when we try to make solid arguments.

Part of the problem here is that both sides are, at their best, in the squishy middle. Human nature is neither perfectly plastic nor rigidly determined by any one factor (culture, evolution, genes, what have you). With so much empirical uncertainty, it’s very hard for either side to win a decisive intellectual victory in the squishy middle (seems to me.) This means there is a strong polemical temptation to argue by trying to push the other party out of the squishy middle, because that would be victory. EP folks try to cartoon the other side as pathetically naive believers in blank slates. EP critics try to cartoon EP as blindly ignorant of the fact that cultural variation is even a problem. But clearly, each side, at its best, is better than these polemics make out. The challenge is to fight it out somewhere in the middle in rigorous manner. The hell of it is: the paucity of independent, verifiable facts about human evolution make it hard. I don’t think it’s wrong to clobber EP folks with Popper. But, in fairness, Popper – strictly wielded – will let you give a pop to a lot of folks besides EP folks. A lot of non-EP evolutionary hypotheses about biological function are not, strictly, disconfirmable, due to a lack of relevant evidence. As someone mentioned upthread, the replication crisis in the social science has hit a lot of folks hard. Now that is no defense. ‘You’re just as sorry-ass as us!’ is not a defense any self-respecting scientist should be making. But if it is true that EP is no worse than a lot of other areas, that is certainly worth mentioning by third parties.

Maybe a good way to advance the debate would be to take some one piece of ev psych literature – something as good as we can find – and see whether we think the authors are 1) at least trying to deal with the culture variable in a credible way; 2) managing to clear the Just So Story bar, even if they don’t make it all the way to proof. If we do that, I nominate Mercier and Sperber. I have a personal interest their ‘argumentative theory of reason’ at the moment, so it’s at my mental fingertips. It seems to me to be better than a Just So Story, even though I’m not sure I buy it. My main concern is actually that I’m not sure the system1/system2 framework it assumes is coherent. Anyway, here it is … and now I gotta run and do something else:

https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1698090

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Bill Benzon 12.01.16 at 6:18 am

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stevenjohnson 12.01.16 at 3:36 pm

Kiwanda@70. “It seems dubious and highly speculative to say that the ability to interbreed implies having the ‘same mental architecture’. It seems highly speculative to claim that Neanderthal culture did not change over millennia; it would be very interesting to see clear substantial evidence of such unchanging culture. Conversely, if Neanderthals had the same ‘mental architectures’ as us, why do our cultures change but the Neanderthals’, as you claim, did not?”

In principle EP claims that the mental modules are biological functions of the physical brain, laid down by genes selected by nature. The mental architecture is a neurological architecture as well, even if EP in practice never actually bothers to try to live up to those flow charts in that primer, which runs from “neurophysiological basis” to “cognitive program” (aka mental module) to “adaptive problem,” (the fatal dependence on a mythical EEA.) EP, unlike Kiwanda, accepts that mental architecture is also neurophysiological architecture.

I don’t think Kiwanda would be well advised to argue with them on this point, because genetic neurophysiological abnormalities are strongly associated with loss of mental functions or abnormal development, often leading to early death. (I witnessed the autopsy of a three year old child who died suddenly from no obvious cause, until the pathologist found brain abnormalities, so this point was made to me with great impact.) It is dubious and highly speculative to claim that hybrid neural architecture nonetheless produces the same purely mental architecture.

It’s true that most reconstructions of Neanderthal culture suggest a way of life strikingly different from the modern human (the sexes spend most of their time segregated from each other? they spent most of their time foraging, more like cows than hunter/gatherers?) But those things are more speculative, and beyond my personal capacity to judge. But again, if similar views are to be affirmed by the judgment of time, such dramatic differences in the way of life in members of the very same species, once again shows that it’s culture that’s more important than genes.

As to the unchanging nature of Neanderthal culture? That is simply the fact, to the best of my knowledge, based on the persistence of the same suite of remains. The culture associated with homo erectus is the Acheulean and it was unchanging for even longer than the Mousterian culture associated with Neanderthals. A quick wikipedia search says the Mousterian ran from about 160 000 to 40 000 BP. And the only suggestions of significant changes in Neanderthal culture seem to be related to the advent of humans. It’s true the necessary emphasis on surviving remains means we don’t have an ideally random sampling. But it seems excessively speculative to insist there was indeed a succession of Neanderthal cultures that we just don’t know about.

As to why archaeologists find an endless succession of cultures associated with modern humans but not Neanderthals? A culture is the way of life, which is among other things an economy (and an ecology.) Perhaps a culture is like modern economies, it has to accumulate a certain amount of technique before it can reach a necessary critical mass. Perhaps it was simply a matter of sufficiently high population density for a long enough period to allow enough innovators and their innovations to arise and persist instead of dying within a human life. Perhaps, but this is admittedly speculative, the Neanderthals lacked a full modern language.

But if it is permissible for EPers to ignore the evidence from anthropology, history and other social sciences that their notion there is an elaborate genetically determinate human nature with a large suite of neurophysiologically based “cognitive programs,” aka mental modules, aka faculties on the grounds they are working on demonstrating the existence of said human nature? Then surely it is permissible for others to base themselves on the evidence on hand, rather than the evidence to be determined.

DrDick again read correctly: I don’t think Baboon Metaphysics is useful for knowing what people are like. Maybe you can get some clues as to what people aren’t like and why they aren’t like baboons, but it’s hard to see immediately how useful that could be.

My apologies for the length, but I’m not a good writer and every effort to compress just ends up cryptic.

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Kiwanda 12.01.16 at 6:04 pm

stevenjohnson 70:

EP, unlike Kiwanda, accepts that mental architecture is also neurophysiological architecture.

Of course mental functions follow from brain (sorry, neurophysiological) functions; you have no reason, from my comments, to think that I believe otherwise. Your speculative idea that the ability of two groups to produce fertile offspring implies that they must have the same “mental architecture”, on the other hand, remains dubious and undefended. Skepticism about that speculative idea does not imply adherence to some other speculative idea. They might indeed have had the same “mental architecture”, they might not; we don’t know.

But it seems excessively speculative to insist there was indeed a succession of Neanderthal cultures that we just don’t know about.

If you find someone who was insisting that such a succession occurred, your discussion is with them. Given the paucity of evidence (at least, that you’ve indicated so far), the more appropriate view is that we just don’t know.

But if it is permissible for EPers to ignore the evidence from anthropology, history and other social sciences that their notion…

I lost the thread in that sentence, but if the claim is that the social disciplines give strong evidence that there are *not* “mental modules”, it would be very interesting to hear what that evidence is. How this negative evidence could be given, while simultaneously claiming that culture and mental functioning are ineluctably intertwined, is not clear to me.

The evopysch program of recent years, as best I can tell, is to use considerations of adaptivity to suggest hypotheses that must then be tested. This leads to claims and evidence that, for example, we have a propensity to fear spiders and snakes, and to judge heights differently depending on whether we are looking down from them or up to them.

That such anodyne studies could provoke such a strong response, involving shaky chains of dubious speculative reasoning, is surprising. I suppose it’s based on the kind of thing in the OP, and/or on studies related to sensitive topics like tendencies of gender difference, where it’s to common in popularizations to overgeneralize and sensationalize.

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DrDick 12.01.16 at 7:41 pm

Kiwanda @ 76 –

“He makes a strong claim (more or less, that all evopysch studies fail to consider the role of culture, or maybe that the role of culture cannot in principle be untangled from other conditions), that surely requires some evidence other thanHe makes a strong claim (more or less, that all evopysch studies fail to consider the role of culture, or maybe that the role of culture cannot in principle be untangled from other conditions), that surely requires some evidence other than “The brain changes, and I’m a cultural anthropologist”.

Firstly, that is not the claim I am making at all. What I am saying is that they ignore the high levels of variability in human behavior, especially cross culturally, as well as the very strong evidence from biology that human behavior is not strongly programmed by genetics (which is what neural/behavioral plasticity is about). I am also saying that they do not reference what we actually know about the evolution of the human brain from australopithecus to modern humans, which runs counter to many of their arguments. I have also provided links to support these. That is a much stronger case than your characterization. To date you have provided absolutely no evidence or logical argument to counter that and merely dismiss it. As stevenjohnson says, the burden of proof is on the evo-psych people and they have failed that so far.

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J-D 12.01.16 at 8:51 pm

But if it is permissible for EPers to ignore the evidence from anthropology, history and other social sciences that their notion there is an elaborate genetically determinate human nature with a large suite of neurophysiologically based “cognitive programs,” aka mental modules, aka faculties on the grounds they are working on demonstrating the existence of said human nature?

Something’s gone wrong with the syntax of that sentence (anacoluthon?).

If it is permissible …
for EPers to ignore …
the evidence …
that their notion …

… on the grounds they are ….

‘That their notion …’ has to be the beginning of an adjectival subordinate clause (qualifying ‘the evidence’), of which the noun phrase beginning ‘their notion’ is the subject, but the verb required for the clause is missing. They ignore the evidence that their notion … is something? has something? does something? what?

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Hidari 12.01.16 at 9:07 pm

@78 Is it just me or did that Mercier and Sperber paper not seem to be particularly EPish?

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Kiwanda 12.02.16 at 1:15 am

DrDick 82:

I have also provided links to support these.

You quoted the abstract of your first link, “Brain plasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change structure and function. Experience is a major stimulant of brain plasticity in animal species as diverse as insects and humans….” The interesting ways that brains change, and the general reasons they do, are not particularly in question here; at least, what you’ve quoted does not imply the kind of full-generality, blank-slate plasticity you seem to be suggesting it does. Yes, brains change. (The paper is behind a paywall; if there’s something relevant in it, maybe you could quote that.)

The full text of your second link is freely available. It discusses how the brain, especially when growing, changes in response to various experiences and stimuli, with many fascinating instances of general environmental factors resulting in various nervous system effects detectable in the laboratory. Here again, as interesting as such investigations might be, I’m missing their relevance. Yes, brains change.

If you had other links, such as those regarding what we *actually* know about the evolution of the human brain, I missed them. Such knowledge would be great to hear about.

ignore the high levels of variability in human behavior, especially cross culturally,

On the contrary, (from the Stanford Enclopedia of Philosophy):
“If the traits of interest to evolutionary psychologists are universally distributed, then we should expect to find them in all humans. This partly explains the stock that evolutionary psychologists put in cross cultural psychological tests (see e.g. Buss 1990).”

DrDick 73:

They produce unfalsifiable just so stories which always confirm whatever they wanted to find. Their ideas also routinely run counter to what we know about human evolution (the idea that humans are highly aggressive and that warfare has deep roots) and assume things that we do not actually know or are completely unknowable at present (such as with the division of labor, marital and sexual arrangements, etc.).

Can you give any articles in the evopsych literature, say from the last decade or so, that claims that “humans are highly aggressive”? The review article I (already) quoted gave various examples, as I noted, of falsified evopsych hypotheses, and gave various examples (as I quoted) of various hypotheses with confirmation “by multiple methods in multiple samples by multiple investigators “, or at least, such is claimed. Can you substantiate any of your sweeping claims with relevant evidence?

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RichardM 12.02.16 at 1:55 am

Does there exist somewhere a stronger defense of the anti-EP side than presented here?

There must be someone out there who actually understands the EP programme, can write a whole paragraph without making obvious errors of logic or fact, and has a plausible argument against it being true.

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Peter T 12.02.16 at 3:00 am

“the paucity of independent, verifiable facts about human evolution make it hard”
Just so. And, in the absence of repeated, verified, methodologically sound investigations that have accumulated enough connected facts, people build castles in the air and then argue about the height of the turrets and the number of bathrooms – sometimes for centuries. With many interesting ideas generated along the way, and sometimes – sometimes – even an additional fact or two. We’ve already got economics; why add another?

The brain architecture required by harder versions of evo-psych (and by Chomskyan linguistics) do not, on my scatty reading, seem to be supported by neurology: the brain generally settles into the same general pattern of organisation, but it does not have to. And more detailed investigations tend to show that major cognitive tasks are widely distributed. This, as John says. leaves a very large squishy middle between the gross abnormalities that disable or kill you, and the the complex intertwined processes (genetic but also environmental) that produce “normal” brains. Evo-psych does not seem to do much more than make the middle muddier, so I’ll leave it alone until enough firm ground emerges.

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John Holbo 12.02.16 at 6:08 am

Sorry, I had a very busy morning and I didn’t get around to clearing a backlog of comments. All turned on now.

DrDick writes: “I am also saying that they do not reference what we actually know about the evolution of the human brain from australopithecus to modern humans, which runs counter to many of their arguments. I have also provided links to support these.”

Would you mind unpacking this a bit? At least give me the link again (I’m sure it’s upthread somewhere but I’m not sure where). I don’t see anything that 1) all (or most) evpsych folks would need to be committed to; that is 2) strongly disconfirmed by established facts about brain evolution.

Hidari: “@78 Is it just me or did that Mercier and Sperber paper not seem to be particularly EPish?”

I honestly don’t know if it’s just you. I guess it depends what one means by EP. I think some people in this thread are using it narrowly – in a way that might exclude M&S – but it seems to me more sensible to use it broadly, to include them. M&S apply the term to themselves without qualms. Here is Mercier, discussing the paper, and the ideas in it:

“Dan Sperber is the first author to come up with this theory — reasoning is for argumentation — in a well-formed way. He was influenced by the two best-known evolutionary psychologists, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, who introduced him to the idea that the human mind was mostly made up of mechanisms designed by evolution for a specific function.

Dan took this idea further, in the direction of massive modularity, and he applied it quite successfully in a variety of domains. The basic idea of evolutionary psychology is to take the power of natural selection and evolutionary theory and apply it to the human mind. It has encountered a lot of resistance in the past, partly for political reasons, because people thought evolutionary psychology necessarily had to be on the right of the political spectrum and that there was a danger that by saying that too many things were innate, that you could, for instance, say that one race was inferior to another — or those sort of things.

But even if we discount these political attacks that might have been founded at some point (but are probably not anymore) there is one main attack against evolutionary psychology that remains— which is that evolutionary psychologists are mostly telling ‘just-so’ stories. The idea here is that they are just coming up with evolutionary theories of why something evolved, and you can’t falsify them, and so they’re not scientific.

That this is not true at all, and that evolutionary psychologists are following the same methodology as any evolutionary biologist. They are taking inspiration from the theory of evolution by natural selection, and they are trying to derive new theories about how the mind works and what is the function of different cognitive mechanisms. But then they can really test these hypotheses. The way it works is basically you say that that mechanism X (in our case, reasoning) has a given function. We think that reasoning, in our case, has the function of arguing. And then you can see if this function fits with the way reasoning works.”

https://www.edge.org/conversation/hugo_mercier-the-argumentative-theory

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Z 12.02.16 at 6:28 am

Maybe a good way to advance the debate would be to take some one piece of ev psych literature – something as good as we can find – […]I nominate Mercier and Sperber.

Excellent idea! Not only are we discussing specific claims but in addition I have always thought it a good idea to discuss the best outputs of a theory, not the worse or even the average (and God forbid, not the average output on the Internet).

To begin with, I should say that I would have many good things to say about Mercier-Sperber. I find it an interesting article which clearly increase knowledge. But in the rest of this comment, I will concentrate on criticisms, as it also perfectly illustrates the common weaknesses I alluded to above.

-First, the core evolutionary argument seems very weak to me: they examine the current main function of reasoning and because “adaptations work best when they are used to perform the task they evolved to perform” conclude that it is the evolutionary reason behind the appearance of reasoning. With reasoning replaced by biological organ X, this looks very much like a classical mistake and one Darwin repeatedly warned against. What would happen if this logic was applied to the study of the swim bladder?

-Second, the core evolutionary premise, that “reasoning has evolved and persisted mainly because it makes human communication more effective and advantageous”, seems to me to be very dubious and I would tend to reject it for reasons I briefly mentioned in the thread on interrogative apes. Reasoning shows particular peculiar properties that in my view strongly suggests it did not evolve in the context of communication.

So already the evolutionary part in evolutionary psychology seems not at all convincing. Moving on to sensitivity to anthropological, cultural and social effects.

-The authors duly note that all human groups engage in argumentative communications but they give very little attention to the different cultural meanings and forms of these argumentative situations. Therefore, they seem to me they miss the obvious in pointing out that people typically do badly at formal logic manipulations while they do markedly better at arguments evaluation; namely that formal logic manipulations is, well, formal so highly singular as a cultural form. I don’t think I could drive this point better than in pointing out that the one syllogism they take as an example of something people typically get wrong (at the beginning of section 3.3) they themselves get wrong (they forget the hypothesis that B should be a non-empty set, otherwise just take C=A and B empty; incidentally, this is obvious if A,B and C are drawn on a black board, another sign of the relevance of specific cultural forms in the assessment of such tasks). Now, if this was pointed out to them, they would probably say something like “oh, of course we meant B to be non-empty, in ordinary usage B will be non-empty” but that is exactly the point: in ordinary social situations, human look for statistical regularities and social structures, so we (rightly, considering the purpose) disregard formal logical correctness in favor of actual acceptability and we (rightly) frown our eyes when the young logician mother answers “yes” to the question “Is it a boy or a girl?”

-Finally, I think the main problem is not in what they do, but in what they don’t do. They never consider seriously what I would call the default hypothesis. Namely, that human beings are social animals, that social status and reputation are therefore critical for them, that argumentative discussions are in most (but not all) social groups an important part of the collective computation of social rank (reputation, honor, face, having a good name…) and that therefore human children should spend much more time putting their core cognitive function to use in the context of argumentative discussions that in any other (including formal logical reasoning or inference reasoning); a point which anecdotally I believe no parent of siblings of close age could ever doubt. Whether this social argumentative style is then applied on oneself by analogy or whether the self is the original battleground for arguments remain open in this very simple formulation, though as a good follower of Bourdieu I am of course inclined to believe in the latter myself.

Note that this last theory is simpler, more correct in evolutionary terms, closer to actual, observable anthropological and social practices yet retrieves all the core predictions of the article while at the same time accounting for where such predictions do break down: in the social groups where status depends on formal inferences (math and philosophy departments, blog comments section in which articles are teased apart…), agents will typically find in themselves to harness their core cognitive capabilities in unusual, formal ways; in those where social status is independent of argumentative behavior (religious congregations, teenagers chilling out, Trump’s White House staff…), they will prove to be remarkably able to ignore even the most common argumentative features.

My conclusion? Just as in my very first comment: the basic tenets of EP are obvious; when dealing with higher human features, they tend to entail that basic social constructionists should be descriptively right.

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John Holbo 12.02.16 at 6:48 am

Thanks Z! That’s very helpful. I’m once again running around busy. I’ll try to comment more later.

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Hidari 12.02.16 at 8:24 am

Hi RichardM! Thanks for your question which I am sure was not at all rhetorical.

Just to recap: to even get going as a research programme, as a lot of people have pointed out, the following must be true, and not just true but overwhelmingly and unarguably true.

1: As @56 pointed out, first and foremost, the brain must be a Turing machine and this must be true in some non-trivial sense (i.e. it must be not ‘like’ a Turing machine or ‘similar to’. It must actually be a Turing machine).

2: It must be modular. As @32 points out, one of the core pieces of evidence for this is Chomsky’s argument that there is a Language Acquiring Module. Given recent wobbling on this in linguistics, this is important (a recent article in the New Scientists described Chomskyan linguistics as ‘a busted flush’). Again, it’s important for EP that Chomsky’s theory is not just true, but self-evidently, and incontrovertibly true: ditto for other ‘low level’ cognitive modules.

3: As per the quote in @88, the mind must be not just modular, but massively modular. This is where a lot of people (e.g. Jerry Fodor) bail out (this form of modularity has been referred to as ‘modularity gone mad’). Again, I am not aware of the arguments, such as they are, as to why this ‘must’ be the case, but again, for EP to be taken seriously as a scientific theory (in other words, in order for it not to be ‘not even wrong’), the mind must be massively modular, and this must be an objective scientific fact.

4: The predictions of EP are inferred from the fact that these ‘high level’ cognitive modules evolved, not for now, but for the African Savannah of (approximately) 20,000 years ago, or possibly more. The key assumption here is that human evolution essentially stopped then, and that, therefore, not change (apart from from minor ‘cultural’) changes have occurred since then. Unfortunately this has turned out not to be true, and even Steven Pinker has had to backtrack here, and say that even though this absolutely core assumption of EP is not true, it’s not important because the extent of human evolution post-Savannah is trivial or non-significant. Whatever one thinks of this, it’s certainly a backing down from a position that really has to be watertight for EP to be taken seriously.

Why do EPers insist on all these thing?

It’s because they start off with a research question, and the research question is this:

Why is human behaviour essentially the same, across cultures and across time? (the assumption here is that cultural variations, which do exist, are, nonetheless, essentially trivial or unimportant).

It is this scientific question that EP was created in order to answer.

Now there’s a big problem here, obviously, in that: what if EP’s core assumption is not true? After all: Chomsky’s theory was created to answer a similar question: why are all languages essentially the same? And his answers only make sense if that question is meaningful. Which is why recent ‘wobblings’ on that by linguistics are important. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universal_grammar#Criticisms).

Because then we can turn the question round: and ask, why, compared to other animals, is human behaviour different across time and space (e.g. between cultures, spatially and temporally separated?). If that turns out to be a more meaningful scientific question then EP turns out to be fundamentally misguided, providing a pseudo-answer to a pseudo-question.

Why is why anthropological data, and how it is interpreted, is so important.

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Bill Benzon 12.02.16 at 11:25 am

@stevenjohnson # 69:

EP is the one which actually rests upon a picture of the mind as a computer with hardware specifically designed for very detailed tasks, preset to accept only inputs delivered in a pre-designed format. […] try explaining the adaptive value of a suicide “module.” If that seems like a crazy task, remember that it’s EP that insists on these mental modules in the first place.

This qualification of “very detailed tasks” strikes me as your own straw man emendation which allows you to propose nonsense modules like a suicide module and say: See, how silly! I’m not aware of any standard metric of granularity which EP or anyone else has used to specify just how specific modules are supposed to be. There’s an article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy that makes a useful distinction between modest modularity and massive modularity. The former is what Fodo proposed in his 1983 is seems mostly about peripheral systems. Massive modularity extends to central systems as well and this is what EPers argue. However, the ” central systems are modular, but in a considerably weakened sense.” The article does not, however, provide a convenient list of the proposed central modules. What’s your list of “detailed” modules that have actually been proposed?

As Bill Benzon notes, the Chomskyan language acquisition device is the classic mental module. The difficulties in generative linguistics and its revisions by Chomsky himself do not suggest the mental modules approach is the royal road to knowledge.

The difficulties of generative linguistics have little to do with modularity. They have to do with the specific nature of the formal machinery used for characterizing a grammar – for some, indeed, the use of any formal machinery at all is problematic, and with the handling of empirical evidence.

This doesn’t make much sense to me:

Then there was the very widely touted (by prominent evolutionary biologists like Jerry Coyne) article by Pinker attacking group selection, in which Pinker basically relied on the inability of groups to replicate faster than natural selection could weed out individually maladaptive traits. It didn’t take long to wonder why a linguist (insofar as Pinker is actually qualified at anything it’s linguistics, [his dissertation & early work was on visual perception]) would neglect first of all to wonder whether there is such a thing as a group trait. It’s not clear to me that a child making a racket all the time is adaptive. Talking isn’t such a useful thing unless there’s someone to talk to. And if people didn’t talk something, even babble, however can nature select for an unexpressed trait? I conclude even a linguist EP isn’t much interested in the language instinct.

Pinker also neglected to consider that groups can form faster than by simple reproduction by splitting. Or that new groups formed by reassortment of like individuals. So he was wrong anyhow. Still, notwithstanding his article (which I haven’t heard of before) it’s not clear to he’s actually interested in the origin of language.

So, back in 1990 Pinker and Bloom publish an article on language as a biological adapation, and in Behavioral and Brain Science, thus guaranteeing it a wide audience. It becomes a much discussed and much citied (over 2300 citations so far). But you’ve not read it, which is OK, and nonetheless doubt that Pinker is interested in the origins of language because of what he’s said in a recent article about group selection, a somewhat different topic.

You seem to think language requires group selection. So you think language is a biological adaptation?

Anyhow, what’s group selection? You seem to think it’s selection for traits useful for living in groups. That’s not my understanding, though my understanding may be faulty.

Some years ago I published an essay-review of two books, Darwin’s Cathedral, by David Sloan Wilson, and Shamanism and the Ancient Mind, by James L. Pearson. Here’s what I said about group selection in that piece:

Given that religion functions as Wilson says, why invoke biology to explain it? Religion varies tremendously from group to group in ways that are clearly cultural. Wilson freely admits that “culturally evolved mechanisms are absolutely required for human society to hang together above the level of face-to-face groups” (p. 119). During his discussion of Calvinism he even suggests that the “protestant Reformation may be regarded as a large number of social experiments with may failures for each success” (p. 122). He is thus recognizes that cultural mechanisms surely play a major role religious behavior and institutions. What is at issue is whether or not these behavior patterns require a specific and dedicated genetic basis or whether they have been knit together from behaviors common to the hominid behavioral tool kit.

Behavioral patterns flow from the operation of psychological mechanisms. Thus we must account for the existence of those psychological mechanisms if we are fully to account for the behavior. That is what Wilson asks biology to do, to account for the existence of some critical portion of the psychological mechanisms needed to sustain human life in groups larger than those typical of our primate relatives—I’m thinking of the argument about recursion and syntax that Hauser, Chomsky and Fitch (2002) make with respect to the biology of natural language. Since it is the unusually large size of human groups that must be explained, Wilson suggests that group selection is the way to explain those psychological mechanisms.

What we observe, in animals as well as humans, is that individuals often do things that benefit the group but that cost them individually. As an example Wilson considers a hypothetical group of birds where individuals will emit calls warning the group of predators but also attracting the predators attention to them as individuals. These individuals are likely to attract the attention of these predators and so are more likely to be killed than others in the group and less likely to reproduce. Conversely, individuals who never emit warning calls nonetheless benefit from the calls of those who emit warnings and are thus more likely to reproduce. How can the genes favoring warning behavior reliably survive from one generation to another if individuals are less likely to reproduce than “free-loading” individuals?

Darwin’s solution to this problem was to imagine that we have many groups and that those groups are in competition with one another. Groups containing altruistic individuals are more likely to survive than groups without them. Thus, we now seem to have a way of explaining how altruism can be inherited from one generation to another.

This solution, known as group selectionism, requires that the group be a real entity, rather than just some arbitrary collection of individuals. And that is where the problem is, figuring out the conditions in which this is possible. The problem was readily solved in the special cases of kin selection and reciprocal altruism, but a general solution has been more elusive.

The problem is that groups must be relatively isolated breeding entities, for that is the only way to keep genetic variance between groups large enough for selective forces to work on whole groups rather than directly on individuals (Boyd and Richerson 1985; Leigh 1999). There is little reason to believe that human groups are sufficiently isolated from one another for group selection to be effective. Let us consider one of his example, that of a Christian congregation serving Korean Americans in Houston, Texas (pp. 165 ff.). This congregation tends to serve Korean immigrants; their sons and daughters generally leave the congregation, finding it too constraining. The congregation thus requires a constant influx of Korean immigrants to maintain its membership. As long as the influx continues the congregation can maintain itself as a stable social group. That group does not maintain its long-term membership through breeding; it does not consist of lineages that are relatively isolated from other lineages. Thus we certainly cannot expect such a congregation to be a vehicle for maintaining a group-selected biological faculty.

While I am inclined to think that this particular congregation represents an extreme case, it is not clear to me that it is so extreme that we can dismiss it. I suspect that most congregations in contemporary America are somewhat like this. Many children born into the congregation will leave it in adulthood when they move to another region. Have human beings generally lived in the sort of breeding groups necessary to maintain a group-selected moral faculty? Wilson doesn’t present any evidence that we do or have done so. Nor does it seem likely. The reproductive isolation requirements are fairly strict, and human population structure is relatively fluid (cf. Richerson and Boyd 1999, 2001). I am thus disinclined consider biological group selection an evolutionary source of the psychological mechanisms underlying human group behavior.

Nor, I should add, do I grant much significance to that disinclination. It is clear that humans have a considerable behavioral legacy from their animal forebearers and this legacy is surely active in the behaviors Wilson describes. The respective roles of the genes and social learning in developing the underlying psychological mechanisms are obscure, as Wilson freely acknowledges. I am rather inclined to believe that we will not understand those roles until we have a deeper understanding of the mechanisms themselves: what neural structures are involved, what external cues do they sense, what actions can they initiate, how do they develop? Until these matters are more firmly in hand, trying to apportion adaptive credit between genes and learning seems premature.

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DrDick 12.02.16 at 3:23 pm

Hidari @ 91 –

Very well said and this is the key critique from anthropology. :

“Because then we can turn the question round: and ask, why, compared to other animals, is human behaviour different across time and space (e.g. between cultures, spatially and temporally separated?). If that turns out to be a more meaningful scientific question then EP turns out to be fundamentally misguided, providing a pseudo-answer to a pseudo-question. “

Human behavior is simply too variable, along almost any dimension both within group and between groups, for the basic premises of EP to be true.

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DrDick 12.02.16 at 3:28 pm

Kiwanda @ 85 –

You do realize that what they are saying is that the development of the brain is not strongly coded by genetics for any specific actions, but rather it has huge genetic potential for variable outcomes in response to environmental factors? That is directly counter to the the central EP assumption that we are genetically predisposed to particular kinds of behavior over a broad range of domains.

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Kiwanda 12.02.16 at 3:37 pm

Hidari 91 gives four very strong conditions on human mental functioning, and a very strong characterization of EP, which is said to require those strong conditions. What’s missing: evidence that the characterization is accurate, and arguments relating the purported requirements to the characterization.

Comments on the “requirements”:

1. The brain is not a Turing machine, or (less figuratively) Turing complete. Turing machines are infinite, the brain is not. The discussion @56 seems to be suggesting that EP hypothesizes modularity, with the same modules in everyone. @56 has no argument relating EP to Turing completeness. How did this become a condition that must be “overwhelmingly and unarguably true” for EP to exist as a discipline?

2. Modularity can be viewed as a working hypothesis, a means to generate more narrow ideas that then must be tested; it sounds like some EPers take a stronger stance on it, but how did modularity become something that must be “self-evidently, and incontrovertibly true” for EP to exist?

3. The portion of the quote of Mercier @88 that concerns massive modularity says, in its entirety, “Dan took this idea further, in the direction of massive modularity, and he applied it quite successfully in a variety of domains.” Here Hidari doesn’t suggest an argument, but claims that EP requires massive modularity to be an “an objective scientific fact. “

4. EP and evolution on the Savannah is said to be “a position that really has to be watertight”, and it’s said that Pinker has had to backtrack on it. From a discussion of EP, where M is Myers, P is Pinker:

M: . . . That the human brain is adapted to a particular environment, specifically the African savannah, and that we can ignore as negligible any evolutionary events in the last 10,000 years, that we can ignore the complexity of an environment most of the evo psych people have never seriously studied, and that that environment can dictate one narrow range of outcomes rather than permit millions of different possibilities.

P: The savannah is a red herring — that’s just a convenient dichotomization of the relevant continuum, which is evolutionary history. A minimal commitment to “pre-modern” gives you the same conclusions. By saying that the brain could not have been biologically adapted to stable government, police, literacy, medicine, science, reliable statistics, prevalence of high-calorie food, etc., you don’t need to go back to the savannah; you just need to say that these were all relevantly recent in most people’s evolutionary history. The savannah is just a synechdoche.

The research question of EP is, per Hidari, “Why is human behaviour essentially the same, across cultures and across time?” According to Steven Pinker, EP is “not a single theory but a large set of hypotheses” and a term that “has also come to refer to a particular way of applying evolutionary theory to the mind, with an emphasis on adaptation, gene-level selection, and modularity.” According to the review I linked above, “The goal of evolutionary psychology is to study human behavior as the product of evolved psycho-
logical mechanisms that depend on internal and environmental input for their development, activation, and expression in manifest behavior.” From the (generally critical) Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article I linked above, “Along with cognitive psychologists, evolutionary psychologists propose that much, if not all, of our behavior can be explained by appeal to internal psychological mechanisms. What distinguishes evolutionary psychologists from many cognitive psychologists is the proposal that the relevant internal mechanisms are adaptations—products of natural selection—that helped our ancestors get around the world, survive and reproduce.”

While I personally subscribe to the general idea that people are the same, wherever you go, I can’t unpack “Why is human behaviour essentially the same..?” into a meaningful scientific question.

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Bill Benzon 12.02.16 at 4:23 pm

@John Holbo, #88: I guess it depends what one means by EP. I think some people in this thread are using it narrowly – in a way that might exclude M&S – but it seems to me more sensible to use it broadly, to include them. M&S apply the term to themselves without qualms.

For some time now it has been common to distinguish between “narrow school” EP (with the Cosmides & Tooby primer as a convenient quasi-manifesto) and “broad school” ev psych, which is more or less the general use of evolutionary insight in the investigation of human psychology. However, you go on to cite Mercier, who notes “Dan took this idea further, in the direction of massive modularity, and he applied it quite successfully in a variety of domains.” “Massive modularity” is a defining characteristic of narrow school EP – this article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Phil has a useful discussion of modularity in this context, where “massive” is opposed to “modest” (Fodor) modularity.

So, is M&S EP or not? More important, though, is whether or not it is a good argument.

Still I can see why Hidari raises the question. Regardless of what reasoning is for, do M&S present any evidence that ‘reason’ – whatever that is – is a biological adaptation at all? Color me skeptical.

I take is as given that human culture as a whole is adaptive. It’s what allowed us to populate every continent on earth (including, now, Antarctica, if one calls manning scientific stations and high-end tourist excursions populating). I believe that we’re the one of the few primates, perhaps the only, to make it beyond the tropics. Some aspects of culture are obviously biologically useful, e.g. tools. But some are not, e.g. music and story telling – hence Pinker’s infamous argument that the arts are “cheesecake for the mind,” delicious but not nutritious. Well, maybe ‘reason’ is just one of those things that comes along with human culture, but we really can’t assign it to any specific function that can tied to a biological function.

No one doubts, for example, that writing is terribly useful. But no one tries to argue that writing is a biological adaptation because writing clearly emerged completely with the cultural sphere. The same with arithmetic. Very useful, but not universally present in all cultures. I’m suggesting that ‘reason’ is more or less like that, though I certainly don’t mean to suggest that ‘reason’ is exclusive to literate societies. But I do mean to suggest that I don’t know just what this ‘reason’ thing is that they’re investigating, hence the scare quotes.

And here I must confess that I’ve not read the whole article. I’ve known about the argument probably since it was published because I read about it on the web, perhaps at The Edge, though more likely at Sperber’s ICCI. It thought the idea was, well, odd, but downloaded the article for later reference. So, now is later, but I approached the article more or less with the above argument in the back of my mind (an argument I first articulated in a review of Brian Boyd’s On the Origin of Stories).

And thus as I began reading around, I was looking for something to tie their article to biology, something more specific than the general notions of adaptation and purpose. I wasn’t able to spot anything. I read the abstract, starting reading the article, skipped around here and there, reading some passages closely, but skipping most, and then I read the abstract of every single comment. I didn’t spot anything that smelled like something more specific than a general sense of usefulness (in communicating, arguing) for ‘reason’.

Reasoning is one of many things humans can do, some do it better than others, and it seems that to do it really well, that requires specific training (see the comment by Maralee Harrell). Language evolves and reason comes trailing along. Is it reason that ‘pays’ for the biological cost of language, alone or in conjunction with communication or, why not, story telling? I don’t know.

97

Kiwanda 12.02.16 at 5:36 pm

DrDick 93:

You do realize that what they are saying is that the development of the brain is not strongly coded by genetics for any specific actions, but rather it has huge genetic potential for variable outcomes in response to environmental factors?

To re-iterate, this article describes various detectable neural changes due to various environmental conditions in animal studies: e.g. growing up in darkness inhibits development of the visual system; enriched visual experience lead to enhancement in vision; enhanced tactile stimulation leads to enhanced motor performance, with some possibly related increases in production of a neural growth factor; various drugs can alter brain development in ways detectable anatomically and behaviorally; sex differences in brain size, overall and in particular areas, due to gonadal hormones, and so on: detectable differences due to maternal care, peer relationships, stress, intestinal flora, diet.

Not discussed: coding for “specific actions”, a condition claimed by no one.

By the way, I await your discussion of how gender differences in brain development, described in the article you cited, imply no possible gender differences in mental functioning. The fact that few if any such differences have been found should not deter you: differences in the brain imply mental differences, aren’t you saying?

That is directly counter to the the central EP assumption that we are genetically predisposed to particular kinds of behavior over a broad range of domains.

How is that, exactly? What is it about say, the finding that growing up in darkness leads to poor vision, that implies we don’t have a tendency to fear spiders?

98

stevenjohnson 12.02.16 at 6:57 pm

As to my gigantic messed up sentence…In the effort to keep readers from forgetting (or equivocating) on what EP really claims, I had to put in numerous clauses. Being a bad typist and bad proofreader as well, the phrase “is missing,” referring to the actual evidence for all the propositions of EP, is missing, lost in the thicket. Nonetheless, despite my incompetence at writing, I shamelessly insist a view based on the evidence at hand is sounder than the one based on prospective evidence.

The rest is more or less about rebutting Kiwanda, who is at best confused. No doubt I’ve contributed enough confusion (see first paragraph!) But trying to sort it out is incredibly lengthy. My apologies.

Kiwanda’s claim that Neanderthal and homo sapien can have different mental modules/cognitive programs/mental architecture despite being members of the same species makes no sense. The whole point of EP’s chatter about genes is because genes->
neurophysiology-> cognitive program-> solution to adaptive problem. EP promptly forgets this, and operates in reverse, despite not knowing what EEA produces the adaptive program, but still: This is the logic that EP relies on for its claim to be scientific unlike anthropologists, etc. (By the way, neurophysiology is the term in the primer, as is cognitive program.)

Kiwanda clarifies that no implication Neanderthals had a different neurophysiology was meant. Remarks about hybrids etc. trying to address the possibility thus were an inadvertent irrelevance. Again, the discovery of genetic admixture tells us Neanderthals and modern humans are merely variants, races. The notion that different extant races have different neurophysiology and cognitive programs is not well supported. (To say the least!) I still differ with Kiwanda that it is speculative and dubious to see no reason for extinct races of humans to be any different in neurophysiology and cognitive programs. Thinking so seems to me to be speculative and dubious.

At this point I am baffled as to what Kiwanda could have meant by “It seems highly speculative to claim that Neanderthal culture did not change over millennia; it would be very interesting to see clear substantial evidence of such unchanging culture,” if it wasn’t to claim the persistence of Mousterian culture is not a fact, or at least one that doesn’t prompt questions. Hence the discussion of that point. It’s true that the evidence we have is limited to durable physical remains like tools, but that does not mean we can say nothing. This aspect of human culture did remain pretty unchanging for thousands of years, very unlike the durable remains from humans in the last 50 000 to 100 000 years before present. (The population bottleneck circa 70 000 years ago may marked, somehow caused even, the change in humanity?)

Kiwanda wrote “if the claim is that the social disciplines give strong evidence that there are *not* “mental modules”, it would be very interesting to hear what that evidence is.”
At this point I have to refer back to the self-professed principles so admirably laid out in the primer. The cognitive programs, or mental modules as they are more often called, are genetically pre-programmed learning frameworks, innately given crib sheets for coping with adaptive problems of the EEA. As such people would be learning the same thing in every culture. (I myself suspect that instinct, pre-programmed knowledge is the opposite of intelligence because the ability to fulfill an innate hereditary behavior seems to require an indifference to outside stimuli not pre-designated in the hereditary behavior, i.e., forbids the organism to learn differently, which would by definition be a failure of heredity.)

Well, it appears that people in all cultures have learned to forbid incest (yet not so well that it isn’t necessary to forbid it! Or why there have been conspicuous exception even to this rule!) With this observation we are already starting to run out of universally pre-programmed learnings, at least without Donald Brown style nonsense. Even more to the point, with these congenital cheat sheets, how is that so many amazingly different things are learned when we’re reading from the same page? The insistence the same mental module is at work in, say, learning marriage customs like polygyny, polyandry, dowry, bride price, levirate marriage, exogamy, endogamy, concubinage, the Oneida colony’s mating schedule, definitions of incest that do or do not include first cousins etc. etc. etc. is extraordinary.

Piaget may not be in style, but modern learning theory (however prone to fads it is) still holds that actual learning is highly dependent upon experience, play, interaction with environment social and physical. If instead the learning were due to genetic enabling, then the time table of physical development would be highly determinitave. Except it’s not.

But most important of all, anthropology tells us that we don’t know what the EEA is. This is not a little detail. Without that knowledge, starting with the adaptive problems is an insane procedure. Any detailed study of primitive life quickly reveals how essential an understanding of the local ecology is.

Without disgorging from personal memory both the memory and life experience of years, it is impossible to briefly answer this superficially reasonable request to prove the human brain isn’t massively modular. Of course, if the claims of EP are reduced to something like, cognitive programs merely incline, then I can only say, astrologers tell us the stars only incline, but do not compel, too. Insofar as EP claims to “explain” human nature, like parapsychology “explaining” ESP, or like astrobiology, it, like them, is a “science” without a subject.

It might be a little disingenuous to retort that EP doesn’t explain actual human natures the the universal grammar of learning, so to speak, a la Chomsky. Well it is true that there is a current fashion for proclaiming Chomsky dead. My personal belief that anarchism is fundamentally an epic confusion that covers reaction ashamed of itself leads me to sympathize, so I’m reluctant to leap to agree. It may turn out to be like all those people who were sure Margaret Mead was refuted as a gullible fool because some grandchildren claimed their grannies told them they didn’t sleep around as young people, nosiree! without being clear as to how they knew the grannies were lying then but not now.

But the thing about the LAD, a mental module if ever there was one, is that unlike every other mental module hypothesized by EP, there really are identifiable genes such as FOXP2 and identifiable neural structures (partly localized in Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas, but also a global function,) and an identifiable critical period in development. Other phenomena like vision have also had genes and specific brain structure associated with them. This is not social science evidence to be sure, but the neurological and genetic evidence simply does not support the massive modularity required by EP.

It is a fairly simple idea in evolutionary theory that the more intense the natural selection for a trait, whether physical or behavioral or cognitively programmatic, the universally found it is. The less intense the natural selection the more likely for there to be variation. Skipping over EP’s ignorance of variation, its own subject matter tells us that the differences in the occurrence of genes, in variations, is essential even to its own alleged program. Instead, the primer explicitly says EP has nothing to do with behavioral genetics!

I think Bunge got that sort of thing exactly right. Refusing to accept well established results from other fields or blithely contradicting them without evidence is symptomatic of pseudoscience.

Even if it marks me as a hopelessly old fashioned Baconian, I think science is about finding out how things really are, not about doing controlled experiments to refute hypotheses. Michel Gauquelin did an experiment to test an astrological prediction (Mars effect, if I remember rightly.) I don’t think that’s good science any more than EP.
EP is not scientific because it invokes “evolution.” That can serve as a substitute for “God-given.”

This is all running too long, even for a hobby. Good-bye.

99

DrDick 12.02.16 at 7:05 pm

Kiwanda @ 94 –

“While I personally subscribe to the general idea that people are the same, wherever you go, I can’t unpack “Why is human behaviour essentially the same..?” into a meaningful scientific question.”

Interesting, since that is exactly what you would expect if human behavior were strongly genetically conditioned (as EP mandates). Behavior in many species (dogs for instance) essentially the same between individuals and groups, though even here there is some minor variability.

100

Hidari 12.02.16 at 9:51 pm

1: OK here is what Pinker states: ‘According to How the Mind Works (pp. 24–27; chap. 2), mental life consists of information processing
or computation. Beliefs are a kind of information, thinking a kind of
computation, and emotions, motives, and desires are a kind of feedback mechanism
in which an agent senses the difference between a current state and goal state and
executes operations designed to reduce the difference. ‘Computation’ in this
context does not refer to what a commercially available digital computer does
but to a more generic notion of mechanical rationality, a concept that Fodor
himself has done much to elucidate (Fodor, 1968; 1975; 1981; 1994).
In this conception, a computational system is one in which knowledge and goals
are represented as patterns in bits of matter (‘representations’). The system is
designed in such a way that one representation causes another to come into
existence; and these changes mirror the laws of some normatively valid system
like logic, statistics, or laws of cause and effect in the world. The design of the
system thus ensures that if the old representations were accurate, the new ones are
accurate as well. Deriving new accurate beliefs from old ones in pursuit of a goal is
not a bad definition of ‘intelligence’, so a principal advantage of the computational
theory of mind (CTM) is that it explains how a hunk of matter (a brain or a
computer) can be intelligent….mental life—internal representations
and processes—appears to be more lawful and universal than overt behavior,
which can vary with circumstances. This is behind Chomsky’s idea that there is
a single Universal Grammar that applies to all the world’s languages despite their
differences in overt words and constructions. Much of HTMW extends this idea
to other areas of human psychology, such as the emotions, social and sexual
relations, and humor.’ (http://stevenpinker.com/files/pinker/files/so_how_does_the_mind_work.pdf)

So first off, mea culpa. I was writing early where I was and shouldn’t have said ‘Turing Machine’. I should have said ‘computer’ because what was being discussed here was our old friend the Computational Theory of Mind. (http://www.iep.utm.edu/compmind/).

So what I should have said was ‘the mind must be, in some non-trivial sense, a computer’. Apologies again. However, this is a difference that doesn’t make much of a difference, as Pinker (and, I believe, most proponents of EP) are still committed to most of the beliefs above, if not all of them. And they must believe that they are literally true, not just a metaphor.

2: As for the rest: EP requires what one might call ‘not so massive modularity’ to be true, because it makes ‘massive modularity’ so much more likely. It could, I suppose, be argued that so-called ‘low level’ cognitive functions are not modular and ‘high level’ cognitive functions are. But that would seem to be a bizarre opinion. At least I don’t know anyone who holds it. It makes more sense to assume that if low level cognition is modular, then the idea that high level cognition is modular is more likely. So that’s why the evidence that low level modules exist (e.g. Chomsky’s Language Acquiring Module) is so important to EP. If they do (and this is unarguably true) it makes massive modularity more likely.

3: But EP really does need massive modularity to be true, as it is precisely the existence of such modules that the empirical data (mainly experiments) tests. In other words: EP assumes such modules exist. What is at issue is: do they exist in precisely the shape and form predicted by EP?

If they don’t exist at all, then all the experiments are moot.

4: Fair enough, and I stand corrected. But a little bit of thought shows that this is a difference that makes no difference. Insofar as it does make a difference, it makes things worse for EP. In other words, Pinker is claiming that we evolved for ‘pre-modern’ times: in other words, roughly, at or before 8,000 BCE (or maybe earlier). To be fair, this does not limit us to the Savannah, but we are then faced with the question: well for what environment were we ‘evolved’ for? By that time, homo sapiens sapiens was living in lots of different environments, with lots of different cultures and ways of living. So which one do we pick as the one that we were ‘really’ adapted to?

In any case, EP assumed that we stopped evolving, biologically, in ‘pre-modern’ times. We now know this to be false. EP then claims that the changes since then were only ‘trivial’ or ‘unimportant’. This may be true, but it’s definitely a step back from the ‘hard line’ position, and by no means obviously true.

In any case: EP asks a question: ‘why are people essentially the same, across time and space?’ and gives an answer: ‘because the cognitive architecture of homo sapiens sapiens, conceptualised as a massively modular information processing device, is the same. This cannot change no matter how far people’s cultural surroundings change’.

To repeat, this answer only makes sense if the question makes sense.

101

John Holbo 12.03.16 at 1:31 am

Sorry again about slowness with comments. I had to sleep!

102

Bill Benzon 12.03.16 at 2:26 am

Whoops! In my 92 above the following paragraph should be set in italics as it is part of the quotation from stevenjohnsfn’s #69:

Pinker also neglected to consider that groups can form faster than by simple reproduction by splitting. Or that new groups formed by reassortment of like individuals. So he was wrong anyhow. Still, notwithstanding his article (which I haven’t heard of before) it’s not clear to he’s actually interested in the origin of language.

103

stevenjohnson 12.03.16 at 12:13 pm

Somehow I’ve missed Bill Benzon@92. There, I see that he’s published in EP, so a response may not be desired, the real point is for me to shut up. But not responding to direct comments and questions in real life feels rude. And it does in a comment thread too.

As to whether “very detailed tasks” is a straw man, or not, consider a fragment of evidence from the Mercier and Sperber article:
“Several mental mechanisms use this metarepresentational
capacity. In particular, humans have a mechanism for
representing mental representations and for drawing
intuitive inferences about them. This Theory of Mind
mechanism is essential to our understanding of others
and of ourselves (Leslie 1987; Premack & Woodruff
1978). Humans also have a mechanism for representing
verbal representations and for drawing intuitive inferences
about them. This pragmatic mechanism is essential to our
understanding of communicated meaning in context
(Grice 1975; Sperber & Wilson 2002).
We want to argue that there is yet another intuitive
metarepresentational mechanism, a mechanism for representing
possible reasons to accept a conclusion – that is,
for representing arguments – and for evaluating their
strength…”

This article was cited partly I think for not being inclined to make excessive claims! A minimum of three metarepresentational mechanisms for reasoning if I read that right, with the implication there may be others. And who knows how many merely representational ones? So, no, I don’t think I straw manned anything.

(I forbore commenting directly on this article because 1) it would be lengthy, even given my logorrhea, 2) it quickly raises issues about the panadaptationist program which would require a tiresome excursion into neutral evolution, random genetic drift, nearly neutral evolution, and the unit of selection, 3)raises political questions about epistemological skepticism and 4)no one’s interested.)

Bill Benzon objects the existence of Chomsky’s LAD has nothing to do with Chomsky’s difficulties in finalizing the universal deep grammar. I contend that the difficulty of finding the hidden structure of language is evidence the LAD might not exist at all. Similarly, I contend that EP’s search for the evolutionary causes of a human nature closely specified by natural selection for cognitive programs is also called into question by the paucity of evidence for the universal traits in the first place.

It occurs to me the gay abandon with which EP hypothesizes cognitive programs/mental modules/metarepresentational systems/faculties etc. seems to provide a universal human nature in lieu of one from other evidence. Again, these hypothetical features lack any basis in genetics and the neurophysiology of the brain at present. Except for language, so at least Chomsky still has that.

Bill Benzon seems offended that a twenty six year old article by Pinker isn’t deemed proof of his interest in the evolutionary origins of life. It seems to me that language is a group trait. The cases of feral children certainly suggest it’s not an individual one in the ordinary sense. The special relevance of group selection to the evolutionary origins of language is hypothetical, of course. The primary point I was making about Pinker’s attack on group selection was that a linguist wasn’t even interested in the topic!

For what it’s worth (zip,) I tend to think group selection is likely a minor phenomenon in the greater scheme of things, far, far behind neutral evolution, nearly neutral evolution, random genetic drift, sexual selection, natural selection, more on a par with gene selection. But, it may have been important in the origins of a group trait like language, which may be an uncommon exception nevertheless of great interest to certain parties. It’s like niche construction after a mass extinction, maybe, more or less trivial now, but not then. But maybe niche construction is just a special case of radiative adaptation? Also, for what it’s worth (zip,) I thought group selection is differential reproduction of groups leading to the fixation of traits that can be deleterious to individuals.

On the general question of whose opinions about EP carry more weight, I really do have to give much, much more weight to Cosmides’ and Tooby’s primer than the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. I don’t know why Pinker is treated as a legitimate authority on neuroscience, evolutionary theory, demography, English literature, the humanities generally, etc. as well as linguistics. He isn’t and my judgment is that he is no more qualified when he speaks out of field than any other scientist. I very much believe he is popular because of his willingness to state clearly what EP wants to believe, though.

When he says EP has an “emphasis on adaptation, gene-level selection, and modularity,” therefore I believe he is correct. His and EP’s panadaptationism contradicts about forty years of evolutionary science. His and EP’s gene selectionism is more doubtful than you think. His and EP’s modularity has evidence for language, and that’s it. As shaky as this little list is, the performance is even worse.

Pinker writes “By saying that the brain could not have been biologically adapted to stable government, police, literacy, medicine, science, reliable statistics, prevalence of high-calorie food, etc., you don’t need to go back to the savannah; you just need to say that these were all relevantly recent in most people’s evolutionary history.” Natural selection cannot adapt an organism to a history, it can only operate in a specific environment. It can operate rapidly if the selection pressure is intense, but remorseless time will operate in the same environment…which rules out past and future environments.

Hidari was far too kind to Pinker. Pinker basically conceded EP has nothing to do with empirical facts of evolution. No wonder he’s not interested in whether group selection had anything to do with language, despite being a linguist! I think Hidari’s excessive generosity to Pinker misled. Pinker’s real claim here is that human nature is genetically determined. Again, the alleged operation of natural selection over millions of years (seriously, people will actually talk about human evolution taking millions of years) functions as “God-given.” Well, maybe so, but if He did send us a message about Human Nature, why the hell was it a six word telegram? Really, the resemblance of this nonsense, contradicted by a multitude of facts in the social sciences, unsupported by facts in the natural sciences, is so much like racism of the pseudo-scientific variety that sensible people should be wary of old prejudices causing misjudgment…and misrepresentations. (Yes, I do have my doubts as to Pinker’s honesty. Sue me.)

104

Bill Benzon 12.03.16 at 6:39 pm

@stevenjohnson #103

Somehow I’ve missed Bill Benzon@92. There, I see that he’s published in EP, so a response may not be desired, the real point is for me to shut up.

1. It got lost in moderation.

2. LOL! Published in EP, shocking isn’t it? If you read the article you’d see it has little to do with either narrow or broad school EP. Though I do have a quote from Dread Pirate EO Wilson in the beginning, quickly followed by a quote from Good Guy Weston La Barre.

3. Not shut up, just stop acting like EP is riding all four horses of the Apocalypse.

As for the Mercier and Sperber, you might want to read my comment on it (# 96). I’m quite skeptical that it has anything to say about biological adaptation. But I don’t see that the publication of that article (and others like it) threatens the future of rational discourse about the mind.

Bill Benzon objects the existence of Chomsky’s LAD has nothing to do with Chomsky’s difficulties in finalizing the universal deep grammar. I contend that the difficulty of finding the hidden structure of language is evidence the LAD might not exist at all.

I’d like to see more than a contention. I’d like to see an argument.

Bill Benzon seems offended that a twenty six year old article by Pinker isn’t deemed proof of his interest in the evolutionary origins of life [language]. It seems to me that language is a group trait. The cases of feral children certainly suggest it’s not an individual one in the ordinary sense. The special relevance of group selection to the evolutionary origins of language is hypothetical, of course. The primary point I was making about Pinker’s attack on group selection was that a linguist wasn’t even interested in the topic!

People need to learn language from others and at least some song birds learn their songs from others. Language requires social learning, as do other things.

As far as I can tell “group trait” plays little role in discussions of group selection. FWIW the Wikipedia article on Group selection doesn’t use the phrase at all. And when I run an Ngram query on two phrases, “group selection” and “group trait”, the second phrase almost doesn’t show up while the first shows a steep and steady rise starting in about 1960 to 2000 (the cut-off date for the query).

Finally, Dan Everett has just published a long article on the evolution of language in Journal of Neurolinguistics (the link is to a prepublication draft that is open to the public) and doesn’t mention group selection at all. Should he have? In any event, the fact the Pinker rejects group selection doesn’t mean the subject doesn’t interest him. On the contrary, the fact that he bothered to write a piece rejecting it implies that it interests him a great deal, but he thinks the idea is mistaken.

105

DrDick 12.03.16 at 8:13 pm

stevenjohnson @ 103 –

Thank you!

106

Kiwanda 12.03.16 at 8:17 pm

stevenjohnson, various:

<blockquote.
Nonetheless, despite my incompetence at writing, I shamelessly insist…..The rest is more or less about rebutting Kiwanda, who is at best confused.

Don’t worry, your clarity of expression is entirely consonant with your clarity of thought.

Again, you make two speculative claims leading to an irrelevant conclusion:

1. The ability of Neanderthal and homo sapiens to interbreed implies that they must have had identical “mental architectures”
2. We positively know that Neanderthal culture did not change across millennia, unlike homo sapiens culture
3. Therefore, the claim (said to be made by EP) that cultural differences must be due to different “mental architectures” is false

Absent a population of Neanderthals to interact with, we cannot know about (1). Given the current estimates of lineage separation, they may not be as related to us as we are related to each other, your speculations about them as a “race” in your recent effusion notwithstanding.

Regarding (2), like (1), any strong version is unresolvable in principle, absent a time machine. Ancient physical remains from a hundred-some sites are surely some evidence regarding some aspects of culture, but they’re not exactly definitive. Could Neanderthals have developed different cultures, with appropriate populations and material conditions? We don’t know.

So your speculative nail in the EP coffin remains speculative. Indeed, I’m clear what the point is, given that (3), “mental architecture implies all of culture” is not, as far as I can tell, a tenet of EP. Perhaps your notion here is related:

At this point I have to refer back to the self-professed principles so admirably laid out in the [EP] primer. The cognitive programs, or mental modules as they are more often called, are genetically pre-programmed learning frameworks, innately given crib sheets for coping with adaptive problems of the EEA. As such people would be learning the same thing in every culture.

You have a remarkably narrow idea of what a “mental module” might be. Your notion seems to suggest that a mental module for language would result in everyone being born only able to learn a particular language. Do you think that EPers believe the obviously false idea that people learn “the same thing in every culture”?

Piaget….Chomsky…Margaret Mead…LAD…

There’s a tight cogent argument there, but I’m not clear yet on it.

The whole point of EP’s chatter about genes is because genes-> neurophysiology-> cognitive program-> solution to adaptive problem. EP promptly forgets this, and operates in reverse, despite not knowing what EEA produces the adaptive program, but still: This is the logic that EP relies on for its claim to be scientific unlike anthropologists, etc.

As best I understand, it does operate that chain in reverse, to *generate hypotheses*, those hypotheses then evaluated in a variety of ways, ideally experimentally. Can you supply specific EP papers of the last decade that just make such “reverse” speculations based on unknowable conditions, then declare victory and go home?

107

Kiwanda 12.03.16 at 8:19 pm

(Sorry about the wrongly nested blockquotes.)

108

Peter T 12.04.16 at 12:36 am

On language: I think Chomsky (and Pinker) are operating on the engineer’s assumptions that it’s basically communication, and that it can be usefully analysed in terms of grammar, lexicon etc. Both assumptions are radically incomplete. Language comprises more than grammar and lexicon – it also takes in knowledge of the world, the social situation, the local context, the speaker and the spoken too, and it does this in even the simplest exchanges.

Consider the following everyday “conversation”:

“Noise of annoyance/surprise”
“(Grunt) It’s right there” (tilt of head)
“I’m NOT stupid”

Grammar does not get you far in parsing it.

Language is a loose set of systems of classification, socially generated and transferred from minds to mind. So an LAD needs to take in and construct the “grammars” of visual attention, selective environmental concerns, expressions of attitude/status and the rest as it does on formal linguistic categories. And the evidence (from neurological studies of sign-language users and feral children) is that it does so. The genome, being parsimonious, has outsourced much of this aspect of development to the (generally predictable) social environment.

109

Kiwanda 12.04.16 at 1:39 am

Hidari 100:

So what I should have said was ‘the mind must be, in some non-trivial sense, a computer’. Apologies again. However, this is a difference that doesn’t make much of a difference, as Pinker (and, I believe, most proponents of EP) are still committed to most of the beliefs above, if not all of them. And they must believe that they are literally true, not just a metaphor.

As so often, definitions are a big issue here. The statement that “the [brain] must be, in some non-trivial sense, a computer” is so broad, particularly with respect to what it means to “be a computer”, that it’s hard to imagine how else the brain might be described. What possible short description of the role and function of the brain could you give, that it would not be plausible to respond with “oh, that’s a kind of computer”? It seems like these days that with a deep enough (artificial) neural network and a lot of data, you can move the earth. So the notion that real neural networks should not be regarded as powerful computational systems seems shocking.

In any case, EP assumed that we stopped evolving, biologically, in ‘pre-modern’ times. We now know this to be false. EP then claims that the changes since then were only ‘trivial’ or ‘unimportant’. This may be true, but it’s definitely a step back from the ‘hard line’ position, and by no means obviously true.

Not surprisingly, Pinker disagrees that the impact on EP of such findings is likely significant. (Probably there’s something more up-to-date, somewhere?)

Did EP claim that we “stopped evolving”, or only that we “mostly” evolved in pre-modern times, since there are so much more of those times relative to modern? Googling a bit, I find that the changes detected don’t seem so relevant here: “Cultural and ecological changes in human populations may explain many details of the pattern. Human migrations into Eurasia created new selective pressures on features such as skin pigmentation, adaptation to cold, and diet (25, 26, 28). Over this time span, humans both inside and outside of Africa underwent rapid skeletal evolution (48, 49). Some of the most radical new selective pressures have been associated with the transition to agriculture (4). For example, genes related to disease resistance are among the inferred functional classes most likely to show evidence of recent positive selection (9). Virulent epidemic diseases, including smallpox, malaria, yellow fever, typhus, and cholera, became important causes of mortality after the origin and spread of agriculture (50). Likewise, subsistence and dietary changes have led to selection on genes such as lactase (18).”

But who can say? Are you suggesting that we’re still evolving, mentally? Differently in different places?

You still haven’t really connected the four conditions to EP in a way that shows them to be the absolute necessities you claim. So, to cut to the chase:

In any case: EP asks a question: ‘why are people essentially the same, across time and space?’ and gives an answer: ‘because the cognitive architecture of homo sapiens sapiens, conceptualised as a massively modular information processing device, is the same. This cannot change no matter how far people’s cultural surroundings change’.

I can’t unpack “people are essentially the same”; the word “essentially” is doing an awful lot of work here: what characteristics are included and excluded from “essentially”? (In a vague intuitive way, I do think that people around the world are pretty much the same; I’m surprised to find some here seemingly arguing urgently against it.) I think the program of what I’ll call “mundane EP” does not make or need such grand claims; it seems to be (again): from considerations of ancient adaptivity, hypothesize features of human cognition (fear of snakes, sexual unattractiveness of people you grew up with, etc.), and then check if these hold cross-culturally, and in some way, experimentally.

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Kiwanda 12.04.16 at 2:02 am

DrDick 99:

Kiwanda @ 94 –

“While I personally subscribe to the general idea that people are the same, wherever you go, I can’t unpack “Why is human behaviour essentially the same..?” into a meaningful scientific question.”

Interesting, since that is exactly what you would expect if human behavior were strongly genetically conditioned (as EP mandates). Behavior in many species (dogs for instance) essentially the same between individuals and groups, though even here there is some minor variability.

This shows an extremely limited view of what “strongly genetically conditioned” might mean, as well as the puzzling ascription both that “mandate” and that limited view to EP. All I understand of EP comes from a few reviews and surveys, and a few articles by EPers; where are you getting this?

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Another Nick 12.04.16 at 11:01 am

Kiwanda: “Googling a bit, I find that the changes detected don’t seem so relevant”

http://discovermagazine.com/2010/sep/25-modern-humans-smart-why-brain-shrinking

“Are you suggesting that we’re still evolving, mentally?”

http://www.cell.com/cell/pdf/S0092-8674(04)01143-2.pdf

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stevenjohnson 12.04.16 at 1:42 pm

Bill Benzon@104 asks “Should [Dan Everett] have [considered group selection]?” Group selection is a phenomenon hypothesized to explain why some traits that are maladaptive to individuals are nevertheless preferentially reproduced. Dan Everett plainly believes that language is at all stages of its evolution adaptive, therefore selected by nature. He has no need to consider group selection.

It is not clear to me how noisy offspring are adaptive in hominin groups with a very limited physical culture to protect them. Dan Everett and people who share the view that language adaptive do need to demonstrate this is true. Thus it is a question is how significant their language was to the success of homo erectus, and by what standard of success, whether population size, geographical distribution or duration of species existence. Like the human brain, the adaptive value of human language is not quite so obvious as may seem at first glance. (And also show multiple origins of language families world-wide, as opposed to a Greenbergian-style proto-Human.)

Bill Benzon, with “I’d like to see more than a contention. I’d like to see an argument…” is implicitly questioning the relevance of the difficulties in specifying and confirming the universal grammar/deep structure/Chomsky to the notion of mental modules. Very well, with permission I’ll try to spell out the contention.

The idea of cognitive programs is that they enable people to learn tasks. The brain is like an iPhone in the EP picture. If you want to do certain things with the phone, like book a hotel, then you download an app. The cognitive program is the app, which is downloaded by the genes, by natural selection for the solution to an adaptive problem. Chomsky’s universal grammar is the app. The actual spoken language is the workings of the app in a particular society, just like the results of real world apps on real world phones are determined by the individual user, which cities’ hotels are searched and which hotels books varying endlessly.

Difficulties in confirming the existence of the cognitive program for language, the app, Chomsky’s universal grammar, therefore most certainly do call into question the basic picture of human psychology as a congeries of cognitive programs. There is at least neurological evidence for biological adaptations for language. All the other cognitive programs so freely hypothesized by EP are therefore, well, it’s the opposite of a fortiori.

Bill Benzon also writes “As for the Mercier and Sperber, you might want to read my comment on it (# 96). I’m quite skeptical that it has anything to say about biological adaptation. But I don’t see that the publication of that article (and others like it) threatens the future of rational discourse about the mind.” The article essentially argues that rationality is an illusion, a genetic construct designed for dominating other people, a biological fact, acceptance of which makes you more scientific. I don’t know whether you think these propositions have no consequences, or whether they cannot prevail. Both attitudes strike me as nonsense.

What I do understand is that somehow you think criticizing their approach on fundamental principles is a threat to rational discourse. Obviously we’ll never agree on that. I think when in casual conversation you can hear a woman claim men are genetically programmed for promiscuity and women aren’t, then EP is powerfully affecting rational discourse, for the worse. Now I’ll go back to knocking down straw men for exercise, in lieu of walking the dog.

Kiwanda@106 asks “Do you think that EPers believe the obviously false idea that people learn ‘the same thing in every culture’?” When did you stop beating your wife? I believe EPers think everybody in every culture for example learn the same universal grammar. That would be why it’s been called a universal grammar, among many other things. That particular idea is not obviously false, though it is by no means well-established either. As per the usual confusion, I’m not sure what the point of this is. It’s too confused to work well even as mere rhetorical hostility.

Kiwanda also asks “Can you supply specific EP papers of the last decade that just make such “reverse” speculations based on unknowable conditions, then declare victory and go home?” Maybe it’s just me, but when an interlocutor demands a literature review, they’ve lost the debate.

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John Holbo 12.04.16 at 1:54 pm

“The article essentially argues that rationality is an illusion, a genetic construct designed for dominating other people, a biological fact, acceptance of which makes you more scientific.”

Sorry, which article is this? It sounds like you are referencing the M&S paper, stevenjohnson, but this gloss seems to me not accurate: rationality is an illusion … for dominating other people. Which makes me think you were actually referencing something else? (Something not very plausible sounding, I must say. I am sympathetic to M&S but not to anything that would fit your gloss.)

I’ve been horribly busy, too much to contribute. But I’ve been following the discussion with interest.

114

Bill Benzon 12.04.16 at 2:42 pm

One of the things that I’ve been thinking about during this whatever-it-is is Konrad Lorenz and the goslings. He hypothesized that “goslings will follow the first large moving object that they see after hatching” rather than rejecting that first thing in favor of their mother. And he proved it in a field experiment. Thus we have the charming image of Lorenze be followed about by a bunch of goslings (at about 49 seconds into this video). And thus the idea of imprinting was born, and that proved crucial in John Bowlby’s somewhat later thinking about human attachment.

So, to use the computer metaphor, goslings are born with a program that has a variable in it, a variable named “first large moving object.” Under normal conditions that variable gets bound to the gosling’s mother, as that is the first large moving object it sees. Lorenze produced a situation in which he was the first thing the infants saw. For those goslings, then, the variable became bound to Lorenze.

So, now we have “narrow” EP with its “massive” modularity (so yuge! the biggest!). How many of those programs have variables that only become bound to specific objects upon exposure to the environment (where an object could be some specific physical object, or class of objects, animate or inanimate, or it could be another program, perhaps innate or entirely learned)?

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Bill Benzon 12.04.16 at 2:44 pm

FWIW, stevenjohnson, I agree with John Holbo (#114) that your gloss on M&S is not accurate.

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Hidari 12.04.16 at 2:54 pm

@109
If you can’t ‘unpack’ what ‘essentially’ means then why not quote from the Pinker article you linked to?

‘The other … empirical fact (is) that human races and ethnic groups are psychologically highly similar, if not identical’.

Remember this phrase (which Pinker wrote: it’s not an off the cuff remark from an interview), when EPers claim that ‘of course’ they are aware of cultural variation or ‘obviously’ they are not denying it etc.

Please note the logic incidentally. Pinker downplays the facts of recent human biological evolution because of the ‘fact’ that human beings are (nearly) ‘identical’, everywhere. If that second claim is not true, then it need not necessarily be the case that such changes in human evolution that have occurred over the last 12000 years are necessarily trivial. (see @111 for more on this).

And if they are not trivial this poses rather major problems for EP, at least in its current form.

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Kiwanda 12.04.16 at 3:54 pm

stevenjohnson 112:

Kiwanda@106 asks “Do you think that EPers believe the obviously false idea that people learn ‘the same thing in every culture’?” When did you stop beating your wife? I believe EPers think everybody in every culture for example learn the same universal grammar. That would be why it’s been called a universal grammar, among many other things. That particular idea is not obviously false, though it is by no means well-established either

Where my question came from:

stevenjohnson @81 claimed that “evidence from anthropology, history and other social sciences” shows that “mental modules” do not exist (or at least, so I guessed he was saying). I asked for such evidence.

stevenjohnson responded @98 that if mental modules did exist, then the clear implication would be that “people would be learning the same thing in every culture. “. This resulted in my question: why did stevenjohnson think that EPers believed this?

stevenjohnson’s response @112, as I quoted, was that “the same thing” that is learned can be very high-level indeed, a “mental module” like “universal grammar”. So stevenjohnson’s earlier comment amounts to the claim that if the mental module idea is correct, then “people would [have the same mental modules] in every culture”. This, I’d have to agree with.

(I think usually “universal grammar” is taken to mean something hardwired into the brain, that is, not learned, so it’s not completely clear what stevenjohnson means here. I won’t try to guess.)

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Kiwanda 12.04.16 at 4:08 pm

stevenjohnson @112:

Kiwanda also asks “Can you supply specific EP papers of the last decade that just make such “reverse” speculations based on unknowable conditions, then declare victory and go home?” Maybe it’s just me, but when an interlocutor demands a literature review, they’ve lost the debate.

The common meaning of “literature review” entails the citation of a great variety of sources. (stevenjohnson, please see here for example.) I asked for “specific EP papers”, and I certainly intended to mean “just a few”, which I hope would be the natural interpretation. stevenjohnson, how about one such paper?

I could invoke the simplistic rule “People who invoke simplistic rules to claim that they’ve won a debate have only shown that they just care about “winning” and not about the truth”, but I won’t.

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DrDick 12.04.16 at 4:38 pm

Kiwamda @ 110

“All I understand of EP comes from a few reviews and surveys, and a few articles by EPers; where are you getting this?”

That is pretty obvious, actually. I get that from 30 years of teaching anthropology, extensive field research with a non-Euro-American population, and extensive research on gender systems and race/ethnicity, as well as discussions with my biological anthropology colleagues, whose specialties include human evolution and human genetics. Their critiques of evo-psych are harsher than mine (they roll their eyes if you mention it).

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Kiwanda 12.04.16 at 4:59 pm

Another Nick 101:

Kiwanda: “Googling a bit, I find that the changes detected don’t seem so relevant”

http://discovermagazine.com/2010/sep/25-modern-humans-smart-why-brain-shrinking

“Are you suggesting that we’re still evolving, mentally?”

http://www.cell.com/cell/pdf/S0092-8674(04)01143-2.pdf

Thanks, those are very interesting. Although: the second article does not seem to be talking about “recent”, as in, the last fifty thousand years, but “recent”, as in, the last twenty million; it’s about primate nervous system evolution, humans and macaques. Or so it seemed to me.

The difficulty with the first article is that such results are vulnerable to mis-interpretation and mis-use, just as are over-blown versions of EP; people might use them to make claims of racial or gender or etc. superiority. This is why it surprises me that some here seem eager to claim that it can’t be the case that “people are essentially the same”.

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Hidari 12.04.16 at 5:20 pm

‘This is why it surprises me that some here seem eager to claim that it can’t be the case that “people are essentially the same”.’

No: it’s EP that is making the claim (as I have tirelessly pointed out). If Steven Pinker wants to claim that people are ‘essentially the same’ (or as, Pinker argued above, nearly ‘identical’) across time and space and across cultures, then that case has to be made first before EP justifies itself as a science. The burden of proof lies on EP, not ‘us’.

Perhaps another example will suffice. Remember Isaac Asimov’s remark that real science starts with ‘That’s odd……’

I guess most people here are atheists, secularists….whatever. So we all accept that human beings are, essentially, apes, albeit apes of a specific kind. Now let’s look at the other great apes (especially the bonobo, which we are closest to).

Does Bonobo behaviour vary widely between areas and across time? Do some bonobo societies wear clothes and others go naked? Do some bonobos build cities, and others live as hunter-gatherers? Do some live under economic systems that correspond or are analogous to feudalism, slavery, capitalism ie. extremely and radically different socio-economic systems? Do bonobos have wildly different socio-economic relationships, ways of expressing their sexuality?

In other words, looking at human beings, what do you think is in need of explanation? That we are so similar to chimpanzees, apes, orangutans, in that, (like these creatures) trivial exceptions aside, their (and, therefore, our) behaviour is more or less identical across time and space?

Or is it, on the contrary, the fact that our behaviour does vary so much, across space and time, when compared to our nearest biological relatives?

What is in need of explanation? The similarities or the differences? How unlike them we are, or how similar? (Please note: I am not asking whether or not we are ‘like’ apes or not. I am pointing out that ape behaviour really is relatively static, culturally speaking. And our behaviour just isn’t. And that’s something that, IMHO, is in need of explanation).

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Kiwanda 12.04.16 at 5:28 pm

DrDick 119:

Kiwamda @ 110

“All I understand of EP comes from a few reviews and surveys, and a few articles by EPers; where are you getting this?”

That is pretty obvious, actually. I get that from 30 years of teaching anthropology, extensive field research with a non-Euro-American population, and extensive research on gender systems and race/ethnicity, as well as discussions with my biological anthropology colleagues, whose specialties include human evolution and human genetics. Their critiques of evo-psych are harsher than mine (they roll their eyes if you mention it).

Ah, invoking your own authority again.

Where my question came from:

I said: “While I personally subscribe to the general idea that people are the same, wherever you go, I can’t unpack “Why is human behaviour essentially the same..?” into a meaningful scientific question.”

DrDick 99 said: “Interesting, since that is exactly what you would expect if human behavior were strongly genetically conditioned (as EP mandates).”

I said “This shows an extremely limited view of what “strongly genetically conditioned” might mean, as well as the puzzling ascription both that “mandate” and that limited view to EP. ” And then the question quoted: where is he getting this?

OK, DrDick, with your self-proclaimed vast and long endowments of experience and erudition, it should be the work of moments give scholarly sources for what your statements. How about it?

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Kiwanda 12.04.16 at 5:29 pm

(Sigh: “for what your” –> “for your”)

124

RichardM 12.04.16 at 6:00 pm

>> Kiwanda’s claim that Neanderthal and homo sapien can have different mental modules/cognitive programs/mental architecture despite being members of the same species makes no sense

Doesn’t the same argument ‘prove’ that Neanderthals and homo sapiens couldn’t have different skeletal structures? Also, it must be theoretically impossible to identify which of two dogs is which, given only the knowledge one is a dachshund and one a St Bernard.

Species boundaries are simply where reproduction stops working, nothing more. Lions and tigers can very nearly viably reproduce, so they are only a whisker from being a single species.

http://animals.mom.me/difference-between-ligers-tigons-3506.html

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Kiwanda 12.04.16 at 6:12 pm

Hidari 116:

@109
If you can’t ‘unpack’ what ‘essentially’ means then why not quote from the Pinker article you linked to?

‘The other … empirical fact (is) that human races and ethnic groups are psychologically highly similar, if not identical’.

Remember this phrase (which Pinker wrote: it’s not an off the cuff remark from an interview), when EPers claim that ‘of course’ they are aware of cultural variation or ‘obviously’ they are not denying it etc.

So, you’re saying that different cultures require or result in different (innate) psychologies? What can this mean? I think that if genetic-me had been born in the stone age, I’d take on the culture of the stone age group that I was born into. And so on.

I’ll go back to what you say is EP’s research question: “Why is human behaviour essentially the same, across cultures and across time?” As stated, this implies that the condition that “human behavior is essentially the same” is necessary to even think about EP. It requires some clear idea of what “essentially the same” might mean.

However, I would think that this condition, and the assumption that most human evolution occurred before 50K BP, are not requirements for doing what I called above “mundane EP”. Nor are they conclusions that EP think some data implies. Instead they are *working hypotheses* that enable the generation of much more specific (mostly trivial-sounding) hypotheses, which can then be tested; only hypotheses that pass some kind of further testing can be regarded as holding, and maybe (as you pointed out) not even then. As noted above, some plausible EP hypotheses have been shown false, in the EP literature.

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Bill Benzon 12.04.16 at 6:17 pm

How far do you want to push this, stevenjohnson (#112)?

Difficulties in confirming the existence of the cognitive program for language, the app, Chomsky’s universal grammar, therefore most certainly do call into question the basic picture of human psychology as a congeries of cognitive programs.

It seems to me that pretty much calls into question the general purpose computer as well “one which can accept many different kinds of programs compatible with the hardware” (#64). The failure of Chomsky’s account is simply the failure of Chomsky’s account, no more, no less.

Back in 1968 Charles Hockett published The State of the Art, in which is critiqued Chomsky. This is a summary of most of those arguments.

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DrDick 12.04.16 at 7:34 pm

Kiwanda @120 –

“This is why it surprises me that some here seem eager to claim that it can’t be the case that “people are essentially the same”.”

That you cannot understand the difference between what you are saying and what we have been saying says a lot about you. What you are implying is that we claim there are large differences in genetically based potential, an argument far closer to EP. What we are arguing for is that much/most human behavior is NOT strongly genetically determined, but represents a much larger, complex interaction between a broad range of genetic potentials (within the same individuals/populations) and exogenous environmental factors which profoundly shape the outcomes and produce many radically different outcomes. We are arguing, in contrast to racists and misogynists or EP, that genetics is not destiny. For example, all observed behavioral and neural differences observed between the sexes in humans could potentially be explained in terms of differences in the environments in which they are raised (differential socialization). That does not necessarily mean that there are no innate differences, just that the evidence is inconclusive and the case for such innate differences has not actually been made.

http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2015/11/brains-men-and-women-aren-t-really-different-study-finds

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John Holbo 12.04.16 at 11:17 pm

” Their critiques of evo-psych are harsher than mine (they roll their eyes if you mention it)”

Seriously, DrDick, no one doubts that at least some anthropologists roll their eyes at EP. The issue is: whether they are right to do so. (There are populations I could mention whose members tend to roll their eyes at claims of cultural anthropologists. I take it you don’t feel refuted by these mere facts of ocular rotation. Nor should you.)

“What you are implying is that we claim there are large differences in genetically based potential, an argument far closer to EP. What we are arguing for is that much/most human behavior is NOT strongly genetically determined”

The problem (I’ve said this already a few different ways) is that ‘human behavior is … strongly genetically determined’ is both vague and ambiguous in this context.

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Bill Benzon 12.05.16 at 12:11 am

The problem (I’ve said this already a few different ways) is that ‘human behavior is … strongly genetically determined’ is both vague and ambiguous in this context.

Yes. There are no metrics for qualifiers like “strongly”. So such statements tend to be driven to one end or another of a continuum and we end up with a shouting match that does no one any good. (See my comment 46 way up there, which is what you can do with relatively crude quantification.)

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Kiwanda 12.05.16 at 12:47 am

DrDick 127:

That you cannot understand the difference between what you are saying and what we have been saying says a lot about you.

Goodness me!

What we are arguing for is that much/most human behavior is NOT strongly genetically determined, but represents a much larger, complex interaction between a broad range of genetic potentials (within the same individuals/populations) and exogenous environmental factors which profoundly shape the outcomes and produce many radically different outcomes.

So you would probably agree, unlike those racists or misogynists or EP, that “Every aspect of an organism’s phenotype is the joint product of its genes and its environment. To ask which is more important is like asking, Which is more important in determining the area of a rectangle, the length or the width? Which is more important in causing a car to run, the engine or the gasoline? Genes allow the environment to influence the development of phenotypes.”

Indeed, as I’m sure you’d agree, “…genes are simply regulatory elements, molecules that arrange their surrounding environment into an organism….There is no aspect of the phenotype that cannot be influenced by some environmental manipulation”

Nice article at the link, by the way. Indeed, the evidence so far suggests that women and men are pretty much the same in brain anatomy. You might even say “essentially the same”, whatever that means.

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DrDick 12.05.16 at 12:50 am

John Holbo @128

These are biological anthropologists with extensive training in human biology and expertise in human evolution (most direct research on this topic is conducted by biological anthropologists). One is a geneticist with expertise in human genetics. The reason they roll their eyes is that the actual direct data (fossils and related information) on human evolution, as well as what we know about human genetics simply do not support it – at all.

“The problem (I’ve said this already a few different ways) is that ‘human behavior is … strongly genetically determined’ is both vague and ambiguous in this context.”

Certainly no more so than the claims of EP. Indeed, it is not at all vague and ambiguous. It rests on the fact that it is impossible to identify human genes which always produce certain kinds of behaviors and ample evidence that the actual expression of genes in humans (as well as all other species) is heavily affected by environmental factors. Certain genes may create a propensity toward certain kinds of behaviors, but the environment has just as much influence. Human behavior is also highly variable both within and between populations. None of this is consistent with the premises of EP, which argue we are automatons controlled by our genes.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1855137/

https://psmag.com/genes-affect-our-behavior-but-so-does-the-environment-11c5a526684f#.fr6utspe5

http://cercor.oxfordjournals.org/content/20/8/1843.full

https://scholar.google.com/scholar?q=behavioral+flexibility+in+humans&hl=en&as_sdt=0&as_vis=1&oi=scholart&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiXoqfj6dvQAhUM2WMKHRiWD8UQgQMIGzAA

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RichardM 12.05.16 at 12:59 am

> That does not necessarily mean that there are no innate differences, just that the evidence is inconclusive and the case for such innate differences has not actually been made.

Are you unaware that the link you posted directly contradicts that statement? There are unambiguously measurable statistical differences. The point being made, which seems to be true, is that those differences are not sortable into a strict binary male/female classification, but form a range of overlapping tendencies. More like height, less like facial hair length. Which is what you would expect to be both necessary and sufficient as the evolutionary basis for the range of different sets of gender roles anthropologically observed.

It’s like genetic tendencies are a multi-dimensional space which culture attempts to partition in a way that minimizes inappropriate assignments. In other words, people who are unhappy, and so ineffective, and sometimes, in survival-challenged societies, dead.

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John Holbo 12.05.16 at 1:23 am

“What is in need of explanation? The similarities or the differences?”

Both?

As you say, Hidari, science starts with ‘that’s odd’. You take it (I take it) there are no ‘odd’ similarities between all people, so no science can start from what we all have in common. Now, in a sense that will tend to be correct. If we all do it, there is a good chance it won’t seem ‘odd’ to us. But, in another sense, no. Biologically, there are obviously lots of ‘odd’ things that all humans (apart from anomalous specimens) have in common. Could any of those things be psychological or related to the brain? Yes, it seems so.

If anyone is out there trying to come up with an EP-style explanation of why all humans live under late capitalism, that’s obviously a bad job. But if someone out there is trying to come up with an evolutionary hypothesis as to why all humans (apart from anomalous specimens) think a certain way, or have a certain pattern of cognitive response, then that is not obviously nuts.

I am grateful to Z, upthread, for the cogent critique of M&S, but that is very different from saying we know, a priori, that M&S couldn’t have put their finger on something ‘odd’ that all humans have in common, cognitively, ergo they can’t really be doing science. You aren’t in a position to know a thing like that. The (considerable!) barriers to EP success come at a later stage of the process, i.e. when the attempt is made to move from ‘this makes sense in the abstract’ to ‘this is probably true’.

Z’s critique of M&S seems to me partly successful and partly – well, the jury is still out as far as I’m concerned. But all the definitely point-scoring bits of the critique seem to me to come later in the argument than you think.

Sorry, I really have been busy. I meant to write a longer response to Z upthread. Maybe I can start with this (in case Z is still around).

“With reasoning replaced by biological organ X, this looks very much like a classical mistake and one Darwin repeatedly warned against. What would happen if this logic was applied to the study of the swim bladder?”

Sorry, I am ignorant of the biology of swim bladders (and even a quick, cheating peek at Wikipedia did not immediately enlighten me). What is peculiar about the evolutionary history of the swim bladder, such that cautionary evolutionary morals derive therefrom? Someone take me to school, pleeze.

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DrDick 12.05.16 at 1:26 am

I do not seem to be expressing myself very well here. Nobody is denying that genetics plays a role in shaping human behavior. The question is whether genetics is determinant or to what degree. Clearly genetics plays a role, but the available research in biology, medicine, psychology, and anthropology shows rather starkly that environmental factors play at least as great a role. Human behavior is clearly highly variable, both within and between populations. Given our very low levels of genetic diversity compared to other animal species, this would not be the case if genetics played the primary role in determining our behavior, as asserted by EP.

I would not generally disagree that we generally are much more similar than different at birth. However, what happens after birth is just as important, if not more so, as genetics. We also have a huge amount of research on the profound effects of environmental factors on human capabilities and behavior. All of this undermines the basic premises of EP.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1188235/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3621015/

https://www.aap.org/en-us/Documents/ttb_aces_consequences.pdf

https://www.ashg.org/education/pdf/geneticvariation.pdf

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John Holbo 12.05.16 at 1:30 am

“These are biological anthropologists with extensive training in human biology and expertise in human evolution (most direct research on this topic is conducted by biological anthropologists). One is a geneticist with expertise in human genetics. The reason they roll their eyes is that the actual direct data (fossils and related information) on human evolution, as well as what we know about human genetics simply do not support it – at all.”

Yes, I know this, DrDick. Everyone knows that lots of people – from different disciplines and specialties – think EP is nonsense. This is something to worry about. I certainly do. But the eyerolling, per se, doesn’t prove anything because maybe all those people are wrong. (I am sorry to have conflated your competence – cultural anthropology, you said, and I believe you: and all honor to cultural anthropology in my opinion! – with that of everyone who is an EP critic. I know it’s not just cultural anthropologists who say it is nonsense.) Arguments from authority are sometimes good to make, even though they are, of course, always hazardous. But I think in this case the hazards outweigh the benefits. (The proponents of EP make arguments from authority, too, and I try to ignore those arguments, too, whenever possible. It isn’t just you.)

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DrDick 12.05.16 at 1:31 am

John Holbo –

“But if someone out there is trying to come up with an evolutionary hypothesis as to why all humans (apart from anomalous specimens) think a certain way, or have a certain pattern of cognitive response, then that is not obviously nuts. “

There in lies the rub. That is not a given and has seldom been demonstrated by EP and most of their research has been based on European derived populations, making it difficult to separate cultural from biological influences.

137

John Holbo 12.05.16 at 1:36 am

” That is not a given and has seldom been demonstrated by EP and most of their research has been based on European derived populations, making it difficult to separate cultural from biological influences.”

Well, if it has been demonstrated even once, that’s something. Basing their research on European derived populations obviously has very serious risks. But, all the same, experiments are not always ideal. You do what you can. Lots of experimenters would like to do more, and better, and can’t, in all sorts of areas. There is a huge difference between saying EP is hard to test, due to the need for huge, varied samples of contemporary subjects, and saying it is nonsense, based on known facts about the fossil record.

138

DrDick 12.05.16 at 1:37 am

“Arguments from authority are sometimes good to make, even though they are, of course, always hazardous. But I think in this case the hazards outweigh the benefits. (The proponents of EP make arguments from authority, too, and I try to ignore those arguments, too, whenever possible. It isn’t just you.)”

I generally agree, which is why I have included links to scholarly material making those same points, which you have not addressed. Again, the scientific research on human evolution, genetics, and behavior, both in anthropology and other disciplines, which I and they have read and which I have provided links to, does not support the premises of EP.

139

DrDick 12.05.16 at 1:44 am

John Holbo –

“Well, if it has been demonstrated even once, that’s something. “

I was being generous, as I do not closely follow EP. I know of no such demonstration ever.

On the issue of sampling, there actually is quite a lot of relevant information available from anthropology and other disciplines, such as the Narrol study cited above, which EP researchers ignore.

140

Bill Benzon 12.05.16 at 3:57 am

Dr Dick, #134:

Nobody is denying that genetics plays a role in shaping human behavior. The question is whether genetics is determinant or to what degree. Clearly genetics plays a role, but the available research in biology, medicine, psychology, and anthropology shows rather starkly that environmental factors play at least as great a role.

From Confer et al. 2010 (PDF), linked in Kiwanda #72 above:

The framework of evolutionary psychology dissolves dichotomies such as “nature versus nurture,” “innate versus learned,” and “biological versus cultural.” Instead it offers a truly interactionist framework: Environmental selection pressures shape evolved mechanisms at the phylogenetic level (Fraley, Brumbaugh, & Marks, 2005). Environmental input influences their development at the ontogenetic level (e.g., Belsky, 2007; Bjorklund & Pelligrini, 2000; Ellis & Bjorklund, 2005). And the environment provides cues that activate psychological adaptations at the immediate proximal level (e.g., Buss, 1995; Cosmides & Tooby, 2000). Thus, it does not make sense to ask whether calluses or mating decisions are “evolved” or “learned” or due to “nature” or “nurture.” All evolved mechanisms require some environmental input for their activation, be it repeated friction to the skin in the case of calluses or observable cues to mate value in the case of mating decisions.

141

bruce wilder 12.05.16 at 4:15 am

I have been enjoying the discussion in this thread and its earlier iteration. I cannot say I am much acquainted with EvoPsych, so I wouldn’t know how to define its texts or boundaries. I did read and enjoy the Mercier & Sperber piece (thanks to Bill Benzon for the link).

Mercier & Sperber offered this conceptual definition:

The function of reasoning

We use function here in its biological sense . . . . Put simply, a function of a trait is an effect of that trait that causally explains its having evolved and persisted in a population: Thanks to this effect, the trait has been contributing to the fitness of organisms endowed with it. In principle, several effects of a trait may contribute to fitness, and hence a trait may have more than a single function. Even then, it may be possible to rank the importance of different functions, and in particular to identify a function for which the trait is best adapted as its main function.

Perhaps the authors thought this definition anodyne, but it strikes me as potentially fatal to developing even a hypothetical evolutionary interpretation properly, it comes so close to saying something like merit will out.

It seems to me that biological functions serve the organism as a living system or, perhaps in some looser sense, the ecology as an emergent system. In a proper explanation, evolution is viewed as attempting to thread a needle between constraints imposed by the architecture of the organism and constraints or demands imposed by the environment and its ecology. There’s some sense of being at a frontier of adaptation, where there are costs and constraints and a kind of blind trade-off going on, not meritorious advantage claiming its just reward.

Constrained adaptation is different from arguing, ceteris paribus, for some paradoxical merit in something as ungrounded as “reasoning”. I don’t wish to seem unduly harsh, because I enjoyed the Mercier & Sperber article — it has definite attractions — but it’s far from well-framed evolution by natural selection, no?

142

bruce wilder 12.05.16 at 4:23 am

I have another question, regarding variation. Isn’t it true that any sexually reproducing species conserves a reservoir of latent variation? And, that latent variation helps the species survive sudden changes in environmental demands or ecological eruptions such as epidemic disease? That’s not a group trait, of course, but it is important to species survival. Have I misunderstood this?

143

Peter T 12.05.16 at 5:26 am

It’s not just that EP is hard to test, it’s that neurological and other evidence strongly suggests that it’s not worth testing unless and until it can come up with specific, significant, testable propositions consonant with other research. So far we have broad or insignificant or untestable propositions, and most are not consonant with other research.

A biologist friend remarked to me that evolution does not test for fitness, it tests for unfitness. That is, it works not by selecting in the fittest, but by eliminating the least fit. So too with science – we advance not by considering every hypothesis, but by eliminating (ignoring) those that don’t make the cut. EP has not made the cut.

144

Kiwanda 12.05.16 at 6:00 am

DrDick, using that prodigious pillar of scholarship and seasoning
of his, of which he informs us so proudly and frequently, has shared some links to
articles (or searches for articles) in a couple of his recent comments.

It’s an interesting collection that includes studies of anatomical correlates
and genetic influence on mental modules…or rather, I mean, mental characteristics;
human genetic homogeneity; the mental health value of growing up in a good
environment, and the damage from not; and the relation of social cues to
behavioral flexibility.

It’s relevance to the current discussion: not so clear. The implications of some links
seem contrary to his arguments. I hope he’ll elucidate.

I give some excerpts, intended to be summaries.

—-https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1855137/

Some areas of the genome are more susceptible to environmental effects than others.

“Our study demonstrated chromosomal location effects on variations in gene
expression. Surprisingly, environmental components were able to account for most
of the positional variation in gene expression changes. Genetic variation,
although responsible for much expression variation, does not seem to contribute
to the regional biases in it.”

—–https://psmag.com/genes-affect-our-behavior-but-so-does-the-environment-11c5a526684f#.fr6utspe5

“The often indistinguishable effects of genes and environment are important to
keep in mind especially when we read about genetic studies of behavioral or
mental traits, which, unlike many physical traits, can be directly transmitted
from parents to offspring, independently of genes.”

—-http://cercor.oxfordjournals.org/content/20/8/1843.full

“Although RI-related regions do not appear to support inhibition of prepotent
learned associations, a subset of these regions, dACC and rIFG, guide actions
consistent with current reward contingencies. These regions and lateral OFC
represent distinct neural components that support behavioral flexibility
important for adaptive learning. “

—-A google scholar search for “behavioral flexibility in humans”

The first two hits describe anatomical correlates of mental
phenomena. The third studies social cues and behavioral flexibility.

first hit:
“We review our recent work examining activity of LC neurons in monkeys performing
a visual discrimination task that requires focused attention. Results indicate
that LC cells exhibit phasic or tonic modes of activity, that closely correspond
to good or poor performance on this task, respectively.”

second hit:
“The present experiments investigated the role of the prelimbic–infralimbic areas
in behavioral flexibility using a place–response learning paradigm.”

third hit:
“We tested the prediction that social information can increase the propensity of
human participants to change their behavior, by exposing individuals to social
cues of either low or high performance (“low cued” versus “high cued”), or to no
cues (“without-cues”).”

—-https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1188235/

Specific genes that affect the characteristic of temperament.

“After a brief review of behavioral genetic methodology, this paper will examine
research exploring the etiology of individual differences in infant and child
temperament. Behavioral genetics research, however, has much more to offer the
study of temperament than estimates of genetic influence. To that end, this
paper will also examine the nature of environmental influences on temperament;
the etiology of continuity and change in temperament; links between temperament
and behavior problems; and the merging of behavioral and molecular genetic
techniques to identify specific genes that affect temperament.”

—-https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3621015/

“…we describe the key features of nurturing environments; summarize the evidence
about how each feature influences development; and describe the kind of public
health movement needed to increase the prevalence of nurturing environments.”

—-https://www.aap.org/en-us/Documents/ttb_aces_consequences.pdf

“This study of more than 17,000 middle-class Americans documented quite clearly
that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can contribute significantly to
negative adult physical and mental health outcomes and affect more than 60% of
adults.”

https://www.ashg.org/education/pdf/geneticvariation.pdf

“Human genetic diversity is substantially lower than that of many other species,
including our nearest evolutionary relative, the chimpanzee. Genetic diversity
is a function of a population’s “age” (i.e., the amount of time during which
mutations accumulate to generate diversity) and its size. Our genetic
homogeneity implies that anatomically modern humans arose relatively recently
(perhaps 200,000 years ago) and that our population size was quite small at one
time (perhaps 10,000 breeding individuals).”

145

Hidari 12.05.16 at 7:32 am

‘However, I would think that this condition, and the assumption that most human evolution occurred before 50K BP, are not requirements for doing what I called above “mundane EP”. Nor are they conclusions that EP think some data implies. Instead they are *working hypotheses* that enable the generation of much more specific (mostly trivial-sounding) hypotheses,’

Y’see this starts to sound to me like the problems I have with neoclassical economics in which (e.g.) perfect rationality etc. are ‘assumed’ and then when it’s pointed out that these assumptions aren’t true, then we are told ‘well it doesn’t really matter ‘cos they are just working hypotheses’. But it’s amazing what is being posited as a ‘working hypothesis’ on page 3 of the textbook has mysteriously turned into an objective scientific fact by page 46.

I may also point out the Pinker quote. Maybe I am misreading him, but he didn’t sound like he was saying that the essential ‘similarity’ of all human behaviours was a working hypothesis that might be false. He sounded like he was implying (or, indeed, stating) that it was an objective scientific fact.

@133 ‘Both?’

Yes but the similarities need not necessarily be explicable by EP. This is the ‘pointy stick’ problem, posed by Dennett. Everywhere, in every culture in the world, where spears have been invented everyone throws the ‘pointy’ side first. But it is an errors to infer that this is because of our ‘point stick’ module. It’s just to do with the way the objective facts of biology and physics interact.

So there obviously are similarities, but it doesn’t follow that EP will help us understand the similarities. It certainly doesn’t help us understand the differences.

146

Z 12.05.16 at 11:00 am

@DrDick 127 and John’s answer @128 What we are arguing for is that much/most human behavior is NOT strongly genetically determined, but represents a much larger, complex interaction between a broad range of genetic potentials…

Specific claims, guys, specific claims…

I am grateful to Z, upthread, for the cogent critique of M&S, but that is very different from saying we know, a priori, that M&S couldn’t […] be doing science.

Thanks for the gratitude. I’ll add that I did point out that I had many good things to say about M&S but was concentrating on the critic. Already in the actually existing article, they are doing good and interesting science in my opinion.

stevenjonhson 103 I contend that the difficulty of finding the hidden structure of language is evidence the LAD might not exist at all.

As far as I know, I am CT’s resident Chomskyan (though I actually dislike the term) so I feel compelled point out that science is hard and that no one should hold linguistics to standards that physics does not meet. Since 1666, simple and extremely strong empirical arguments in favor of the existence of a force accounting for the movement of planets around the Sun have been known yet we don’t know the inner structure of gravity and the Higgs Boson was identified only in 2013. Likewise, it is true that even the most fervent believer will readily admit there are a lot we don’t know about the inner structure of the LAD. The existence of simple and extremely strong empirical arguments in favor of its existence, however, is not in doubt (I gave a trivial one in a previous thread but other deeper ones abound).

@108 Peter T On language: I think Chomsky (and Pinker) are operating on the engineer’s assumptions that it’s basically communication

FWIW, this is possibly the maximally possible misreading of Chomsky: the one sentence summary of Chomsky’s thesis about the relation between language and communication is that there is no relation between them.

@ John 133 Sorry, I am ignorant of the biology of swim bladders

Swim bladders evolved from primitive lungs (breathing sacs connected to the guts). So they evolved to help fishes breath. Since Darwin, they have the go-to example of an organ which, well, I can’t do better than quote Origin of Species “shows us the highly important fact that an organ originally constructed for one purpose, namely, flotation, may be converted into one for a widely different purpose, namely, respiration” (note that Darwin thought that lungs evolved from swim bladders while we now know that the reverse happened, but the logic is impeccable).

M&S operate under the general assumption that the current main and optimal function of an organ (in their case mental) gives insights about its evolutionary history or (perhaps, I don’t find them awfully clear on this point; then again, if they had been, they would probably have noticed their mistake) that the evolutionary history of an organ gives insight on its current function. Swim bladders show that this can’t be, or at the very least that any such kind of argument must be conducted with extreme care.

147

Another Nick 12.05.16 at 12:49 pm

Kiwanda @ 120: “Thanks, those are very interesting. Although: the second article does not seem to be talking about “recent”, as in, the last fifty thousand years, but “recent”, as in, the last twenty million; it’s about primate nervous system evolution, humans and macaques. Or so it seemed to me.”

The first article indicates that the human brain has undergone significant morphological change over the last 20,000-30,000 years – with a great deal of that change occurring since the Bronze Age.

The second article indicates that the DNA of *current day living humans* still shows highly elevated brain and nervous system development related gene activity compared to our closest primate cousins or indeed any other animal.

By contrast, I haven’t seen any evidence to show the evolution of the human brain has stalled, or even slowed. And sorry, why would it exactly? What’s the underlying assumption here?

148

Another Nick 12.05.16 at 1:00 pm

149

Kiwanda 12.05.16 at 3:36 pm

Another Nick 147:

The second article indicates that the DNA of *current day living humans* still shows highly elevated brain and nervous system development related gene activity compared to our closest primate cousins or indeed any other animal.

Still not seeing this. IANAB, but, it seems to me that they looked for how much different humans are from macaques, vs. how much different mice are from rats, noting that the lineage divergences happened about twenty million years ago in both cases.

“The pace of protein evolution as scaled to neutral divergence is commonly approximated by the ratio between nonsynonymous (K_a) and synonymous (K_s) substitution rates”

(“Synonymous substitution” meaning “coding for the same protein”, which is possible since some amino acids are coded by more than one nucleotide triple.)

“To infer K_a/K_s ratios of genes in primates, we compared human and macaque orthologs. For rodent K_a/K_s, rat and mouse sequences were compared. The average K_s of these genes is 0.065+-0.028 (mean+- SD) for the primate comparison and 0.158+ 0.063 for the rodents, in close agreement with previous reports…Notably, the average K_a/K_s of these genes is substantially higher (by 37%) in primates than in rodents “

150

DrDick 12.05.16 at 3:46 pm

Kiwanda @144

None of that actually supports your position or that of EP. Indeed, neural plasticity refers to physical changes in the structure of the brains and neural metabolism as a result of environmental stimuli. None of those quotes argues that those differences are genetic. You may want to brush up on your biology a bit before you go insulting others.

151

DrDick 12.05.16 at 3:48 pm

Bill Benzon @140 –

That definition renders EP essentially a meaningless tautology with no testable attributes (all observed mental process and behaviors are “evolved” by definition).

152

Kiwanda 12.05.16 at 3:56 pm

Z 146:

M&S operate under the general assumption that the current main and optimal function of an organ (in their case mental) gives insights about its evolutionary history or (perhaps, I don’t find them awfully clear on this point; then again, if they had been, they would probably have noticed their mistake) that the evolutionary history of an organ gives insight on its current function. Swim bladders show that this can’t be, or at the very least that any such kind of argument must be conducted with extreme care.

As read them, they don’t exactly do either:

Here we want to explore the idea that the emergence of reasoning is best understood within the framework of the evolution of human communication. Reasoning enables people to exchange arguments that, on the whole, make communication more reliable and hence more advantageous. The main function of reasoning, we claim, is argumentative…

As most evolutionary hypotheses, this claim runs the risk of being perceived as another “just so story.” It is therefore crucial to show that it entails falsifiable predictions. If the main function of reasoning is indeed argumentative, then it should exhibit as signature effects strengths and weaknesses related to the relative importance of this function compared to other potential functions of reasoning. This should be testable through experimental work done here and now. Our goal now is to spell out and explain what signature effects we predict, to evaluate these predictions in light of the available evidence, and to see whether they help make better sense of a number of well-known puzzles in the psychology of reasoning and decision making. Should one fail, on the other hand, to find such signature of the hypothesized argumentative function of reasoning, and even more should one find that the main features of reasoning match some other function, then our hypothesis should be considered falsified.

That is, they say the “right things” about falsifiability. They regard what they are doing as a prediction about the limitations of human reasoning, mostly in relation to confirmation bias. They then go on to “test” this prediction by explaining various fallacies in its light. This is too close to after-the-fact interpretation, I feel; I didn’t see any classical “here’s a *new* prediction, which we tested”. So that’s a weakness, albeit one sometimes shared by theoretical physics and elsewhere.

153

Bill Benzon 12.05.16 at 4:48 pm

The language ‘module’, not so simple:

Abstract: Broca and Wernicke are dead, or moving past the classic model of language neurobiology

With the advancement of cognitive neuroscience and neuropsychological research, the field of language neurobiology is at a cross-roads with respect to its framing theories. The central thesis of this article is that the major historical framing model, the Classic “Wernicke-Lichtheim-Geschwind” model, and associated terminology, is no longer adequate for contemporary investigations into the neurobiology of language. We argue that the Classic model (1) is based on an outdated brain anatomy; (2) does not adequately represent the distributed connectivity relevant for language, (3) offers a modular and “language centric” perspective, and (4) focuses on cortical structures, for the most part leaving out subcortical regions and relevant connections. To make our case, we discuss the issue of anatomical specificity with a focus on the contemporary usage of the terms “Broca’s and Wernicke’s area”, including results of a survey that was conducted within the language neurobiology community. We demonstrate that there is no consistent anatomical definition of “Broca’s and Wernicke’s Areas”, and propose to replace these terms with more precise anatomical definitions. We illustrate the distributed nature of the language connectome, which extends far beyond the single-pathway notion of arcuate fasciculus connectivity established in Geschwind’s version of the Classic Model. By illustrating the definitional confusion surrounding “Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas”, and by illustrating the difficulty integrating the emerging literature on perisylvian white matter connectivity into this model, we hope to expose the limits of the model, argue for its obsolescence, and suggest a path forward in defining a replacement.

“Broca and Wernicke are dead, or moving past the classic model of language neurobiology” by Pascale Tremblay and Anthony Steven Dick in Brain and Language. Published online August 30 2016 doi:10.1016/j.bandl.2016.08.004

You can find the paper here (behind a paywall):

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0093934X16300475

There’s a news article here:

http://neurosciencenews.com/broca-and-wernicke-are-dead-its-time-to-rewrite-the-neurobiology-of-language/

From that article: Tremblay and Dick call for a “clean break” from the Classic Model and a new approach that rejects the “language centric” perspective of the past (that saw the language system as highly specialised and clearly defined), and that embraces a more distributed perspective that recognises how much of language function is overlaid on cognitive systems that originally evolved for other purposes.

154

Kiwanda 12.05.16 at 4:48 pm

Hidari 145:

Y’see this starts to sound to me like the problems I have with neoclassical economics in which (e.g.) perfect rationality etc. are ‘assumed’ and then when it’s pointed out that these assumptions aren’t true, then we are told ‘well it doesn’t really matter ‘cos they are just working hypotheses’. But it’s amazing what is being posited as a ‘working hypothesis’ on page 3 of the textbook has mysteriously turned into an objective scientific fact by page 46.

Sure, that’s a danger. (We’re thrashing here; I’ll try a variation.) You’ve claimed, I think, that EP *cannot proceed* without *requiring* that people are the same [1], and that almost all human evolution occurred occurred 50K BP. I said, no, these are just working hypotheses; you might say, well, but those become enshrined, or vary in their status according to convenience.

Well, OK, what if these tenets *are* enshrined as gospel in EP: suppose EPers believe them right down to their very mental modules. We can still evaluate individual studies in EP, and evaluate EP as whole, regarding it as a collection of studies. Does the particular hypothesis hold cross-culturally? Does it imply multiple effects that can and were tested, in behavior and/or physiology? Are there genetic correlates? Are there untested alternative explanations? And so on. None of this requires us (or indeed, EP) to accept any gospels.

[1] Wherever you go. Sorry.

155

Bill Benzon 12.05.16 at 9:51 pm

Dr. Dick, #150:

That definition renders EP essentially a meaningless tautology with no testable attributes (all observed mental process and behaviors are “evolved” by definition).

Well, that’s a problem, isn’t it? If everyone thinks it’s both environment AND genes, then what’s all the fuss about? Why’s everyone all upset? You and stevejohnson seem to think EP is all about genes-only. Now you’re complaining that they really ought to stick to genes-only because interactionism is “a meaningless tautology.” Is that it, or is it that, if that’s what they believe, you don’t have much to complain about.

And yet way up there at #46 Naroll reports a study that manages to tease things apart. But the sort of work Naroll did (and gathered together in that book, The Moral Order), large-scale cross cultural studies based on HRAF files, caught a lot of grief from cultural anthropologists. I mean, maybe the serious action is with specific studies and global assertions about EP, yes or no? aren’t worth much. If that’s the case, then the hunt for the League of Dread Pirates Robert has become much more difficult.

Why can’t we just have a nice clean fight between Good Guys and Bad Guys?

156

DrDick 12.06.16 at 12:40 am

Bill Benzon @ 155 –

I have no idea what your point is supposed to be there. That definition you give does not make sense in terms of biological understandings of the phenotype. All you have there is just so stories which cannot be proved or disproved, i.e., nonsense. It also does not correspond to what EP actually does by claiming very specific universal behaviors in human.

157

Another Nick 12.06.16 at 12:40 am

Kiwanda @ 149: Still not seeing this. IANAB, but, it seems to me that they looked for how much different humans are from macaques, vs. how much different mice are from rats, noting that the lineage divergences happened about twenty million years ago in both cases.

By comparing nervous system genes across the four aforementioned taxa, we demonstrate that the average rate of protein evolution as scaled to neutral divergence is indeed considerably faster in primates than in rodents and that this trend is most pronounced for the subset of genes implicated in nervous system development. We further show that within primates, such evolutionary acceleration is much greater in the lineage leading from ancestral primates to humans relative to lineages leading to nonhuman species. Thus, the dramatic evolution of nervous system phenotype in primates, particularly humans, is indeed correlated with salient molecular evolutionary footprints in the underlying genes.

With sequences of the primate-fast outliers available in four primate taxa (human, chimpanzee, macaque, and squirrel monkey), we constructed a phylogenetic tree and calculated Ka/Ks for each segment of the tree (Figure 6C). Clearly, the segments that lie along the lineage leading to humans (bolded in Figure 6C) have notably higher Ka/Ks than segments that branch away from this lineage.

The above data reinforce the notion that Ka/Ks value of nervous system genes in primates are especially elevated in the lineage leading from ancestral primates to humans, and that this trend has likely continued through recent human evolution.

158

Kiwanda 12.06.16 at 1:15 am

DrDick 150:

Kiwanda @144
None of that actually supports your position or that of EP. Indeed, neural plasticity refers to physical changes in the structure of the brains and neural metabolism as a result of environmental stimuli. None of those quotes argues that those differences are genetic. You may want to brush up on your biology a bit before you go insulting others.

My apologies, I won’t engage in any silly mockery again, unless you invoke the towering girth of your own authority once more. (OK, after this I won’t.)

As my quotes at 130 from the Cosmides/Tooby EP primer show, as well as the quote from the Confer survey at Bill Benzon’s 140, you are incorrect to think that EP discounts the effect of environment. Papers discussing environmental effects are not in general supporting an anti-EP position.

However, since you gave some links to some papers (and a web search) that you think are relevant, let’s have another look. (It would be helpful if you pulled something of the specifics of the papers out yourself, and discussed them, instead of just giving links without comment or discussion.)

A study on environmental effects on gene expression, and the variation of such effects by genetic region, is of course concerned with differences that are genetic. A popular science article saying the environment and genetic effects are sometimes indistinguishable is concerned with differences that are genetic. Three papers studying brain region correlates with adaptive learning, visual discrimination, and behavioral flexibility are not much concerned with whether differences are genetic or not; one of them is of course related to the undisputed fact that brains change when people learn. A paper relating behavioral flexibility to social cues has no particular relevance to whether differences are genetic. A paper that does a “merging of behavioral and molecular genetic techniques to identify specific genes that affect temperament” is indeed discussing genetics, as well as some environmental influences; a couple papers about growing up in good or bad homes are about environment, sure; limited human genetic diversity implies that, well, “people are the same” if it implies anything relevant.

So far, I’m not seeing that your links are particularly germane; I hope you’ll elucidate.

159

Kiwanda 12.06.16 at 1:36 am

Another Nick 157 (quoting from the paper):

The above data reinforce the notion that Ka/Ks value of nervous system genes in primates are especially elevated in the lineage leading from ancestral primates to humans, and that this trend has likely continued through recent human evolution.

The “meaningful mutation” Ka/Ks values are all comparisons across groups, like humans/macaques or humans/chimpanzees, they are not measures comparing e.g. humans today to those a few millennia ago; they are not some “current human mutation rate”. The comparisons made suggest that the human/macaque Ka/Ks were mostly due to changes happening in the human lineage, as were the human/chimp Ka/Ks, “recent human evolution” is fast in that sense: since humans split from chimps.
“within primates, the evolution of these genes is especially accelerated in the lineage leading to humans”. But whatevs.

160

Bill Benzon 12.06.16 at 2:47 am

Dr. Dick, 156: What are you talking about? What definition?

I guess maybe you’re referring to 140, but there’s no definition there. Just a statement about EP practice I quqoted from a 2010 review article of a decade plus research in EP. Are you telling me that the people who wrote that article and claim to be doing EP (including David Buss) aren’t in fact doing EP because you know EP better than they do? Did you actually look at the article or are you just talking about the section I quoted?

Jerry Coyne, who is a biologist critic of EP, seemed to think they had results worth thinking about:

If you can read the Confer et al. paper and still dismiss the entire field as worthless, or as a mere attempt to justify scientists’ social prejudices, then I’d suggest your opinions are based more on ideology than judicious scientific inquiry.

* Here are a few fields in which I think interesting and worthwhile evolutionary psychology is being done:

* Incest avoidance, especially in those societies that haven’t made a connection between incest and birth defects. Also, the proximate cues for avoiding incest, as in the failure of children raised in a kibbutz to marry.

* Humans’ innate fear of harmful creatures or features, as in spiders and heights, and the lack of innate fears of more modern dangers.

* The variance in offspring number between males and females in various societies, and the differential “pickiness” of males and females when choosing mates.

* The evolution of concealed ovulation in humans as opposed to other primates.

* The use of odors and immune-system matching (i.e., MHC genes) as cues for mates.

* The cause of sexual dimorphisms (e.g., size differences between males and females).

* The cause of physical and physiological differences between human ethnic groups (was it sexual selection, drift, or something else?).

* Gene-culture coevolution, as in the evolution of lactose tolerance.

* The evolution or morality using comparative studies with other primates.

* The evolution of language (see The Language Instinct by Pinker).

* Parent-offspring conflict, and cases in which kin are favored over nonkin.

* Why we like food that is bad for us (e.g. fats and sweets), and why we feel disgust at certain foods or odors.

Now in many of these areas we’ll never get definitive answers, but that’s characteristic of many areas of evolutionary biology, for ours is a historical science.

I don’t care whether or not you agree w/ Coyne’s assessment – heck, don’t even know whether or not I agree with it – but to say that’s not EP, that doesn’t make any sense.

161

DrDick 12.06.16 at 3:49 pm

Bill Benzon –

Incest avoidance, especially in those societies that haven’t made a connection between incest and birth defects. Also, the proximate cues for avoiding incest, as in the failure of children raised in a kibbutz to marry.

Not universal at all. Incest is found in virtually all human societies, though generally prohibited. Brother-sister & father-daughter marriage were common in Roman Egypt among all social strata. It was also institutionalized for elites in a number of cultures around the world (Pharonic Egypt, the Inca, Native Hawaiians). Among the Trobriand Islanders, who do not recognize any relationship to fathers and do not prohibit infidelity, father-daughter incest was common.

There are also real problems with the kibbutz study, which has been widely critiqued. Most notably, there is the fact that Israel has, and had then, universal conscription at 18 and an established policy of not placing members of the same kibbutz in the same unit. Thus, at the primary age at which people make their marriage choices, they were separated from each other.

* Humans’ innate fear of harmful creatures or features, as in spiders and heights, and the lack of innate fears of more modern dangers.

I know of no evidence that this even exists. Indeed, all the evidence I am aware of indicates these are socially learned. I personally have never had a fear of snakes, but am a severe arachnophobe.

The cause of physical and physiological differences between human ethnic groups (was it sexual selection, drift, or something else?).

All of the above, along with natural selection. Skin color is strongly associated with latitude and solar exposure. Body build is associated with climate, with peoples in tropical grasslands tending to linear builds (relatively tall and thin) to dissipate heat and arctic peoples to shorter and stockier to conserve body heat. There are also various combinations of heritable and non-heritable factors in high altitude adaptations.

http://www.pnas.org/content/104/suppl_1/8655.full

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stevenjohnson 12.06.16 at 5:52 pm

Holbo@113 Of course I’m referencing the Mercier and Sperber paper. Equally of course the paper is not very convincing. They clearly state their thesis that false reasoning such as confirmation bias has conferred an evolutionary advantage because it helps win arguments. They offhandedly claim that groups whose members are “interested in truth” are capable of effective reasoning (presumably about the real world,) but without any context as to why such people would exist, the concession doesn’t mean anything. It’s just lip service. Their final observation properly warns that the success of human reasoning is a matter of “epistemic luck.”

Perhaps my reading of their bottom line, or the real thrust of their argument in the social context, or of their implications in the real world context of the popularizations of EP, or however you put it, well, maybe it is undiplomatic. Maybe it’s even unkind. Even though you really do believe that the ability to win argument is so important that even an irrational confirmation bias therefore confers an evolutionary advantage so great it has become an aspect of the reasoning mechanism of the human brain, i.e., part of human nature, all your objection really amounts to is the insistence that you can’t call such an emphasis on the importance of winning argument “dominating people.” I don’t think that’s an issue of accuracy about the article, but the propriety of my language.

RichardM@124 “Doesn’t the same argument ‘prove’ that Neanderthals and homo sapiens couldn’t have different skeletal structures? Also, it must be theoretically impossible to identify which of two dogs is which, given only the knowledge one is a dachshund and one a St Bernard.” No. Not having a chin or a notch in the brow ridge, and having heavier bones and an occipital bun are not differences in vital organs. The notion Neanderthals and modern humans could have had different brains and still interbreed is wildly speculative. There aren’t many differences between lion and tiger skeletons but they aren’t really capable of viable interbreeding. Your own example suggests viable interbreeding depends more upon sufficient similarities in vital organs and processes.

Bill Benzon@126 Yes, there are difficulties in the computational models of the mind. Individual neurons may be considered digital but if the brain is a computer it is analog. Also, perhaps even more important, the “wiring” in the brain is not insulated. This doesn’t affect the impulses traveling along the axon so much, but all the neurons are affected by changes in all those neurotransmitters (and there are more than the four main ones, too.) And if the brain is a computer, it has/is a massively parallel one, so much so I’m not sure the experience with our computers are not misleading. Further, there’s the role of the brain in regulation of physiology (why encephalization tends to be associated with longevity I suspect) which is more about homeostasis than information processing of the kind associated with computers. I suppose you could model a thermostat as a computer/Turing machine, but is it helpful?

DrDick@134 I’m not at all sure anyone’s having trouble understanding you. It seems more likely to me that, like the primer, there’s an equivocation between human nature and human behavior. EP does claim human nature is rather closely detailed by natural selections, genetically determined in a rather strong sense. When confronted with the lack of evidence from anthropology etc. about what this human nature might actually be, its proponents then retort they have always acknowledged that human behavior is not just genetically determined. I don’t know whether that formally counts as a non sequitur but it’s not good thinking.

John Holbo@135 EP dismisses whole disciplines as lacking authority. It’s like a parapsychologist dismissing physics for saying signals can’t travel faster than light. Don’t think that’s the same thing as what you’re talking about here.

Bruce Wilder@142 As long as there’s mutation, there will be variation. In the end then, the question is why natural selection cannot eventually create a perfect DNA replication machinery. The brief answer is that natural selection is not all powerful. (An error EP holds as a fundamental principle.) As a result the perfection of the replication machinery is limited by random genetic drift. Since natural selection works best in larger effective breeding populations, the error rate in replication (aka mutation, the ultimate cause of genetic diversity,) is lower in those populations. And higher in species with small effective breeding populations. I you’re interested, see http://sandwalk.blogspot.com/2016/12/learning-about-modern-evolutionary.html#more By the way, the blogger who cites this actually thinks race is a valid scientific category, so real he can personally identify which race a person belongs to! So no one can dismiss him as some rabid lefty.

PeterT@143″It’s not just that EP is hard to test, it’s that neurological and other evidence strongly suggests that it’s not worth testing unless and until it can come up with specific, significant, testable propositions consonant with other research.” In one sense I wholeheartedly agree. But I feel compelled to add that EP rejects in principle the results of other research if it supports the Standard Social Science Model, which doesn’t find much of a Human Nature to be genetically determined. Some (including sea lions?) of course want to have the nonexistence of a Human Nature demonstrated to their satisfaction.

Some also believe, as Karl Popper of the Mont Pelerin Society has instructed us, the test of scientificity is experiments that falsify hypotheses. So if EP does experiments, it therefore is science. Just like Gauquelin testing astrology. Mario Bunge wrote “
“In short, tell me what philosophy you use (not just profess,) and I’ll tell you what your science is worth. And tell me what science you use (not just pay lip service to,) and I’ll tell you what your philosophy is worth.” He may have been right.

Z@146 Yes, although the LAD might not exist, it might exist. I think it might be the only real cognitive program in the EP sense. It’s not clear that any other evolutionary adaptation was necessary for modern humans, though, a possibility EP rejects.

I am a little puzzled as to what you found good in the Mercier and Sperber article. Unlike Hidari I thought it was very typical of EP in its badness. Mercier and Sperber talk about evolution. You yourself commented very cogently on how bad their handling of that was. To me it seems like saying the article was nevertheless good is much like saying the cheesecake was delicious except for the poison. If you share Bill Benzon’s distinction between a narrow and a broad EP, I can only ask, “Is a broadly construed EP both coherent and naturalist? Is an EP that accepts there is no evidence of a tightly specified universal human nature at all compatible with its popularizations?”

Another Nick@147 “By contrast, I haven’t seen any evidence to show the evolution of the human brain has stalled, or even slowed. And sorry, why would it exactly? What’s the underlying assumption here?” I disagree about one thing: EP doesn’t have an underlying assumption that evolution stopped in EEA, wherever or whenever that was. Generally they are very explicit that people have stone age brains, nothing buried about it at all.

Of course evolution has continued, continues still. When EPers do note this, they are usually very much new Social Darwinists, producing things like The Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence or the Gregory Clark book A Farewell to Alms. That blends into things like Charles Murray and Philippe Rushton and others. When we talk about how there must be something to EP, we are including that stuff too.

Bill Benzon@160 Jerry Coynes is a critic of individual EP studies that are too blatantly wrong. He is not a critic of EP in general. In fact he endorses the alleged principles, especially the adaptationism despite co-authoring a standard work on speciation, which certainly mentions random genetic drift, etc. In his popularizations, though, he is always adaptationist. (By the way, Coyne is another guy, like Nicholas Wade, Steven Pinker, Larry Moran, Steve Sailer, Razib Khan who think race is a valid scientific concept.) Looking at the list, I wonder what Coyne could possibly be thinking when talking about differences in male and female “pickiness” in choosing mates, given the many, many instances in which there was no choosing, often not for the male either? Does EP really shed light on female choice to enter a nunnery in medieval Europe, to be a temple prostitute in ancient Babylon, be one of many concubines in ancient Luoyang (or to be the Empress Wu instead!) etc. Seriously?

Kiwanda@118 wrote “The common meaning of ‘literature review’ entails the citation of a great variety of sources…. I asked for ‘specific EP papers’, and I certainly intended to mean ‘just a few’, which I hope would be the natural interpretation. stevenjohnson, how about one such paper?” Since I’ve already done that by citing and quoting Cosmides’ and Tooby’s primer, which explicitly laid out the strategy, the natural reading here is that Kiwanda has lost it completely. At any rate, I had also quoted the Mercier and Sperber article. But for good measure I can add “The Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence” as a crappy paper. And for popularizations, which do count as examples of EP by the way, try The Survival of the Prettiest.

The natural interpretation is that Kiwanda has lost it completely, not noticing I’ve already cited literature, since the only alternative is that Kiwanda wants details. I suppose when I find some time I’ll post a genuinely long comment on the Mercier and Sperber article, instead of a bunch of short comments to many posts.

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DrDick 12.06.16 at 9:11 pm

I forgot to address this one:

* The variance in offspring number between males and females in various societies, and the differential “pickiness” of males and females when choosing mates.

This is so loaded with false assumptions as to boggle the mind. For instance, it assumes that individuals make their own choices, when we know that in a large number of societies (probably most) in the world marriages are (or were in the past) arranged by senior relatives with little or no input from the prospective spouses. It also assumes that the criteria pertain to the prospective mate, when this is just as often based on family attributes (wealth, power, connections, etc.), which have no basis in biology.

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DrDick 12.07.16 at 12:58 am

stevenjohnson @162

That really is my read on the criticisms as well. I have also come to the inescapable conclusion that Kiwanda is not arguing in good faith, for the very reasons you cite.

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John Holbo 12.07.16 at 1:02 am

“Holbo@113 Of course I’m referencing the Mercier and Sperber paper. Equally of course the paper is not very convincing. They clearly state their thesis that false reasoning such as confirmation bias has conferred an evolutionary advantage because it helps win arguments. “

stevenjohnson, your reading of M&S is just plain mistaken. I am glad you are not convinced by the crazy-sounding thing you think is in there but you have apparently – quite comprehensively – misunderstood their thesis and argument. Now that I recall, their article got some attention in the popular press when it first came out – you may have seen some of that – and some of the press coverage said something like the thing that you are saying: reason evolved as a kind of sophistry muscle. That obviously makes no sense, as a thesis, but also bears no resemblance to their actual argument. It would be closer to it to say: according to M&S reason evolved because communication is more beneficial if everyone can trust what everyone is saying. (We humans are social but we have trust issues.) If you can package your message with reasons why it should be believed, it will be more credible. That benefits both sender and receiver. You up the value of communication by giving the receivers the capacity to test for quality, to a certain extent. Confirmation bias – my-side bias – comes in like so: there is a cognitive division of labor. I, as sender, want to find reasons I am right, because that will give my audience more reasons to believe me. I want to be believed. By contrast, I, as a receiver, am automatically running spam filters/malware detection on incoming messages. I am looking for immediate reasons to trash stuff. The idea is that our reasoning capacity is optimized for social settings where there is, in effect, side-taking. Like in a court room where both sides, defense and prosecution, are assigned a lawyer. There is a logic to that. But if you then remove a piece – either defense or prosecution – the remaining mechanism for trying the case looks weirdly biased. M&S are saying that’s why people can be so dumb, left to their own devices. My-side bias is an efficient way of assigning sides, so every side gets an advocate, so that communication is generally more trustworthy.

Please do not critique the thing I just wrote. It is too brief, off-the-cuff and inadequate to be a worthy target. If you want to critique M&S, critique their more careful presentation of this view. Don’t just say they think reason is a hypertrophic sophistry muscle. That’s not their view.

“John Holbo@135 EP dismisses whole disciplines as lacking authority. It’s like a parapsychologist dismissing physics for saying signals can’t travel faster than light. Don’t think that’s the same thing as what you’re talking about here.”

There are important distinctions being elided here. First, there’s the distinction between me and EP. Second, even if I were EP, which I am not, my refusing to accept arguments from authority – such as DrDick’s visual reports of communal eyerolls – is not the same as dismissing whole disciplines as lacking authority. It’s very easy for those things to come apart. I may think, for example, that there are some areas where medical science is unsettled – and where, maybe, there is a lot of heated controversy. I may not accept any arguments from authority in that area. I may suspend judgment. But that doesn’t mean I am consistency-bound to regard all medical doctors as lacking all authority about everything they say.

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John Holbo 12.07.16 at 1:24 am

It’s also vitally important to distinguish between ‘inference’ and ‘reason’, if we are discussing M&S, because for them these are semi-technical terms that don’t really track their ordinary usage (although M&S are a bit unclear about how they are departing from ordinary usage.) Inference is all the automatic process stuff, including a lot that we would ordinarily call ‘reason’. ‘Reason’ is just the conscious tip of the iceberg – the inference patterns we are engaging in that we metarepresent to ourselves, from tip to tail. (Normally, only the tip appears at most. We know what we believe – there’s an apple. We don’t normally have awareness of why we believe it.) There is no question why inference is valuable. It’s useful to represent the world. Duh. The question is why have reason, i.e. the ability to metarepresent internal structures of our representations. Why doesn’t all that just stay ‘under the hood’, as it were, like so many other complex processes we don’t have conscious, deliberative access to? My main concern at this point is that the System 1/System 2 stuff is dubious. I mention it because what makes M&S seem silly is that they may seem to be asking ‘why do we reason?’ and meaning ‘why are we capable of drawing inferences’ which is more or less equivalent to ‘why is it adaptive to not be brain dead?’ A question that seems not very interesting. But that just isn’t their question.

Maybe they are quite wrong, but let’s do them the courtesy of recognizing what they are wrong about, if so. Also, do not critique the thing I just wrote, which is only here to point to the real thing, not to be an adequate substitute for it. (I’m just recollecting the details of their argument off the top of my head, very briefly.)

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Kiwanda 12.07.16 at 3:18 am

stephenjohnson 98:

The whole point of EP’s chatter about genes is because genes-> neurophysiology-> cognitive program-> solution to adaptive problem. EP promptly forgets this, and operates in reverse,

me at 106:

As best I understand, it does operate that chain in reverse, to *generate hypotheses*, those hypotheses then evaluated in a variety of ways, ideally experimentally. Can you supply specific EP papers of the last decade that just make such “reverse” speculations based on unknowable conditions, then declare victory and go home?

After a bit of bluster about “literature reviews”, stephenjohnson returns at 162 with:

Since I’ve already done that by citing and quoting Cosmides’ and Tooby’s primer, which explicitly laid out the strategy, the natural reading here is that Kiwanda has lost it completely…..The natural interpretation is that Kiwanda has lost it completely….

So I guess if you mentioned the primer in *any* context (59: more weight than the SE, 69: abuses the SSSM), that counts here. Sure, OK.

You do go on at some length about the primer at 69. (I didn’t see you actually quoting it anywhere, as you claimed, but never mind.) You say @69:

Even the primer acknowledges, with its little flow charts, that attributing this to genes involves eventually finding the genes and neural structures/processes that compose the modules “discovered” by EP….

The primer has nothing I’d call a flowchart, but never mind; I assume you’re talking about Figure 1, about which the primer says “An evolutionary focus is valuable for psychologists, who are studying a biological system of fantastic complexity, because it can make the intricate outlines of the mind’s design stand out in sharp relief. Theories of adaptive problems can guide the search for the cognitive programs that solve them; knowing what cognitive programs exist can, in turn, guide the search for their neural basis. (See Figure 1.)”

So indeed, in this case, as the primer says, and as you acknowledge, EP doesn’t “make reverse speculations based on unknowable conditions, then declare victory and go home”.

The prime clearly explains that it copes with this [many varied human cultures] by rejecting the evidence from the other social sciences, which by the way, includes anthropology.

Not sure where you’re getting this in the primer, although it does say “Situations involving social exchange have constituted a long-enduring selection pressure on the hominid line: evidence from primatology and paleoanthropology suggests that our ancestors have engaged in social exchange for at least several million years” So in this case at least, EP is willing to entertain evidence from anthropology about human culture. It’s true EP doesn’t accept the “Standard Social Science Model”, but rejecting a model is not the same as rejecting evidence.

The primer is also usefully explicit about rejecting any need to connect even with behavioral genetics.

The primer’s discussion of behavioral genetics is about the contrast in motivating questions: “Behavior geneticists are interested in the extent to which differences between people in a given environment can be accounted for by differences in their genes. EPs are interested in individual differences only insofar as these are the manifestation of an underlying architecture shared by all human beings.”

Similarly, again, the primer explicitly rejects the well attested conclusion of real social science that the universals of human nature are minimal Sensible people have been led to compare the human mind to a blank slate.

Really, “the universals of human nature are minimal”? What could that possibly mean? Surely not that a human infant is just a blob of amorphous goo, waiting to be acculturated into feeling pain, smiling, learning to crawl, walk, talk? If not that, what? But yes, EP is interested in finding “non-minimal” human universals. The quote from Jerry Coyne mentions several under study.

But to return to your claim that the primer serves as an example of your claim that EP “makes reverse speculations based on unknowable conditions, then declares victory and goes home”. It’s true that most of the primer is a motivating “theoretical basis”. However, when it comes to a specific hypothesis of “cheater detection”, the discussion turns to a series of human-subject experiments, mainly using the “Wason selection task”. These experiments may not be convincing, but they are obviously not “declaring victory” etc.

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Kiwanda 12.07.16 at 3:22 am

NB: “The quote from Jerry Coyne mentions several under study”
–> “The quote from Jerry Coyne mentions several *possibilities* under study”

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Kiwanda 12.07.16 at 6:30 am

DrDick 164:

That really is my read on the criticisms as well. I have also come to the inescapable conclusion that Kiwanda is not arguing in good faith, for the very reasons you cite.

Bill Benzon 160 quotes Coyne’s list of EP work worth thinking about. There is a list of related related references here, including several each on incest, snakes and spiders, MHC genes and mating, sexual dimorphism, and parent-offspring conflict.

DrDick 161, responding to some items on Coyne’s list:

*Incest avoidance, especially in those societies that haven’t made a connection between incest and birth defects. Also, the proximate cues for avoiding incest, as in the failure of children raised in a kibbutz to marry.

Not universal at all. Incest is found in virtually all human societies, though generally prohibited. Brother-sister & father-daughter marriage were common in Roman Egypt among all social strata. It was also institutionalized for elites in a number of cultures around the world (Pharonic Egypt, the Inca, Native Hawaiians). Among the Trobriand Islanders, who do not recognize any relationship to fathers and do not prohibit infidelity, father-daughter incest was common.

There are also real problems with the kibbutz study…

These are interesting examples, though in the context of all human societies over all time, not compelling. Historian Walter Scheidel gives an interesting and thorough survey of the issue.

He points to data regarding “minor” marriages in Taiwan, “in which young girls were adopted by their future parents-in-law, raised as their future husbands’ sisters, and later married to these biologically unrelated “brothers.” Based on meticulous analysis of some 20,000 marriages, Arthur Wolf has found significantly lower fertility rates and dramatically higher rates of divorce (and adultery) for such couples than for other unions.”

He discusses the kibbutzim studies, and also “lower success rates for marriages of first cousins raised in sibling-like intimacy in Lebanon, successful first-cousin unions with substantial spousal age differences in Pakistan, and the curtailment of later marital appeal by childhood same-room sleeping of cousins in Morocco, and more generally by close childhood propinquity among cousins in Sumatra.”

In addition to co-socialization, he discusses work on a potential signaling mechanism, olfactory cues related to MHC.

He notes that “…it catches the eye that one thing that virtually all well-documented historical cases of non-criminal sexual relations within the nuclear family have in common is that they were regarded, emically, as deliberate deviations from the norm, regardless of cultural context.”

He notes that “Overall, the historical evidence is better consistent with a model of biologically grounded aversion behavior than with the notion of preferences determined solely by culturally contingent norms.”

* Humans’ innate fear of harmful creatures or features, as in spiders and heights, and the lack of innate fears of more modern dangers.

I know of no evidence that this even exists. Indeed, all the evidence I am aware of indicates these are socially learned. I personally have never had a fear of snakes, but am a severe arachnophobe.

Absence of knowledge of evidence is not knowledge of absence of evidence, yes? Lobue et al review some of the evidence. For example, “First, both humans and monkeys learn to fear snakes and spiders more readily than they learn to fear neutral stimuli; second, human adults and monkeys visually detect snakes and spiders more rapidly than a variety of other stimuli” Cited studies show that human adults hold onto negative associations of snakes and spiders longer than they do flowers and mushrooms; Rhesus monkeys learn fear of snakes quickly from other monkeys, but not fear of flowers or rabbits; human adults detect snakes and spiders faster than other stimuli, as do Japanese monkeys for snakes. Their paper is not entirely supportive of a specific fear of snakes and spiders, however: “The research reviewed here indicates that some ancient threats are privileged in human perception and that we have perceptual biases that enable us to respond to them very rapidly. Further, this work also demonstrates that humans have the ability to learn to respond quickly to specific kinds of threat-relevant
stimuli. These findings suggest that visual perception and learning are supported by mechanisms that give priority to processing certain kinds of stimuli. Our recent research with infants and young children who have had little to no experience with or knowledge about evolutionarily relevant threat stimuli provides especially strong support for the existence of perceptual biases for threat very early in life”

*The cause of physical and physiological differences between human ethnic groups (was it sexual selection, drift, or something else?).

All of the above, along with natural selection. Skin color is strongly associated with latitude and solar exposure. Body build is associated with climate, with peoples in tropical grasslands tending to linear builds (relatively tall and thin) to dissipate heat and arctic peoples to shorter and stockier to conserve body heat. There are also various combinations of heritable and non-heritable factors in high altitude adaptations.

I’m not sure what’s being referenced here by Coyne; I think it’s likely DrDick doesn’t, either.

DrDick 163:

* The variance in offspring number between males and females in various societies, and the differential “pickiness” of males and females when choosing mates.

This is so loaded with false assumptions as to boggle the mind. For instance, it assumes that individuals make their own choices, when we know that in a large number of societies (probably most) in the world marriages are (or were in the past) arranged by senior relatives with little or no input from the prospective spouses. It also assumes that the criteria pertain to the prospective mate, when this is just as often based on family attributes (wealth, power, connections, etc.), which have no basis in biology.

Do we really think that arranged marriages and marriage politics played a dominant role in sexual relations 50K BP? I suppose it’s possible.

Buss gives an interesting survey of “EP and mating”. I haven’t read it enough yet to comment.

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Hidari 12.07.16 at 6:47 am

Rushing out, so don’t have much time to talk about this, but just a reminder that Jerry Coyne is not reliable on EP (or on anything that relates, even tangentially, to politics. On straightforward evolutionary biology, of course, he is very good).

Few of these points are original with me.

‘ Incest avoidance, especially in those societies that haven’t made a connection between incest and birth defects.’

But incest avoidance is not a universal (as is well known in Ancient Egypt the royal family practiced incest). You can call it a tendency, but that doesn’t fit easily into the EP paradigm, which attempts to explain universals.

‘Humans’ innate fear of harmful creatures or features, as in spiders’

But this makes no sense. Spiders (as most of you will know from personal experience) are not particularly dangerous on the whole. Other animals (like buffalo, lions, tigers) are far more dangerous but no one has a phobia about that.

‘ the lack of innate fears of more modern dangers.’ Excuse me? You are claiming that people aren’t afraid of flying?

‘ The cause of sexual dimorphisms (e.g., size differences between males and females).’

Interesting, but little to do with EP.

‘ The cause of physical and physiological differences between human ethnic groups (was it sexual selection, drift, or something else?).’

Who knows? In any case, nothing to do with EP.

‘The evolution of language (see The Language Instinct by Pinker).’

But Pinker’s theories of language are probably wrong.

”Parent-offspring conflict, and cases in which kin are favored over nonkin.’

CF Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature (a book I am surprised to see has not been mentioned). The evidence for this is not as good as Coyne thinks it is.

‘Why we like food that is bad for us (e.g. fats and sweets).’

Well last time I checked that idea that fat as such is bad for us is highly controversial at the moment. In any case, my understanding is that there is good evidence that this is a learned response (I don’t have time to check this and could be wrong about this. But my first point definitely stands).

Proponents of EP would do well to keep their hypotheses ‘hard’ and ‘tight’ and concentrate on getting replicable experimental evidence for a small series of tightly argued set of propositions. This ‘scattershot’ account just makes them look like idiots.

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John Holbo 12.07.16 at 8:30 am

“You can call it a tendency, but that doesn’t fit easily into the EP paradigm, which attempts to explain universals.”

I don’t see why you couldn’t have an evolutionary explanation of tendencies. There are species in which males have a tendency to be bigger – or smaller – than females. (Humans for example.) Suppose there is some adaptive logic to that size dimorphism. (Could be.) But you could very well still find individual members of the species that buck the trend. Here the problem isn’t that it (if evolved -> universal) has to hold. Rather, addressing ‘tendencies’ just compound the evidential squishiness problems we’ve already got with EP. But that’s an important distinction. If EP is incoherent that’s different from it’s just hard to confirm.

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Jim Buck 12.07.16 at 10:22 am

But incest avoidance is not a universal (as is well known in Ancient Egypt the royal family practiced incest). You can call it a tendency, but that doesn’t fit easily into the EP paradigm, which attempts to explain universals.

Having recently met a sister of mine, for the first time, it has come home to me that it is possible that familiarity alone is what produces incest avoidance.

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Jim Buck 12.07.16 at 10:30 am

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Z 12.07.16 at 10:50 am

stevenhohnson @162 I am a little puzzled as to what you found good in the Mercier and Sperber article.

The evolutionary part is weak (the logic is wrong and I don’t believe in the premises, myself) but the psychology part is OK, I find. I do agree with them that the standard assumption in western philosophy is that reasoning is a self-oriented process and I like the change of perspective their article provide. I also buy into the so to speak applied part of their work, that is to say the idea of examining pedagogical practices, problem-solving techniques, decision-making and political deliberation through the lens of their theory.

More generally, I am a big believer in the research program outlined by Bourdieu (“sociology and psychology should combine their efforts (but this would require them to overcome their mutual suspicion) to analyse the genesis of investment in a field of social relations, thus constituted as an object of interest and preoccupation, in which the child is increasingly implicated and which constitutes the paradigm and also the principle of investment in the social game”) and I find M&S a modest step in that direction, with the social game being here social argumentation.

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Z 12.07.16 at 1:00 pm

Ah, specific claims!

* Incest avoidance.

A typical case of EP that I find quite vapid without anthropology. As Jim Buck remarks, two impulses may have been selected among humans: repulsion of people with whom we grew up and assortative mating. What their contrary effects amount to is largely a matter of anthropology.

* Humans’ innate fear of harmful creatures or features, as in spiders and heights, and the lack of innate fears of more modern dangers.

That barely raises to the level of psychology to me, but YMMV

* The evolution of concealed ovulation in humans as opposed to other primates.

* The use of odors and immune-system matching (i.e., MHC genes) as cues for mates.

* The cause of sexual dimorphisms (e.g., size differences between males and females).

* The cause of physical and physiological differences between human ethnic groups (was it sexual selection, drift, or something else?).

* Gene-culture coevolution, as in the evolution of lactose tolerance.

* Why we like food that is bad for us (e.g. fats and sweets), and why we feel disgust at certain foods or odors.

All these questions could be asked essentially in the same terms and studied with essentially the same methods for ants, crayfish, dolphins and dogs. Consequently, I would consider them pure biology.

* The variance in offspring number between males and females in various societies, and the differential “pickiness” of males and females when choosing mates.

That one is kind of vague, to say the least, but I’ll note that societies make a conspicuous apparition.

* The evolution or morality using comparative studies with other primates.

I’d be interested in that one. As stated here, it remains quite extraordinarily vague and as always, considering the extraordinary plasticity and sociability of human beings,
I believe the default hypothesis to be that humans find moral what their social group finds moral, so I expect most of the action to be at the anthropological and social level.

* The evolution of language (see The Language Instinct by Pinker).

I am utterly convinced that it is in principle possible and fruitful to study that question, though I also believe that it is quite devilishly hard and that most of works purporting to do so fail quite completely (it would be unfair to say so of Pinker’s TLI: it is a work of popular science).

* Parent-offspring conflict, and cases in which kin are favored over nonkin.

That is quite vague (I don’t think anyone doubts that evolutionary biology plays some role in some parent-offspring conflicts; as in the conflict over weaning, incidentally already prevalent among many species of primates). Broadly understood, I’m in fact highly skeptical of that one. To begin with, the strong link between biological relationship and kinship is quite recent, historically speaking.

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John Holbo 12.07.16 at 2:58 pm

Z: “Humans’ innate fear of harmful creatures or features, as in spiders and heights, and the lack of innate fears of more modern dangers.

That barely raises to the level of psychology to me, but YMMV”

If fear isn’t psychology then no emotions are (?) If our emotional life isn’t part of psychology then what is? So I think MMV.

I am agnostic about snake neurons (although “snakes on a brain” is a nice pun.) But if – just to fix ideas – there are dedicated recognize-snake neurons, at least one element of psychology is innate.

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Z 12.07.16 at 3:18 pm

if there are dedicated recognize-snake neurons, at least one element of psychology is innate.

Does anyone still doubt that there are tons of dedicated neural processes, some of them dedicated to quite tricky functions (syntax processing, reading or even orientation seems to me much more impressive than snake-recognition)? Perhaps this is an issue of imperfect translation, but I would call this neurobiology, or cognitive science, and would call psychology the study of more abstract properties of the mind.

I’m fine with this being called psychology, and I’m even fine with it being called evolutionary psychology, if that is important to anyone, but calling with the same term everything from core dedicated neural processes to Mercier and Sperber (or Wright’s Moral Animal) seems to me to obscure more than to clarify.

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Z 12.07.16 at 3:45 pm

I mean, and I apologize for the volley of comments, if we are looking for a clearly emotional process that has quite undoubtedly evolved as the result of natural selection, I would nominate the mutual emotional attachment which develops when a mother and her nursing child cross eyes (this has been shown to stimulate the emission of oxytocin in both baby and mother) before looking for snake-recognizing neurons.

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Kiwanda 12.07.16 at 4:30 pm

Hidari 170:

…just a reminder that Jerry Coyne is not reliable on EP (or on anything that relates, even tangentially, to politics….

Yes, there are some indications that he changes his mind based on the evidence.

I discussed incest avoidance and fear of spiders/snakes already, so.

‘ the lack of innate fears of more modern dangers.’ Excuse me? You are claiming that people aren’t afraid of flying?

Surely fear of flying is related to the fear of heights. (About which, as I mentioned way above, there are related EP studies.)

‘ The cause of sexual dimorphisms (e.g., size differences between males and females).’

Interesting, but little to do with EP.

I think the dimorphisms most of interest are those possible ones in *behavior*: attractive mate characteristics, sexual behavior, etc. The Buss article I linked above discusses some.

I gave a link to some references, but here they are, with links to pdf, or for one, a word doc of an abstract. I haven’t looked at them.


Female condition influences preferences for sexual dimorphism in faces of male humans (Homo sapiens)

Dominance and the evolution of sexual dimorphism in human voice pitch

Facial sexual dimorphism, developmental stability, and susceptibility to disease in men and women.

Proponents of EP would do well to keep their hypotheses ‘hard’ and ‘tight’ and concentrate on getting replicable experimental evidence for a small series of tightly argued set of propositions. This ‘scattershot’ account just makes them look like idiots.

Good advice for anyone, and nice work if you can get it.

An account that is not “scattershot” is probably one that includes motivating theory, which is discussed in some detail in the Cosmides/Tooby primer or the Confer et al survey. But as these discuss, motivating theory is only the beginning; Coyne’s list is of cases where there is some of the experimental evidence demanded by EP, and you.

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DrDick 12.07.16 at 4:52 pm

Kiwanda @169 –

I’m not sure what’s being referenced here by Coyne; I think it’s likely DrDick doesn’t, either.
Actually I do know exactly what they are talking about, as race and ethnicity are among my areas of expertise. That you do not understand that perfectly clear passage disqualifies you from claiming you know what you are talking about.

Do we really think that arranged marriages and marriage politics played a dominant role in sexual relations 50K BP? I suppose it’s possible.
Of course their evidence is actually based on the behavior of modern humans, not those living 50K bp, since nobody knows much about what people were doing at that time. It is also the case that human evolution did not stop 50k years ago and we have many examples of much more recent adaptations (the east Asian epicanthic fold emerges about 10K bp and lactase persistence emerges in several different places after about 3,000 years ago. Once again you reveal a complete lack of understanding of the issues and knowledge of the data.

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Bill Benzon 12.07.16 at 5:26 pm

Cited by 1189
Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Volume 12, Issue 1 March 1989, pp. 1-14

Sex differences in human mate preferences: Evolutionary hypotheses tested in 37 cultures

David M. Buss
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0140525X00023992

Abstract
Contemporary mate preferences can provide important clues to human reproductive history. Little is known about which characteristics people value in potential mates. Five predictions were made about sex differences in human mate preferences based on evolutionary conceptions of parental investment, sexual selection, human reproductive capacity, and sexual asymmetries regarding certainty of paternity versus maternity. The predictions centered on how each sex valued earning capacity, ambition— industriousness, youth, physical attractiveness, and chastity. Predictions were tested in data from 37 samples drawn from 33 countries located on six continents and five islands (total N = 10,047). For 27 countries, demographic data on actual age at marriage provided a validity check on questionnaire data. Females were found to value cues to resource acquisition in potential mates more highly than males. Characteristics signaling reproductive capacity were valued more by males than by females. These sex differences may reflect different evolutionary selection pressures on human males and females; they provide powerful cross-cultural evidence of current sex differences in reproductive strategies. Discussion focuses on proximate mechanisms underlying mate preferences, consequences for human intrasexual competition, and the limitations of this study.

* * * * *

You can download it here:

https://labs.psych.ucsb.edu/roney/james/other%20pdf%20readings/Buss37cultures.pdf

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bruce wilder 12.07.16 at 5:41 pm

If we were interested in evolutionary analysis of the human eye, we would not just declare the function of the eye is to spot danger or food on the savanna circa 20000 BCE and move on. Presumably, we would be interested in the details of how eyes worked. Theories of how cameras work would be relevant; knowledge of optics would be informative; information processing theories of how visual sense data from the eye are processed would be a core concern. How good are human eyes plus visualization in detecting motion or judging distance and guessing the 3d from perspective? We would be vitally interested in variation: near-sightedness, color-blindness, rates of congenital blindness and the effect on reproduction. Also, the defects or limitations of “design” evident in the anatomy of the human eye — the blind spot created by blood flow to the retina, the different nerve systems involved in bright light and low light vision — would be duly noted.

My point, expressed in the implied standard of this analogy, is that serious inquiry quickly becomes 1.) complex and 2.) oriented to accounting for variation and “defect”. No one would think twice about the relevance of optics or information processing; of course, these are relevant areas of knowledge to be sought out and applied in understanding and interpreting what can be observed.

There is something wrong with a method of inquiry that seeks to collapse “biological function” into virtue, as M & S rather unthinkingly did, or to erect disciplinary boundaries as barriers on the strength of vague nature v nurture heuristics. (Attributing some political outcome to biological evolution while disposing of all knowledge of political science, economics, sociology, anthropology seems like a misuse of occam’s razor, no? Ditto, for tabula rasa, if that matters.)

On snakes & spiders, I would think it would be possible to relate our reactions to the processing of signals thru brain structures. On incest, I would think the logic of strong cultural taboos would count against the hypothetical notion of reliable biological speed bumps. My casual observation is that parents are always strongly interested in the sexual attractiveness of their offspring, so my hypothesis, if I were to propose one, would run in the direction of taboo countering instinctual impulses that might otherwise go awry.

On smells, I wonder if humans have not had to cut themselves off from some of those instinctual triggers, to permit conceptual thinking to have some sway over behavior.

There is something in human psychology that draws people to teh stupid qua ideology like moths to flame. I would like M & S to test their ideas about the “function” of arguments on the ground of my family’s holiday dinner political eruptions. Or, open the explanatory door to, say, hypnosis. If they were serious, I think they would. That is what science looks like: looking for mechanism.

When you look for mechanism, you are guided in curiosity by variation, failure and shortcoming. You look for tradeoffs and limits. In M & S, the paradoxes of rationality form a kind of beginning place for this, but it is confused about how to fix a steady gaze on mechanisms.

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Kiwanda 12.07.16 at 6:28 pm

Z 175:

That [fear of spiders/snakes/heights] barely raises to the level of psychology to me, but YMMV

All these questions could be asked essentially in the same terms and studied with essentially the same methods for ants, crayfish, dolphins and dogs. Consequently, I would consider them pure biology.

The latter questions being those concerned with concealed ovulation, odor mating cues, physical ethnic group differences, gene-culture co-evolution.

For these and others: you seem to think that “psychology” refers only to behaviors quite specific to human beings.

As to the relationships to EP:

Re fears, as discussed above, they’re related not only to emotion but also perception and learning.

The wikipedia article on concealed ovulation discusses the relationship with various EP hypotheses, including “parental investment”, enlisting aid in rearing offspring, relationship (conversely?) to promiscuity, and others.

Odor mating cues are related to the hypothesis of incest avoidance, as I mentioned above.

Still not clear what Coyne was referring to re ethnic groups.

It’s not clear to me how human gene-culture evolution would be trivially understood by studying e.g. ants. Surely culture is related to psychology.

I gave a link to Coyne at 72,, but quoted Confer et al, because Coyne gives a quick list, while Confer et al. give cases where (they claim) substantial evidence (multiple methods, investigators, samples) have been found. But whatever.

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WLGR 12.07.16 at 8:33 pm

Just to give an idea of where the innate universal language module argument can lead in terms of hypotheses about the mechanisms of psychological evolution, here’s Chomsky himself in 2005 on the origins of language:

Within  some  small  group  from  which  we  are  all  descended,  a rewiring  of  the  brain  took  place  in  some  individual,  call  him Prometheus,   yielding   the   operation   of   unbounded   Merge,   applying  to  concepts  with  intricate  (and  little  understood)  properties. Guided  very  likely  by  third  factor  principles  [principles  not specific to the language faculty], Prometheus’s language provides him with an infinite array of structured interpretations of the kind illustrated:  duality  of  semantics,  operator-variable  constructions, unpronounced  elements  with  substantial  consequences  for  interpretation  and  thought,  etc. Prometheus  had  many  advantages: capacities  for  complex  thought,  planning,  interpretation,  and  so on. The  capacity  would  then  be  transmitted  to  offspring,  coming  to  predominate  (no  trivial  matter,  it  appears,  but  let  us  put that aside). At that stage, there would be an advantage to externalization, so the capacity might come to be linked as a secondary  process  to  the  system  for  externalization  and  interaction,  including  communication — a  special  case,  at  least  if  we  invest  the term “communication” with some substantive meaning.

At least he used “Prometheus” and not “Adam”…

In an ironic way the debates over issues like modularity and Turing completeness are already quaint, since the very fields of cognitive science and AI within which they originally came to predominate have by now largely moved on to diametrically opposed theoretical assumptions (e.g. parallel distributed processing, dynamical systems, neural networks, connectionism, embodied cognition, etc.) that descend more directly from enculturation-focused perspectives like late Wittgenstein or even Heidegger than from the tidy algorithmic computationalism of the mid-century cognitivists. To borrow an analogy from Žižek, for exponents of older paradigms to migrate their ideas over to evolutionary theory and treat them as striking new insights into the origins of what makes us human is like the moment where Wile E. Coyote keeps running forward over the cliff — all we need to do is look down.

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John Holbo 12.07.16 at 11:18 pm

“Does anyone still doubt that there are tons of dedicated neural processes, some of them dedicated to quite tricky functions (syntax processing, reading or even orientation seems to me much more impressive than snake-recognition)? Perhaps this is an issue of imperfect translation, but I would call this neurobiology, or cognitive science, and would call psychology the study of more abstract properties of the mind.”

Call me old-fashioned but I think probably the hills contain a few hold-outs against neurons dedicated to snake-detection. I’m glad you are down with mother-and-child stuff being both innate and psychological. I was going to try to work you up to that, starting with snakes. But you went there all on your own. All’s well that ends well.

“but calling with the same term everything from core dedicated neural processes to Mercier and Sperber (or Wright’s Moral Animal) seems to me to obscure more than to clarify.”

It seems to me the more pressing risk is in the opposite direction: namely, declaring stuff non-psychological based on it being neurally dedicated. There isn’t any logic that I can see to your inclination to tease those Venn diagram circles apart, presumptively.

“To borrow an analogy from Žižek, for exponents of older paradigms to migrate their ideas over to evolutionary theory and treat them as striking new insights into the origins of what makes us human is like the moment where Wile E. Coyote keeps running forward over the cliff — all we need to do is look down.”

There’s no reason to give Zizek credit when one can simply credit a philosopher like Chuck Jones. It’s obvious that a lot of intellectual life – a lot of mental life – is like the Coyote off the cliff. Let’s try to keep this conversation intellectually elevated. Ahem.

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stevenjohnson 12.07.16 at 11:32 pm

Difficulty posting comment on Mercier and Sperber.

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Hidari 12.07.16 at 11:48 pm

OK I am going to think about bowing out of this thread now, partly because I have a huge amount of work to do, and partly because it now just seems to be going round in circles (of which more, anon). Lot’s to say here.

A few points before I go. Everyone knows Popper’s falsifiability argument. Few go into the details of why he put it forward. Popper was arguing not against Marxism or psychoanalysis (and be under no illusions, EP is the psychoanalysis de nos jours) per se as against a type of argumentation typical of both which one might term the ‘ah but…’ argument. In other words when some devastating counter-hypothesis was considered the Marxist or analyst would reply ‘ah but…what you don’t understand is….’ and reply with some ancillary hypothesis which would ‘save the theory’. Popper’s point is that if the proponent of the thesis is allowed an unlimited amount of ancillary hypotheses then you can ‘save’ any theory. In other words: looking only for evidence to support a thesis leads to the madhouse, not because you can never find such evidence but because you always can. Hence the idea that you should try to disprove it. Physicists of course have led the way here. Physicists still ruthless attack key theories in their field (e.g. Einstein’s theories, QM). I have worked in a psychology department and I can tell you now that nothing is more alien to the mind set of a psychologist than to ruthlessly try to disprove the key underpinnings of his (sic) science. It’s just not done. Instead, the ‘founding classics’ of the field are treated with kid gloves, and even newer theories are given far more respect than (frequently) they deserve.

So with EP: it doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that if you go looking for evidence that it’s true, you can always find it. Also it doesn’t surprise me that even proponents of EP have ‘discovered’ that some aspects of it ‘aren’t true’. Does this prove that EP is a rigorous science?

No.This is ‘tooth fairy science’.

‘ Tooth Fairy science uses research data to explain things that haven’t been proven to have actually happened. Tooth Fairy scientists mistakenly think that if they have collected data that is consistent with their hypothesis, then they have collected data that confirms their hypothesis. Tooth Fairy science seeks explanations for things before establishing that those things actually exist.

For example:

You could measure how much money the Tooth Fairy leaves under the pillow, whether she leaves more cash for the first or last tooth, whether the payoff is greater if you leave the tooth in a plastic baggie versus wrapped in Kleenex. You can get all kinds of good data that is reproducible and statistically significant. Yes, you have learned something. But you haven’t learned what you think you’ve learned, because you haven’t bothered to establish whether the Tooth Fairy really exists.*

Furthermore, there may be a simpler, more plausible explanation for your data. (Most readers will not find it arduous to devise an explanation for those gifts that have replaced teeth that were placed under a pillow.)’

http://skepdic.com/toothfairyscience.html

In the same way, EP produces various experiments some of which are statistically significant, some of which are even replicable. But they don’t prove what they think they prove because they have not yet proved that the basic tenets of EP are true: viz, that the mind is massively modular, that these modules were (to a very large extent) ‘fixed’ in the paleolithic, and that human behaviour is caused to a large extent by mismatches (so to speak) between our massively modular brains, ‘fixed’ in the stone age, and the demands of the modern world. To repeat again, EP was created to solve a problem: the problem of the (very large number) of cultural universals, which really are universals. We all have them in the same sense we all have two arms or legs (i.e. unless there is a biological reason for us not having them or someone does something biological or physical to us, we all have them. We all have 2 legs unless someone cuts them off or we have some genetic malformation).

If these universals do not exist, if they are indeed, just tendencies, and maybe not even that, then EP is a solution in search of a problem.

And this is why, as I have tirelessly argued, we have to work out on whom the burden of proof resides. You can find evidence for literally anything. If you only search for evidence that confirms your theory, you can prove that 9/11 was an inside job, that the holocaust didn’t happen, anything. And it’s hard to prove a negative.

I can’t prove EP isn’t true. But, equally its proponents can’t prove it is true. A draw? No. Because the burden of proof always lies on he who puts forward the claim. And extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Ergo…..

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Kiwanda 12.08.16 at 12:23 am

DrDick 180:

I’m not sure what’s being referenced here by Coyne; I think it’s likely DrDick doesn’t, either.

Actually I do know exactly what they are talking about, as race and ethnicity are among my areas of expertise. That you do not understand that perfectly clear passage disqualifies you from claiming you know what you are talking about.

I’m sure your authority on race and ethnicity is turgid and swollen, but that was not the main point under consideration; rather it was: what was the EP work related to differences between human ethnic groups that Coyne had in mind in his list?

Do we really think that arranged marriages and marriage politics played a dominant role in sexual relations 50K BP? I suppose it’s possible.

Of course their evidence is actually based on the behavior of modern humans, not those living 50K bp, since nobody knows much about what people were doing at that time…..Once again you reveal a complete lack of understanding of the issues and knowledge of the data.

Oh, DrDick, DrDick. Coyne noted work on “The variance in offspring number between males and females in various societies, and the differential “pickiness” of males and females when choosing mates”. You countered that such a question “assumes that individuals make their own choices”, noting marriage politics and arranged marriages. But the data on “pickiness” is not concerned only with marriage, and the “pickiness” propensities are hypothesized to be due to evolutionary pressures occurring before such elaborate social arrangements seem likely. As to the variance of offspring question, this article has interesting discussion; it is not particularly supportive of the some EP hypotheses, but has some points of agreement.

I await your illuminating discussion, not just of my remarks, but of the articles I linked to and quoted at some length in that comment: Walter Scheidel’s review, Lobue et al, Buss.

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John Holbo 12.08.16 at 12:31 am

“Difficulty posting comment on Mercier and Sperber.”

You had a comment get eaten, stevenjohnson? Sorry about that. I certainly have approved everything and I just checked the spam filter. Nothing from you there.

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Bill Benzon 12.08.16 at 12:36 am

@WLGR #184

…(e.g. parallel distributed processing, dynamical systems, neural networks, connectionism, embodied cognition, etc.) that descend more directly from enculturation-focused perspectives like late Wittgenstein or even Heidegger …

There was a time when I spent a great deal of time studying late Wittgenstein, but I never saw anything in there that looked like parallel distributed processing, dynamical systems, neural networks, or connectionism. Never read any Heidegger, but read a good deal of Merleau-Ponty and, while I understand that some dynamicists like phenomenology, can’t see that there’s anything there from which they can descend in any direct way. The Peter Norvig article you link to mentions Claude Shannon and statistical processing, but not Wittgenstein or Heidegger.

And now, how about something a bit different from this tit-for-tat.

One of E. O. Wilson’s well-known conceits is that “genes hold culture on a leash.” I’ve always thought that a bit odd.

We’ve got this ancient and venerable trope that humans have a higher, rational, nature and a lower, passionate, nature. We share this lower nature with the beasts. It’s the job of the higher nature to keep the lower nature in check. We can’t let our passions get out of control. (And, I believe Plato constructed a little story about a charioteer and two troublesome horses around this notion.)

If we project Wilson’s conceit onto this trope, he’s got it upside down. He’s got the lower nature, biology (represented by the genes) riding heard on the higher nature (culture). Why’s he worried about culture being out of control?

In any event, I don’t much like the conceit and prefer a different one, that of a board game, such as chess. Biology supplies the board, the pieces, and the basic rules of the game. But it’s culture that develops the tactics and strategies.

If you’re going to play chess, you need to know the rules. But knowing the rules isn’t sufficient to play even a poor game of chess. To play the game with even a poor opponent and have a chance of winning you need to know a bit more than the basic rules. You have to have some capacity for inference and reasoning within those rules. That takes practice and learning over many games, etc.

If human life is like such a game, and we’re trying to develop account of how it all works, how do we go about it? How do we partition what we observe into the rules of the game, on the one hand, and culture-specific tactics and strategies? How do we figure out the basic rules of the (behavioral) game if we don’t explicitly look at biology?

So, @Z, 175, on incest avoidance:

A typical case of EP that I find quite vapid without anthropology. As Jim Buck remarks, two impulses may have been selected among humans: repulsion of people with whom we grew up and assortative mating. What their contrary effects amount to is largely a matter of anthropology.

The issue isn’t whether or not biology accounts for everything, but whether it accounts for anything (or perhaps anything “significant”, though I’m reluctant to insert such a weasel word into the discussion). Saying “it’s all culture” doesn’t seem very helpful.

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DrDick 12.08.16 at 12:55 am

Kiwanda @188 –

I am done engaging with you, since you clearly have no knowledge or comprehension of the issues or research (by your own admission) and offer nothing substantive, being reduced to crude and childish insults. Go away, as you are simply a troll.

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Peter T 12.08.16 at 1:15 am

Following on from Hidari, the popular proponents of EP erect this straw man of the SSSM, which they assert assumes a “blank slate”. But no sensible person assumes a totally blank slate any more than they assume physical plasticity, and there are lots of interesting findings about innate human behaviour (babies’ focus on faces, crying when afraid, interest in walking, innate assumptions about the expected behaviour of the physical world…).

These are not what EP is talking about. Their claims are to do with much higher level behaviours. It’s here that they run into problems. If you won’t pay attention to disconfirming evidence, and instead hand-wave about general tendencies, you are already a long way from genetic inheritance.

Take incest avoidance as an example. Incest within the nuclear family was “normal” for large populations over quite long periods (Roman-era Egyptians, Zoroastrians, Trobriand Islanders among others). These populations are not in any way genetic isolates and abandoned these practices when the cultures changed. They are not exceptions in the genetic sense. So the EP explanation fails at a basic level.

Ditto the LAD. The abilities of users of sign languages, the dependence of linguistic understanding on reference to understandings of the social and natural worlds and the neurology all point away from a LAD and towards a CAD – a culture acquisition device. And a CAD is much more likely an extension and amplification of primate sociality than a module.

Again, on mate selection, hunter-gatherer populations have a wide variety of marriage practices. But very few, AFAIK, involve free choice. Clan, totem, moiety, age-class and family alliances all narrow choice to a very small selection indeed. Australian aborigines arrived here at least 35,000 years ago from, presumably, quite a small founder group not far removed from the African diaspora and yet have a diverse range of marriage practices (and a range of genetic adaptations to local environments). EP would not predict this at all.

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Kiwanda 12.08.16 at 5:33 am

Peter T 192:

Take incest avoidance as an example. Incest within the nuclear family was “normal” for large populations over quite long periods (Roman-era Egyptians, Zoroastrians, Trobriand Islanders among others). These populations are not in any way genetic isolates and abandoned these practices when the cultures changed. They are not exceptions in the genetic sense. So the EP explanation fails at a basic level.

DrDick made a similar point above; I responded at 169, having found what seems to be an even-handed and thorough survey by Walter Scheidel of the historical evidence related to the relative anomaly of societies that practice incest.

I gave several quotes at 169; one more, re the Zoroastrians: “By contrast, habitual non-royal incest has been extremely rare, confined in the first instance to ancient and early medieval Zoroastrian (Mazdean) culture. The exceptional character of this practice (called xwedodah) was reflected in its strenuous glorification as an act of religious devotion extolled as “the greatest good work of the religion,” “the best action of the living,” and “the second greatest good deed,” sure to generate “a sublime radiance,” scare away demons, and offset mortal sins. It was not merely condemned by outside observers from Europe to China—which might simply be regarded as a sign of cultural difference—but also considered a great challenge by its own proponents…Among early Zoroastrians, this practice appears to have served as an honest signal of strong commitment to taxing group ideals. Albeit often portrayed as a form of regular marriage (and as such presumably buffered by polygamy, which was common in elite circles where this practice might have been more common), the most detailed extant account portrays it more as a rare ritual: four copulations were deemed an extraordinary achievement worthy of eternal salvation.”

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Z 12.08.16 at 9:20 am

@Bill Benzon “The issue isn’t whether or not biology accounts for everything, but whether it accounts for anything. […] Saying “it’s all culture” doesn’t seem very helpful.”
@John “I was going to try to work you up to [mother-child bonding]”

Hold on a minute! My first sentence on this thread has been “I take the the broad tenets of evolutionary psychology to be quite obvious” and in my comment 47, I gave a long list of psychological features of human beings (some quite involved) about which I believed nobody serious could doubt there were genetically encoded. So I don’t think I need any working out to such obvious conclusions nor do I believe we need to discuss if biology explains “anything”. John also wonders why I wanted to “tease the Venn diagrams apart.” Well, first of all, I’ll remark that I wrote that I was actually fine with conflating them if that was important to anyone (as long as we are discussing specific claims) but the reason is quite simple: complex imitative behavior, I take to be obviously genetically and neurologically encoded (and thus the product of evolution through natural selection); that acquisition of core syntax is likewise genetically and probably neurologically encoded, I believe to be one of the most spectacular achievements of cognitive science in the last 60 years; the argumentative theory of reason, I find interesting psychology, especially in its applied aspects, but I believe it fails completely (as written) as evolutionary psychology and finally Buss’s article Kiwanda helpfully linked to (thanks for that), I find so hopelessly weak that I felt a genuine touch of pity when I read the last sentence of the abstract (“The study of human mating is one of the “success stories” of evolutionary psychology” repeated as the final sentence of the article, lest we missed it the first time). With success stories like this, who needs failures? Given my markedly (to say the least) different evaluation of the scientific content of these 4 claims-all uncontroversially psychology with an evolutionary approach-I am reluctant to discuss them as a lump, that’s all.

Before giving a few short pointers about Buss’s article, I would like to draw attention to Bruce Wilder’s comment 147. He helpfully recalls that any serious study of the evolutionary history of biological phenomenon X (for X mate-selection, verbal behavior, auto-immune response or spatial orientation) requires a precise characterization of the actual properties of actually existing X. That’s a low standard, but one very few evolutionary investigations of mental X ever clear (and also the reason why neurobiologists tend to believe for instance that most such evolutionary investigations of dedicated neural networks are premature; we just don’t know enough about them yet).

Onto Buss’s article. Specific claims, great (thanks again Kiwanda). To me, it is the pitch-perfect example of the tendency I singled out in my first comment and again in my comment 47: the article analyzes a bunch of data (the collection of it would merit a severe anthropological critic in itself, but I’ll let it pass) and show that they are in (actually rather weak) empirical agreement with the principle that (well I’ll quote myself) “the object of such cognitive capabilities (here mating selection) and particularly the social behaviors that flows from them are biologically constrained.” So far so good, the empirical part is weak, but the logic is OK. The problem is in what the article doesn’t do. I don’t know how I could insist enough: the article never even mentions the possibility that what has been selected is not a mating selection device, but a complex imitative acquisition device so that women and men alike tend to select their mates according to the criteria others use as far as they can tell. Yet, just like for the argumentative theory of reason but in spades, this is closer evolutionary to what we know (so again Buss’s article fail on many levels, but most ironically on the evolutionary one), much closer to the actually observed psychological, pre-social and social behaviors especially during the relevant “formative” years in terms of mate-selection (adolescence) and much much much (add a couple more) more in agreement with the very own data provided, as it not only explains the observed statistical regularities (for instance “Men universally preferred younger partners, whereas women universally preferred older partners”) but also the drastic cultural variations in these statistical regularities (why, for instance, chastity before mariage has moved in the span of a couple of decades from a crucial social feature to an irrelevant one in the Netherlands and why it is now equally irrelevant for men and women there).

At this level of scientific inquiry, I must say I agree with Hidari: we are in full tooth fairy science. Put a hypothesis, gather arguments and data in favor of it, disregard completely alternative explanations, declare victory (pardon me, “success story”).

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John Holbo 12.08.16 at 10:21 am

“Hold on a minute! My first sentence on this thread has been “I take the the broad tenets of evolutionary psychology to be quite obvious” and in my comment 47, I gave a long list of psychological features of human beings (some quite involved) about which I believed nobody serious could doubt there were genetically encoded. “

I was only surprised that you might regard a fear reaction as non-psychological, Z, apparently on the (to me odd) basis that it was neurally dedicated. I inferred you were reasoning (if neurally dedicated -> non-psychological) which struck me as wrong and, frankly, at odds with the rest of your views. (I had forgotten your actual comment at 47.) I wasn’t attempting to strawman you. But apologies, nonetheless.

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Z 12.08.16 at 11:51 am

No problem. Again I’m not too hung up on the terminology (what is or is not psychology, what is or is not evolutionary…) as long as we are discussing specific claims. FWIW, I really know hardly anything at all about it but I am very willing to believe that primates have specific snake-detecting neural networks just as I would be very willing to believe that social primates have powerful imitative acquisitive mental devices specifically dedicated to the learning of what should trigger fear (an anecdotal token of evidence for the latter is the attraction/repulsion feeling fearful things have on us, and especially on young children).

How about you tell us what you like especially about M&S or any piece of evolutionary psychology you particularly enjoy (but maybe that would require another post; subtle hint)?

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John Holbo 12.08.16 at 12:02 pm

“How about you tell us what you like especially about M&S or any piece of evolutionary psychology you particularly enjoy (but maybe that would require another post; subtle hint)?”

That seems fair. I think I like the same things you do, to judge from your comments. I’m agnostic about the EP but more EP-curious than you, clearly. I’m interested in system-1/2 stuff and questions of cognitive functon and bias – how our incapacities relate to our capacities and what that says about problem-solving and sociality. Stuff like that. Sorry, no time for a longer comment tonight.

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Bill Benzon 12.08.16 at 1:22 pm

@Z, #194

My first sentence on this thread has been “I take the the broad tenets of evolutionary psychology to be quite obvious” and in my comment 47, I gave a long list of psychological features of human beings (some quite involved) about which I believed nobody serious could doubt there were genetically encoded.

Sorry about that. I forgot & I’ll try to do better.

…that acquisition of core syntax is likewise genetically and probably neurologically encoded, I believe to be one of the most spectacular achievements of cognitive science in the last 60 years…

You realize, of course, that this is under dispute. I have no interest in discussing that in any detail, but I’d like to ‘calibrate’ your meaning here.

What’s core syntax? It’s my understanding that as of 2002 Chomsky was willing to consider that the faculty of language, in the narrow sense, consists of nothing beyond recursion. That’s something, but not much, and certainly far from what was being imagined in the early days of GG.

Up in #153 I posted the abstract of an article proclaiming the “death” of Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas as the exclusive and only locus of language. The article is behind a paywall so I’ve not read it, but if, following well-established precedent in this discussion, I may invoke a long, if somewhat sporadic and selective, acquaintance with the technical literature in neuroscience, on the surface the argument seems plausible to me. That abstract doesn’t appear to get at anything approaching “core syntax”, but, as I say, I’m calibrating. Is your belief in core syntax consistent with that?

And then there is genetic encoding. How might that go? Let me offer a purely made up example. It seems that the human brain has about 86 billion neurons. How might that be genetically encoded? In the abstract one might imagine a little bit of genetic machinery that counts neurons and stops the production line when 86 billion have been produced. That seems highly unlikely to me. More likely, once the (developing) brain gets established within the (developing) skull, neurons proliferate until there’s no more room (perhaps neuronal cell division is sensitive to some pressure gradient and when the pressure reaches a threshold, division stops). This is a very different kind of mechanism, much less specific.

Just for there shear silliness of it, let’s place these two neuron count mechanisms on a continuum from 1 to 10, where the explicit cell counter has a value of 10 and “fill the available space” has a value of 1. Where would you place the genetic encoding of core syntax on that continuum? I’m inclined to place it nearer to 1 than 10, but possibly/probably not at 1.

Let me offer a point of comparison: gavagai. As you know, that purely made-up word figures in one of the best-known thought experiments in analytic philosophy, Willard van Orman Quine’s discussion of translation (most of the rest of this comment is from a recent blog post on Dan Everett’s new book, Dark Matter of the Mind, which I recently reviewed for 3 Quarks Daily).

Quine broaches the issue by considering the problem of radical translation, “translation of the language of a hitherto untouched people” (Word and Object 1960, 28). He asks us to consider a “linguist who, unaided by an interpreter, is out to penetrate and translate a language hitherto unknown. All the objective data he has to go on are the forces that he sees impinging on the native’s surfaces and the observable behavior, focal and otherwise, of the native.” That is to say, he has no direct access to what is going on inside the native’s head, but utterances are available to him. Quine then asks us to imagine that “a rabbit scurries by, the native says ‘Gavagai’, and the linguist notes down the sentence ‘Rabbit’ (of ‘Lo, a rabbit’) as tentative translation, subject to testing in further cases” (p. 29).

Quine goes on to argue that, in thus proposing that initial translation, the linguist is making illegitimate assumptions. He begins his argument by nothing that the native might, in fact, mean “white” or “animal” and later on offers more exotic possibilities, the sort of things only a philosopher would think of. Quine also notes that whatever gestures and utterances the native offers as the linguist attempts to clarify and verify will be subject to the same problem.

As Everett notes, however, in his chapter on translation (266):

On the side of mistakes never made, however, Quine’s gavagai problem is one. In my field research on more than twenty languages—many of which involved monolingual situations …, whenever I pointed at an object or asked “What’s that?” I always got an answer for an entire object. Seeing me point at a bird, no one ever responded “feathers.” When asked about a manatee, no one ever answered “manatee soul.” On inquiring about a child, I always got “child,” “boy,” or “girl,” never “short hair.”

Later:

I believe that the absence of these Quinean answers results from the fact that when one person points toward a thing, all people (that I have worked with, at least) assume that what is being asked is the name of the entire object. In fact, over the years, as I have conducted many “monolingual demonstrations,” I have never encountered the gavagai problem. Objects have a relative salience… This is perhaps the result of evolved perception.

Everett says nothing to justify his guess about evolved perception, and I have nothing specific to say on that score, but it sounds plausible to me.

For the sake of argument let’s say that Everett’s guess is correct. I’d think the “genetic encoding of” core syntax is rather like that, whatever that is. Vague? Sure. But if we’re looking for specific mechanisms, vague is what we get.

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stevenjohnson 12.08.16 at 1:36 pm

Z@174 “but the psychology part is OK, I find. I do agree with them that the standard assumption in western philosophy is that reasoning is a self-oriented process and I like the change of perspective their article provide. I also buy into the so to speak applied part of their work, that is to say the idea of examining pedagogical practices, problem-solving techniques, decision-making and political deliberation through the lens of their theory.”

Maybe this can slip through the net? The practical part of Mercier’s and Sperber’s program is epistemic luck, as in, Darwin’s confirmation bias is why he persisted. That doesn’t seem so much like a practical program to me.

Their system 1 and system 2, their separation of inference (about reality) and reasoning (verbal argumentation in groups) leaves them abstracting human reasoning from interaction with reality, I think. They focus on the individual’s powers of reason, but omit all consideration of a collective activity like science and technology (conceptually distinct, but not practically.) To me that seems like a confirmation of the individualism of western philosophy, the self-0rientation you decry, not a corrective.

And, to me, discussing science and technology in a practical program about decision making techniques etc. is, well, the practical program, but that’s not what Mercier and Sperber do.

And lastly, Mercier and Sperber predict that such adaptive reasoning mechanisms as confirmation bias should be most effective in a group argumentation setting. But the occasion when confirmation bias is most effective in winning the argument is in a classroom. (That’s why it’s so important that teachers know their subject.) They themselves aren’t using their insights to examine pedagogy.

My opinion of course.

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Bill Benzon 12.08.16 at 2:52 pm

@Z, #194: Concerning Buss 2006:

So far so good, the empirical part is weak, but the logic is OK.

Let’s see, so, on the basis evolutionary considerations EP predicts that the mating preferences of men and women should differ in various ways. They present cross-cultural data (admittedly, as you point out, not many different cultures, though Buss was limited by the existing body of research) that confirms these predictions. You’re agreeing with that, yes?

But you object that they haven’t considered the possibility that people are imitating current practice. But just what would THAT explain? That wouldn’t explain why male-female differences are almost all in the same direction across cultures. All it tells us is that if people of generation X in culture-Punch and culture-Judy exhibit a certain behavior, then people of generation X+1 will exhibit the same behavior.

So, let’s assume that imitation is what’s going on. That in and of itself doesn’t tell us anything about the direction of the differences between men and women, and that direction is consistent with Buss’s EP premises. Although, not, it seems for China and chastity. China and Netherlands are the exceptions (2 out of 6).

While chastity is more important in China than in any other the other cases, it’s slighly more important among Chinese women than among Chinese men, which is the wrong direction for EP. In the Netherlands, as you point out, it’s not very important at all, but men and women seem to rate it the same. So, in these two cases imitation works where EP doesn’t. But why is chastity very important in both China and India and not so important in NL and Croatia? EP doesn’t speak to that. But neither does imitation.

You’re claiming that imitation accounts for “drastic cultural variations in these statistical regularities”. But it doesn’t do that at all.

Moreover, you assert that “chastity before mariage has moved in the span of a couple of decades from a crucial social feature to an irrelevant one in the Netherlands”. I didn’t see anything in the article about cultural history in NL, but perhaps I missed it. In any event, assuming that that is what has in fact happened in NL (which I can believe), how would imitation explain it? Imitation says GenX+1 will be the same as GenX, but that’s not what we see. GenX+1 is different from GenX. Imitation fails right along side EP.

If Buss is engaged in “full tooth fairy science” then your proposed alternative looks like the tooth fairy gives up the reward without demanding a tooth.

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Z 12.08.16 at 2:54 pm

Sorry about that.

No problem.

You realize, of course, that [the genetic encoding of core syntax] is under dispute.

Of course (that’s why I used the words “I believe”).

What’s core syntax?

That is a hard question, but Merge and bundles of bivalued abstract features would be my best guess if you really asked me.

Is your belief in core syntax consistent with that?

Am I right to interpret “that” as the article? If so, yes.

Where would you place the genetic encoding of core syntax on that continuum? I’m inclined to place it nearer to 1 than 10, but possibly/probably not at 1.

Frankly, I don’t know enough to offer even a semblance of meaningful answer to this question and I suspect that as our knowledge of how our brain computes expands, such framing will prove unhelpful anyway. Nevertheless, I appreciate your questions and your way to approach these subjects, so doing my weak best to give an informative answer, I will say that I believe my answer to the question “what is core syntax” to be entirely compatible with very localized neural encoding (perhaps down to the level of a couple of neurons).

Objects have a relative salience… This is perhaps the result of evolved perception.[…] I’d think the “genetic encoding of” core syntax is rather like that.

Interesting, thanks for the links. Linguistic properties of objects, including their salience and the absence of “gavagai” problems, are mysterious to me. I must say I personally think your suggestion that “[merge] could just as well be used to characterize how partners assimilate what they’re hearing with what they’re thinking” misses too much of what we know (with the usual caveats) about it so we certainly disagree on that point but, again, I appreciate your framing of the issues.

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Kiwanda 12.08.16 at 2:57 pm

Z 194:

I don’t know how I could insist enough: the article never even mentions the possibility that what has been selected is not a mating selection device, but a complex imitative acquisition device so that women and men alike tend to select their mates according to the criteria others use as far as they can tell.

I’m not following here. Your alternative overall hypothesis is that people are good at imitating how other people behave, and so whatever was done before continues to be done? That is, people select mates a certain way, because that’s what other people do? Except for the times, as when big changes in social attitudes happen, that they don’t?

While “people do what they do, because they do” is a perfectly reasonable description, it lacks some properties we might look for in a theory. Surely I’m missing something here.

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DrDick 12.08.16 at 3:17 pm

Peter T @192 –

Importantly, all apes (of which we are one) use tools and have culture (rather elementary, but there). Even Monkeys have culture. This tendency toward reliance on flexible and highly variable learned behaviors for survival, rather than genetically determined behaviors (as are found in most other mammalian species) is what has been selected for in primates. I certainly agree that our genes enable and provide a loose framework for our behavior, but this is not, in fact, what EP does, as you point out. I really like your Australian Aboriginal example (the latest data I have seen puts the settlement of Australia at 50-60,000 years ago), and the genetics show that this population remained genetically isolated until the arrival of the Europeans.

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Bill Benzon 12.08.16 at 3:17 pm

@stevenjohnson, # 199:

…but omit all consideration of a collective activity like science and technology (conceptually distinct, but not practically.) To me that seems like a confirmation of the individualism of western philosophy…

Yes to collective activity. Coming to grips with collective creativity is very important. And not just in science and technology. Movie production is an obvious artistic example.

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DrDick 12.08.16 at 3:28 pm

Bill Benzon @ 200 –

That wouldn’t explain why male-female differences are almost all in the same direction across cultures.

That simply is not true, and is not even true over time in European cultures. There is a huge literature on changing standards of attractiveness over time in Europe (I also teach anthropology of gender). Chastity, for instance, is not even a consideration in a very large number of cultures in the world and mostly seems to be associated with the emergence of structural inequality (permanent differences in power, wealth, and respect based on identity) as a mechanism to limit access to these resources. Even worse for the EP stance, it does not exist at all among modern mobile foragers, whose lifestyle reflects the patterns present among all humans until about 20,000 years ago.

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Bill Benzon 12.08.16 at 3:29 pm

@Z, #201: Fine. Obviously we think very differently about these (horrendously complex) problems. But if you like my framing of issues in #198, then we can talk and maybe even make progress.

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Z 12.08.16 at 3:51 pm

Wait a minute, I am not writing an article on mate-selection, just commenting randomly on a blog to procrastinate, so of course my account is going to look very shaky and you should apply the maximally possible intellectual charity. Let me nevertheless address one point

That is, people select mates a certain way, because that’s what other people do? Except for the times, as when big changes in social attitudes happen, that they don’t?

This is not as tautological as you make it look, for at least this predicts that changes in sexual selection follow other apparently unrelated social changes (and then again in specific ways), so for instance the decline of preferential first-cousin mariages in Tunisia (as striking a change in mate selection in the last 50 years as you could possibly imagine) can be traced to the shrinking of rural population and decline in fertility (whereas both its prevalence and its sudden disappearance would remain somewhat of a mystery under Buss’s account).

Of course, one has to start somewhere in order to determine matin selection strategies, of course, as all social animals, humans desire high status sexual partners and, of course, social status generally correlates with evolutionary desirable traits, but my (trivial) account differs from Buss’s one in that it predicts that when social status actually deviates from or even work directly counter to the optimal evolutionary strategy, then social status trumps evolutionary success (because my account says that it is the imitative strategy of looking for high social status, not the evolutionary optimal strategy, that human beings have been selected to adopt). I’ll let you evaluate that empirical prediction yourself.

Moreover, I note (again) that this is what we would obviously expect if mental faculties of human beings were shaped by natural selection, so my account should not be read as contrary to EP in its basic tenets; quite the contrary.

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Bill Benzon 12.08.16 at 4:17 pm

Oh, BTW, concerning my remarks about imitation in #200, I’m certainly not against imitation as a general mechanism in social behavior. On the contrary, I’m very much in favor of it; don’t see how we could have cultural evolution without it. But, in the specific context of Buss 2006, I don’t see that imitation gets us all that much.

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WLGR 12.08.16 at 4:49 pm

Bill Benzon @ 190, did you read the second link? Hubert Dreyfus’ major claim to fame is having been an early, outspoken, and subsequently vindicated Heideggerian critic of mid-century cognitivist approaches to AI and he’s cited quite a bit by AI researchers these days, up to and including Norvig and Russell in their seminal intro textbook on AI (although they’re not adventurous enough to try spoon-feeding Heidegger directly to CS undergrads). Funnily enough, your example of chess is also one of Dreyfus’ most common illustrations of the distinction between formal rules-governed action and true enculturated readiness-to-hand, e.g. “a mere master might need to figure out what to do, but a grandmaster just sees the board as demanding a certain move.” As far as Merleau-Ponty, aside from also being one of Dreyfus’ common points of reference, here’s the third paragraph of the introduction to the landmark book The Embodied Mind by Varela, Thompson, and Rosch:

We like to consider our journey in this book as a modem continuation of a program of research founded over a generation ago by the French philosopher, Maurice Merleau-Ponty. By continuation we do not mean a scholarly consideration of Merleau-Ponty’s thought in the context of contemporary cognitive science. We mean, rather, that Merleau-Ponty’s writings have both inspired and guided our orientation here.

Wittgenstein is also important in this vein because his personal turn away from logical atomism toward a more context-dependent view of knowledge and language all but perfectly foreshadows the turn cognitive science has ended up taking over half a century later, yes including connectionism. Late Wittgenstein is commonly cited as an influence in these fields, especially among folks whose common knowledge of philosophy doesn’t extend too far beyond the Anglo-American analytic tradition: just to name one prominent example, Michael Tomasello (an evolution-focused empirical cognitive scientist whose views on culture and cognition are diametrically opposed to most of the evopsych citations in this thread and who published IMO the best response to Pinker’s The Language Instinct) has a book based on his ’06 Jean Nicod lectures with a different Wittgenstein epigraph before literally every chapter.

(Totally irrelevant, but one of my favorite little intellectual anecdotes is that Wittgenstein apparently attributed his conversion to one of his many conversations with the economist Piero Sraffa, where after Wittgenstein insisted on an inherent connection between every communicative utterance and its logical form, Sraffa made the same dismissive Italian chin-flick gesture that would later be made famous in the US by Antonin Scalia and asked “what is the logical form of that?”)

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Z 12.08.16 at 8:57 pm

But just what would THAT explain? That wouldn’t explain why male-female differences are almost all in the same direction across cultures. All it tells us is that if people of generation X in culture-Punch and culture-Judy exhibit a certain behavior, then people of generation X+1 will exhibit the same behavior.

and

Imitation says GenX+1 will be the same as GenX, but that’s not what we see. GenX+1 is different from GenX. Imitation fails right along side EP.

Oh come on, you and Kiwanda both came to this conclusion but seriously? Do you deny that children imitate their parents and siblings? Do you then infer that all children are the identical to their parents and siblings? Besides, I specifically wrote that what was imitated (in this particular case) was high status seeking strategies. So there you have it: the obvious cause for change is change in what defines high status. Now I feel a bit stupid having to write this down but apparently this is necessary: the reason why attitudes about female sexuality changed drastically in the last century in the Netherlands is that what defines social status for women (and men, but the change was more drastic for women) changed radically in the last century in the Netherlands.

But why is chastity very important in both China and India and not so important in NL and Croatia? EP doesn’t speak to that. But neither does imitation.

Of course it does. The variance simply indicates that what defines high social status in Croatia and the NL differs in a significant respect related to sexuality from what defines high social status in China and India. Now we have to figure it out what (doesn’t seem like too deep a mystery to me).

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Z 12.08.16 at 9:03 pm

And I would like my account not to be opposed to EP: the mechanism I posit is clearly adaptive, arguably more so than the one posited by Buss and I believe it is genetically and neurologically encoded myself.

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Kiwanda 12.09.16 at 12:56 am

Z 210:

Do you deny that children imitate their parents and siblings? Do you then infer that all children are the identical to their parents and siblings?

No, and no. Of course imitation and random drift are important, and culture and behavior have historically contingent elements. But: “people do what they do” or more generally, “shit happens”, are sort-of baseline, fall-back hypotheses; it’s more interesting if it’s possible to go further.

I’m not sure if some of the discussion re chastity and the Buss 2006 article is referring to the article or attempting to rebut it. The article says:
“Cultures varied tremendously in the value placed on some characteristics. The desire for chastity or virginity (lack of prior sexual intercourse) proved to be the most cross-culturally variable, as shown in Figure 2. Mainland Chinese placed tremendous value on virginity, as did participants living in India and Iran. At the other end of the scale, the Dutch placed little importance on chastity. Those from Western Europe, especially Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and German also placed little importance on virginity. Overall, 62% of the cultures showed a significant sex difference, always in the direction of men valuing virginity more than women. There were no reversals of this pattern. On the other hand, 38% of the cultures showed no significant sex difference. These findings suggest that the importance placed on chastity is highly susceptible to cultural input, with cultures differing from each other both in the absolute value placed on chastity as well as in the presence of absence of sex differences.”

So EP (here) is not trying explain chastity preferences.

I’d guess that some part of changes in very recent changes in attitude are related to more advances in birth control. But whatever.

Re cousin marriage, I can’t resist quoting Scheidel’s review yet again.
“…Moreover, marital fertility is often somewhat higher in cousin marriage.

This means that we cannot postulate significant selective pressures against consanguineous unions at this level of genetic proximity, an intuition that is fully borne out by the global empirical record. About half of the societies surveyed in the Ethnographic Atlas permitted or even favored cousin marriage. About one-sixth of the current world population lives in countries where between 20 and more than 50 percent of all couples are related at the level of second cousin or closer, and one in ten persons on earth is part of such a union. The incidence of consanguineous marriage varies massively both geographically (with heavy concentrations in the Middle East and South India) and over time, as most societies have witnessed declines as a corollary of urbanization and development. Its popularity is highly context-specific, as it may appeal to rural and uneducated groups (by reducing the need for dowries) as well as propertied elites (whom they help maintain privileged status). All of this demonstrates the complete lack of universal constraints that might be associated with inherited behavioral adaptation.

Reproductive relations within the nuclear family—between parents and children and between full siblings—differ dramatically in genetic terms.”

So an EP argument against cousin marriage would face some tough empirical headwinds. In my limited reading, I haven’t seen any such argument, however.

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Another Nick 12.09.16 at 1:54 am

Regarding our ‘innate fear of heights’ – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WanGt1G6ScA

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Kiwanda 12.09.16 at 3:07 am

Oy.

“I’d guess that some part of changes in very recent changes in attitude are related to more advances in birth control. “
–>
“I’d guess that some part of very recent changes in attitude is related to advances in birth control.”

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Bill Benzon 12.09.16 at 3:59 am

@Z, #207 & #210:

In #200 I was responding to your #194 and I believe that Kiwanda was responding to it in his 202. We were both unimpressed with your proposal of imitation, though I noted (in #208) that I don’t doubt that social imitation is important.

In replying to Kiwanda you assert “but my (trivial) account differs from Buss’s one in that it predicts that when social status actually deviates from or even work directly counter to the optimal evolutionary strategy, then social status trumps evolutionary success (because my account says that it is the imitative strategy of looking for high social status, not the evolutionary optimal strategy, that human beings have been selected to adopt” (#207). You sound the same note in your response to me: “Besides, I specifically wrote that what was imitated (in this particular case) was high status seeking strategies” (#210).

No.

I cannot see anywhere in 194 that you said anything about high social status. Maybe that was in the back of your mind, but you didn’t say it. I’m not a mind-reader. I could only respond to what you said.

You further quote me as saying: “But why is chastity very important in both China and India and not so important in NL and Croatia? EP doesn’t speak to that. But neither does imitation.”

You respond: Of course it does. The variance simply indicates that what defines high social status in Croatia and the NL differs in a significant respect related to sexuality from what defines high social status in China and India. Now we have to figure it out what (doesn’t seem like too deep a mystery to me).

This, of course, relies on your assertion that what’s being imitated is the behavior of those with high social status, an assertion that was not on the table when I made my remarks. So what? People imitate what their culture tells them to imitate. If cultures are different, then people imitate different things. What we need to account for is that initial difference, and that is (logically) prior to the imitation. That seems to be what your last sentence is about. You seem to think you know what that difference is and that it’s no mystery.

Whatever that not-mysterious-thing is, that’s what accounts for the difference. Not imitation. Imitation just ensures that the variance is passed down from one generation to another.

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Z 12.09.16 at 10:34 am

@Bill Benzon I cannot see anywhere in 194 that you said anything about high social status.

I see you are right, my apologies. With the automatic moderation comment system, it is not so easy to know what others have already read when their answers finally appear. I will point out, however, that I did mention social status seeking before in the thread (@89) though of course you cannot be expected to have read and remembered it and (more importantly) that there is a strong asymmetry going on here: I am commenting in a blog, Buss is writing a research article. “Not much worse than the typical blog comment” is not the standard we want in a scholarly publication so I am entitled to be maximally intellectually critical of Buss while you have to be maximally charitable in the interpretation of the criticism, those are the rules of the games.

This, of course, relies on your assertion that what’s being imitated is the behavior of those with high social status

That is not my assertion (and thank god, because it is almost as ridiculous a contention as Buss’s). My assertion (already way up at 47 but again at 207) is that what is being imitated are the strategies to seek high social status.

What we need to account for is that initial difference, and that is (logically) prior to the imitation.

I understand the impulse, but it is empirically very contestable and logically reductionist. If you accept a framework of imitative acquisition of strategies, then the search for the “initial difference” is intimately interwoven with a precise understanding of the current state and of the historical evolution of the topic in question (for instance, sexual mores). In particular, we should expect the “initial difference” to be quite remote not only historically but also from the topic in question (because social status mediates between the two).

You seem to think you know what that difference is and that it’s no mystery. Whatever that not-mysterious-thing is, that’s what accounts for the difference. Not imitation. Imitation just ensures that the variance is passed down from one generation to another.

No. The imitative acquisition of strategies does not “just” ensure that variance is passed down (and again you wouldn’t make such an assertion for any other kind of imitation, starting with basic parent/child one). In addition, it explains (of course in conjunction with the study of the strategic environment) how an “initial variance” (usually quite unrelated) morphs into the current state of the topic in question. But I don’t think we should discuss this too much, after all you yourself used a chess metaphor that seems perfectly suitable to me: everybody gets the same bord, pieces and rules; everybody learns how to play by imitating players around them.

Now about the non-mysterious thing. Are we actively trying to unlearn all we know as soon as natural selection is mentioned now or do I really have to point out that the kinship system, especially with respect to the status of young women, is a tad different in the Netherlands, Estonia, China and India (though of course one would need to be much more precise than reason about national entities encompassing billion of inhabitants, the reason for my scathing evaluation of the data collection of Buss)? Does anyone doubt, for instance, that patriarchal features are much more pronounced in central-north China and northern India (two parts of the world where they are actually historically among the strongest in the Eurasiatic world) than in the Baltic states and north-western Europe (two parts of the world where they are actually historically among the lowest in the Eurasiatic world)? In addition, does anyone doubt that these patriarchal features and their temporal evolution is the proximate explanation for attitudes towards chastity and the differences between them (a point driven home by the fact that populations living closer to the adaptive environment of Homo Sapiens typically have a very relaxed attitude towards chastity, as DrDick recalls)? As for the “initial difference” in that case (why did people from the North Alluvial Plains of China and Uttar Pradesh adopt more patriarchal kinship systems than people from Frisia?), I believe we know quite a lot about it now but that would be for another topic.

The lesson to bring home is the always the same: “any ev. psych. argument about anthropologically significant behavior (so anything beyond core cognitive and emotional functions) which jumps directly from evo-devo reasoning (here “it is selectively beneficent to parentally invest into one’s own offsprings”) to actually observed human behavior (here “attitudes towards chastity or more generally sexuality and mate-selection”) while ignoring the anthropological level (here “strength of the patriarchal features of the kin systems” among others) fails (and I still couldn’t insist enough) on its own evolutionary terms (just compare the expected genetic success of two agents; one operating under Buss’s mate-selection device, one operating under the one I briefly outlined).”

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Bill Benzon 12.09.16 at 1:19 pm

@Z, #216:

…so I am entitled to be maximally intellectually critical of Buss while you have to be maximally charitable in the interpretation of the criticism, those are the rules of the games.

Uh, no, alas. Not here.

In a congenial intellectual environment where people have a fairly decent sense of what one another knows the principle of charity makes and is easy to apply. CT is not, for whatever reason, a congenial environment, hence the need for comment moderation to prevent flame wars from developing. Moreover, we don’t know one another very well around here, and I say that despite the fact that I’ve been following (and occasionally commenting, sometimes more than occasionally) CT for years and I recognize some of the commenters in this thread as regulars. But EP, or psychology in general, is not central here, so our mutual calibration on those topics is not so good. And then we have the fact that EP is highly polarizing and people want to have their say whether or not they actually know much about EP or, for that matter, about various kinds of psychology or evolutionary biology.

Put all that together and what do you have? A mess. I’ve spent a lot of my time trying to get a sense of what people know and whether or not they’re open to, you know reason, or whether they’re coming at this with a strong set of prior beliefs that they are determined to defend regardless of what is said. And, you know what, my sense of what’s up in this thread is not very good.

So, just how am I know when you know what you’re talking about and when your posturing? For that matter, how do you know when know a thing or two, and when I’m bluffing?

Going on with your #216: I remind you that, as Kiwanda has pointed out in 212, that Buss freely admits: “These findings suggest that the importance placed on chastity is highly susceptible to cultural input, with cultures differing from each other both in the absolute value placed on chastity as well as in the presence of absence of sex differences.” That sounds like he’s aware the EP can’t explain it all.

Beyond that, yes, I’m aware of history, of initial states and evolution, I’m aware of kinship, and I thought long and hard about that passing down the variance business because I knew it was vulnerable in the way that you pointed out. Moreover, it’s pretty clear to me that you know more about the specifics of kinship and social history than I do, though, of course, I have no idea how much you know. Still, and all, you’ve not convinced me that there’s nothing to Buss’s argument. He doesn’t claim to account for everything nor was I expecting him to and I really don’t need you to tell me that. Nor have you convinced me that “imitative acquisition of strategies” is all that’s necessary to account observed behavior. [Explicative deleted] I don’t really know what “imitative acquisition of strategies” is. Yes, I know the meanings of the words and I can infer some composite meaning, but that’s hardly sufficient to give me a good sense of just what you mean by that.

Do I think you explain that in more, even considerably more, detail? Yes. But I have no idea whether or not I would find the more detailed account convincing. For that matter, it’s possible that the more detailed account would depend on technical matters I’m not equipped to judge. If so, would I willing to accept your competence matter? At the moment your posturing with phrases like “Does anyone doubt” and “I still couldn’t insist enough” is not at all promising.

You instruct me: “just compare the expected genetic success of two agents; one operating under Buss’s mate-selection device, one operating under the one I briefly outlined.” Rightly or wrongly, that suggests to me a computer simulation. I’m not technically competent to do that. But why [explicatives deleted] should I believe that you are?

I’ve run out of charity.

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Bill Benzon 12.09.16 at 1:49 pm

Um, err, John, does M&S speak to what’s going on in this thread, or in many blog threads?

On p. 72 they assert: “…people are quite capable of reasoning in an unbiased manner, at least when they are evaluating arguments rather than producing them, and when they are after the truth rather than trying to win a debate.” What’s the difference between truth mode and debate mode? I should think that a shared common base of knowledge is necessary, though not sufficient, for collective truth-seeking. Without that shared base, there’s not much to reason about. Even with it, of course, debate can take over.

Up there in 78 you talk about squishiness: “With so much empirical uncertainty, it’s very hard for either side to win a decisive intellectual victory in the squishy middle (seems to me.) This means there is a strong polemical temptation to argue by trying to push the other party out of the squishy middle, because that would be victory.”

@stevenjohnson: Now that I’ve looked at M&S I see that they are aware of collective activity (72-73:

Here, one might be tempted to point out that, after all, reasoning is responsible for some of the greatest achieve- ments of human thought in the epistemic and moral domains. This is undeniably true, but the achievements involved are all collective and result from interactions over many generations (on the importance of social inter- actions for creativity, including scientific creativity, see Csikszentmihalyi & Sawyer 1995; Dunbar 1997; John- Steiner 2000; Okada & Simon 1997). The whole scientific enterprise has always been structured around groups, from the Lincean Academy down to the Large Hadron Collider. In the moral domain, moral achievements such as the abolition of slavery are the outcome of intense public arguments.

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Bill Benzon 12.09.16 at 2:11 pm

@WLGR, #209: You may have read my most recent comment to Z, but as it is in moderation at the moment, I can’t reference it by number. The first several paragraphs are about the difficulties of interacting in a hostile environment – which, alas, this is – when you don’t know who you’re dealing with and what they know. So I don’t know you or have much of a sense of your background. When I saw a post linking technical ideas – parallel distributed processing, dynamical systems, neural networks, connectionism – with non-technical thinkers, Wittgenstein and Heidegger, I thought to myself “maybe, maybe not, it all depends.” I looked at one of your links, but not the other. Why not? Time.

So, I see you know. Sorry about that.

And yes, I know about Dreyfus. For that matter, I’ve since taken a quick look at the second link when I came to Walter Freeman…Bingo! Freeman I know. Back when I was researching my book on music I had quite a bit of correspondence with him and adopted his neurodynamics as my basic model.

But I don’t think the current regime is the last word nor do I think symbolic processing has been rendered obsolete. We need both, we need to figure out how to ground symbolic processing in dynamical systems–something like that. If I may cite Peter Gärdenfors (Conceptual Spaces 2000, p. 253):

On the symbolic level, searching, matching, of symbol strings, and rule following are central. On the subconceptual level, pattern recognition, pattern transformation, and dynamic adaptation of values are some examples of typical computational processes. And on the intermediate conceptual level, vector calculations, coordinate transformations, as well as other geometrical operations are in focus. Of course, one type of calculation can be simulated by one of the others (for example, by symbolic methods on a Turing machine). A point that is often forgotten, however, is that the simulations will, in general be computationally more complex than the process that is simulated.

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Kiwanda 12.09.16 at 3:03 pm

Z 216:

any ev. psych. argument about anthropologically significant behavior…which jumps directly from evo-devo reasoning…to actually observed human behavior (here “attitudes towards chastity or more generally sexuality and mate-selection”) while ignoring the anthropological level …fails …on its own evolutionary terms…”

As I noted above, Buss 2006 discusses chastity as cross-culturally variable, and Scheidel describes the very widespread phenomenon of cousin marriage (vs. the very much more limited mating by siblings). Since EP doesn’t seem to make claims about chastity or cousin marriage, or need to, their use here as “counter-examples” is not very interesting.

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Kiwanda 12.09.16 at 5:24 pm

Forgot this gem, stevenjohnson 162:

RichardM@124 “Doesn’t the same argument ‘prove’ that Neanderthals and homo sapiens couldn’t have different skeletal structures? Also, it must be theoretically impossible to identify which of two dogs is which, given only the knowledge one is a dachshund and one a St Bernard.” No. Not having a chin or a notch in the brow ridge, and having heavier bones and an occipital bun are not differences in vital organs. The notion Neanderthals and modern humans could have had different brains and still interbreed is wildly speculative. There aren’t many differences between lion and tiger skeletons but they aren’t really capable of viable interbreeding. Your own example suggests viable interbreeding depends more upon sufficient similarities in vital organs and processes.

Many varieties of cats interbreed, and
many genera of Felinae are interfertile with each other, including housecats with others. I think it’s likely that housecats don’t have quite the same “mental architecture” as wild cats.

More telling is canid hybridization, in particular, dogs with wolves; I hope, for his own safety, that stevenjohnson doesn’t think that dogs and wolves have the same “mental architecture”.

stevenjohnson could also have a look at the wikipedia article on hybrids, which mentions Africanized “killer bees” (pace stevenjohnson, the same “mental architecture” as non-Africanized), and (just to mention), the “Higgs bison”.

But again, even without these obvious and well-known examples, stevenjohnson’s remarkable claim that interbreeding of Neanderthals and homo sapiens is strong evidence of having the same “mental architecture” is dubious and speculative.

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Kiwanda 12.09.16 at 5:44 pm

(A better version, sorry.)
stevenjohnson 162:

RichardM@124 “Doesn’t the same argument ‘prove’ that Neanderthals and homo sapiens couldn’t have different skeletal structures? Also, it must be theoretically impossible to identify which of two dogs is which, given only the knowledge one is a dachshund and one a St Bernard.” No. Not having a chin or a notch in the brow ridge, and having heavier bones and an occipital bun are not differences in vital organs. The notion Neanderthals and modern humans could have had different brains and still interbreed is wildly speculative. There aren’t many differences between lion and tiger skeletons but they aren’t really capable of viable interbreeding. Your own example suggests viable interbreeding depends more upon sufficient similarities in vital organs and processes.

Many varieties of cats interbreed, and many genera of Felinae are interfertile with each other, including housecats with others. I think it’s likely that housecats don’t have quite the same “mental architecture” as wild cats.

More telling is canid hybridization, in particular, dogs with wolves; I think it’s clear that dogs and wolves don’t have the same “mental architecture”.

There is also the wikipedia article on hybrids, which mentions Africanized “killer bees”, not the same “mental architecture” as non-Africanized, and (just to mention), the “Higgs bison”.

But again, even without these obvious and well-known examples, stevenjohnson’s claim that interbreeding of Neanderthals and homo sapiens is strong evidence of having the same “mental architecture” is dubious and speculative.

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Kiwanda 12.09.16 at 8:33 pm

Another Nick points to a youtube video about Karen Adolph’s work giving experimental evidence that infants don’t have the fear of heights that the classical “visual cliff” experiments seemed to show.

Her paper from 2014 on the topic says “So when does fear of heights develop, and how is it acquired? To our knowledge, there are no longitudinal data to address this question. Previous work suggests that acquiring fear of heights does not necessitate direct conditioning experiences, such as a traumatic fall…Indirect pathways may include observational learning or transmission of negative verbal information…Individual differences in temperament or trait anxiety might also play a role by making some children more likely to acquire fear of heights than others…”

The paper also says “About 30% of adults report nonclinical height fear, and another 5% have full-blown height phobia …”

Another paper from 2013 says in its abstract “Human infants with little or no crawling experience surprisingly show no wariness of heights, but such wariness becomes exceptionally strong over the life span. Neither depth perception nor falling experiences explain this extraordinary developmental shift; however, something about locomotor experience does. “

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Another Nick 12.10.16 at 7:21 am

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cnQEo4bazIo (1:10-1:30)

It’s a real mystery, Kiwanda. I mean, where could a fear of heights possibly come from?

(to cite one of a million examples…thanks, Hitchcock)

Surely we’re not taught it.

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Kiwanda 12.10.16 at 3:49 pm

Another Nick 224:

(to cite one of a million examples…thanks, Hitchcock)

Surely we’re not taught it.

Indeed, 5% of the American population have chased a suspect across rooftops, only to find themselves desperately dangling from the gutter, many stories above the ground. Or been deeply traumatized by seeing this classic.

But 94.5234% of Americans have learned from the movies a visceral sense that falling from great heights is no big deal: there will always be a remarkably elastic firehose (speaking of Die Hard); a parachute also falling; the villain or henchman falling (with parachute) for you to catch; a huge cushion because your attempted suicide was planned all along to “wake you up”; a convenient series of construction scaffolds; an inflatable life raft and a snowy slope; the top to the convertible you’re in; very-well-cushioned refrigerators, confinement chambers, escape pods: it’s all good, there’s alway some improvised parachute available.

And <a href="http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/NotTheFallThatKillsYou"of course: “In fiction….one must specifically hit the ground to get killed in a fall. Grabbed a ledge? Hooked an outcropping with your Grappling-Hook Pistol? Got caught out of midair? (By a giant robot?) Hit water instead of ground? Landed on an enemy? On a car? Fall in a dumpster? Congratulations, you”re completely uninjured, no matter how far you fell beforehand! Some characters can fall dozens of stories or even out of aircraft, and survive more or less unrumpled as long as they perhaps fell through some trees before encountering the ground. “

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stevenjohnson 12.10.16 at 4:47 pm

Bill Benzon @218 cites this: “one might be tempted to point out” that collective reasoning in science and technology have produced many triumphs. This rather implies Mercier and Sperber have risen above the temptation, or they would have written, “of course, collective activities” etc. I don’t think they meant to be funny or ironic. The thing is, by their theory, it is in fact hard to explain how such collective activity has succeeded in objective terms, rather than just giving the victors in the Darwinian struggle we call reasoning more offspring. I think they tacitly concede this by bringing up the “epistemic luck” argument in the conclusion. At any rate, again, if they have no notion where a group whose participants are interested in truth rather than Darwinian success comes from, then we need not take their awareness of collective activities like science as part of their approach. I suppose I shouldn’t go further lest I stray into forbidden territory?

Kiwanda@221 confuses interfertility with admixture within a species. If housecats could be measured to have 5% bobcat genes, then that would be a parallel to what we’re talking about with Neanderthals and modern humans: The same species with local variations, races, with an easily discernible phenotype (unlike putative “races” within modern humans, where the most distinct phenotype, the so-called pygmies, are never categorized as a race!) Nonetheless, the difficulty of distinguishing the behavior of feral felis domesticus from other wild living cats rather undercuts the conviction that even simple interfertility is no guarantee of the same or even similar mental architecture. Ditto the notion that domestic dogs can assuredly be relied upon not to engage in wolf-like aggressive behavior, because wolves and dogs have such different mental architectures. Tell that to a pit bull.

The assumption that species variants, aka races, of homo sapiens like modern humans and Neanderthals is every bit as dubious and speculative as the notion that different races of modern humans have different mental architectures. I don’t think it’s an accident that so many proponents of EP have such dubious views on race.

On Buss: Buss’ claim that differences in parental investment in offspring drive their behavior is not strictly speaking correct, even if he cites Trivers for the hypothesis. It’s the Darwinian benefit from offspring that drives the behavior. If a man dies younger because he has no loving children dedicated to his welfare, instead leaving resentful bastards, EP says nonetheless he will choose the option of siring far more children than he personally can care for.

Of course it’s not a bit clear how in a truly primitive society more than 100 000 years ago how this is supposed to work, starting with whether the low population density really leaves many options for mate choice at all. Or whether fatherless children even survive to reproduce, i.e., become Daddy’s Darwinian success. Or whether people associated sexual relations with parentage, which implies female promiscuity could have been adaptive then, not male promiscuity. Or whether concealed ovulation is evolutionarily advantageous because it confuses paternity and/or does away with sex guaranteed (more or less) to produce offspring.

There is no way to have a genuinely meaningful theory in EP I think, without specifying an EEA, except that no one actually knows what that is. That’s one thing that makes EP a pseudoscience. Z’s program of taking specific claims leaves a Kwanda free to conduct a literature review for yet more evidence to knock down, even evidence that suffers the replicability crisis, does not seem to be very effective.

Lastly, on the LAD? It occurs to me there is likely no real way to distinguish language acquisition from language creation. Young generations creating a creole from pidgin, deaf children creating a sign language, siblings creating an idiolect, isolated populations creating a new language (albeit one related to the parent tongue,) to a degree the emergence of cant, jargon and slang, perhaps even the emergence of writing. Not to mention Helen Keller?

The general picture in EP of human behavioral skills requiring fairly extensive genetic programs for learning is not so compelling for language in this perspective perhaps. (Maybe not for Chomsky either? Uncertain… Chomsky’s views are not just complex but have evolved over time.) Looked at in this light, language creation appears to be well within the intellectual competence of people. The thing there is, why then is it so difficult for the large majority of people to learn another language after childhood? This seems to be a genetic feature because it’s a behavioral trait that seems to emerge as an mostly inevitable result of development.

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Kiwanda 12.11.16 at 2:38 am

stevenjohnson 226:

Kiwanda@221 confuses interfertility with admixture within a species. If housecats could be measured to have 5% bobcat genes, then that would be a parallel to what we’re talking about with Neanderthals and modern humans

stevenjohnson confuses what we were talking about, which was stevenjohnson’s claim that interfertility implies identical “mental architecture”, not whether modern humans have some Neanderthal heritage.

Ditto the notion that domestic dogs can assuredly be relied upon not to engage in wolf-like aggressive behavior, because wolves and dogs have such different mental architectures.

Nobody said “domestic dogs can assuredly be relied upon…”, but rather that dogs and wolves are interfertile, and yet have different “mental architectures”, contrary to stevenjohnson’s claim that interfertility implies identical “mental architecture”.

The assumption that species variants, aka races, of homo sapiens like modern humans and Neanderthals [have different mental architectures] is every bit…

I *think* the material in brackets was intended. Again: refusing to join stevenjohnson’s speculations about the relation of the mental architectures of Neanderthals to that of homo sapiens is not the same as making some different speculation about them.

Z’s program of taking specific claims leaves a Kwanda free to conduct a literature review for yet more evidence to knock down

Not sure what was intended here; I hope this isn’t a claim that using evidence and reason is somehow “cheating”. “Z’s program”?

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Another Nick 12.11.16 at 1:37 pm

Humans and animals learn to fear things. Or they learn not to fear things. We all have the capacity to feel fear. Our fears may be rational or irrational. No one given fear is innate.

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stevenjohnson 12.11.16 at 2:32 pm

Neanderthals and modern humans are not just interfertile, they are the same species. It was and is dubious and speculative to assume different races of the same species can have different “mental architecture.” Given the previous refutation of scientific racism, it should be obvious a supposedly neutral hypothesis such a thing is possible is far too close to subterfuge, and needs considerably more support than Kiwanda can provide.

If Kiwanda were to concede the obvious, that the physical culture remnants left by Neanderthals were relatively static for thousands of years in a way unseen in those of modern humans, but it can’t be attributed to racial differences in their brains, it would merely be the concession that scientific racism isn’t, and that culture is incredibly important. Supposedly EP has had a reasonable, evidence based analysis that accept these propositions but Kiwanda’s arguments]s demonstrate otherwise. Neanderthal was homo sapiens. Why didn’t they have cultural change like modern humans? That’s a legitimate question, but EP is not a legitimate answer.

Mercier and Sperber, Buss and all of them are not evidence and reason. They are just citations in pseudoscience, a mockery of reason, not evidence at all.

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DrDick 12.11.16 at 5:46 pm

stevenjohnson @226 –

Well said and I admire your tenacity in the pursuit of truth, but Kiwanda is impervious to data or reality and Bill Benzon appears to be a well intentioned true believer who really does not understand the fundamental issues.

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F. Foundling 12.12.16 at 2:39 am

I don’t find it unlikely that people may have an innate (though still fairly variable) tendency to fear spiders or to be less sexually attracted to people that they grew up with – these are, after all, physical reactions largely beyond volitional control, and that’s where I would expect to find vestiges of instinctive behaviour. Unfortunately, EP has a tendency to posit such instinctual mechanisms to explain much more specific and conscious behaviours which can be, and have been, explained more adequately by sociology, anthropology and the most general psychological mechanisms as opposed to various more specific hardwired ‘programs’. A consequence of positing ever more specific and detailed ‘programs’ for ever more aspects of human behaviour – an obvious temptation for such a research agenda – is that it is implied that the tendencies explained are universal, natural and hence (closer to being) inevitable; and that attitude, of course, has reactionary implications at the level of a society and immoral ones at the level of an individual.

The Confer et al. article included a typical example – the authors claim to have discovered that in most cultures, parents tend to give their daughters less sexual freedom than their sons and virtually never the other way around (surprise, surprise, most existing societies are more or less patriarchal and virtually never the opposite). One approach to such a finding would be to consider the cultural traditions that underlie this behaviour, and possibly the objective historical, social and economic causes of these traditions – thereby implicitly admitting that this behaviour would not necessarily occur if the culture were to change. One may also consider the conscious, rational reasons that parents may have to act in this way based on their own and their children’s interests in their specific social, economic, cultural and physical environment – again recognising that if the environment is changed, this behaviour will no longer be rationally motivated and will diminish and eventually disappear. The preferred evopsych approach is to instead choose the hypothesis (without giving the other, previously mentioned explanations serious consideration) that Homo Sapiens parents are somehow biologically ‘hardwired’ to treat their female offspring in a certain way specifically with respect to sexuality, because savannah; the unspoken corollary being that this behaviour can hardly be expected or required to change. Tradition and the status quo are justified; mission accomplished.

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Kiwanda 12.12.16 at 2:40 am

stevenjohnson 226 and 229 now pretty much calls it racism not to join in a speculation regarding the mental processes of Neanderthals and how similar they *must* be to that of homo sapiens. At the same time, the EP hypothesis that people (homo sapiens) are pretty much the same in mental processes puts EP, per DrDick 127, into a bucket with racists and misogynists.

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Kiwanda 12.12.16 at 5:40 am

As usual, it’s helpful to look and see what the sources actually say, which for the “daughter-guarding” mentioned by F. Foundling, seems to be some sort of “EP-informed” ideas about cultural patterns.

Confer et al. say:
“…[EPs] suggest that socialization theories will become more powerful if informed by evolutionary psychological analyses.

The daughter guarding hypothesis —the idea that parents have evolved adaptations designed to socialize their daughters and sons differently in the sexual realm — exem- plifies one approach to evolution-based theorizing about socialization… According to the daughter guarding hypothesis, greater parental constraint on the sexuality of daughters would have provided three functional benefits: (a) protecting their daughter’s sexual reputation, (b) preserving their daughter’s mate value, and (c) preventing their daughter from being sexually exploited… Using two separate data sources, young adults and their parents, Perilloux and her colleagues found that parents were more likely to control their daughter’s than their son’s mating decisions (e.g., by imposing an earlier curfew); reported more emotional upset over their daughter’s than their son’s sexual activity; and exerted more control over their daughter’s than their son’s mate choice decisions. In a massive cross-cultural study, Low (1989) found support for the evolution-based daughter guarding hypothesis in a study of 93 cultures— girls across cultures are taught to be more sexually restrained than boys…..we can already see that evolutionary and socialization explanations are not necessarily mutually exclusive; in some cases, they can be usefully integrated to provide novel predictions…”

Low’s abstract says:
“Analyzed cross-cultural child inculcation data from H. Barry et al (1976) by testing a hypothesis derived from natural selection theory: The ways in which boys are trained (vs. those for girls) should correlate with male and female reproductive strategies prevalent in each society. Boys are trained to be more aggressive, show more fortitude, and be more self-reliant than girls; girls are trained to be more industrious, responsible, obedient, and sexually restrained than boys. The more polygynous the society (the higher the potential reproductive rewards for males), the more sons in nonstratified societies were taught to strive. Stratified societies, which restrict men’s reproductive striving, showed very different patterns. The more actual control women in any society had over resources, the less daughters were taught to be obedient.”

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stevenjohnson 12.12.16 at 2:01 pm

Kiwanda@232 has confused EP’s peculiar notions of “mental processes” with anything in reality. People raised in different cultures tend to have different thoughts for approximately the same sorts of reasons than, for instance, a highly educated, literate person who lives an entirely differently life from an illiterate person in the very same society. Individuals have the same kinds of feelings but even in that regard, there’s much more variety in feelings in people in the very same society than EP acknowledges. And an overlap with animals too.

Kiwanda@233 doesn’t notice Confer et al. are shaky on consideration of alternative hypotheses. In the case of daughter-guarding, for instance, perhaps daughters are more likely to be guarded if raising a child is more of an economic burden. When women could afford children, on the other hand…There seems to be some confusion about the very concept of a reproductive strategy.

I must suggest that contra EP there is a human reproductive strategy, one of intense care for a limited number of children, as opposed to little care for large numbers of children, with remarkable cultural variations in how this works out in practice. EP pictures two species, male and female, with different reproductive strategies. How this could possibly explain variations in infanticide from culture to culture is anybody’s guess.

(By the way, if EP had anything to contribute on that topic Pinker missed a chance to actually treat infanticide in his nutty book Better Angels. He actually has no idea about homicide rates throughout history but still has all those stupid graphs. The presentation of such illusory certainty though is EP through and through.)

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Bill Benzon 12.12.16 at 7:50 pm

@DrDick, #230: stevenjohnson @226 – Well said and I admire your tenacity in the pursuit of truth … Bill Benzon appears to be a well intentioned true believer who really does not understand the fundamental issues.

Nah. This discussion isn’t about truth, I’m not a true believer, and I can give anyone here a run for their money on fundamental issues. As for my intentions, I’ve been wondering about that.

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Z 12.12.16 at 7:52 pm

Bill Benzon, in case you are still reading.

Still, and all, you’ve not convinced me that there’s nothing to Buss’s argument. He doesn’t claim to account for everything nor was I expecting him to and I really don’t need you to tell me that.

Ah, but see, I’m not trying to say there’s nothing in there. There is only one thing I’m trying to convey: that positing a mechanism, showing it more or less fits some data and then declaring victory is bad science. Appalling science, really. It is not my job to convince you that “my” model is better, it is Buss’s job to convince me (and you) that his is better, and for that the most usual steps are to at least mention competing alternatives and see how they fare on the empirical data and/or derive a really unexpected prediction of the model and see it is verified. That’s what he doesn’t do. At all. And that’s why I was mentioning an asymmetry: in order to show that he didn’t do his homework, it is not necessary that I do mine.

Nor have you convinced me that “imitative acquisition of strategies” is all that’s necessary to account observed behavior.

Again, I am not trying to convince you that the imitative acquisition of strategies explanation is better (could I do it? probably not in fact, even if you were favorably disposed: science is hard and I’m a rather lazy person), all I’m pointing out is that there is a perfectly valid alternate explanation to all data presented by Buss (in fact, an explanation that better fits the data) and that he never considers it. It is especially damaging as it is trivially easy to come up with contradictory predictions of the two models. I mentioned one above already, but if you want another one, think about his observation that women universally prefer older men while men universally prefer younger women. If that is mostly due to social imitation within a patriarchal society, the mean difference in age should be sensitive to the level of patriarchal features and to the range of opportunities offered to women. If that is mostly due to a dedicated mental mechanism, it should be relatively independent of these features. Which prediction do you think obtains? (In my country, women under 30 outcompete men economically and select partners of the same age or younger more often than older ones.)

[Explicative deleted] I don’t really know what “imitative acquisition of strategies” is.

Perhaps this is an issue of translation, but I mean nothing fancy: people look around them, see some other people using strategies to achieve some goals, imitate the strategies they believe are working. All great apes are very proficient at this task. Or perhaps I do mean something fancy, something like the habitus of critical sociology, but in first approximation this is not needed. Note also that you probably also don’t know what the “mate-selection module” of Buss is and that, again, he is writing a research article, I am writing a blog comment.

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WLGR 12.12.16 at 9:08 pm

Bill Benzon @ 217, I have no doubt that “how do analog, connectionist-style, PDP-based cognitive systems develop the complexity necessary to grasp the rules and operations of a formal, algorithmic, massively modular representational/computational model?” is an important question at some level of AI and cognitive science — but if we take the old standby that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny as a guide to how our understanding of cognition is likely to progress, there will be a massive amount of research into processes for which formal symbol systems are largely irrelevant before we get to a point where neural-network simulations can develop true fluency in the complexities of human culture, including our formal symbol systems. A similar point is Douglas Hofstadter’s rejoinder to the assertion by Herbert Simon (a renowned pioneer of the old symbol-processing model known since Haugeland as “good old-fashioned AI” or GOFAI) that “everything of interest in cognition happens above the 100-millisecond level, the time it takes to recognize your mother”; Hofstadter pointedly makes the exact opposite assertion, replacing “above” with “below”. Someone forced to use formal algorithmic processes to recognize their mother has a mild cognitive impairment called prosopagnosia or “face blindness”, and someone who had to use formal symbol processing for the rest of their moment-to-moment cognitive tasks (the tasks that structure what Heidegger describes as “being-in-the-world”) would have a considerably less mild impairment. Sure, a cognitive agent with a developed connectionist-style embodied mental capacity yet no grasp of formal symbol systems would be pretty unintelligent in a narrow human cultural/intellectual sense, but something with the inverse wouldn’t be a cognitive agent in any meaningful sense at all (lacking the basic self-reflexivity of Heidegger’s Dasein) and arguably wouldn’t even be alive.

stevenjohnson @226, Chomsky has wavered on the content of the language acquisition device (paring down its proposed content further and further, to a current version said to consist entirely of the syntactic operation Merge) but one thing on which he hasn’t wavered is that this device couldn’t possibly be explained in terms of gradual Darwinian evolution by natural selection and would have to be acquired in an all-or-nothing leap, making arguments about the core irreducibility of the language faculty that practically could have been written by an “intelligent design” booster like Michael Behe. The quote I reprinted @ 184 is notable in that he actually tries to flesh out the proposed leap as an actual empirical event from the history of human evolution — a wholesale “rewiring of the brain” after a chance genetic mutation in an individual he literally designates “Prometheus” — making it evident how ridiculous and even quasi-creationist the whole notion is. (In another snippet he suggests that the impetus for the leap may have been some kind of “cosmic ray shower”, which sounds less like the Biblical origin story for Man’s immortal soul than the Marvel origin story for Captain America’s superpowers.) A properly incredulous response to this is the second video here, a lecture series fittingly titled “No miracles! A Darwinian view of the evolution of cognition, language and culture”.

The fixation on paradigm shifts in cognitive science and linguistics may seem like a side tangent from evolutionary psychology, but IMO it’s actually at the center of the bullseye. As stevenjohnson has hinted, underpinning “evolutionary psychology” is the metaphor of a physical symbol system (the genetic code) that strictly and algorithmically determines all aspects of biological life, including the evolution of culture and cognition, in the same way a machine language determines the operations of a single-stream digital computer — a metaphor so deeply ingrained in our baseline ideology about these issues that we often fail to acknowledge it as a metaphor at all. (One book on this topic I’ve been absolutely dying to read is called Who Wrote the Book of Life? by the late MIT historian of science Lily Kay; has anybody here read it?) This metaphor necessarily elides the enormous complexity of biological development (both ontogeny and phylogeny) relative to building a computer, especially in the case of human cognitive development where any remotely serious account would need some model for the process of enculturation, negating or at least sublating the neatly internalist computational account in which DNA is no more or less than biology’s machine language. And again, actual AI researchers have all but abandoned the idea of a self-contained intelligent agent whose initial “Hello, World!” is spoken with an understanding of its significance, focusing instead on coming to grips with the full complexity of cognitive development, training, and enculturation. To the extent that evolutionary psychology at least in its Pinkerian popsci-ready form is an attempt to throw down the gauntlet at social science and declare it all obsolete, sidelining this developmental complexity and its importance is an irredeemable flaw at the core of the intellectual project.

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Bill Benzon 12.13.16 at 9:23 am

@WLGR, #237:

… there will be a massive amount of research into processes for which formal symbol systems are largely irrelevant before we get to a point where neural-network simulations can develop true fluency in the complexities of human culture, including our formal symbol systems.

Will be? That’s the last 30 years. GOFAI ran and reigned from mid-50s through mid-80s (and is still chugging along, though in the background). Connectionism was conceived back in the 1960s, if not before, and statistical techniques (at least in language) were conceived in the 1950s. But these techniques, along with machine learning, didn’t come to the fore until the mid-80s. So, we’ve had a three-decade run for GOFAI and we’ve now had a three-decade run for neural-nets, etc.

Time for another paradigm shift?

David Ferrucci, who headed IBM’s Watson project, has already been calling for a recapitulation, if you will, of GOFAI, and Martin Kay made the call some time ago (PDF, and see this discussion at Language Log). On paradigm shifts, you might want to take a look at a short chronology I did about a decade ago; it starts in the late 1940s and runs literary theory in parallel with cognitive science. Note much in there about AI (never more than a secondary interest of mine), but you might find something there.

You might also want to look at a paper David Hays and I published some time ago, Principles and Development of Natural Intelligence. Here’s the abstract:

The phenomena of natural intelligence can be grouped into five classes, and a specific principle of information processing, implemented in neural tissue, produces each class of phenomena. (1) The modal principle subserves feeling and is implemented in the reticular formation. (2) The diagonalization principle subserves coherence and is the basic principle implemented in neocortex. (3) Action is subserved by the decision principle, which involves interlinked positive and negative feedback loops, and resides in modally differentiated cortex. (4) The problem of finitization resolves into a figural principle, implemented in secondary cortical areas; figurality resolves the conflict between pro-positional and Gestalt accounts of mental representations. (5) Finally, the phenomena of analysis reflect the action of the indexing principle, which is implemented through the neural mechanisms of language.

These principles have an intrinsic ordering (as given above) such that implementation of each principle presupposes the prior implementation of its predecessor. This ordering is preserved in phylogeny: (1) mode, vertebrates; (2) diagonalization, reptiles; (3) decision, mammals; (4) figural, primates; (5) indexing. Homo sapiens sapiens. The same ordering appears in human ontogeny and corresponds to Piaget’s stages of intellectual development, and to stages of language acquisition.

The discussion of finitization (4) involved some mathematical work by Miriam Yevick that dates back to the late 1970s and is about the counterpoint between symbolic and statistical processes.

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Bill Benzon 12.13.16 at 10:08 am

@Z, #236:

There is only one thing I’m trying to convey: that positing a mechanism, showing it more or less fits some data and then declaring victory is bad science. Appalling science, really. It is not my job to convince you that “my” model is better, it is Buss’s job to convince me (and you) that his is better, and for that the most usual steps are to at least mention competing alternatives and see how they fare on the empirical data and/or derive a really unexpected prediction of the model and see it is verified.

1.) But Buss didn’t declare victory. He simply said that they’re on the trail of part of the problem, but cultural variation is a different matter. No doubt he misunderstimates (sic) just how far his proposals (might possibly) go; but that doesn’t imply that they go nowhere.

2.) But what if your proposed solution is such that his proposal is already “baked in”? Perhaps your proposal covers it all – imitation, after all, is very general, but you’ve perhaps missed something.

Consider the board game analogy, where we’ve got a small fixed number of basic rules on the one hand, and an open-ended collection of tactics and strategies on the other. You come across an alien culture playing a board game you’ve never seen. You want to figure out what they’re doing. Is it possible, in principle, to get some handle on the fixed set of basic moves without at the same time unraveling the larger, more various, and poorly defined collection of strategies and tactics?

Consider someone in this alien culture who wants to learn how to play the game. Could they learn it without receiving any instruction at all, but simply through imitation? Perhaps. But wouldn’t it be more efficient if they were first instructed in the basic rules, so that they can avoid illegal moves, before they begin learning strategy and tactics through imitation?

Note also that you probably also don’t know what the “mate-selection module” of Buss is and that, again, he is writing a research article, I am writing a blog comment.

By that I suppose you mean that Buss hasn’t proposed an explicit set of (computational) procedures for his module. But then you’ve not (yet) proposed an explicit set of (computational) procedures for your imitation module.

One of the curious things about these narrow school EPers is that they do not, so far as I know, propose explicit computational procedures for their modules, yet computational tractability is central to their abstract justification for their project. Computational models abound for language, vision, and hearing. I know that Walter Freeman had such a model for olfaction and I assume there are others, and I’d rather imagine we have models for touch – the roboticists must have such things, no?

Which brings me back to WLGR and connectionism. What connectionism (and allied techniques) gets you is something that starts out as a “general purpose” machine and then, through learning, “shrink wraps” (my metaphor) itself around the requirements of a specific domain, such as speech recognition or face identification. Once that has happened for a specific instance of connectionist machine, it cannot then go on to shrink wrap (i.e. learn) itself around a new domain. It has now become irreversibly specialized. But, of course, a new instance of the same connectionist machine would become specialized for another domain, and so forth across a bunch of domains. In this case we could build up a repertoire of specialized connectionist modules. How do we get those various specialized modules to work together?

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Bill Benzon 12.13.16 at 11:36 am

I need to clarify the opening remarks of my previous comment to WLGR, whatever number it turns out to be. He asserted, “there will be a massive amount of research into processes for which formal symbol systems are largely irrelevant before we get to a point where neural-network simulations can develop true fluency in the complexities of human culture, including our formal symbol systems.” I replied, “Will be? That’s the last 30 years.”

That is, we’ve already had that massive amount of research; that’s what’s been going on over the last 30 years. There’s no particularly good reason to believe that simply by continuing with more of the same that we’ll get anywhere near “a point where neural-network simulations can develop true fluency in the complexities of human culture.” Connectionist models aren’t going to handle symbolic computation simply by scaling up.

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Z 12.13.16 at 3:36 pm

But wouldn’t it be more efficient if they were first instructed in the basic rules, so that they can avoid illegal moves, before they begin learning strategy and tactics through imitation?

Showing that (which I believe to be true by the way) is exactly what Buss should do, and what he doesn’t do.

But then you’ve not (yet) proposed an explicit set of (computational) procedures for your imitation module.

Oh come on, how many times do I have to write it? It is Buss’s job to show that his proposal is better than alternatives, not mine to come with a better one. Otherwise, it is poor science, which is all I’m claiming (I’m not claiming there is nothing there).

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Peter Erwin 12.13.16 at 4:51 pm

stevenjohnson @229:
Neanderthals and modern humans are not just interfertile, they are the same species. It was and is dubious and speculative to assume different races of the same species can have different “mental architecture.”

I think the modern tendency is to classify Neanderthals as a separate species — Homo neanderthalensis — rather than a subspecies of Homo sapiens. And fertile hybrids produced by cross-breeding between different species do exist — e.g., not just domestic dogs and wolves, but wolves, coyotes, and golden jackals can all interbreed and produce fertile offspring, as can domestic cattle and American bison, Scottish red deer and Japanese sika deer, etc.

The suggested divergence date between the ancestors of Neanderthals and modern humans is, very roughly, about 600,000 years ago. This is about an order of magnitude older than the dates for which modern human lineages plausibly start separating (and there’s presumably been a lot more interbreeding between different modern human groups than there was between Neanderthals and early modern humans). So it’s a lot more plausible that there could be differences in mental architecture between humans and Neanderthals than there would be between different groups of modern humans.

There is some evidence for consistent differences in brain structure between Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens. E.g. Pearce et al. 2013, “New insights into differences in brain organization between Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans”:
http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/280/1758/20130168

… our findings tie in with the suggestion that the Neanderthal and AMH [anatomically modern human] lineages underwent separate evolutionary trajectories. Starting from the brain size of their common ancestor Homo heidelbergensis, we suggest that Neanderthals enlarged their visual and somatic regions, whereas AMHs achieved similarly large brains by increasing other brain areas (including, for example, their parietal lobes).

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Kiwanda 12.13.16 at 10:03 pm

stevenjohnson 234:

Kiwanda@232 has confused EP’s peculiar notions of “mental processes” with anything in reality. People raised in different cultures tend to have different thoughts…..there’s much more variety in feelings in people in the very same society than EP acknowledges….

Saying that “People raised in different cultures tend to have different thoughts” is so vague as to be vacuous. Claims that EP doesn’t recognize some vaguely described general notion of human variety are impossible to refute, since they are all but meaningless.
Discussion at this level of vague generality is not really very useful.

Kiwanda@233 doesn’t notice Confer et al. are shaky on consideration of alternative hypotheses. In the case of daughter-guarding, for instance, perhaps daughters are more likely to be guarded if raising a child is more of an economic burden. When women could afford children, on the other hand…

My quotes were specifically to show that F. Foundling’s description of EP ideas about “daughter guarding” is trivially seen to be inaccurate; they were not some kind of sustained defense of an EP-informed sociological theory. stevenjohnson’s notion, similar to EP’s “parental investment” ideas, seems consistent with Low’s general claim that “The more actual control women in any society had over resources, the less daughters were taught to be obedient”.

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Kiwanda 12.13.16 at 10:25 pm

Z 241:

Oh come on, how many times do I have to write it? It is Buss’s job to show that his proposal is better than alternatives, not mine to come with a better one. Otherwise, it is poor science, which is all I’m claiming (I’m not claiming there is nothing there).

Again: saying that “people do what people have done before, except when they don’t” is so weak an “alternative hypothesis” as to be nearly nonexistent. My theory “shit happens, man” is an alternative hypothesis to general relativity, and clearly superior in key ways: its conforms perfectly with observation, and it doesn’t have any issues to reconcile with quantum mechanics (indeed, it subsumes both general relativity and quantum mechanics).

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Bill Benzon 12.13.16 at 10:40 pm

@Z, #241: First, on computational procedures – within the scope of this thread I’m not particularly concerned about that. I just wanted to point out that, while narrow-school EP has argued for itself on computational grounds, it doesn’t propose computational procedures, nor (as far as I know) do those who propose alternative accounts of phenomena that interest them. I just tacked that without any intention of pursuing it.

So, your complaint is that Buss has done “bad science” because he hasn’t shown that his proposal is better than (mostly unstated) alternatives. So, his proposal might be true, but until it is tested against alternatives, we don’t know that it is so. I understand also that you have a favored alternative, one you consider the default explanation in a wide range of cases: “humans find moral what their social group finds moral” (# 175) and that in this case that is achieved by “high status seeking strategies” (#210). As far as I can tell, you regard that as a default because it is self-evident. Hence you are under no obligation to provide evidence for it.

OK, if that’s what you think, fine. I don’t see any particularly good reason why I should grant you your default.

I took another look at Buss 2006 and realized that he has in fact investigated many more cultures than show up in those graphs. At the end of the 1980s he organized a large cross-cultural research project that involved over 10,000 subjects from 37 cultures on 6 continents. He lists two publications for that project, one of which I happend to have:

Buss, D.M. (1989). Sex differences in human mate preferences: Evolutionary hypotheses testing in 37 cultures. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 12, 1-49.

As it was published in BBS a number of people commented on it (26) and then Buss replied. I’ve taken a quick look through it, but have not read it in any detail. At least one commenter (Linnda Caporael, p. 17-18) made objects more or less in the spirit of yours, and I assume others did as well. I picked her because I happen to know her, if only slightly. In one place Buss noted that reference to cultural norms was “vague” and not “a useful alternative to evolutionary explanation” (p. 40) and in another place that those with other ideas “are urged to pursue them.”

And that’s more or less what I think. As you say science is hard. Buss and his colleagues formulated an evolutionary proposals about mating when led them to make predictions about chastity preferences, mate’s financial prospects, and physical attractiveness in partners for long-term mating (they also looked at short-term mating, which we haven’t discussed and which I have no intention of discussing because…this is going on too long). They conducted research involving 10K subjects from 37 cultures and found evidence for their proposals, plus a lot of cultural variation which they can’t (and didn’t set out to) account for.

Given that Buss and his colleagues have already done the work, and in view of the extensive discussion that has already taken place in BBS, that work is now on the table. Is it ideal? No. Could Buss have used a more sophisticated research design? I have no idea what constraints they were up against but, in a better world with more time, money, and colleagues, sure he could have done better. But that’s not the world we’re in.

As I said, as far as I’m concerned, Buss’s work is on the table. Your idle speculations and default preferences are just that. Maybe you’ve got it right, but Buss has evidence and you have…what? You intuitions, your explanatory preferences?

You’re welcome come up with a research design that would, 1) account for the observations that Buss and his colleagues made and 2) would also account for phenomena that follow from your preferred hypothesis but not from their existing proposals. That second part is crucial. If all you can do is prove that you can account for their observations, well, that doesn’t give anyone much of a reason to prefer your account. 6 of one, a half dozen of the other. Of course, you also have to do the research.

As for “bad science” I offer Dan Dennett’s corollary to Sturgeon’s law: “90% of everything is crap. That is true, whether you are talking about physics, chemistry, evolutionary psychology, sociology, medicine—you name it—rock music, country western. 90% of everything is crap.”

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Bill Benzon 12.13.16 at 11:09 pm

Z – this has gone on way too long, but – look at this way. Imagine that Buss hasn’t actually conducted the research. Rather, he has a research proposal and has come to the Crooked Timber Research Foundation for funding. He proposes a research design that’s like the one he actually used. He’s sent us his proposal and we’ve invited him in for a chat. In that context, sure, you can point out your default preference and ask him how he intends to discriminate between that and his EP proposal. We can discuss it with him and proceed from there.

But that’s not the situation we face. The situation we face is that the research has been done. It’s now up to you to establish that your default can account for phenomena that his proposal cannot account for.

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F. Foundling 12.13.16 at 11:24 pm

@233

Yeah, I don’t think the full quote makes it any better, but maybe that’s just me.

In general, giving an ‘evolutionary’ explanation for perfectly conscious and culturally informed choices is begging the question. Yes, a person’s *ultimate* goal (gratification and, conversely, avoidance of discomfort) is determined by biology and thus evolution, and so are a few basic sources of gratification (most obviously, physical pleasures; arguably also the satisfaction of curiosity, a feeling of control and power, perhaps the very act of communication…). Next, it’s a fact that we learn ways to obtain these desiderata – some basics and details intuitively, and a great deal by devising strategies rationally and consciously. If anyone claims that, in addition to the most general sources of gratification, a *specific* strategy to obtain one of these types of gratification is ‘coded’ in detail, the burden of proof is on him. Likewise if anyone claims that not only the general source of gratification, but also a more specific or elaborate strategy used to obtain it is shaped precisely in such as way as to maximise the representation of one’s genes in the gene pool – after all, it is a fact that the maximisation of offspring is a conscious goal only for those who are culturally conditioned accordingly. (So yes, I can definitely see why someone would compare evopsych to psychoanalysis: ‘yeah, you may *think* that you are rationally planning the best way to make your family and your children happy – or else that you are just trying to lead a fulfilling and productive life as a lifelong bachelor(ette) – but whatever you’re telling yourself, you’re actually always subconsciously scheming to have your genes as well-represented in the next generation as possible’). A human cultural practice is something very distinct from an instinct; culture is the product of a complex interplay of many individuals within a society interacting with nature and other societies, and, while, again, it *ultimately* results from many individuals’ seeking of the basic types of gratification that are determined by evolution, this most certainly doesn’t mean that each observed cultural practice that emerges ‘at the other end’ – including the ones that do concern sexual relations and family organisation directly – can be expected to represent an individual’s fine-tuned strategy to maximise reproduction.

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F. Foundling 12.14.16 at 3:24 am

To clarify a bit the last point in my previous comment – even in those cases where we *are*, indeed, acting precisely in such a way as to maximise our offspring (which is far from always the case), a not-unreasonable explanation for that might still be that we are, well, deliberately trying to do exactly that (say, because we want our clan to be powerful, or because we have been told that only losers don’t maximise their offspring, play basketball and listen to rap, or because it sounds like fun to have small versions of ourselves to scream at), and not that we are guided by an innate urge, produced by evolution, to pursue a course of action that objectively results in the maximising of our offspring.

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stevenjohnson 12.14.16 at 5:58 am

Peter Erwin@242 According to the biological species concept, organisms that routinely breed together are the same species. The percentages of Neanderthal genes/DNA in population where admixture was geographically possible average 2% as I understand it, and range up to 5%. (With none of course in other populations, such as in Africa.) This isn’t occasional hybridzation between two species, it is admixture between two demes or races of the same species. Unless you’re suggesting the work done by Svante Paabo with Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA is somehow wrong, or has been flagrantly misinterpreted? This is pretty recent, as these things go. But I’m pretty sure the has settled the issue: It’s seen as homo sapiens sapiens/homo sapiens neanderthalensis, not homo sapiens and homo neanderthalensis. The old Out of Africa model is being questioned because of it, and Milford Wolpoff is very pleased as I understand it.

The suggestion that modern demes or races have populations with different mental architectures is really the same thing as saying the demes or races think differently because of biology. Technically, EP says they all think alike because of biology, to the point it’s hard for EP to account for the variations, and even harder to account for the changes.

WLGR on Chomsky: I’m reading Chris Knight. But I’m being very cautious because my conviction anarchists have something rotten reactionary in the marrow of their bones means there’s a temptation to believe Chomsky’s the emperor in his new clothes.

Kiwanda @243 somehow thinks that daughter guarding as an adaptation to preserve the sexual value of daughters is the same thing as suggesting it has something to do with the cost of the offspring. Saying they are similar may be rhetorically convenient, but they aren’t. Low’s observation that the patterns are very different in stratified societies have the problem that it is hard to see how the same adaptation has such different results. It certainly seems highly unlikely that there was enough time for different daughter guarding adaptations to evolve. Given the common experience of societies undergoing rapid change in such matters within mere single lifetimes, we know it was not a matter of evolution. Consider the changes from birth control pills and female employment in our own society.

If, a la Bill Benzon, the rebuttal is that this is a broad conception of EP, where detailed schemes about identifiable genes and neurophysiology and cognitive programs and adaptive problems in the EEA are rejected, to be be replaced by, well, nothing really but a vague assertion, I can only say that seems to me to be pretty metaphysical, in the pejorative sense. Even if there are lots of notes from the Popperian songbook, with falsifiability up the wazoo, you still need to demonstrate there is a real problem to solve. And there is just no evidence there is a very specific human nature found as a universal across cultures. All those genes and the code of life just spells out a post it note?

If you conceive orgasm as an evolutionary adaptation to motivate humans to reproduce, it is not so clear that natural selection has the power to mold the minds of men and women in the way EP insists. Natural selection can somehow remold human nature within a handful of lifetimes, can somehow anticipate the proper programming so that the same human nature can take into account “stratification” or similar cultural differences, but natural selection can’t ensure reproductive sex between males and females? Natural selection has not even programmed the simple mechanics of procreation.

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Bill Benzon 12.14.16 at 12:44 pm

stevenjohnson: You’ve brought up Chomsky’s anarchism twice. Why? Yes, sure, I know he’s an anarchist, but we’re discussing linguistics (and related matters) here. Two different spheres. Or are you of the view that they aren’t distinct?

David Golumbia devotes the second chapter of The Cultural Logic of Computation (Harvard 2009) to Chomsky and does minor back-flips over the relation between Chomsky’s linguistics and his politics. Golumbia’s general argument in the book, in case you aren’t familiar with it, is that “computationalism” is rationalist/conservative/neoliberal. His argument about Chomsky’s linguistics is that it is rationalist/conservative/neoliberal. But Chomsky’s politics are quite different. Thus one of the core ideas of Chomsky’s linguistics is something that’s come to be known as the Chomsky hierarchy. What’s an anarchist (in one sphere) doing with a hierarchy as central to his thinking (in another sphere)? Golumbia’s suggested resolution of this conundrum is to point out that Chomsky’s “institutional politics are often described as exactly authoritarian, and Chomsky himself is routinely described as engaged in ‘empire building’” (p. 33).

It’s not very convincing and, as far as I’m concerned, unnecessary. I see no reason to think that people are so coherent that everything they do in whatever sphere is patterned on the same template.

Note, I don’t intend to argue this. I’m about to exit this conversation as other things have become pressing. But I’m just curious about why you seem to be looking for a connection between his anarchism and his linguistics.

[Note: Golumbia’s discussion of Chomsky’s linguistics is terrible. Looking for political ideology in technical linguistics strikes me as a dicy business at best, but if you’re going to do it, at least get the linguistics right before you undertake the cultural critique. Golumbia’s treatment of the linguistics is incompetent, which I argue at some length in a working paper, Cultural Logic or Transcendental Interpretation? Golumbia on Chomsky’s Computationalism.]

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Bill Benzon 12.14.16 at 2:00 pm

Like Br’er Rabbit I seem to keep coming back to this Tar-Baby and getting entangled in it. I was looking back over the discussion and…

@Z, #236: You say:

There is only one thing I’m trying to convey: that positing a mechanism, showing it more or less fits some data and then declaring victory is bad science. Appalling science, really.

I think that more or less indicts a large swath of social and behavioral science, because that’s really all many/most investigations do.

I had an undergraduate sociology professor who maintained that, given some phenomenon to be explained, a good social theorist should be able to come up with two or three possible explanations and accompanying tests within an hour or so. Our term-paper assignment was to pick some phenomenon, real or imaginary, come up with three alternative explanations, and propose observations that would discriminate between the alternatives. Why’d he allow us to pick imaginary phenomena, you know, make stuff up? Because he was more interested in how we thought than in actually executing the research.

Maybe some/many investigators actually do that, but many/most investigate one experimental hypothesis, and that’s it. They’re running it against random noise as the alternative hypothesis (that is, the null hypothesis). If the results pass the appropriate statistical tests, then the investigation is declared a success and the experimental hypothesis is, what? Validated? And that means what? – Absolutely true? In the running for truth? Maybe we should continue working in this direction?

And now we learn that the statistics are often so flaky that almost any hypothesis can pass muster on some grounds.

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Bill Benzon 12.14.16 at 2:53 pm

BTW, as an aside, Tyler Cowen interviews Joseph Henrich on Cultural evolution, WEIRD societies, and life among two strange tribes

For example:

COWEN: Now, another feature of your model, if I understand it correctly, is that you get more rapid or more complex or more interesting cultural evolution when you have a larger number of moving parts: more people, or more wealth, or more complexity. Is it kind of increasing returns to scale to cultural evolution? Is that fair to say?

HENRICH: Yeah. There’s a couple of different ways that that comes out. I think the simplest and clearest one is this idea that I call the collective brain. This is simply the idea because we’re so dependent on learning from each other in order to do innovations and to construct increasingly fancy technologies, larger and more interconnected populations tend to have fancier tools and technologies.

Humans really don’t think as individuals. We don’t innovate as individuals. We innovate as groups. Groups that, for whatever reason, are able to create more social interconnections produce fancier tools and technology, and they’re able to maintain larger bodies of know-how.

There are these great cases in the ethnohistorical record of groups like the Polar Inuit who get cut off from the rest of the Inuit population. Then they begin to lose valuable tools and technology because their own brains remain the same size, but their collective brain became severed. They’re not able to maintain as much know-how in the population.

COWEN: That connection between size and speed of cultural evolution, that’s true at most margins? Say, India evolves culturally more rapidly than Denmark because it’s larger?
HENRICH: There’s lots of pieces to this puzzle. The key is to create interconnectedness. To explain the difference between Denmark and India: of course, Denmark is interconnected with many other populations, but the flow of information is much less constricted.

What happened in the scaling up of human societies in many places is societies get built on complex kinship structures in which you don’t have very much relations between different families and between different tribes. That constrains the flow of social information among these groups.

The trick the West pulled off is to manage to make individuals so that information could freely flow among individuals.

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stevenjohnson 12.14.16 at 5:11 pm

Jerry Coyne, who was cited as a critic of EP, happens to have made a post on EP issue today, prompted by discussion of testosterone by PZ Myers. https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/

Here’s a sample:
“One distresssing characteristic of the Left, at least as far as science is concerned, is to let our ideology trump scientific data; that is, some of us ignore biological data when it’s inimical to our political preferences. This plays out in several ways: the insistence that race doesn’t exist (and before you accuse me of saying that races do exist, read about what I’ve written here before: the issue is complex), that there are no evolutionarily-based innate (e.g., genetically based) behavioral or psychological differences between ethnic groups, and that there are no such differences, either, between males and females within humans.”

The only real question is why Coyne wants to think he’s a part of the “Left?” Whatever the answer is, this makes clear what the issues are in Benzon/Coyne/…../Kiwanda’s insistence there must be something to EP.

Coyne also writes:
“To claim that there are no evolutionary differences in behavior and psychology between men and women is fatuous. The data show otherwise, though of course for most traits we don’t know if it’s genetic. But the default hypothesis, based on observation of other species (especially primates) is that at least some psychological and behavioral differences will be based on genes that evolved via selection in our ancestors. Why is the brain immune to evolved, sex-specific differences but the body is not?”

I could comment as to the low quality of the supposed evidence adduced by Coyne, as well as the poor logic, at depressing length. But accusations of straw manning etc. mean anything I write would simply be dismissed (if it was deemed to merit that much acknowledgement.) Rebuttal of course would stray into forbidden territory. Perhaps then it would be best if, in reference to testosterone, three questions: Is physical aggression the only kind that counts? If somehow it is, is it really so feasible to separate fear of losing from lack of aggressive impulses? And last, in group contexts, do women play no role in sending males of the group out to commit aggressions?

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Kiwanda 12.14.16 at 6:17 pm

F Foundling 231, in reference to Confer et al discussion of “daugther guarding”:

The preferred evopsych approach is to instead choose the hypothesis (without giving the other, previously mentioned explanations serious consideration) that Homo Sapiens parents are somehow biologically ‘hardwired’ to treat their female offspring in a certain way specifically with respect to sexuality, because savannah;

Confer et al’s discussion of “daughter guarding”:
“…[EPs] suggest that socialization theories will become more powerful if informed by evolutionary psychological analyses.
The daughter guarding hypothesis —the idea that parents have evolved adaptations designed to socialize their daughters and sons differently in the sexual realm — exemplifies one approach to evolution-based theorizing about socialization… …..we can already see that evolutionary and socialization explanations are not necessarily mutually exclusive; in some cases, they can be usefully integrated to provide novel predictions…”

Here the parents’ “evolved adaptions” does not seem to be referring to something “hardwired”. A paper on the topic of “daughter guarding”, with two co-authors who were also co-authors of the Confer et al review, also does not seem to make any claims that parental behavior is “hardwired”.

That is, F. Foundling’s use of “daughter guarding” as an example of EP conjectures of “hardwiring” is off the mark.

F. Foundling 247:

In general, giving an ‘evolutionary’ explanation for perfectly conscious and culturally informed choices is begging the question.

If such an explanation is subject to evaluation and testing, if it suggests hypotheses that can be tested, in a variety of ways, then it has some value and interest.

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john c. halasz 12.15.16 at 1:22 am

Thanks y’all, this has been serious fun.

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Peter Erwin 12.15.16 at 8:24 pm

stevenjohnson @ 249:
According to the biological species concept, organisms that routinely breed together are the same species. The percentages of Neanderthal genes/DNA in population where admixture was geographically possible average 2% as I understand it, and range up to 5%. (With none of course in other populations, such as in Africa.) This isn’t occasional hybridzation between two species, it is admixture between two demes or races of the same species. Unless you’re suggesting the work done by Svante Paabo with Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA is somehow wrong, or has been flagrantly misinterpreted?

No, I’m relying on the work done by Pääbo and colleagues. Some of the most recent research on Neanderthal DNA in non-African humans suggests that human-Neanderthal interbreeding showed characteristics of inter-species breeding, with probable sterility for male offspring and systematic selection against Neanderthal DNA in the descendants. (This is very unlike the situation for interbreeding in modern humans.)

E.g.,
Were Neanderthals a different species?:

… this suggests that the male hybrids might not have been fertile, whereas the females might have been fully fertile,” Svante Pääbo told Richard Harris of National Public Radio…. We might have inherited most of our Neanderthal genes through hybrid females, he said.

Another author, David Reich of Harvard Medical School, told reporters that we and Neanderthals “were at the edge of biological compatibility.”

“This underlines that modern humans and Neanderthals are indeed different species,” Fred Spoor told New Scientist. Spoor is also at the Leipzig Max Planck but was not a part of the Neanderthal research. Other scientists are more cautious about making so firm a declaration, but it’s clear that many lean toward that same conclusion, that Neanderthals were not Homo sapiens neanderthalensis but, rather, Homo neanderthalensis.

and

Neanderthals and humans: an interspecies affair to remember:

Many of our living primate cousins interbreed naturally in the wild: estimates show more than 10% of primate species do it!

Doesn’t this run counter to the very definition of a species? Not unless you take an overly simplistic, or iconoclastic, approach to defining them. Even the man credited more than anyone with developing the “biological species concept” based on reproductive isolation – the late Ernst Mayr – recognised that interbreeding sometimes occurs between them.

The latest findings from genome comparisons reinforce the status of Neanderthals and modern humans as distinct species.

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stevenjohnson 12.16.16 at 2:58 am

Peter Erwin@256 Fertile female hybrids allowed such extensive admixture while the interspecies incompatibility was displayed to full effect in the males? Well, that does seem kind of unexpected. This is more recent news on the topic than I’ve kept up with obviously. On one level it’s very gratifying that my decades old Neanderthals and humans were separate species can come back to me. I hated being wrong on that, and sort of hope another two years doesn’t see this reversed. This should make it easier for Kiwanda to see that the relative stasis of the Neanderthals culture remnants isn’t typical of homo sapiens. I do hope using Anatomically Modern Humans for humans or homo sapiens is habit, instead of reservations on the issue.

On another level, I did think I was doing a better job of keeping up. Thanks for the update.

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J-D 12.16.16 at 7:31 am

Moving temporarily away from psychological characteristics for a broader perspective:

Evolution by natural selection has produced the phenomenon of lactase persistence, and this has happened during the period since humans were confined to their presumed original savanna environment, and has created marked differences between human populations.

Evolution by natural selection has also produced a decrease in the size of human teeth during the period since humans were confined to their presumed original savanna environment, an effect observed across different human populations.

These observations suggest the power of evolutionary explanations for human characteristics, both those shared by different human populations and those which distinguish human populations from each other, and the role of selection pressures deriving not from the presumed original savanna environment but from more recent conditions.

This suggests to me that it’s likely that human psychological characteristics have been influenced to some extent by evolution by natural selection.

If the question is whether evolutionary theory predicts that human psychological characteristics should reflect the selection pressures characteristic of the presumed original savanna environment, the answer is No, at least not uniformly so, since other biological human characteristics shaped by natural selection do not all reflect the selection pressures characteristic of the presumed original savanna environment.

If the question is what prediction evolutionary theory makes about the universality of human psychological characteristics, the answer is that it predicts both uniformity and diversity, since natural selection has influenced other biological human characteristics of human populations both uniformly and diversely.

If the question is whether evolution by natural selection can explain anything about human psychology, the answer is Probably, but given the history of people being obviously swayed by their pre-existing preferences in developing hypotheses about the biological evolution of our species, any individual hypothesis about the evolution of human psychology by natural selection should be approached with a cautious regard to the likelihood of self-serving bias.

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