A couple of evenings ago I spoke at Skeptics In The Pub Glasgow. Skeptics In The Pub is “an informal social event designed to promote fellowship and social networking among skeptics, critical-thinkers, and other like-minded individuals”. I was delighted when, back in December, I received an invitation to speak on the topic ‘What Is Evolutionary Psychology?’.
I already knew that Evolutionary Psychology (EP) is unfairly maligned: I’ve taken part in more than enough conversations in which gross misunderstandings of EP have been expressed, including those with people who, in my view, should know better. However, I hadn’t appreciated the extent and depth of misunderstanding out there until I started to pull this talk together. As I pointed out at the beginning of my talk, if you type in ‘Evolutionary Psychology is…’ into Google, its first prediction about how you will finish your search term is: ‘..bullshit’. (For comparison, for both ‘Social Psychology is…’ and ‘Evolutionary Biology is…”, the first prediction is: ‘..the study of…’.) It is painfully easy to find statements that simultaneously denounce and misunderstand EP, including, as I say, from people who should know better: high-profile skeptics; academics (including those that use evolutionary thinking in their own research); and so on.
Better people than I have already addressed these criticisms, and at length too. In 2000 a book entitled Alas, Poor Darwin: Arguments Against Evolutionary Psychology brought together a collection of authors united in their distaste for EP. It contained all the standard criticisms: that EPists are genetic determinists; that EP is politically motivated; that EP is unfalsifiable; and others. In an excellent review of that book, Rob Kurzban showed how not only are these claims false, they are “infuriatingly false”, because EPists have frequently said precisely the opposite of what they are criticised for, yet when this is pointed out the critics pay no attention, and repeat the criticisms anyway. Consequently, the idea that ‘EP-is-bullshit’ is, sadly, alive and kicking. Kurzban’s review is both an excellent summary of the major criticisms, and an explanation of why they are misplaced. I urge anyone tempted to conclude against EP to read it before they do so.
Fortunately, I did not have to deal with any EP-is-bullshit merchants either during or after my talk. I’d like to imagine that some of them came along but realised during my talk that they’d been misinformed – but probably they just didn’t come. But most people I spoke to said that they didn’t know much about it, except that it seemed to be controversial, and they were pleased to learn more.
There was a Q&A session after the talk. One question I found very interesting was about looking for the give-away signs of natural selection. The human eye is an exquisitely well-designed thing, with one glaring defect: it is built backwards and upside-down (this is why we have blind spots). Have we, the questioner asked, got any similar examples from the human mind? This query could be interpreted as being about whether there are aspects of the human mind that are suboptimal – and if that was the question, there are many examples. But I think the question is more subtle than that. It’s really: Are there any cases where the sub-optimality that we do see is effectively a signature of the action of natural selection? From an evolutionary perspective the vertebrate eye is interesting precisely because, despite its exquisiteness, no intelligent agent would have designed it with such an obvious and easily-fixable defect. This is why it is often used in arguments with creationism. It would be nice to document a similar case with the human mind. The answer I gave on Monday evening was that no, we don’t yet have such a case, mainly because we simply don’t yet understand the mind nearly well-enough – but perhaps we will find such a case in the future. Having reflected on it a little more since, I think that’s right: our understanding of the mind is very basic relative to our understanding of the eye. If and when we understand the mind as well as we do the eye, I may be able to give my questioner a more satisfactory answer.
In the meantime, if anybody tells you that EP is bullshit, ask them why – and then go and check whether EP actually says the bullshit things its critics claim it does. Chances are it doesn’t.