Evolutionary Psychology

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Robert Kurzban

The Evolutionary Psychology Blog

By Robert Kurzban

Robert Kurzban is an Associate Professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Why Everyone (Else) Is A Hypocrite. Follow him on Twitter: @rkurzban

Coyne on Evolutionary Psychology: It’s All Our Fault

Published 17 January, 2011

Jerry Coyne, who I recently blogged about, has had a few more things to say about evolutionary psychology in a post that addressed two articles that came out recently, one by David Brooks in The New Yorker and the other by Jesse Bering at Slate.

On this occasion, Coyne blasts the discipline because people in the press aren’t reporting on it properly. Writing about the Brooks piece, he says: “I worry that one-off results were being presented as solid findings of evolutionary psychology—uncontestable results of science.”

Not only that, but this, apparently, is our fault.

Every time I write a piece like this, one that’s critical of evolutionary psychology, I get emails from its practitioners, chewing me out for being so hard on their field.  And my response is always the same: I’ll stop being so hard on your field when you guys start being more critical yourselves.  If you policed your own discipline better, I wouldn’t have to.

I’m not sure how to read that other than somehow we’re supposed to be “policing” the use and portrayal of our discipline by journalists. He’s saying it’s our fault that Brooks is making strong claims based on research in evolutionary psychology.

With respect, that’s just absurd; we can’t control what Brooks, or any other journalist, writes. Not only that, but Brooks wasn’t even writing about findings in evolutionary psychology. I went back to the paper Coyne is worried about in Brooks’ piece. It’s about some research showing that if you gather sweat from people watching a horror movie or a comedy, people can tell, above chance, which is which. Not only do the authors of the article make no functional claims at all, their conclusion is pretty darn conservative: “We do not claim that our subjects identified the specific Happy and Fearful emotions…Our study is, however, the first to indicate that human body odors may change with the emotional states of the odor donors and that such changes can be identified olfactorily.” Their claim is purely one about the data, not about function. And certainly the authors don’t self-identify as evolutionary psychologists. What, exactly, have we done wrong here? Our field is responsible for a journalist reporting on a paper published in Perceptual and Motor Skills by researchers who study olfaction?

In any case, the bulk of Coyne’s post is about Bering’s blog entry about the possibility that women have anti-rape adaptations.

Again, his critique is focused on the strength of the arguments. He worries that Bering has presented the data without sufficient reservations. He seems to be saying that when you write in these sorts of venues, you ought to be appropriately cautious about the research and claims.

I agree; you should be careful about presenting others’ work. But there is a certain irony here. In this piece, Coyne says that Thornihill and Palmer in their book, A Natural History of Rape, claim that “the human brain contains an evolved “rape module”: a neuronal circuit that impels men to subdue and copulate with women when they can get away with it.”  In the book, while they discuss evidence regarding the hypothesis that there might be adaptations for rape, they take exquisite care to distance themselves from a “rape module” assertion, writing that “whether rape is an adaption or byproduct cannot yet be definitively answered” (p. 84). (As an aside, the word “module” appears only once in the book, in the context of a piece by Mike Gazzaniga.)

But this isn’t the first time Coyne has addressed this issue. He wrote a review of Thornhill and Palmer’s book in The New Republic. I don’t think I can do better than Tooby and Cosmides did in their reply to this review, which I very strongly recommend. It contains helpful advice to Coyne, such as the idea that he “needs to reacquaint himself with such scientific basics as a commitment to be factually accurate rather than to originate falsehoods.”

In any case, it seems odd that Coyne would take evolutionary psychology to task for not “policing” the mainstream press and the blogosphere. Given the press coverage of the recent findings regarding arsenic, should we condemn the field of biology? Why is evolutionary psychology to blame when Brooks writes a piece drawing on work by people who aren’t even evolutionary psychologists who don’t even make any claims recognizable as evolutionary psychology? I find that very peculiar.

Coyne does make one substantive criticism of the discipline. He says that there is an “ascertainment bias,” saying that “If you find a result that comports with the idea that a trait is “adaptive,” it gets published. If you don’t, it doesn’t.  That leads to the literature being filled with positive results, and gives the public a false idea of the strength of scientific data supporting the evolutionary roots of human behavior.” Given that Coyne is so concerned with strong unsubstantiated claims in blogs, I was shocked — shocked! — to find that this very bold assertion about what does and doesn’t get published was offered without even a whiff of a hint of evidence in support. (I hold aside here the confusion that the agenda has to do with showing that traits are “adaptive.”)

Anyway, it’s hard to know why Coyne dislikes evolutionary psychology so much, to the point of faulting the field for a journalists’ portrayal of research on smell. In wondering about this issue, Tooby and Cosmides, in their reply to his review, wrote: “Whatever the sources of hostility to evolutionary psychology, an evenhanded concern with falsifiability and research quality isn’t it.”

So, as for the true source of his hostility, as always, I remain mystified but very curious.

  • Andrew

    Fields of study seem like living organisms to the mind. Many people seem to treat EP the same way we are distrustful, mean and unfair to outsiders. Because it has the potential to radically alter and improve our understanding of and control over the world, this factor is maximized. It’s not just an outsider, it’s a powerful outsider.

    To me, this explains the irrationality and unfair tactics the critics always get caught using. It seems like an adaption that some people just express in a more radical manner.

  • Orwin O’Dowd

    Adaptations change with the weather and spread by association. They belong to the phenotype and to make a study of them is Social Darwinism, properly the psychology of Herbert Spencer. Evolution occurs it geological time, in the genotype, producing adaptive capacities.

    • http://vertebratesocialbehavior.blogspot.com Clara B. Jones

      This reply is to the Tooby/Cosmides letter responding to Coyne’s review of the controvertial “rape” book. I read Coyne’s review of this volume appearing in Nature as well as several other reviews and read the book itself. I considered the Nature review measured. I was amused by T/C’s characterization of Coyne as an “apparent” authority on evolutionary biology and their implication throughout the letter that Coyne does not understand evolution. Perhaps they should read his book (with Orr) as well as his other publications and integrate them into their courses on human evolutionary biology! This exercise would test their facility with evolution and genetics. BTW, it is expected that rape will be expressed if its benefits to inclusive fitness outweigh its costs over the long term (at least, that is the way a behavioral ecologist would look @it). Finally, by mentioning so many biologists engaged in research on humans, T & C inadvertently support E.O. Wilson’s projection that psychology will ultimately be “cannibalized” by biology. This transition is increasingly evident.

  • http://vertebratesocialbehavior.blogspot.com Clara B. Jones

    Let’s recall: “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” T. Dobzhansky (Lewontin’s dissertation advisor)

  • James Jackson

    As a scientific student of hypocrisy, you are correct to focus your microscope on Coyne. Despite trying to occupy the intellectual high ground with regard to evidence-based decision making, he recently posted a pro-gun control piece that completely ignored data and the statistical analyses thereof regarding how gun policy affects crime rates.

    My guess as to the source of Coyne’s antipathy to EP would be that it is simply part of a SWPL cloak that his friends will admire the cut of.

  • http://deisidaimon.wordpress.com Konrad Talmont-Kaminski

    While I agree with a number of the points raised, there is a serious shortcoming in the argumentation in this piece. While Brooks is not a scientist, Bering is. This is not made clear in the post and means that much of the argumentation regarding the innocence of scientists in respect of misrepresenting the results of evolutionary psychology does not apply to that part of Coyne’s original critique.

    • Robert Kurzban

      Thanks for your comment. I think that most readers of this blog probably know Bering is a scientist, but you’re quite right that I should have indicated that in the text of the post. But it seems to me that it’s worth distinguishing two arguments. One is about the primary literature. Coyne talks about the “ascertainment bias,” the use of undergrad samples, and so on. Surely Bering’s post can’t be faulted for things that are (putatively) going on the primary literature. The second argument is about what one ought to include in posts, such as details about the sample, alternative explanations, and other details of the studies discussed in the post. Now, my view is that while these might be nice to include in a blog post, writing for the media means operating under constraints, and posters have to weigh tradeoffs, in terms of length and so on. Bering is writing here as a journalist, and the post should be evaluated in that context.

  • David P.

    I don’t think Coyne’s point was that evolutionary psychologists should be trying to prevent inaccurate media portrayals, but rather that they should decry them when they do occur. Given that a lot of people’s negative impressions of EP come from unscrupulous journalists rather than the scholars themselves, a bit more “policing” may be necessary to protect the image of EP, which is sullied enough as it is. To be fair, Coyne had nothing negative to say about EP itself in his post; in fact, he even aligned himself with Pinker over Lewontin if I recall correctly. I normally think Coyne’s critiques of EP are unwarranted, but this time he may have a point. Though it is not a scientist’s responsibility to “police” the media, it wouldn’t be a waste of time to try to keep EP’s image a little cleaner. Sure, there is an unfair asymmetry between EP and other fields in terms of the blame placed on its practitioners. But perhaps one way to counterbalance that is to do a little extra work in the blogosphere promoting it as a rigorous science.

  • Robert Kurzban

    Thanks for your comment, David. I respectfully disagree with your claim that “Coyne had nothing negative to say about EP itself in his post.” He criticizes us for a putative “ascertainment bias” as well as for choices of samples (undergraduates) and methods (surveys). On the other issues, I agree that more care on posts is always better than less care. Having said that, I really don’t understand – but would be very happy to hear ideas about – what form this “policing” is supposed to take. On your last sentence, I actually take this as a big part of what I’m doing with this blog. Whether I’m succeeding or not, well…

    • J.J.E.

      You keep insinuating that publication hasn’t already been robustly demonstrated to be a problem in science. It most certainly is and would require special pleading to exempt EP from that larger problem.


      Moreover, I think EP suffers because it usually fails to find the essential genetic component of putatively evolved behaviors. Evolutionary biology has been moving towards establishing the necessary genetic basis for phenotypes of interest. Just so stories (ie plausible evolutionary hypotheses lacking genetic evidence) are less and less acceptable in biology, so why should a subset of biology (human behavior) be any different?

  • Gil

    There is a double standard when criticizing ev psych research. The underlying criticism is not just that we make those claims with little data, but that there are other non-evolutionary explanations that should be taken into accoun. For some reason, this logic doesn not usually apply when discussin non-evolutionary research. How how often do we hear someone complain that an alternative evolutionary explanation exist when a standard social science research is published? How many non-evolutionary claims are based on only one study, with the same possible publication bias problem that go without this scrutiny? It seems to me that some people are just afraid to think that we have evolved mechanisms to do anything, while taking for granted that social forces are in effect (I know, I know, this distinction is false).

  • David P.

    I agree, Gil, that there is a double standard. And Rob is certainly right that Coyne’s accusation of “ascertainment bias” is unsubstantiated – though I think criticizing the publishing process is different from criticizing the field itself. Rob, I think you are doing an excellent job promoting EP and I hope you continue to do so. Perhaps, though, Coyne has a point in that it might behoove evolutionary psychologists to be more critical of journalists and colleagues when they step out of bounds. I haven’t sufficiently scrutinized either of the two articles Coyne criticizes, and it may be that they didn’t really step out of bounds in this case. But if they did, wouldn’t it have been better for the image of EP if someone within the field did the criticizing?

    • Gil

      David, I agree the criticizing the publication process is different, but for some reason, all the known problems regarding publications, sampling, causlity, mentioning alternative explanations and so on, tend to be raised regarding every study in the field but go unmentioned in most other fields. Simply put, if there is a cultural explanation to ev psych research, naturally there is an evolutionary explanation to many of the other studies. I rarely see them mentioned.

      • David P.

        Agreed 100%. All I’m saying is that instead of pointing out how unfair it is that the rest of psychology gets a free pass on this, it may be an even better strategy to embrace the criticism (when it’s valid), raise our evidentiary standards appropriately, and criticize those who fail to do so. Doing this will not only satisfy our critics but it will also strengthen the field. I hear you that it’s unfair, but it may be a necessary price to pay for a revolution in the social sciences.

        Actually, another good strategy we ought to promote is the active criticizing of non-evolutionary psychologists for the stuff you mentioned, Gil, like failing to take into account evolutionary explanations. Rob already does this quite well, but it ought to be done more by other people in the field.

  • http://www.maple-leaf-singers.com Wilson

    (Un?)like Coyne, PZ Myers explicitly comes out and says “There are days when I simply cannot bear the entire field of evolutionary psychology: it’s so deeply tainted with bad research and a lack of rigor.”

    He’s commenting on the same rape study as Coyne (and refers/links to Coyne’s post). I’d be interested in your reaction to Myers’s post, too. (Hopefully separately, since I can’t sign up for notifications of follow-up comments.)

  • http://darwingoestothemovies.blogspot.com WTooke

    Re: college students and surveys….I wish I could remember who said it but someone once said that, if non-human animals could talk and respond to surveys, evolutionary biologists would fall all over themselves interviewing them and distributing them #2 pencils.

  • Michael Mills

    Who would have thought that PZ Myers was a creationist?

    A psychological creationist, that is. He is hurling the same type of emotional BS that one hears ‘intelligent design’ folks direct at evolutionary theory: “bu …but, I don’t *like* it.” Waa, waaa…

    Sad. My respect for PZ just went negative.

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  • Al Dorman

    Jerry Coyne, who I recently blogged about, has had…
    Please use the word “whom” properly next time!

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