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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

Four Useful Tips For Our Friends At Science 2.0

Published 19 December, 2011

The end of the year is a time when people make lists. Most important books of 2011! Most powerful images of the year! Best end-of-year-lists! In this spirit, it occurred to me that I might make a List of Tips for Hank Campbell, over at Science 2.0, who posts about evolutionary psychology from time to time. He has, one might say, a somewhat dim view of the field, and his most recent post was about some remarks by Michael Price at Psychology Today. His post reminded me of some of his previous ones, and gave me the idea of this tip list, which might help Hank and, I hope, other critics of the field, to whom many of these tips also apply.  So, without further ado…

Tip #1. Learn about the field before trying to criticize it.

Campbell writes:

What evolutionary psychology contends instead is that social constructs are biological; if I like girls with blonde hair, women evolve to have blonde hair. And that means with the advent of Miss Clairol, actual blondes may die out.

Holding aside what he means by the idea that the field holds that “social constructs are biological” – which might be right depending on what he means by these phrases – Campbell seems to be saying that his preferences are going to drive evolution. Even if one grants him some leeway because this is some sort of linguistic trope, the next part implies that he thinks that the discipline makes predictions about modern reproductive success rather than about psychological design features. This is wrong, and, speaking of lists, this particular error is one of a small number of errors on my list entitled, “How Many Times Do We Have To Spell This Fricking Idea Out In Excruciating Detail Before You Get It Right?” which I admit is an awkward name for a list. And, you know, not for nothing, but how does the fact that brunettes can dye their hair blond cause the blonds themselves to die? At worst, the logical consequence he has in mind is something like a reduced selective advantage for the blond hair genes. His conclusion doesn’t actually make any sense. (Hm. Is it possible that the “2.0” in Science 2.0 is actually a GPA reference?)

Ok, on to Tip #2.

Tip #2. Learn about the field before trying to criticize it.

In August of last year, Campbell wrote about a paper by Doug Kenrick and colleagues that they framed as an update to Maslow’s pyramid of needs. Campbell writes:

They [Kenrick et al.] come right out and claim that artists and poets are consciously thinking about increasing their reproductive success when they feel the inspiration to paint or write. 

Here is where I (perhaps immodestly) think that my tip would really have come in handy. Had he actually read the paper in which he claims that they “came right out” and made this claim, he might have stumbled on to one of these quotes, all drawn from that paper:

There are two key implications here: (a) animals, including humans, need not be consciously aware of the ultimate function of their behavior, and (b) the connection between long-term goals and immediate goals is often indirect. (p. 295)

The motives that govern behavioral strivings often lie outside of conscious awareness (p. 298)

And, in case that didn’t make their position crystal clear…

This does not, of course, imply that whenever an individual strives to master a musical instrument or a mathematical proof, that individual does so with some conscious desire for status or mates. (p. 298)

Indeed, this puts Kenrick et al well in step with the field’s broad view, as exemplified by one of my favorite quotes from Geoffrey Miller’s book, The Mating Mind, on the same issue (p. 269-270):

If you could interview a male Satin Bowerbird for Artforum  magazine, he might say something like “I find this implacable urge for self-expression, for playing with color and form for then-own sake, quite inexplicable… It is a happy coincidence that females  sometimes come to my gallery openings and appreciate my work, but it would be an insult to suggest that I create in order to  procreate. We live in a post-Freudian, post-modernist era in which  crude sexual meta-narratives are no longer credible as  explanations of our artistic impulses.”

Tip #3. Learn about the field before trying to criticize it.

On May 26, 2011, Campbell wrote,

We could stop funding 100% of evolutionary psychology (example: $587,068 from the NSF to try and determine if we are genetically conservative or liberal) and science would not be impacted one bit.

I can’t speak to the claim about funding, but what’s interesting here is what he takes to be an example of evolutionary psychology. His link there is to his post about some research in behavior genetics – not, in fact, evolutionary psychology – by John Jost – not, in fact, an evolutionary psychologist.

The reason Campbell gets confused here is the usual reason that people who haven’t read anything in the field get confused; they see “genes” in the neighborhood of something about behavior, and he thinks that this is what evolutionary psychology is all about. (Hint: search for the word “genetics” in the Tooby/Cosmides primer.)

Tip #4. Learn about the field before trying to criticize it.

And, finally, with this last tip, I return to the post with which I began, in which Campbell makes this remark:

The idea that neural circuits became specialized to solve adaptive problems sounds interesting enough but has no actual evidence of any kind.

Even if one holds aside the tremendous amount of data from human social behavior showing evolved specialization, at a bare minimum the evidence from the study of any number of other areas, including vision, for example, has shown abundant evidence for adaptive specialization. World famous vision scientist Brian Scholl put it this way in a comment on a post last year, talking about vision science and vision scientists. Scholl’s comment is worth reading in its entirety, but here is a snippet:

…as far as I can see, everyone assumes and understands that essentially all of perception serves a suite of evolved functions. The purpose of visual perception is to recover the structure of the local environment (so as to better interact with it) from certain parts of the electromagnetic spectrum that carry useful information about it. And knowing what’s going on in your local environment is so obviously adaptive, that this doesn’t really need to be said out loud.

In short, there is so much evidence in favor of neural specialization to solve adaptive problems that researchers in vision, among other fields, don’t have to bother even making it explicit anymore, because everyone knows it. Well, everyone who has a certain degree of background knowledge…

In closing, I hope these four tips are useful to Mr. Campbell. Similar tips apply to a number of other comments he has made in various postings on (what he takes to be) evolutionary psychology. Perhaps in the new year, he will put these tips to good effect. As you can see, I am entering the new hear full of hope…


Kenrick, D.T., Griskevicius, V., Neuberg, S.L., & Schaller, M. (2010). Renovating the pyramid of needs: Contemporary extensions built upon ancient foundations. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5, 292–314.

  • Ian Weiss

    My favorite thing about Campbell’s recent article is that he says,

    “Dr. Michael Price…wrote…that there should be no confusion that the brain has evolved and adapted – yet it’s kind of a straw man because I can’t find anyone who contends the brain did not adapt.”

    But later on he says, as Prof. Kurzban already quoted,

    “The idea that neural circuits became specialized to solve adaptive problems…has no actual evidence of any kind and thus is philosophy, not science.”

    So, unless I’m failing to grasp an incredibly nuanced distinction between (1) claiming that the brain did not adapt and (2) objecting to the scientific hypothesis that the brain is wired to solve adaptive problems, I think the “straw man” is alive and blogging.

    • Robert Kurzban

      Thanks for the comment. I think, but am not sure, that he’s pointing to the word “specialized” there, and so wants to say that the brain “has evolved and adapted” but that it’s not specialized. That’s my take, but I’m not confident about it.

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