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

This One Goes to Eleven, PZ Myers, and Other Punch Lines

Published 11 July, 2013

There’s a great scene in the film This is Spinal Tap which gave rise to an expression that has so penetrated popular culture that it gets its own Wikipedia entry: “up to eleven.”

The film is a satire, following the fictitious band, Spinal Tap, documenting their travels and, to be sure, idiocies. In the scene, a member of the band is discussing an amplifier which is “very special” because the dials go to eleven, rather than the more traditional ten. “You’re on ten, all the way, up…” Nigel Tufnel explains, “Where can you go from there?… If we need that extra push, we go to eleven…” Marty (played by Rob Reiner) asks the obvious question: why not simply label the top-most setting ten? Nigel is clearly stumped, and can only weakly repeat that, well, this amp goes to eleven. (The scene, of course, can be found on YouTube, and you can watch it if you’re willing to endure the brief but inevitable advertisement.)

When you need that extra push…

Wikipedia tells me that this expression, going to eleven, “has come to refer to anything being exploited to its utmost abilities, or apparently exceeding them.” This is not, I should say, my experience of how the expression is used. I find that people use the expression to refer to a case in which an interlocutor seems manifestly, obtusely, even obstinately unable to see the logic of a relatively clear and unarguable point.

Which brings me to the question: why have Jerry Coyne’s views about evolutionary psychology changed so drastically while PZ Myers’ views have ossified?

I’ve been reading what Coyne has to say about evolutionary psychology for some time. Two and a half years ago, I wrote about how Coyne criticized the field as being not only wrong, but not even science. I found his hostility to the field – chastising us for not “policing” ourselves properly for instance – particularly puzzling given that his approach to non-humans is the same as the field’s approach to humans.

Coyne’s views have, if I may, evolved. In June of 2011, he maintained his hostility to the field broadly, but he did rise to the defense of Darwinian Medicine:

While I now think that Darwinian medicine is a useful and intriguing discipline, its practitioners must be careful not to fall into the same trap that’s snared many evolutionary psychologists: uncritical and untestable storytelling.

What a difference a couple of years makes. This past December, Coyne changed his tune, writing:

…those who dismiss evolutionary psychology on the grounds that it’s mere “storytelling” are not aware of how the field operates these days.

And, much more recently, just a few days ago, Coyne penned a blog post entitled “A defense of evolutionary psychology (mostly by Steve Pinker)” in which he defends the field — mostly, as he remarks parenthetically, by quoting an email from Pinker – against an as-yet unreformed foe of the discipline, PZ Myers.

Myers’ remarks derive from a post he wrote stemming from his appearance on a panel at something called “Convergence Day,” which seems to be a science-fiction and fantasy convention. I confess I find it surpassingly strange that there was a panel on evolutionary psychology at a science fiction conference, and quite a bit stranger that Myers would have been a participant on such a panel, given that he is, as his remarks indicate, innocent of any knowledge of the field.

Coyne sent Pinker some of Myers’ remarks that he made both in the post and the comments section, and Pinker provided some replies. What caught my attention was – to return to the business of going to eleven – the wholesale confusion Myers shows about the field. As I’ve remarked in the past, critics of the field, when they err, are not slightly missing the mark. Their confusion is deep and profound. It’s not like they are marksmen who can’t quite hit the center of the target; they’re holding the gun backwards. (See comments #9 and #10 on Myers’ post for remarks about what he takes the assumptions of the field to be.)

For instance, Myers gets the notion of modularity thoroughly wrong, taking it to be a spatial, rather than functional concept: “That behavioral features that have been selected for in our history are represented by modular components in the brain – again with rare exceptions, you can’t simply assign a behavioral role to a specific spot in the brain…” Consider this view he hangs on the field: “I’d also add that most evo psych studies assume a one-to-one mapping of hypothetical genes to behaviors. . .” And, thirdly, he writes: “Developmental plasticity vitiates most of the claims of evo psych.” As Coyne puts it, “’developmental plasticity’ does not stand as a dichotomous alternative to “evolved features.” Our developmental plasticity is to a large extent the product of evolution…” To readers with knowledge of the field, these claims about the field are easily seen to be just silly.

Given how many times each of these arguments – modularity, development, etc. – have been made in print, blogs, and talks, Myers’ continued confusion about them strikes me as goes-to-eleven baffling. Also baffling is how an organizer of a panel could invite him to participate given he demonstrates that he’s unaware of the most basic theoretical commitments of the field. (I don’t read Myers’ blog, but my completely naïve sense from reading the comments was that there was less piling on by his readers than I had seen in the past, and, in fact, one commenter linked to Coyne’s post. What comments there were on the topic of evolutionary psychology seemed to focus mostly on the gene/culture dichotomy. Interesting.)

Part of the reason that this struck me was that a couple of days before Coyne’s post appeared, a very short piece by Frans de Waal ran on big think. Entitled, “We Don’t Need an Evolutionary Explanation for Everything,” de Waal criticizes Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer’s book, A Natural History of Rape, writing that the book “suggested that since men occasionally rape – but of course it’s not all men but a minority of them – it must be a natural phenomenon and it must have adaptive significance.” His complaint: “My problem with that kind of view is not everything that humans do needs to have an adaptive story.”

It’s hard to know precisely what de Waal means by having “adaptive significance,” but it sounds to me that his worry is that that it’s a mistake to assume that rape (or other traits) is an adaptation, and he understands Thornhill and Palmer to have done so. As I and others have repeatedly pointed out, they left this an open question, writing: “Although the question whether rape is an adaptation or a by-product cannot yet be definitively answered… ” (p. 84) and one section of their book was called, “Human Rape: Adaptation or Byproduct?”

The broader point is de Waal’s implication that there is some community of scholars out there – evolutionary psychologists, I presume, judging from his remarks in his closing paragraph – that assume that every trait is an adaptation. Again, given the countless times that various authors have clarified this point, the recurrence of this charge in general and the Thornhhill/Palmer charge in particular strike me again as incredibly puzzling.

As I indicated above, what strikes me about the sorts of errors that Myers makes about the field is that they demonstrate so little interest in trying to engage with it at even a cursory level, trying to understand the basic assumptions and key distinctions in the field. My sense is that Coyne’s change of mind came in no small part because of his decision to read something in the primary literature, in particular a paper by Confer et al. Now, Myers claims to have read in the primary literature, but the sorts of fundamental mistakes that Coyne identifies clearly belie this claim.

Which is why Myers’ remarks about the field always have, and always will, go to eleven.

[Edited to correct typos.]

  • harry pinxteren


    as far as I know, evolution is about ‘differential reproduction’ (of say ‘favoured’ genes), rather than about just ‘adaptations’. So there’s a clear demarcation between storytelling and science, I’d say. At least in principle.

  • Lee_Kirkpatrick

    My hypothesis is that the people who continue to raise these same old tired (and misdirected) criticisms against evolutionary psychology are, in large part, the same people who believe that contemporary “evolutionary psychology” is nothing more than a new name for “sociobiology,” and so their arguments are the same ones that were brought to bear — appropriately, in many cases — in response to the spate of popular human-sociobiology books that appeared in the late 70’s and early 80’s on the heels of E.O. Wilson’s “Sociobiology,” This wave of books was met with a firestorm of controversy in myriad academic circles, and (in large part) for good reason: They often were indeed guilty of many of the criticisms we continue to hear today. For example, they often did give the impression that every human behavior was the product of an adaptation designed to produce it (though they didn’t necessarily use that particular language); they did indeed often read like Rudyard Kipling’s “Just-So Stories,” in which previous observations were interpreted post-hoc in terms of an adaptive story that was treated as a final conclusion, rather than as a hypothesis to be tested against alternatives in future empirical research; they often did give the impression that “evolved” behaviors were immutable and immune to environmental effects; and they sometimes intimated, if only implicitly, that because such “evolved” behaviors were “natural” and immutable, we ought to morally embrace or at least accept them. Much of this writing was, in fact, NOT good science (or “science” at all) — again, a charge often heard today about evolutionary psychology — and it came under heavy fire from psychologists, biologists, and philosophers for good reason.

    So, there exists today a generation of scholars who remember this flap about pop sociobiology, and who rejected it (under the guidance of their own professors and advisors at the time) on the basis of these kinds of arguments — many of which in fact were at least partly valid at the time. I don’t know exactly how old Coyne, Myers, and de Waal are, but I’ll bet they are part of that first anti-sociobiology generation. The members of that generation who have neglected to read any modern evolutionary psychology seem to believe, based on some superficial resemblances, that it is just the same old wine in new bottles, and so they continue to teach their own students about the evils of that old wine using the same arguments. And on and on it goes. Nobody bothers to actually read any contemporary evolutionary psychology because their minds have already been made up; they think they already know what it says, as well as what is wrong with it.

    I sure wish I knew how to fix this, and frankly I find it terribly frustrating and often deeply depressing. I’d like to think that if we could just get these folks to actually read some contemporary evolutionary psychology, as Coyne seems recently to have done, their minds would be changed. But nobody seems to have time these days to read anything outside their own narrow area of speculation, unless they are convinced in advance that it it will be worth their while. But how can you convince them that it is worth their while if they are already convinced that it isn’t, and they need to read it to be convinced? It seems like a Catch-22 of epic proportions.

    I think I’ll go take a nap now….

  • Emil Kirkegaard

    All plasticity? Are we really back to behaviorism? “Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world
    to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and
    train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor,
    lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief,
    regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations,
    and race of his ancestors. I am going beyond my facts and I admit it,
    but so have the advocates of the contrary and they have been doing it
    for many thousands of years.”

    Behavior genetics has clearly shown that various mental abilities and traits are moderately to highly heritable. Of course, if Myers is fan of SJ Gould, he will also dread the heritability and perhaps even existence of intelligence (g-factor). Not much else needs to be said, except that the latest edition of Plomin’s textbook is too damn expensive! 🙁

    • cbjones06

      …most of Psychology’s critics know nothing of Psychology before 1980…agreed, too bad Plomin’s text is not read by the untutored…
      Twitter: http://twitter.com/cbjones1943

  • harry pinxteren

    may be some people here first should visit this coffe shop: http://www.denimandtweed.com/2012/05/evolutionary-psychology-dialogue.html

    • rkurzban

      There is no reason I can see to visit that particular coffee shop. It might be worth visiting the comments to the coffee shop, where Geoffrey Miller was generous in trying to help out Yoder with issues surrounding heritability, with predictable results.

  • harry pinxteren

    indeed a predictable result

    as far as I can see, g. miller never refuted j. yoder’s last comment±

    ‘Goetz et al.collected data that shows that college-age men think
    about women in a particular way, but that data does nothing to eliminate the
    alternative hypothesis that they learned to think that way from growing up in a
    culture that thinks about women in that way. Just because a result is
    “consistent” with a particular adaptive story doesn’t mean that the
    result supports that adaptive story against its alternatives.´

    back to PZ

    • Lee_Kirkpatrick

      To be fair, this might be a valid criticism, if the authors of the article in question (which I confess to not having read) concluded that they had “proven” the existence of an adaptation without having ruled out plausible alternative explanations for their results. I kinda doubt that they drew that conclusion, but I think it is true that much research in EP — like most other research in psychology — tends to present data consistent with a hypothesis without effectively ruling out alternatives. Those “crucial experiments” that elegantly pit opposing predictions from competing hypotheses are sadly few and far between.

      I thought that the bigger issue that Miller failed to engage was the idea that demonstrating heritability in X is an essential component to making the case that X is an adaptation. The point of the original post seems to be that evolutionary psychologists are ignorant for failing to adopt this criterion for identifying adaptations. Many adaptations (e.g., binocular vision) have zero heritability because they are universal, and thus have no variability (and therefore no heritability), and countless individual-difference dimensions (e.g., iris color) are highly heritable but are clearly not adaptations. The interesting question is how heritable individual differences continue to exist despite the fact that natural selection tends to eliminate variance.

      • Emil Kirkegaard

        I wouldn’t be so sure that eye and hair color aren’t adaptions. There are clear differences in the frequency of men’s and women’s colors, making it probably that some sexual selection is going on. For instance, green color eyes are much more common in women than men.

    • Alex

      I’m so tired of this misunderstanding. To quote the primer on evolutionary psychology written by Tooby & Cosmides “The goal of research in evolutionary psychology is to discover and understand the design of the human mind.” They did of course, bury that line way down in the first sentence of the primer. The goal of evolutionary psychology is not to prove that something is an adaptation, it is to use evolutionary theory to design hypotheses and figure out how the mind works.

      Once these hypotheses are generated, they are just like any other hypothesis and should be judged on their ability to uniquely account for the data. The reason that adaptive analysis is so very helpful is that it generates predictions that can be easily falsified whereas if your starting point is “culture did it” you can’t really predict a whole lot, making falsification difficult. Thus, for many of the most interesting questions the “culture (god) did it” may appear viable… but unfortunately seems also quite unfalsifiable. And that is, you know, kind of important for the whole sciencey thing.

      • Lee_Kirkpatrick

        One of the reasons I think the T&C “Primer” is such a good introduction to the field is that the research example upon which it draws heavily is that of their early cheater-detection research, which illustrates nicely not only how to derive and test hypotheses from evolutionary reasoning but also how to systematically rule out alternative hypotheses with well-designed studies. It also helps that most people do not have deeply held, ideologically based preconceptions about how Wason-task problems, so there’s a chance of engaging the naive reader without a bunch of emotional baggage getting in the way,

        • cbjones06

          …if you want to “derive and test hypotheses from evolutionary reasoning…etc” one follows the literature in journals such as Journal of Theoretical Biology, Evolution, Journal of Evolutionary Biology, American Naturalist, Functional Ecology, Journal of Ecology, Ecology, Journal of Evolutionary Zoology, and the like…
          Twitter: http://twitter.com/cbjones1943

      • cbjones06

        …there is no reliable relationship between mental states and behavior [see Schall’s paper linked below]…selection “acts on” the phenotype, not on the brain or “mind”…


    • cbjones06

      …if there is a Hamiltonian algorithm built into our brains [indeed, all “circuits”], then, whether genetically correlated or not, a response is likely to be expressed when the [inclusive] reproductive benefits outweigh the costs…given stochasticity, given error, given potential exploitation by conspecifics…
      Twitter: http://twitter.com/cbjones1943

  • Gad Saad

    Larry Moran, a biochemist at the University of Toronto, is another infamous EP hater a la PZ Myers. I tried to engage him a few years ago but quickly realized that he is incapable of polite and reasoned exchanges. His bottom line (literally) is that EP folks are breathtaking idiots who engage in “fake science.” QED as far as he is concerned.

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/girlwriteswhat/videos Astrokid MHRA

    Tangentially related topic:
    I will be obliged if I could get some experts’ take on the below
    Physical & Psychological Differences Between Men & Women

    The science and facts behind the division of sexes
    Lewis Wolpert.
    To a layperson me, it appears that he gets the physical differences right, as well as some psychological differences. But his talk is peppered with male bashing throughout. Now, I understand that men are enormously more self-deprecating than women. But this is a science talk, and contains science’y male-bashing in addition to cultural male-bashing that we I am accustomed to in this feminist society.

    It includes the seemingly obligatory “Men have discriminated against women for as far back as you want to go. There has been no time when men have not discriminated against women.” (2 min 0 sec)
    which to me reeks of the Historical Oppression narrative of feminists, rather than sensible discrimination in the form of gender roles throughout pre-history & history. Which made men the disposable sex and women the preserved sex.. as described by Roy Baumeister in his book ‘Is there anything good about men? How cultures flourish by exploiting men

    One critique of his talk is here

  • j d

    rkurzban – a lot of craziness is said about ev psych in the psychology board on reddit.com – and i guess on the wider site too. reddit is popular for their “AMAs” (Ask Me Anything) here:

    where notable people are asked to come and register and answer questions. Pinker did one here:


    if I (or someone else here) posted a request for you to do one – would you like to do it?

    • rkurzban

      A former student of mine recently called my attention to some of the traffic about evolutionary psychology on Reddit. I confess I was unaware of it, and I’m pretty unversed in all things Reddit… but I will begin to inform myself and, sure, I don’t see why not…

  • Jensen

    PZ Meyers left size far behind several years back and is now just a politician. I am not sure it is worth addressing the talks he gives at politically inclined conventions.

    • Jensen

      > size

      Hmm. Silly me: science.

  • diannebrown

    “…what strikes me about the sorts of errors that Myers makes about the field….”

    Coyne and Pinker responded to a few comments Myers made–not to what he actually said in the panel (which has not yet been downloaded.)

    Here’s Myers’ response to Coyne’s post:


  • cbjones06

    1. …I may not understand, but it does seem to me that “evolutionary psychologists” locate the phenotype inside of the brain rather than that component of the whole organism exposed to the environment upon which selection may “act”…until there is reliable evidence that brain states reliably predict phenotypic traits, behavior or other, “evolutionary psychology” cannot be Evolutionary…
    2. …as per Pinker’s comments in Coyne’s blogpost: I do not get most of what he is trying to say and in some cases (e.g., “gene for X”) there seems to me to be complete obfuscation if not misunderstanding…
    3. …Pinker’s paragraph citing topics not studied by psychologists until the inception of EP commits an unfortunate disservice to his colleagues, dead and alive, particularly in the fields of Social Psychology and Ecological Psychology…
    4. …BTW: Where is the EcoEvo and EvoDevo in EP?
    5. …Pinker’s comment that Plasticity= Learning seems bizarre & untutored…”phenotypic accommodation” does not [necessarily]= learning…& learned responses are not necessarily “plastic” [a fuzzy construct at best]…
    6. …the drift of the empirical & theoretical literature strongly suggests that plasticity is a property of genotypes…
    7. …it is my personal opinion that the renewed emphasis in the animal [including human] behavior literature on Tinbergen’s 4 imprimaturs is yet another attempt to disregard the contributions of Ethology as a field [e.g., Tinbergen was only 1 of 3 Ethologists to be awarded the Nobel]…
    8. …I do not “get” Coyne’s reference to racist elements in EvoBio…SNP studies continue to identify genetic differentiation within regions of human populations…some of these analyses demonstrate differentiation at the level of social castes in humans…
    9. …as Coyne points out, much that passes for science turns out to be politically motivated…
    Twitter: http://twitter.com/cbjones1943
    Blog: http://vertebratesocialbehavior.blogspot.com

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